5 steps to help you figure out your passion

Need a new reason to get up in the morning? Enrich your life by finding and developing your next passion, with tips from psychology researcher Angela Duckworth.

Ever watch The Great British Bake-off? It’s an addictive reality TV show about the hunt for Britain’s best amateur baker. Few of the contestants cook for a living — baking is simply their passion. And it’s passion that carries them through weeks of competition and critiques, past weeping pie crusts and sad meringues. At every new challenge, they’re just excited to do what they love and to do their best.

Wouldn’t you want a passion like that?

Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth thinks a lot about how to find and nurture a passion — it’s part of her work on what she calls “grit.” Simply defined, grit equals passion plus persistence.

Passion is not something you discover, she says — “it’s not like a lost set of keys!” Instead, she says: “Passions tend to be developed. It’s not just about being intense about what you’re doing but waking up week after week, month after month, year after year, wanting to think about the same thing.” It’s something fulfilling and enjoyable, but it’s not that easy; Duckworth calls it “hard fun.”

Here are five steps to help identify your next passion — or cultivate one you already have.

1. Clear out the distractions.

One reason you may not know your passion: you haven’t given yourself the time and space to pursue it. Now, many of the distractions in our lives — picking up kids from daycare, writing a proposal for work, dealing with a burst pipe in the basement — are non-negotiable; they come with being a human in the world.

But what about the negotiable distractions? One major source is right there in your pocket: your phone. “Whether it’s watching frivolous videos or scrolling through social media, there’s enough that you could do those things forever,” says Duckworth. “But it’s time that doesn’t really add up to anything.”

She asks: “How committed are you to not doing that anymore? Reflect on how you’re using your time, and whether or not you want to be distracted by these temptations.”

2. Think of a passion as like an internship.

Most internships serve as a trial run for a job — while you’re acquiring skills and knowledge, you’re also trying to see if you want to commit. “You might figure out you don’t love the field as much as you thought you did,” says Duckworth, “but you find out something else about yourself that is a clue to something that’s a better fit.”

Just like an internship, a passion is something you learn by doing. “You can’t figure things out on paper, or think about them,” says Duckworth. “That’s not how you develop a passion — you have to do things. It takes experience; it takes trial and error.”

To help her children start cultivating passions, Duckworth made them each choose one “hard thing,” such as learning ballet or playing soccer. Because she knows passions don’t develop overnight, she made rules of what they could pick — “it has to entail practice with feedback; they can’t quit in the middle; and they must choose the activity for themselves” — to prevent them from dropping it when they hit a speed bump.

3. Be patient.

Don’t expect to fall in love immediately. “A reason why passions take time to develop is that at the very, very beginning of things, we’re all clumsy and awkward and the learning curve is very steep,” says Duckworth. “Frankly, it’s hard to be in love with something when you’re that clumsy amateur.”

Her daughter Lucy picked the viola as her “hard thing.” But Duckworth says, “It didn’t become her passion in year one or year two. I wouldn’t say she was wildly enthusiastic, but she kept wanting to do it. Now she’s good enough that it can be enjoyable to her in a way that wasn’t possible in the beginning.”

During the learning period, you’ll need to tap into the other aspect of grit: persistence. In keeping with Duckworth’s rules for her kids, just make sure you give yourself a real chance before you move on to another activity. “I’m not saying you should stick with everything you’ve ever tried,” she says. “Use your judgment.”

As you progress with your activity, look out for this sign that you’re nurturing a passion: “You never get bored; in fact, you get more and more interested,” says Duckworth.

4. Stay motivated by remembering the bigger picture.

Every passion has its share of less exciting moments. For playing the viola, it may be practicing scales for the umpteenth time. For baking, it could be washing up; for teaching seventh-grade English, grading papers. The secret to not letting them derail you is to see how every way you engage with your passion — no matter how small or dull — is a step toward something bigger.

“I have to check my email today, read a bunch of research articles, write a revision of an article, and these can be total drudgery if I treat them like isolated tasks that need to get done,” Duckworth says. “But when I understand that they help me become a better scientist and that helps me help children thrive, and when I think, ‘That is the only thing I want my life to be about — to help children live better lives’ — then all of a sudden the emails, articles and revision become meaningful.”

This shift in perspective may seem subtle, but it’s effective in keeping you engaged. “Connecting your short-term work with your long-term ambitions can be enormously helpful to people who feel like they’re losing their drive,” she says.

5. Avoid burnout with this one weird trick.

It is possible to go overboard while pursuing a passion. Are you just not making progress like you want to? Is your passion less fun than it used to be? Duckworth suggests: “The first thing I’d ask is: Are there objective things you can do to just take care of yourself?” Ask yourself if you’re really burning out on your passion or if you just need more sleep.

But if your burnout feels deeper than that, it’s time to step outside your own problems — and look for someone who is similarly frayed and fried. Yes, really.

“It sounds paradoxical that when you’re exhausted, you should use your energy to help another person,” says Duckworth. “But we’re wired to help each other. When we give advice to others, sometimes we’re counseling ourselves in the process. It can draw your own attention to things that you can do. In research, we’ve found that it can boost your confidence and give you the sense that progress is possible.”

Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is now out in paperback.

Watch her TED talk here: