Helping My Child Find His Passion. But First We Need To Find His Shoes.

Scan 3I am the parent of three still developing, learning and maturing young people. Certain requirements of the job have been universally recognized and accepted for decades. Probably centuries. I feel duty bound to be responsible for my children’s food, shelter, physical safety, education and even emotional health. Granted, I am fortunate that I can deliver these essentials when many parents struggle to provide one or more of these basic rights.

But with the essentials checked off, there is another round of more elusive and abstract responsibilities. Chief among them today seems to be helping your child find a purpose and a passion. Such talk and expectations sound grand and admirable when I let them simply wash over me (along with the intricacies of climate change and Syria). But when I actually think about the work involved and the expectation that I need to help my child find his passion, I feel my throat constrict.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a college counseling presentation for my 17 year old. Yes, I had gone out for a drink beforehand in preparation. The counselor – who is very good at his job – tried to calm the roomful of anxious parents by saying that a student need not be president of every club or start his own soup kitchen to get into college. It was more basic than that, he assured us, “Colleges just want to see that he has a passion.” And he got breathy and excitable like people do when they intone the word “passion.”

Passion is the buzzword of the day. The call for passion is everywhere. Magazine covers promise to help readers “find your passion” or “follow your passion” and for those who’ve lost their way “rekindle your passion.” Passion is a particular favorite of the TED Talks circuit, with nearly 45% of the available videos addressing it. Passion is, of course, the subject of hundreds of books and countless blogs. Though not this one.

In fact, I fear that “passion” is tossed around with cavalier frequency and potentially dangerous consequences these days. And I’m a stickler for proper word usage (and spelling). First and foremost, passion is defined as a powerful emotion. It is not until the fourth definition (or fifth or seventh, depending on your preferred source) that passion is used to mean “a strong liking or devotion” to some activity, object or concept. And the examples given? A passion for chess. A passion for opera.

But a passion is not a commodity to be plucked off a shelf. It is a mysterious result of interest, experience, enthusiasm, perseverance, success, failure and access. For Angela Duckworth, author of the bestseller Grit : The Power of Passion and Perseverance, passion is “that thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately you want to be. “

Some people – maybe most – never truly develop a passion in that sense of a driving devotion to something. And that’s okay. That kind of all encompassing fervor and commitment that college counselors, advice columnists and TED talks seem to be calling for is a big ask. It can be lonely, involve significant sacrifices and years of fitfully rewarding work.

During college in the 1980s, Tesla founder Elon Musk once said to a pretty girl at a party, “I think a lot about electric cars. Do you think about electric cars?” And that is a pickup line when you have a passion.

But headlines like “Learning to Love Ramen Noodles While your Passion Keeps You From Cooking or Making Money” do not sell magazines. Three minute quizzes on finding your passion do. Give it a try:

  • What would you do if money didn’t matter?
  • What do you stay up late at night doing?
  • What gets you out of bed in the morning?
  • Where does your spending money go?
  • What do you talk about most with your friends?

If you gave this quiz to a 17-year-old boy, these are the answers you would get:

  • Play FIFA.
  • Play FIFA.
  • My mom.
  • Chipotle.
  • Playing FIFA and going to Chipotle.

Sure, I could hope for more, but we can’t have it both ways. If we want a passion to be truly deep, abiding and rare, then we should stop expecting every teenager (and adult) to have one. Honors Biology is hard enough. Knowing your guiding purpose in life as a junior in high school might be too much.

And this is where I think the passion for passion is dangerous. The message our kids (and we) are getting is that everyone should have a passion that gives you purpose. The unintended corollary message is that if you don’t have a passion, you don’t have purpose. And I think that’s unfair. To both children and adults. People work really hard at the responsibilities in front of them. Every day. By saying yes to those responsibilities and following through on commitments, those “every days” add up to years. And just maybe, a passion. Maybe at the end, maybe in the middle. But definitely not at the beginning.

RegattaTwo 98The obsession with finding that one “true north” interest obscures the possibility of a series of changing passions. It also doesn’t accommodate the years that are required for a passion to germinate and bloom. And it misleads people into thinking that declaring a passion is necessary for professional or personal happiness.

This all out call for higher purpose passion drowns out the quieter, admirable path of the millions of people working in fulfilling careers and leading meaningful lives. Sure, the answer to the passion quiz question “What gets your blood boiling?” should probably not be “pharmaceutical marketing.” But maybe the answer should be that we stop expecting our work time, play time and family time to orbit around a single profound interest.

Wary that I might just be letting myself off the hook on behalf of my teenager (with no guiding passion as of yet), I decided to test a visceral childhood passion – to see if it met the high standards we expect of teenage and adult passions today. Maybe your child’s passion was dinosaurs, or horses, or Dora the Explorer. For my oldest, it was firetrucks, firemen, fire equipment and all things Kevlar. For a child, a passion means literally wearing it on your sleeve. Firetruck shirts, pajamas, backpacks, FDNY hats, firefighter raincoats (disappointingly, not Kevlar) and slippers. There is equipment to memorize, jigsaw puzzles to do, action toys to play with and books to read and carry around.

And sure, adults might conspiratorially ask a seven year old, “Do you want be a fireman when you grow up?” But no one asks a child, “What does your firefighter passion look like ten years from now?” “How will you translate your passion into action?”

Yet, it’s perfectly normal to ask a seventeen year old, “How are you using your passion to affect change in your community?”

I’m not sure what is supposed to have transpired between the ages of seven and seventeen that make that question seem routine, but it didn’t happen in my house. As Duckworth points out, in the early stages of trying different pursuits, our interests “are fragile, vaguely defined, and in need of energetic, years-long cultivation and refinement.” These nascent potential passions are not exactly something you want to offer up to an adult, who’s actual function is to tell you how other people will judge you.

But the message being delivered today is, “find a passion, and get into college.” And the next episode in that self-help podcast is, ”do what you love, and the money will follow.” I actually believe in neither of these mantras. Although I am a supporter of their distant cousin, “have some real interests and learn how to do hard things, or no one will want to spend time with you and no one will hire you.” Tough love is kind of my jam.

So in my house, there’s not a lot of waiting around for passion to strike. There’s frankly not a lot of time in the day for it either. But, I do feel it is my responsibility to expose my kids to a variety of pursuits and intellectual interests beyond what the school day requires. In addition to your job or your schoolwork and your sport, everyone needs an interest or a hobby. At this stage, I don’t expect the full body and mind commitment that a true passion might earn later. But you should always be pursuing and working on an interest of your choosing. Some pursuits will be short term, but if you’re lucky there will be one or two hobbies that are wonderfully fulfilling and enduring interests. And as your parent, I can start you on the process – but it will become a well-worn path under your feet, not mine.

And speaking of those feet, we’re still looking for those shoes, seriously. They’re yellow and black soccer cleats. Barely worn. If you find them, let me know.