The most popular career advice is to follow your passion
The most popular career advice is to follow your passion

Embrace curiosity: The journey to discovering your true passion

Rather it is discovered and nurtured through various micro-experiments designed to figure out what to work on, with whom, and why.

Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day concludes by asking, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” As someone who has always nurtured varied interests, figuring out this question hasn’t been straightforward. There have been times when I excelled at things I didn’t care much about and struggled with things I loved.

The most popular career advice is to follow your passion, but what if you aren’t sure what your passion is? For most people, passion isn’t found sitting under a tree and waiting for the metaphorical apple to fall. Rather it is discovered and nurtured through various micro-experiments designed to figure out what to work on, with whom, and why.

Some people like NYU Professor Scott Galloway reject the passion hypothesis altogether. They suggest that young professionals should follow their talent, i.e., do something they are good at, gain some financial security, and then explore other interests. That’s a reasonable suggestion but risks nudging young people toward stable careers, but less meaningful lives. It can be challenging to work on stuff one isn’t interested in with the hope that things will naturally fall into place.

To be clear, Galloway’s suggestion is practical, but I think following one’s curiosity is a better bet than following one’s passion of talent. Curiosity creates engagement, which in turn sparks passion. Following that spark over an extended period creates expertise/talent which is often rewarded handsomely in the job market.

Therefore, patience is the unsung virtue and the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to figuring out what you want to do with your life. David Epstein defines the “sampling period” as a crucial phase where we try a variety of activities and experiences before narrowing our focus. “Sampling periods are crucial, he argues, because they allow us to discover organically what we love doing and most want to succeed in. It is not incidental to the development of great performers—something to be excised in the interest of a head start—it is crucial.”

There are many illustrious examples of people who benefited from having a sampling period to put their curiosities and interests in the proper perspective. Roger Federer dabbled in basketball, handball, skiing, wrestling, swimming, table tennis and skateboarding before taking up tennis. Richard Feynman tried locksmithing, art and percussion instruments like bongo drums before focusing his energies on quantum mechanics. Toni Morrison explored dancing, acting and teaching before she became a celebrated author.

As a society, we may continue championing prodigies, but we should also normalise and celebrate those in their sampling periods. Having this implicit pressure of becoming the quintessential suitable boy or girl who has everything figured out almost always backfires. Designing one’s life and knowing what to do with it doesn’t come with a prescription manual. It should be an open-ended exploration with sufficient checks and balances.

I started the “I don’t know what I want to do with my life” Fellowship in Network Capital largely to evangelise the idea that most people don’t know what they want most of the time and that is okay. Guided experiments conducted with trusted peers and mentors can turn the spectre of career confusion into a shared discovery of conviction, talent and purpose.

So if you don’t know where you are going in life, there is no need to wallow in despair. Find people you trust, share the epicentre of your confusion, and try out stuff that piques your curiosity. You may not find what you are looking for in one go, but if you keep at it, you will get there.

I have had an extended sampling period. My first degree was in mechanical engineering, after which I read liberal arts, earned an MBA, worked in corporate for several years, started a company, sold part of it to a unicorn, turned to moral philosophy, and then enrolled in a PhD. I am happy with where I am in my life, but that’s not because of professional milestones. I am glad the experimentation that I started in my teens continued till my 30s, and will probably go on for the rest of my life.

The one thing I did reasonably well was to not approach my micro-experiments like a tourist: Come, explore, take pictures and move on. I treated my experiments with the same seriousness as my most important goals. Even if some of them didn’t work out as I had expected, I got precious insights along the way. That’s how I inched my way towards my desired state of being.

Other people can help you along the way and they can be fellow passengers on your journey, but the bulk of the work needs to be done by you. If you don’t know where you are headed, that’s fine. Your eureka moment could be an experiment away. You owe it to yourself and the wider world to keep trying. While you are at it, remember to treat it like an adventure, not a chore. It won’t be easy, but will be worth your while.

Utkarsh Amitabh

CEO, Network Capital; Chevening Fellow, University of Oxford

Posts on X: @utkarsh_amitabh

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