We’ve mentioned passion a whole bunch without ever describing it. So first, we’re going to define high school passion, and then we’ll talk about the problems plaguing our attempts to find one.
Defining high school passion
Passion is often associated with the starving artist stereotype: unless you get skilled and lucky enough, then following your passion is going to leave you jobless. While there is some truth to this sentiment, there is also a better, more practical way to think about passion.
Generally speaking, we can identify four attributes of the ideal high school passion:
1. It should align with our interests or talents
Yeah. Nothing more needs to be said.
2. It should be advertisable to colleges
We’d be setting ourselves up for failure if our passion couldn’t yield a tangible product by the time we’re applying to college.
The thing about this is that it can make us feel inclined to do what others have done in the past and shy away from endeavors that we may have otherwise considered pursuing. And if we don’t fit well enough into the mold of our predecessors’ paths to success, then maybe it’s time to just double down on academics instead.
3. It should have projectable value in the workforce
There’s a practical tendency to think about the economical viability of a passion—what jobs it can directly lead us to, what skills it can provide—before we commit to one.
Unfortunately, most people tend to think linearly in terms of interests and career paths, when in reality, it doesn’t have to be like this: just because you like sports doesn’t mean that you have to become a professional athlete; you can be a sideline reporter, a part of media production, or a part of a team’s medical staff, for example. Just because you like playing video games doesn’t mean that you have to join Team Liquid and stream full-time on Twitch; you can contribute in game design, programming, marketing.
4. It should be valid in the eyes of our parents or culture
Parental and cultural pressure can be the biggest wild card in all of this: we might be given full independence to try whatever we want, or discouraged from exploring certain passions altogether while receiving slight nudges—maybe full on shoves—towards more “practical” passions in more “practical” fields.
Having established these four tenets of passion, we can now turn to the question that naturally follows: how do we actually find one?
The problems with finding high school passion
On paper, it seems like all we have to do to find a passion is find the one special activity that meets all the necessary definitions of high school passion. And if we can’t figure out what that activity is immediately, then we’re told to try a bunch of stuff until we do.
But given that most people still struggle with finding a passion, it seems like this advice is lacking in some way. In fact, there are a few problems with the search for passion, and it starts with our very own mindset going into it.
1. We try to snipe passion
In the same way that people can describe what an ideal relationship looks like but understand that it’s developed through years of attained trust and working through problems together, we can describe what an ideal passion looks like, but need to understand that we can’t expect to just “find it” right away.
The main issue with trying to snipe passion is that it doesn’t exist—at least, not upfront. Passion is not some prebuilt, fully matured thing patiently waiting to be found; it’s more like a DIY assembly kit made up of your life experiences, skills, and interests that you have to actively make into something—and there is no instruction manual. While passion certainly stems from the activities or subjects that we find enjoyable, it takes an absurd amount of time, dumb luck, failed attempts, and perseverance to actually develop one.
2. There is no class syllabus
The most common complaint you hear about trying a bunch of things is that “there isn’t anything to do”—which seems weird at first, considering the near infinite number of things we could do to further a potential interest: we could start a club, organize events, create art, participate in competitions, build things, shoot film, study independently, write, program, volunteer, whatever. The list goes on.
But if you pay close attention to what we’re really saying, you’d realize that we’re not actually complaining about the lack of options; we’re complaining about the lack of instruction. Of course there are things to do—we just have no idea how to go about doing them.
All throughout school, we’ve been spoonfed guidelines, deadlines, and rules to follow. We’ve been pointed towards specific ways to go about doing things, and told where to look if we need help. We’ve never had to worry about the logistics of learning biology or physics, because lectures are provided to us, a state curriculum is set in place, and there’s a general class structure.
But if we decide that we want to program a computer app, for example, then we have to create that structure ourselves. We have to consider things that would have usually been told to us, like what is this going to be about or who is my audience or what should the final product look like or what should my deadlines be. And while some might see this creative freedom as a breath of fresh air, many may subconsciously feel uncomfortable with the lack of structure and discouraged from trying.
3. Passion work is still work
Even if we happen to stumble upon some cool activity, there’s still the problem of actually doing the work, which can, at times, be the most agonizing and stressful part of this entire process, because now we’re putting some skin in the game: namely, time, energy, self-esteem, and money.
Of course, there are times where the work doesn’t feel like work, but let’s not get carried away: it’s not like being passionate suddenly makes all your problems go away; it just makes those problems somewhat easier to deal with. To think that passion work is always sunshine and flowers is a completely misguided belief.
However, even if we understand this abstractly, it’s a whole other thing to understand it firsthand. When someone else tells us that problems are inevitable, we nod our heads in unison, but when we ourselves run into unexpected obstacles or come to the devastating realization that we, in fact, have absolutely no idea what to do next, it can be hard to see the big picture through all the tears.
Couple this with the fact that school has effectively conditioned us to expect our efforts to immediately translate to results, and you start to see why so many attempts at passion go awry: we get excited by an idea and diligently work on it in the early stages, but once the novelty of the idea has worn off and it starts to dawn on us that we’ve got a long ways to go, it’s very tempting to quit.
Trying a bunch of new, different things is certainly important. But by itself, this advice tends to mask a crucial underlying condition: can you recognize that pain and uncertainty will beset anything you try, but persevere through it anyways? If we can’t satisfy ourselves of this, then it won’t ever matter how many things we try.
The exits are right in front of us
In addition to these three problems, there are also so many things that we can do to keep ourselves busy. It’s very easy to dismiss the passion hunt altogether, or loftily claim that we’ll look in our free time; that is, the time leftover after we’ve completed schoolwork, studied for upcoming assessments, done our extracurricular work, prepared for standardized tests, finished our job shift, taken our breaks, and—oh, would you look at that, it’s been a week already, and that cycle of work is starting all over again. Guess passion will have to wait.
But even if our schedules aren’t packed to the brim with activities, life is constantly showing us where the exits from passion are.
And the rational lot among us are politely seeing ourselves out.
And if we zoom out just a little more, everything—the high school metagame, passion, college, uncertainty, external pressure, internal self-doubt—starts coming into focus to formulate one coherent, if not bleak, image of high school:
The high school metagame heavily pressures us to go with the Academic Route, resulting in everyone doing similar things and trying to outplay our opposition (which is literally every high schooler in existence, both past and present). This, expectedly, can take an emotional toll on us, and resisting the meta is made complicated by several extremely influential societal, cultural, systemic, and realistic pressures.
Then, we turn to passion, naively thinking we can find fun, happiness, and ease—but instead, we are met with unexpected struggle and uncertainty, because we didn’t really understand what we were looking for or what the process of looking for a passion is even like. Our preconceived notions of passion are betrayed, and we are dissuaded from further pursuing it.
So here we are, trapped in a seemingly endless vortex of toxic competition, surrounded by repetitive college talk, and tired of what feels like pointless work—while also constantly yearning to do meaningful and unique things, only to be deterred by internal and external pressures.
Forget the talk about following a passion—we haven’t even found one to follow (or not follow) in the first place.
And suddenly, you start to understand why so many of us constantly feel existentially bored or dissatisfied with our lives, despite what our aesthetic Instagram posts or chipper college application essays may imply.
You start to understand that school and academics—even if we don’t particularly enjoy them—tether us to reality and offer some semblance of purpose and direction. You start to understand why we complain about missing school during breaks even though school is all we seem to ever complain about. You start to understand that we binge TV and play video games not because we’re dumb or lazy or unproductive, but because we don’t have other meaningful things to do after obligatory school and extracurricular work. You start to understand why the question “What do you like?” is often met with a blank stare, a shrug of the shoulders, and a resigned “I don’t know.” You start to understand that it’s not necessarily the academics in college that we care so much about, but rather, the prestige, the change in scenery, and subconsciously, the vague hope that we can finally find eventual meaning there.
You may have already assumed that passion—or rather, the lack thereof—is the driving force behind all of this, but hopefully now you can come to the final realization that passion is dead, and we have killed it.
But, if 2020 has shown us anything remotely inspiring, it’s that there’s always a silver lining, regardless of how bad things look. And in times of uncertainty, despair, and confusion, hope necessarily emerges—and it’s ours for the taking.
So, in the last installment of this series, we’ll discuss some solutions to this seemingly hopeless situation.