This is the last part of a series. Read the previous part here, or the introduction here.
Through the past three parts, we’ve completed our discussion on the problems with the high school metagame and the search for passion, and have arrived at the conflict lying at its core: many of us long for passion, but then don’t do anything about it because of the suffocating pressure. And when push inevitably comes to shove, most of us opt for the meta: The Academic Route.
So what can we actually do about this situation? Can we even do anything about it?
I think there are definitely answers, but they’re not straightforward. Let’s start with passion.
There’s this inconvenient little paradox with passion: if you go looking for passion, chances are you’re probably not going to end up finding it.
So the first step of finding a passion—as strange as it may sound—is to not even look for it in the first place. Experiment with a bunch of projects and activities because you find them fun, interesting, engaging, or important—not because you want to find a passion. Be a kid again and do things because, well, you felt like it, that’s why—not everything needs a cost-benefit analysis or a practical justification.
You usually hear about people finding passion through an activity or a subject taught in school, but really, passion can start in all sorts of random, brilliant ways: it can start with an idea that you’re so fascinated by to not start a discussion over, a problem in the world that’s been troubling you for a while now, an innocuous experience or memory. It can start with a bunch of miscellaneous factors, too: the people involved, the environment, the feelings you get.
The point is, there is no scientific, objective way to find a passion. But we can be sure of this: passion can’t be forced.
The second half of this solution is to understand the common pitfalls and obstacles that we run into during the search for passion.
For most people, the technical problems that come with writing, or coding, or video editing tend to be the least of their worries; the hardest part about this entire process is being actively aware of and at peace with the fact that passion work is hard, that you will struggle and fail, and that you will have days where you question everything.
This is not something that you can read and instantly understand on an emotional level; it’s something you have to experience to understand, and to get better at it, you have to experience it over, and over, and over again.
So if you want to find passion, then get up off your bed and go do something—a lot of things. You’re probably going to run into a few dead ends—maybe a lot—but that’s how it goes. You can’t plan for passion.
Maybe you feel like it’s too late to get good enough at something to advertise to colleges. Maybe you just don’t feel like finding a passion at this very instant. Maybe you just want to do school stuff and vibe with friends.
And you know what? That’s all perfectly okay.
Passion, as great as it is, tends to be a very self-centered endeavor; this individualism is amplified by our environment and culture, which tells us that we need to be exceptional and unique. While these aren’t bad aspirations in themselves, if we’re not careful, this constant focus on the self can lead to entitlement, lack of self-awareness, and hubris.
Furthermore, just because you’ve found a passion doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a good person. Being a great athlete or artist doesn’t suddenly make you a morally upright human being. Being able to understand blockchain in depth doesn’t say anything about your ability to stay patient in arguments or tolerate conflicting ideological beliefs. Getting a PhD in Chemical Engineering doesn’t automatically tell me that you’re good at understanding others or staying humble.
And if you look around the world right now, these are some important (non-political) values we desperately need more of.
It’s really easy to be cynical and dismissive about this, because no one is going to shower you with accolades and money for not immediately overreacting to the news in the same way that they might have if you had invented a new, cutting-edge product. But these values are hugely important for the growth of society and the self, and part of maturing is recognizing that not everything worth your time or energy has to have a dollar sign attached to it.
What ultimately matters more than our personal undertakings is what we give to the world. Self interest and individualism can take you to success, power, wealth, fame—but in that self-centered approach, something more fundamental tends to be missing.
Which brings us to existential meaning.
This primary focus of this series has been about the problem of finding (high school) passion.
But really, the problem isn’t that we can’t specifically find a passion—it’s that we can’t find meaning in our lives.
When most people think of meaning, they tend to think of passion work right away, because it’s the most obvious example. For high schoolers in particular, it makes sense that passion is especially desired when you consider all the stuff that we’re dealing with in life: school, future job aspirations, the complexity of crafting a self-identity, and constant exposure to the highlights of other people’s lives.
Passion has the potential to provide us with the fun, validation, viability, individualistic separation, and existential meaning that we struggle with. It’s the perfect answer.
But it isn’t the only answer.
Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl argued in his influential book Man’s Search for Meaning that there are essentially three ways to find meaning in life:
“The first is by creating a work or doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love…most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.”
People find meaning in all sorts of other ways: persevering through trying times; making commitments to friends, family, a spouse; experiencing special moments with loved ones; being a part of a movement or community. Most of these avenues to meaning are not as flashy or evident as passion, but they’re just as valid.
And the best way to find meaning, according to Frankl, is to not even look for it at all. Meaning, he says, ensues as a byproduct of chasing other goals. Just like with passion.
Passion—meaning—is certainly not a high school specific problem. But it’s a problem that starts here, and it will continue to follow us through college, graduate school, our professional careers, and the rest of our lives.
There’s a bunch of reasons why finding passion is hard. Of course there’s laziness involved. Of course there’s short sightedness. But there’s also a lot of pressure to conform to the most optimal strategy in the high school metagame. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of passion work. There’s the fact that we’re basically still kids, just kind of starting to mature and contemplate our lives.
At the end of the day, it’s not (high school) passion or bust. As high schoolers, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what the world has to offer us. There’s plenty of euphoria, heartbreak, success, failure, anxiety, wonder, and hopefully, meaning in store for us. We’re all going to struggle, we’re all going to have our doubts, and we all ultimately have no idea what we’re doing.
So take advantage of the time in high school and try some things out. Or don’t, and just keep living your life the way you like. Whatever you end up doing, remember that you’re not alone.