‘Explore thyself. Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve.’
— Henry David Thoreau
How is it that in a world of infinite possibility, with few barriers and abundant supports, so many people still struggle to live their dreams and to find that inner star to live by?
Passion is something that is commonly offered as the key to this equation; it has become one of the buzzwords of modern times. Everywhere we are saturated with the messages to live our passion and to follow our passion.
The trouble is that if you don’t know what your passion is, this task can be quite challenging; it’s hard to follow what you cannot see.
If you’d never seen the stars in your life and you found yourself dropped in the wilderness armed with nothing but the sage advice to navigate by Polaris, you would probably think “well that’s great but how the hell do I figure out which one of these millions of lights in the sky Polaris is?”
And that is the correct question; it’s all well and good to follow your passion, but how exactly do you go about finding it in the first place?
What is needed is a star atlas which can be used to find Polaris.
You would assume in all this cultural saturation of passion, that such wisdom would be common knowledge but as a veteran of many personal development, self-help and spirituality books I can tell you that the answer to this riddle is not so readily available.
These books are filled with great advice about designing your dream life and of manifesting your inner vision. It’s all so exhilarating and exciting that anything seems possible.
Let’s call this the architect model. According to this model, the way to live your dreams is to design the blueprint of your ideal life.
But there is a glaring omission in all this advice. It essentially amounts to the wise advice to ‘follow Polaris’, but this guidance is hollow as it fails to tell us how.
It fails to tell us what this ideal life is that we are basing this blueprint on. If we do not have our passion, if we have not discovered our Polaris, then this advice is worth nothing.
Imagine asking Einstein to design his ideal life before he had encountered physics, asking Michael Phelps to design his before he had discovered swimming or asking Bob Dylan before he had found songwriting. It’s an exercise in absurdity.
That ideal life would be terribly impoverished compared to one sketched after passion’s discovery.
The reason for this is that passion runs deeper than the mind; the image of the architect is the image of controlled, disciplined and rational work.
This is not the work of passion’s discovery. It is the work of harnessing passion.
This mapping out of our ideal life can only come after we’ve discovered our passion. Before the blueprint, there is always the inspiration.
This model of the architect then, while very inspiring and empowering, is not the starting point. So what is?
An alternative image of passion discovery is contained in the concept of the pioneer.
There are few things so scintillating as an incomplete map. When the old pioneers such as Columbus and Cook looked at a map, its edges were marked with the words terra incognita—unknown lands—or, on more dramatic maps, the words hic sunt dracones: here be dragons.
These unmapped corners of the world could contain anything, and the pioneer penetrated these mists of the unknown edges in the hopes of discovering something new.
On that journey, they might meet monsters or pirates or perhaps discover new lands with strange tribes and gorgeous vistas never before seen, and perhaps if they were very lucky, they just might find their gold.
When Phelps discovered swimming he had discovered, in the language of the pioneer, the most abundant goldmine in the world. He had found the place to dig. The same can be said for Einstein with physics and Bob Dylan with songwriting.
In the water, I felt, for the first time, in control.
— Michael Phelps
They had found the thing that obsessed their mind and filled it with visions of gold.
This is not gold in the sense of common currency but in the sense of something cherished and beautiful and perfect.
It is not about money but about value.
And what these geniuses found was the most valuable place on the map of their heart.
To Each Their Own (Map)
The interesting implication of this is that the map is different for you and for me. I’ve tried swimming, and I’ve tried physics, and I have to say that, while I quite like the two of them, they were far from inspiring me with visions of gold.
The map of my heart is different to Einstein’s. Where he found gold, I found something closer to a pretty valley: beautiful but not quite captivating enough to possess me. And so we cannot rely on the map of another when we are searching for our own passion.
Each of us must map our own heart, our own psyche.
You must discover where your gold lies.
Is it in Maths? Or the pool? Maybe it’s in programming? Or in the garden?
Nobody can tell you what your passion is and if you have not found it, then you know what you need to do: you will not find your North Star by visualising ideal lives in your armchair.
You meet passion in the field of experience, in the wilderness of life and you dance with it. You will feel it, and you will thirst for it. It hurts not to be near it; if you’ve ever been in love, you know how this pain of passion feels. The root of the word passion comes from a Latin word “patior” meaning ‘to suffer’. To be passionate is painful, it feels like a part of us is missing and, we urgently need it in our lives.
Yeats captured this pain of passion beautifully in his poem The Song of Wandering Aengus. It’s a poem about a man who catches a fish in the river as dawn is breaking and is left full of awe and longing when it transforms into a “glimmering girl/With apple blossom in her hair” and runs off. He is left longing but determined:
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
That is a poem about passion. The magical being which Aengus encounters is his soul herself. Symbolically, she is synonymous with gold.
When we have tasted passion, when it has graced our path, we know it, and we must follow.
What the Pioneer Does Upon Discovering Gold
Once you have discovered your passion, the work is rather straightforward. Now the architect can come in and plot out his vision.
Passion is the inspiration that informs the blueprint.
When the pioneer discovers gold, it captivates their mind. It takes bravery and curiosity to set off on the journey of passion, but if that is what you are searching for, then there’s only one thing for it. Passion is not waiting within the city walls of what you already know. It is out in the wilderness with chaos and opportunity.
What all this means on a practical level is that the discovery of passion comes through experience: you must try things. And in setting out on this journey, the best advice is to follow your nose.
We all have individual temperaments which incline us more towards some things over others. There are certain topics and experiences which intrigue us more than they do others and this intrigue is the root of passion.
In experimenting with new possibilities, our measuring stick is the quality called taste. Ultimately, we are not in control of our taste; our lot is to be attentive to what our taste is.
—Steven Pressfield, the War of Art
For a reminder of why living a life of passion is important, read about the benefits of contemplating your death like an Ancient Roman or, if distraction is a problem, learn how you make it into a strength.