How to Find Your Passion

By Peter Brill   |   July 4, 2019

Q. It is clear to me that you are passionate about impact investing. I am having trouble finding my passion. How did you do it? – Michael from Santa Barbara

Thank you for the question; it really caused me to think.

Very few people actually just walk into passion and success. Passion, like great love, develops over time. When I first retired at 52, I didn’t like the term retirement. It seemed to focus on withdrawal. I was also interested in how people do this stage of life well. So, I started a radio show called “The Third Age” (first age childhood, second age career and family, third age after that), and that gave me the opportunity to interview 400 people. Some of the people I interviewed were just like you and me, and we learned from their life stories. Some were experts in some field, and we learned from their research and knowledge. It became clear that the human spirit was vital to happiness and longevity. That the spirit that makes a person with artificial legs climb a mountain is what matters. That spirit is what allows us to continue to feel alive and vital as our bodies age.

But then passion and meaning can also contribute years to our longevity, as does the quality of our close relationships. When we can draw on each other for support, it adds years to our lives as does our sense of connection in our social world. Much of this is documented in the work of Dan Buettner, who studied communities where people live the longest, called Blue Zones. Passion and meaning are often very intertwined; but, for this column, I am just going to write about passion.

I learned a great deal from “The Third Age” radio show and started running workshops on The Third Age. From that I wrote a book, together with my radio show partner David Debin. While most people badly wanted to find passion and meaning, the roles just weren’t out there for them to do so. Those who were no longer working characterized their choices of joining non-profit boards as rubber stamping or raising money. Neither of these excited them. Or these highly skilled and successful men and women characterized the roles available in volunteering as simply stuffing envelopes. Not much passion in that. As it turned out, without realizing it I was employing the myth that all I had to do was help them uncover their passions. I was wrong. I felt discouraged and lost.

We love myths and stories, but we must be careful because they can mislead us. We walk into the party and we spot our soul mate and live happily ever after. A beautiful woman sits on a stool in a drug store in Hollywood and is discovered and finds success and passion in acting. While our fantasies may cause us to fall passionately in love, reality disrupts it eventually. And 80% of people believe that when they start a new pursuit, they should feel an immediate connection and passion.

The next step in my journey was trying to consult and increase the effectiveness and capacity of non-profits. Since I had previously owned a large consulting company and was trained in organizational development, I thought that I would have something to contribute. Time, however, taught me how much more difficult that task is when you are not consulting to highly capitalized and effective non-profits. Most were stuck in a matrix of funding demands, low capitalization, and confused and competing organizational groups (board, executive director, staff, and funding sources). Once again, after a number of years of involvement, I had had enough. I felt frustrated and wondered if there was anywhere to contribute that would ultimately satisfy me.

There was, however, one more piece to the puzzle yet to come. I kept searching and when I came upon impact investing, I got excited. I don’t think I would describe it as a passion, at first. I saw its potential to create enormous benefit. All those people who I couldn’t help to find passion before, now there were endless opportunities for them to do so. Impact investing is a two trillion dollar industry and growing rapidly. There are endless roles – paid or volunteer, investor or mentor – where highly skilled, talented people can make a difference. If we could really find investments that did social good and were sustainable, it would solve one of the major headaches of non-profits – the need for constant fundraising. But some organizations seemed to go way beyond just being sustainable. They seemed to be potentially transformative. What I mean by this is that they had the potential to go well beyond small incremental human benefit. They could bring about human benefit in higher proportion to the amount of initial money and effort expended. They could be multipliers of social good.

But was it real or a myth? Was this just another example of people marketing something that made them money but wasn’t what it really seemed to be? So I gathered a small group together and we spent two and a half years studying the field and I came to believe it was true. After making some investments, I started asking myself where I wanted to focus my efforts. Where could I use my time and money most valuably and where would I feel the most passion and meaning. It turns out that clarifying those questions is vital to impact investing, as it is with everything else. The exploration of what your gifts, values, and interests are, and where they can best be expressed, is vital to finding passion and meaning, and vital to participation in impact investing. Some people care most about the environment, some about social justice, some about women’s issues, and some about health, to name just a few. Finally, I realized that while I care about the future of the world, it felt too big for me to tackle and too distant. While I am not saying it is right for everyone, what mattered most to me – beyond my family and friends – was my community and my country. “Think globally and act locally” and working for change from the grass roots up seemed to ring true to me. That seemed to crystalize my passion. 

So, where did my passion come from?

1. It grew over time. I experienced successes and failures in my effort to find it.

2. I had to find a use for my talents and experience – while I hoped for an immediate match, it took years of partial matches along the way and I also had to develop my skills and grow as a person, psychologically, to learn and benefit from those experiences.

3. It ultimately had to come from my values and what I wanted to experience and contribute.

I had to feel connected to other people and do it together with them.

4. And, for me, it had to connect to the greater good of humanity.

So, Michael, I hope that approaches an answer to your question. Good luck on your own journey to find passion.


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