How to Find What You’re Passionate About (And Get Paid For It)

What should you do with your life?

I’ve asked, and been asked, this question often. And while I can’t give a decisive formula for answering it, I have made one realization: most of the standard advice is terrible.

Whether it’s multiple-choice personality quizzes that tell you to be a farmer, security guard or laboratory assistant (regardless of whether you have any interest in those things) or platitudes to “be practical” or “follow your heart”, most advice is too simplistic to be useful.

However, amongst all the oversimplifications and Myers-Briggs tests, I have been given a few gems. I’ve been lucky enough to get paid to do what I love (writing) so I thought I’d share the best advice I’ve read, been told or synthesized that helped me reach that point, in the hopes you might too.

Passions are Built, Not Discovered

Don’t expect inspiration to hit you across the face. If you want to walk the delicate balance between doing something you love and being paid well for it, you need to be remarkably good at something society cares about.

My rough formula is: Passion = Skill + Interest

Being really good at something you hate, won’t make you love it. But being really good at something you’re curious about, can. Instead of staring at your navel, trying to discover your passions, go out in the world and start creating them.

Doing What You Love is a Long-Term Project

What could you become exceptional at in the next decade? Malcolm Gladwell suggests that 10,000 hours (or about a decade of sustained practice) is what it takes to become world-class at any skill.

Viewing the search for work you’re passionate about as a painstaking quest to master a skill changes you’re approach. Suddenly the boring class you need to take before becoming a surgeon, or the failed ventures before becoming a successful entrepreneur, aren’t signs of defeat but necessary steps foward.

Get-rich-quick schemes don’t work. I’d argue that find-fulfilling-career schemes without a long-term focus don’t work either.

School Still Matters (And *Gasp* Sometimes Getting a Job Does Too)

The world still pays attention to credentials. That may dishearten the rebel geniuses or lone entrepreneurs that dislike how much say academic or corporate systems have over what they should do with their life, but it doesn’t make it untrue.

I’d argue that, for 95% of people, the way to beat the system and live a fantastic, unconventional life isn’t to reject the system. Universities may be slow an inefficient, but a degree is often a necessary first step in many fields. Getting a job may not have the same glamor as self-employment, but it can give you insights into the industry and skills needed to make your escape.

For the 5% of people who can successfully bootstrap themselves while being a jobless dropout, you’re probably already way too smart to need any of my advice. For the rest, school and jobs can be a launching pad for bigger opportunities.

Don’t Be Afraid to Create Things that Don’t Pay Well

I’ve noticed that a well-paid passion tends to be uncovered in one of two ways: either you find paid work, and become so good at it that you enjoy it and can dictate the terms of how you work; or you find unpaid work you enjoy, and become so good at it that you can get paid well.

Many people I know (including myself) used the latter route. I poured thousands of hours into writing, long before I made anything more than a little extra pocket change. Now, after almost 5 years, I’m able to make a livable income and I expect that to grow with time.

The best advice I ever received was to not be afraid to invest yourself in projects without an immediate payoff. Even if you aren’t planning to start a business–self-running a charity, designing a computer game or completing a novel builds skills you can apply to later pursuits.

Find Someone Who Makes Money Doing What they Love and Listen to Them

When I was growing up, I’d often hear from family, teachers or news reports about how unlikely it was to succeed as an entrepreneur. I didn’t know anyone who was either a professional writer or who successfully ran a business.

I hadn’t realized that I was asking the wrong people. Instead of reading failure statistics or listening to advice from people who had never ran a business in their lives, I should have started talking to people who were successful and knew how to make money in the field I was passionate about.

The biggest change in my success didn’t come from my own ideas, or even my own willpower and determination. It came from finding people who had achieved what I wanted and listening to them speak. Not just the specifics of their advice, but their entire attitude and perspective were wired differently than the people I knew who were struggling.

I believe this lesson applies beyond just people who want to start their own business. If you want to figure out how to find a job you love, you need to stop asking advice from people who hate theirs.

People who have found their passion and get paid for it think differently than people who find themselves stuck in the grind, and at least some of that is the secret to their discovery.

  • Maggie

    I think this is my favorite: Passions are Built, Not Discovered. (The rest are awesome too.)

    That has been very true in my life so far – I don’t “discover” something that I’m passionate about; I do something for a while, pursue the interesting bits, and then suddenly find that I have *become* passionate about something. This is how I started writing 😉

  • Jess Webb

    Hi Scott!
    I love this idea of passions being BUILT not DISCOVERED…

    It’s like with anything in your life – goals, dreams, passions – you can sit around thinking about it, or you can just take action and get involved in your life, and let it build and develop as you go. I’ve spent too much time stuck “thinking” about this stuff, it’s time to jump in and just frickin’ do it! 🙂

  • AHA

    Nice advice. My magazine Interesting Times is a non-commercial project and it’s gonna remain that way. Monetizing it would open up a can of too many worms, it would not be a net win I think. The non-pecuniary payoffs are worth it. Ie networking, building skills, doing it for the fun, etc.

    I am starting to view Internet business as a spectrum of passion vs money. Sure you can make quite a lot of money doing what you love, but I think to some extent it’s going to be a somewhat inverse relationship, at least when we get to the REALLY big money. Passions just don’t scale that well. So I’m thinking that you could hit local maxima with monetized passions, where it’s actually better to not monetize them further, or to just drop the monetization altogether.

    I hope this made sense, I did not have time to refine it.

  • Wendy Irene

    This post was both inspiring and motivating! Thank you!!

  • Dorothy Ser

    You brought up a great point about finding people who do what they love and listening to them.

    I’ve gotten a lot of “advice” from unaccomplished and unhappy people who made me feel discouraged after talking to them. We all need mentors who have already gone down the path that we want to pursue and who are willing to share their experiences.

  • Trinity

    Passion = Skill + Interest
    I love this formula. I’ve found it to be very true in my life so far. I recently made the decision to change my major, because I didn’t fill one of the variables of that equation. I had the interest but no skill at all, which manifested itself in my grades, (despite many hours in study and office hours with professors) and my outlook on life. I’ve since managed to find something that I can major in where I fill both the Skill and the Interest, and I’m finding that my Passion for that area increases the more Time I put into it.
    As always, great post Scott! Thank you!

  • Dale Callahan

    Great pints Scott. NOt sure how much the school still matters though. While I find my PhD offers me a lot of credentials – I see other people who have a LOT less “education” who seem to just try things. Their experience or “education” is often worth a lot more than the initials after your name;) After all- some of our most famous winners have few school credentials.

    I find passion and purpose to be the key – but people STRUGGLE to find what they are passionate about. Your thoughts about building a passion are right in line with reality because we are educated in a way that takes passion right out of the equation. Instead of chasing our passions with reality (in other words I need to pay the bills while chasing my passion) we are taught in school to get a degree, get a good job, and live happily ever after. Very few people ever ask us what we want – and therefore we are taught to “ignore” our passion.

    So it is not that we build one – it is that we have to discover our passion. Perhaps just mincing words – but important that we understand that education and schooling in the pursuit of a degree often KILLS passions.

  • Stacey

    Thanks for the great and timely post (for me anyway). I especially subscribe to the notion that you have to invest in something in order to be exceptional. Gladwell is on point when he says you need to have at least 10,000 hours invested to become world-class at anything.

    I have been searching for my passion for a long time and I’ve now realized that nothing is going to just appear and *poof* suddenly my life has meaning. You have to invest in what you love but when you do, the labour part becomes fun, you achieve flow.

    I really enjoy your posts, always food for thought.

  • Carm

    This is a great post Scott, and so relevant! Thank you very much.

  • Voranc

    That is powerful stuff you wrote about. I totally agree with your formula of passion.

  • Matt

    Scott –

    I am slowly but surely on my way to getting paid for doing what I love. I also feel extremely motivated by my day job. I don’t think the day my love job overtakes my day job is going to be VERY soon, but everyday I feel closer – I feel it creeping closer and it just feels right.

    I’ve felt for some time now that no matter what you are interested in, what you should be doing with your life is exactly what you always go back to in yours spare time. What do you do in your spare time? Did you even realize you did it so much?

    Being a bookish guy, I’ve always fell back on reading and writing. Writing comes easy and naturally to me and putting strange loops on ideas as well. It is not exactly a feeling on LOVE, it’s just THERE 😉

    Thanks for the post

  • Andrew

    Hi Scott,

    I really enjoy your blogs (especially the study related articles).
    I found a blog from another site I frequently visit of which the topic is very similar to this one. This authors opinion is to focus on ‘love what you do’ rather than ‘doing what you love’.

    Some more food for thought.


  • AH

    I also like the the formula : Passion = Skill + Interest,
    but not sure if some components missing from it……

    Passion = Skill + Interest + Talent + Importance

    my observation is that we passionate to do something we do better than the average people, given the same amount of effort……
    we feel good about doing it if we can easily perform better in those area……

    another observation is that we passionate to do something we think is big deal……as an example, we don’t care about being an expert clearner having a wonderful world-class cleaning skill……


  • Mauro

    Very interesting, what would you say is your passion Scott? and how did you realize about it?

  • Andrew

    well now i know how to build a career out of a useful skill i dont possess. you were lucky. not everyone naturally has useful talents that can be honed and used to build careers off of.