Passion Projects

Think back: what was your first experience with a passion project – when you felt perfectly immersed, relishing your time spent and operating at your best?

I can tell you exactly what that was for me: working on the weekly newspaper in college. I joined the school paper, but not because I was particularly interested in journalism (though to be fair I was an undecided major at a liberal arts college, so perhaps it was a consideration). Instead, I wanted to be a part of something, and this weekly paper indicated that no experience was necessary and promised free ice cream. Over the next several years, I interviewed school administrators, local politicians, and homeless families. I studied the style guide and got better at writing and editing. I learned to lay out articles, managed our production schedule, and led the incorporation of our little business.

But quite apart from these specific activities – what I remember most is the feeling I had when working on the paper. Each Thursday night we would crowd into a small basement room on campus and set to work. Despite our best intentions to finish early, Thursdays invariably became all-nighters. For a dozen hours straight, we would write and edit and design and print, tossing blue pencils and erasers to one another, while coming up with compelling headlines, creative layouts, and final ad copy. The night flew by – with nary a peek at the clock. When we put the finishing touches on the paper and sent it off to the printer in the wee hours of Friday morning, I always felt a sleepy satisfaction, the sense of a job well done – together, as a team. After a quick shower, I’d trudge bleary-eyed to my Friday morning physics class, and then stop in to see the lunch crowd pouring over newsprint strewn across dining hall tables.

I would have said we were in the zone on these Thursday nights, so focused on the newspaper production that nothing else mattered. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this as a state of flow. He theorized that people are happiest when they are in flow – a mental state in which someone is so immersed in an activity that they exert full focus and experience complete absorption. To get in a flow state, people must find something that excites and inspires them and do it for their own intrinsic satisfaction. Csikszentmihalyi found the benefits of reaching a flow state include greater output of higher quality work; a sense of clarity and purpose without being clouded by stress and self-doubt; and both in-the-moment pleasure and lasting fulfillment from doing something about which you are passionate.

Little did I know the influence that my college newspaper experience would have on my life – on what it means to be on a team, on how I think and lead, and the joy and flow I seek in every activity since. I discovered the power of words to inform, inspire, and make others think. I found it rewarding to create something tangible. I learned the value of diverse teams – after all, what’s more diverse than a newsroom? You have the sports writers focusing on the big weekend games; the entertainment folks obsessing over the recently released music album; the news team covering the rally in the park; the graphic designers sketching a visual to go with the calendar of events; the publisher focusing on ad revenue to offset printing costs. I developed leadership skills that enabled me to guide without formal authority, which is something that has served me well ever since. But perhaps most notably, I realized that, for me, it’s all about the people: the camaraderie and deep bonds that are forged from common purpose and shared experiences. (And, not incidentally, this was also where I met my husband of twenty-one years and counting.)

A passion project is something you do for yourself – because it excites and inspires you. Typically, this is not something you are getting paid for, not something a family member or colleague or boss is asking you to do. You’re not doing it for a grade, for community service credit, or to accumulate wealth. Instead, a passion project is something you are drawn to, and you don’t always know why. For some, it’s baking, bicycling, scrapbooking, or singing. For others, it’s reading, running, painting, or playing an instrument. There may be residual benefits – like learning new skills or meeting new people – but at its core, a passion project is something you do because you find it intrinsically rewarding. For me, right now, my passion project is – you guessed it – this blog. It’s something I do even though I have more than enough else to keep me busy.

Sometimes passions converge with things the world needs and is willing to pay for – and voilà, what a rare and special treat. The Japanese term Ikigai (pronounced ee-key-guy) roughly translates to reason for being. The book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles describes Ikigai as the unity of (a) what you love, (b) what you’re good at, (c) what you can be paid for, and (d) what the world needs. Passion is at the intersection of (a) and (b). Profession is where (b) and (c) come together. Vocation is the juncture of (c) and (d). Mission combines (d) and (a). (Check out this link for a compelling Venn diagram visualization.) Ikigai is where passion, profession, vocation, and mission all co-exist, bringing fulfilment and lasting happiness. People who achieve this are truly fortunate.

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