Recently, I’ve had several emails and questions about getting started in an unconventional career. Whether that’s becoming a freelance travel writer, doing the modern adventurer route or turning a favourite hobby into a livelihood. This has got me thinking about an idea floating around on the internet: find your passion. It was doing the rounds when I graduated from university, with a Maths degree and no clue what I was doing next. It’s still common advice. Find you passion. Do what you love and love what you do.
A Small Reality Check
Okay, find your passion. But what on earth does that actually mean? Presumably they mean work out what you love so much you could do it every day. Then go and do it every day. Simple. Ah, but if only! Life is rarely that simple.
Personally, I find the idea of finding your passion extremely unhelpful. Sure it might look good in a cursive font on Instagram. But it doesn’t really tell you anything. For a start, it doesn’t tell you how to get there. Never mind give you a clue about what a passion actually is. I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty strong emotion to me and I really recoil from that word. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been passionate about anything. Except perhaps in flights of sarcasm. Never mind singling out the one passion to rule them all. My immediate association with the word passion is Mel Gibson and suffering.
But even if we replace passion with “thing you like doing”, that’s still deeply unhelpful. Especially if you’re someone like me who likes lots of things in equal measure. In fact, it’s the variety of activity that I like most. So, instead of suggesting that you find your passion I’m going to offer two things. First, the story of how I got to where I am. Objectively, it might seem like I had a plan to end up in the adventure, travel, writing world. Let me show you how I really got here. Secondly, I’ll offer some advice for what to do instead of setting out on your mystical quest to find your life’s purpose.
How I Got Here
Hindsight is a curious thing. It allows you, in my case, to look back at the journey I’ve taken to becoming a writer who adventures for a living and imagine I had a plan. As in a complete and obvious step by step plan to follow to get here. Let’s be clear: I had no such plan. I went to university thinking I’d do a PhD. I came out of university disillusioned and confused. As soon as I graduated I came straight back home without a job, or any interest in any of my degree content. It took five years before I could find maths fun again.
Initially, I did what I thought I was supposed to do: apply for graduate schemes. But my key problem was always the “why do you want to do the job” question. The answer was, I didn’t. I even got to some assessment centres, but I never got a job offer. Although technically I’m still waiting to hear back from one confectionary company whose IT system wouldn’t reject me because of box ticking, but I didn’t pass the assessment centre with flying colours. They said they’d be in touch… Anyway, I was jobless.
Jobs, jobs, jobs…
Then I went through a succession of jobs that you can read about in this post: How to Quit a Job you Love. The first really was motivated by a need to learn how to sell. I read Rich Dad Poor Dad at the impressionable age of 10 and one of the key lessons it gave me was, if you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to learn how to sell. So I did. I also created knitting courses that sold online – not for much, but a great lesson in how to do digital products and marketing. At the time I thought I was going to go into craft, possibly because I’d been so devoid of it for four years at uni. Then I went on 2 months of adventures and came home jobless again. Although I was also volunteering with Mountain Rescue and Ten Tors (not that this seemed at all relevant at the time).
At this point, I had a fledgling blog and an idea that I wanted to do more with adventure. But I couldn’t work out how to make that into an income. So, I found another job locally. I was interested in marketing and found my way into a role on the merit of my degree. My main focus was being able to support myself financially and to show my family I was trying. To give you an idea of the headspace I was in at the time, have a look at this post I wrote, just after accepting the job. I’ve toyed with taking it down, but it’s just so insightful (if sad) that I can’t bring myself to do it.
Meanwhile, I was blogging away and doing trips for myself. Somewhere in here I got my ML, that I’d started age 18. I was also the Young Adult’s rep on the Alpine Team for the AAC (UK). Oh and I’d started Intrepid Magazine in a whirlwind of chaos.
Then, finally, I managed to make another hop sideways into the adventure industry and writing for a living. The story of how that happened can be read here. Again, it was full time employment and at the time that was exactly what I wanted. It was my dream job, something I never thought could exist. By this stage, I felt like Excel spreadsheets made my eyes bleed. All I wanted was out of analytics and the SEO work I’d been doing, alongside blogging and the magazine, was enough to sidle me into a writing role. I’d also got one decent freelance by-line at Red Bull thanks to Pip Stewart who I met on Twitter.
Five years from graduation, I was made redundant. Then back on the furlough rollercoaster, then decided it was the moment to go freelance. (Again, all explained in this post.) If I hadn’t had my hand forced by the pandemic, I might still be an employee now. But instead, here I am receiving freelance commissions while I’m in a hostel in the Cairngorms, about to go on my Winter ML training. As an example, I’ve got three pieces of about 1000 words to write on ice climbing this weekend.
At no point in any of this did I have a clear sense of direction. It was like wandering around in the fog. But occasionally something appear that you can cling onto and set out on a new bearing from it.
What I’d do instead of Searching for my Passion
Maybe finding your passion works for some people. Maybe they get it right on the first shot, or go on some life changing trip to discover it. That didn’t happen for me. If it isn’t working for you, here’s what I’d suggest instead.
1. Do something you don’t like
If you don’t know which job to do (and it need to be a job, so you can afford to eat) do something far less than perfect. I’m not always clear on what I enjoy more than something else. But I am crystal clear on what I don’t like. If you have no idea what to do or where to start, do something. Anything. Then refine that experience by working out what you dislike about it and removing those things until you’re happy, often by quitting and trying something else. (Spoiler alert: this is an endless process. I’m much happier now than I was straight out of uni, but I haven’t got it perfect yet.)
2. Do something where you win regardless
By this I mean pick up useful skills and experience. Like me learning to sell, or how paid ads work, or SEO… Even if you’re working in a bar or cafe, find out how it’s run. Do you know enough to set up the business yourself? Even if you have no intention of ever doing that. Acquire knowledge, not just a paycheck. You never know when it might be useful
3. Quit, don’t linger
Don’t be afraid of leaving. You can always go back. I’m not advocating leaving a job every time it gets difficult or boring (within 2 weeks). It’s a good idea to have some idea of where you’re going, or a short term plan. But once you’ve made the decision to leave, don’t wait around for the perfect moment. It won’t come. And you owe it to both yourself and the company you work for to not be a half-hearted employee. Don’t be scared of quitting. The more you quit, the more you can refine into work you really enjoy doing.
4. Pay attention to all your interests
Especially the ones you’ve had since childhood. With hindsight, my main interests since I was around about ten were adventures, entrepreneurship and writing. I just became very good at ignoring them and doing what I thought I “should” be doing. As you’ll have read above, they were always there alongside everything else I was doing, squeezed in around the margins. I’m just slowly changing the balance of where I spend my time, but still allowing for me to have an income. For the opposite viewpoint, definitely read the interview I did with Tim Moss, who quit his adventurer career to become an accountant.
5. What would you always keep doing regardless of everything?
Ask yourself this question, often. The answer might give you some clues about what you enjoy. I’ll always write and I’ll always go for long walks, regardless of what else is happening in life. But I’ll also grow vegetables and knit jumpers – so it might not all lead you in the right direction. Not all of your personality needs to become part of your career.
Please do ask questions in the comments if I haven’t been clear, or if there’s something you’d like me to go into more detail about. Always happy to help 🙂
To hear more from me, with behind the scenes of what I’m actually up to, you can join my Adventure Squad (newsletter).