How do I find my passion?
I typed that question into Google my first-year in graduate school. I asked my professors. I asked my peers. They say, it should be what excites you in the morning. They say, you should go to bed thinking about it. They say, it’s what you want to do for the rest of your life. They say, they say. But I don’t.
There was one thing that I always thought was my passion. It’s what I told my parents I wanted to do when I was a child. It’s what I Googled about doing as I debated over my life decision my first year in graduate school. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I imagined myself writing fictional sagas or novels, like J. K. Rowling or Jane Austen.
However, with Asian parents, writing wasn’t the most supported career option. Plus, I do like math, problem-solving, and pursuing research projects. But, I don’t think about equations and optimization before I go to bed. I don’t wake up with new ideas on mathematical proofs. In fact, I can’t imagine myself being okay with only working on mathematical models for the rest of my life.
This dilemma tortured me for a good part of my first year. After all, what is life if I don’t get to work on what I love? What if I get a PhD in something that’s not my passion?
The truth is, no matter how much our “passion” excites us, no matter how much we think we love our work, no matter how much we want work to fulfill us . . . we always end up asking ourselves the question like the teacher of Ecclesiastes: what are we toiling for? Is this meaningful (Ecclesiastes 2:20-23)? Even King Solomon, with all his wisdom and success, could not find meaning in the workings of his hands.
Work—or status, relationships, hobbies—is not where we are supposed to find meaning. Meaning only comes through our relationship with God. Our pursuit of passion, or anything else, will never satisfy us. However, we can find enjoyment and satisfaction in our work. Yet, as King Solomon observed, “the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 5:19).
Finding Joy in Toiling
For me, my passion crisis didn’t go away overnight, but I did continue with my PhD. I took the required classes, completed the requirements, and worked on finding my thesis topic. For the longest time, I worked at it because it was work.
Yet as I shifted my focus from my personal obsessions, my attitude towards my research also started to change. I began to see more potential paths and applications of mathematical models. Instead of algorithm development, I was more interested in their application to solve real-world problems.
The research area I finally chose was healthcare. It was the field my advisor had always wanted me to pursue, but I had been against it. Thinking about the growth of cancer or analyzing the effects of chemotherapy on patient mortality seemed very gruesome to me. Yet as I worked and learned about the area, I realized that my seemingly boring days of running computer simulations can fuel discoveries and implement changes that improve the lives of patients.
My work isn’t about me and my pursuit of passion; the implications of my work can help the decisions people make about their health, and that is where I find my joy. God has always placed me in the right place. Yet before, I did not have the eyes to see. As I shifted my focus outside of myself to God, I realized that He has gifted me with something that I not only enjoy, but also can use to help and benefit others.
The true purpose of work is not to satisfy us, but for us to be stewards of what God has given us in this world. In our obsessive search for our single passion, we are often blinded to what God has prepared for us. As C.S. Lewis said,
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. [. . .] Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours.
To discover our passion, we must let go of our vision of “passion” and open ourselves to what God might have planned for us.
Renewing Our Vision of Passion
The act of letting go transforms our heart and mind in a way that enables us to see more than we did before. As I learned to let go of my idols, God showed me that there is more freedom when my focus is on Him. The way I previously envisioned passion was misguided and simplistic. Life and dreams are a lot more complex and filled with many more possibilities than I can imagine. And when God is the author of my life, it liberates me to trust and follow His voice even more than my own heart.
As I learned to trust and follow His guidance, I found that God cares about my childish dreams, too. When I’m ready, He may guide me back to them in the most unexpected ways. For example, God invited me to write for Him through a campus Christian magazine. It’s not the fictional novels I imagined, but reflections on His love and provision. And here I am today, writing to you all. The way life and dreams unfold is usually not how I first imagine, but it always makes more sense than my version.
My first-year self never found the passion, but I learned that there is so much more to the story. Through the process, I’ve found freedom, rest, and the enjoyment of work. Who knows where writing or research projects will lead. The journey is still continuing, but I trust that He will always be there to guide and show me the way. After all, it is God who weaves the little things we do into a saga much greater and more epic than anything we can imagine.