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What If I Can’t Find My Passion?

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.

3 Truths For When You Feel Inadequate

Although my life is generally free from life-threatening dangers and perils, I still find much to be afraid of. I’m afraid of large dogs. I’m afraid of leaving a bad impression. I’m afraid that I won’t find a meaningful job when I graduate or that I’ll make a wrong decision. The list goes on. Call them unnecessary anxieties or irrational fears, but they often feel very real to me.

Perhaps the deepest and worst fear of all is my fear of insufficiency—the tiny voice that tells me I’m not good enough. The voice that I have mostly learned to ignore until my advisor asks me a question that I can’t answer, or I receive my third rejection letter from top fellowships, or see that fabulous photo of where I want to be or who I want to become on Instagram. The fear of insufficiency often comes from unmet expectations, whether instilled in me by society or by myself. My failure to meet those (often subconscious) expectations can lead to strong waves of anxiety and fear.

When I was a first year PhD student, I was devastated when I was rejected from all the competitive research fellowships I applied to. It wasn’t that I needed them; I could fund my studies through teacher assistantships. But I had worked extremely hard on my application and deeply hoped for at least one of them. Hence, while my friends and classmates celebrated their offers, my unmet expectations were crushed and the fear of insufficiency swallowed me into self-doubt and depression.

That wasn’t the first, or last, time I struggled with my fear of insufficiency. But I have learned to confront this fear and refocus my attention on God and His promises. There are three verses in particular that have helped to frame my mindset in fighting against my fear of insufficiency, and I have found them to be helpful whenever I’m paralyzed by fear.

 

1. We’re not the only ones struggling 

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Whenever I get stuck in the pit of my own fears, I tend to convince myself that I’m alone and the only one struggling. But I’ve learned to remind myself that, while my situation is unique, many have faced similar struggles or fears. Thousands of others were rejected from the fellowships, just like me. Moreover, everyone has probably faced rejection from something they have worked very hard for.

Remembering this removes me from my self-focus-induced isolation and enables me to see a bigger picture. I must remind myself that my anxieties—these trials or temptations—are common to mankind, and God has promised that He will always carry us through if we trust in Him.

 

2. Trials can help us uproot lies and idols

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)

When I trust in God’s promise to help, I can then view my situations in a different light. Instead of wallowing, I can rejoice and treat it as an opportunity for God to mature me.

As I depressed over my fellowship rejections, I eventually saw that it wasn’t the lack of funding or research flexibility that I was mourning. I was upset because I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t selected for one of these competitive fellowships. Self-assured about my academic accomplishments, I had egotistically convinced myself that I deserved one of them. I wanted them not because I needed them, but because they would be another accolade on my resume. As the letters came, my ego took a hit. God used these rejections to show me that I had grown prideful and lacked humility. As a result, I began to relinquish my ideal of academic success and learned to put faith in His plans for my studies instead.

Our struggles often point us to lies or idols that we should give up to God. Persevering in faith through our trials helps us grow closer to Him. Because, after all, perseverance produces character, and character, hope (Romans 5:4). And hope is what stabilizes us when the waves of self-doubt and fear threaten to sweep us away.

 

3. Facing our fears reminds us of what truly anchors us

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. (Hebrews 6:19a)

As I’ve learned to put my hope in God, I’ve come to trust Christ as an anchor for my soul. Today, there are so many opinions and models of success that it’s easy to get pulled in different directions and to pursue the achievement standards the world values. However, having true hope in God doesn’t always come easily. It’s a muscle we must exercise; something we strengthen through battles with our fears, failures, and anxieties.

For me, this hope in God has given me the courage to face my fears—to rebuke the voice that tells me I’m not worthy or I’m not good enough. Paradoxically, God also showed me that courage comes only through humility. In order to conquer my fears, I must first find the strength to face my own flaws and idols.

With the fellowships, it took me months to find the strength to face my own ego. In hindsight, it all seems a bit ridiculous. These were the nation’s most competitive grants and I was conceited to assume that I would get one of them. I had built up getting a fellowship as my image of perfection. Indeed, I fell short of that picture of perfection . . . but that image was false—a mirage conjured from worldly models of success and reinforced by my own ego.

The fact is, I’m not perfect and I’ll never be perfect. The very goal of reaching “perfection” through any effort of our own is unrealistic—that’s why Jesus did it for us.

For “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

God offers us deliverance and infinite grace despite our imperfections and mistakes. Wherever I lack, He will provide. Wherever I fall short, He will lift me up.

With His love, I have gained the courage to stand up to my fear of insufficiency and say, “You’re right. I’m not perfect. But I don’t need to be. The only thing I ever needed is His perfect love.”

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)

I Stopped Avoiding Negative Emotions

I’ve always disliked being emotional. Perhaps it started when I watched my parents fight as a child. I never understood how a simple discussion over loading the dishwasher or cooking dinner could explode into a fight that might last for days.

I blamed my mother for being too emotional. And I concluded that emotions aren’t practical, and drama only exists because people can’t logically reason about a situation. I came to view emotions as a sign of weakness, a sign of losing control, and a failure to follow logic.

If I were honest though, I don’t like emotions because they are hard. Even when I can identify the emotion I’m experiencing—such as anger or jealousy—I may have no idea what sparked it. And too often, it’s just a feeling I can’t pin down.

Over time, I have come to avoid emotional confrontations, preferring instead to remain calm and composed. This was especially true for negative emotions. While joy and happiness are easy to accept and celebrate, anger and jealousy can be hard to swallow. I fervently disliked my negative emotions. As with any “good” person, I felt they were “bad” or sinful.

Yet I was grossly mistaken. Pushing aside feelings of anger or jealousy does not make them disappear. In fact, those tingling feelings that refuse to go away have an important purpose: they often point to deep truths that we might not be able to articulate ourselves. Often times, it is our anger or grief or annoyance that exposes truths—whether about the world or about ourselves—that we prefer not to face. Sometimes these are godly emotions, such as righteous anger (Mark 11:15-16) or genuine grief (Psalms). But other times, these unwelcome emotions reveal the sinful part of our hearts: the pride, self-centeredness, and shame we unknowingly carry.

But instead of reflecting on the truths our emotions might be pointing us to, too often we are prone to either acting out on our emotions or bottling them. And even when we try to rule over our emotions, so often “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). We cannot do this alone. I’ve tried.

When my sister was applying to college, she repeatedly sent me half-finished essay drafts days before her deadline, and I would drop my work to help her finish them. During that time, I frequently lost my patience, complained constantly, and caused days of family drama.

“You know, you don’t need to be that angry,” Mom would say, infinitely more logical now that the situation doesn’t involve her. Sometimes, I tried to force the anger away or reason my way around it. There was no lasting solution. The anger would simply resurface with the next essay and feed on itself like a vicious cycle.

In short, there was no way I could overcome the anger on my own. As King David sings, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). Instead of relying on myself, I needed God to be the surgeon of my heart.

I prayed and reflected on my anger, and I realized to my shock that my anger was far less justified than I had imagined. I thought I was simply mad about my sister’s procrastination. But it was not out of concern for my sister that I was angry. Instead, I was selfishly angry because she was taking up my time, and I felt that it was unfair that I’m expected to help her while no one was expected to help me.

That was, of course, not true. Many people have selflessly helped me when I needed it and, above all, God has always helped me even when I refuse to acknowledge Him. This realization led me to bring my selfishness before God. I acknowledged His sovereignty and thanked Him for the gift of being able to help my sister. This shift of perspective helped my anger subside, and I was able to help her with more patience and composure. Instead of self-justification, I needed to let God remove my hidden self-centeredness and fill the hole with His love and mercy.

When we are caught in our own emotions, we often react poorly towards the people around us. My sister’s irresponsibility was not okay. However, instead of causing days of family drama, I should have reprimanded her with grace and forgiveness. Only when we see a situation through the lens of God’s love and grace can we see the most wholesome way to respond. Our negative emotions are a compass, pointing to those situations that most require the mercy and love of God.

Anger (or jealousy or grief) might not go away after the first prayer, but we can get up the next day and ask for God’s help and forgiveness again. Through this process, God slowly changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

In addition to communicating our emotions to God, sharing them with friends and mentors can also guide us in the right direction. It may be a long and painful journey, but we must have patience and remain rooted in the promises of Scripture. For the “testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete” (James 1:3-4).

Often, God does not simply take away our “negative” emotions. Jesus was not afraid to show anger and grief at the appropriate times. The ability to experience and express the full range of emotions is how we can genuinely relate to each other and is an integral part of being human. We do not have to ignore or feel ashamed of our emotions, but can be empowered by them; emotions are a way for God to search and transform our hearts, point us towards the truth, and guide us in our relationships with others.

Ultimately, emotions are an avenue for us to experience the truth and grace of God. Coming face to face with our own pride, selfishness, and shortcomings gives us a deeper understanding of the abundance and beauty of His love. Let’s allow His love to transform our hearts, so that we will be able to better show love, empathy, and forgiveness to the people around us.

Letting Go of All the Things I’ve Hoped For

I finally got a late acceptance to present at one of the top conferences in my field this November. Ever since I’ve heard about this conference, attending it has been on my “life goals” list, a milestone in my PhD career. I was euphoric and exuberantly prepared for the trip. Yet, barely a month later, as I sat on my plane ride home, I felt only exhaustion from the week-long event.

Sure, it was a milestone and definitely a wonderful learning opportunity, but gone was the enthusiasm on my flight there. All I could think of now was the catch-up work from my absence and the grant proposal that was due in a week. If I can get this grant, I told myself, that would be amazing, a true milestone.

Every time I thought I’ve learned my lesson, the cycle resumes. Hope, anxiety, stress, relief, satisfaction, new hope, anxiety, and so on. I’m not sure this qualifies as a vicious cycle; it’s just a cycle, a cycle of life that I desperately wish to break.

In a way, all the things we hope for points to an idol we worship in our hearts. As David Foster Wallace said, “[T]here is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

The problem is, everything else we worship, other than God, will crush under the weight of our expectations. It is precisely in the moment we’ve finally achieved our dream that we realize that the dream was not enough.

It is not that the dreams are bad. It is that we have put our hopes in the wrong things. Instead of fixing our eyes on the unseen, we have fixated on what is seen. We have disordered our loves, and though the things we yearn for may be good things, they will never truly satisfy us.

This December, I want to challenge myself and everyone reading this article to try another way of thinking. I want to reorder my loves, so that “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). Instead of worshipping my idols by listing goals and resolutions, I want to worship God and thank Him for the gifts He has given me.

 

From Hoping to Receiving

Once upon a December, God gave us the greatest gift of all; He gave His one and only Son so that He can die for us and bring us salvation. Instead of constantly striving for satisfaction through our own power, we should receive the marvelous gifts God has given us.

In those moments, when the lists of January grip my heart, I must remember that I don’t deserve and am not entitled to the success I have or I wish I can have. Instead, as Apostle Paul said, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).

Relax and rejoice. The lists of January have constrained our minds and imagination. We hold onto it like a lifeline, as something we can see, but through our grip on reality, we lose sight of the unseen.

Although the lists seem so real to us, they are but a “mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14), a chasing after the wind. And as with mists and winds, the second we think we grasped it, it has slipped from our hands. Therefore, let them go. Instead, we should “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name” (Psalm 100:4).

For me, I want to thank God for the little things in life that we forget to delight in. For the spurts of progress I’ve achieved in my research. For the amazing friendships that I’ve built over the year. For a family who encourages and helps me even when I’m thoroughly aggravating. For the beautiful community of God that He has invited me into. For guiding me to understand His Word and wisdom. For the lessons He has taught me through my failures and mistakes. For the love and faithfulness He has shown me despite my doubts and anxieties.

This December, instead of sullying our year with our never-ending lists, let us enumerate God’s infinite blessings. Let us remember what God has done for us through Jesus Christ and in the everyday trenches of adult life. Through thanksgiving, let us let go of the hopes and fears that drive us to take control of our lives, putting idols instead of God at our center. Let us receive His gifts with a grateful and open heart. For “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

This December, to the idols of our heart, begone.