how to grow your own passion (and talent) even if you don’t think you have any (or: develop your own interestingness, part five)




Perhaps one of the most crippling beliefs in this culture is that talent is an inborn, fixed, unchanging quality. Either you’re born with it or you’re not.

The revelations about something called deliberate practice point up a different truth. Talent starts out as a spark, a glimmer, that is protected, coached and nurtured through years of hard work and expert feedback. Two artists may start out on equal levels, but if one engages in focused deliberate growth and the other lounges around coffee shops and complains about the marketplace, the gap between their abilities will grow over the years until it appears that one was simply Gifted and the other…was not.

Creativity turns out to be a day-by-day process: an article in TIME observes that “creativity happens not with one brilliant flash but in a chain reaction of many tiny sparks while executing an idea….insight and execution are inextricably woven together…each adjustment [involves] a small spark of insight that [leads] to others.” You must actively engage in the process, step by step, day by day.

In order to do this — to want to do this — passion is necessary. Otherwise it’s way too easy to quit and sit on the couch and watch [insert name of your favorite TV show]. But how do you find your passion if you don’t think you’re passionate about anything? It’s common wisdom that we’re passionate about the things that we are talented at, that we are good at – but what if you don’t think you’re good at anything….because, say, you believe that a person is either born with talent or not…and you weren’t?

Maybe there are times when we can get good at something first, and then become truly passionate about it.

Perhaps passion can start out small and then grow big over time…along with your developing skill and ability.

Passion isn’t so obvious in the beginning. It’s not the big bolt of lightning that breaks open your life….but scattered sparks and glimmerings that will light a trail for you if only you pay attention. And maybe those are the glimmerings of who you truly are. Growing your passion is about finding yourself, and it’s not supposed to happen overnight. It takes time and effort.

Some steps that might help:

1. Identify your strengths….

….and by strengths I use Marcus Buckingham’s definition of the word. Your strengths are not “what you’re already good at “ but what make you feel strong and fulfilled in that moment. It could be anything from writing a poem in English class or cooking dinner for the kids. I stress: it doesn’t matter if you think you suck at it. What matters is that the activity in and of itself gives you that deep, settled, calm feeling. That bliss feeling. It restores and invigorates you.

Marcus suggests carrying a notebook with you through a week of daily life and writing down those moments when you feel happy and fulfilled….and what you were doing when you felt that way. You’ll see a pattern emerge.

In her multimedia book THE FIRESTARTER SESSIONS, Danielle LaPorte urges you to pay attention to something else: what people compliment you on. “The gratitude you receive is a reflection of your genius. Create a habit of noticing where and when appreciation comes at you in your life and work. It’s part of the feedback loop of strengths and talent that you need to invest in, in order to thrive and feel fulfilled and effective.”

If your strengths are the things that fulfil you, then your weaknesses are the things that drain you, that make you feel depleted, incompetent, hopeless. Take note of those as well. Your object is not to improve your weaknesses, but to waste as little time on them as possible — and eliminate them from your life altogether (if you can) so that you can focus on developing and growing your strengths. When you identify your weaknesses, you can start to ask yourself, Do I really need to be doing this? Is there anyway I can quit this, or delegate it, or outsource it, or just eliminate it from my life?

2. Learn when (and what) to quit.

If you don’t enjoy it, if it doesn’t fulfill you, and if your livelihood isn’t at stake, just say no (if you can). Or wrap it up and get out of it. Move on.

This does two things: it allows you to spend more time growing your strengths and working towards a life that is organized around those activities.

It also frees up time for you to make what some might call “artist dates” with yourself (but you call whatever you like) during which you can

3. Expose yourself to what Ben Casanocha calls “bulk positive randomness”.

Seek out new places and experiences. Seize on a glimmering that you might have and do something about it: attend a seminar or a class, or go to the newsstand and buy some magazines on that topic, then read them over coffee.

Disrupt yourself and your routine.

We are creatures of habit; the brain organizes life into patterns of thinking and behaving (a.k.a. “ruts”) in order to process life more efficiently. When you change what you’re doing, you change your context, and you activate different parts of your brain. You tap into different parts of your thinking – and yourself. You see things from new angles. You get fresh insight. Then

4. Follow up on the people and things that catch your interest.

(Read Cal Newport’s fascinating book* for a great guide on how to do this.) Your strengths and interests will come together in interesting ways, interesting because they are unique to you: you find your edges, your intersections, where different ideas meet and transform each other. You develop depth and a distinct point of view. Which will help you to

5. Get obsessed.

Psychologist, author and creativity coach Eric Maisel talks about “productive obsessions”: good obsessions that fuel our activity and bring meaning to our lives.

Turning mere interests into obsessions, a process that by its nature ignites your passion, is among the most important keys to self-motivation. People are happier and more efficient when they productively obsess.

It is not enough to possess a perfectly good brain—you must also take charge of it…[otherwise] you’ll find yourself trapped in trivialities, condemned to impulsivity, led around by anxiety, and duller and sadder than you need to be. Productively obsessing is an antidote to all that….

Cognitive therapists, positive psychologists, and Eastern philosophers have all asserted that the trick to creating an authentic life is taking charge of how you use your brain. Rather than thinking about a million things, which amounts to thinking about nothing, you announce to your brain that you have a fine use for it and that you intend to move it to a higher gear. Because your brain is an engine meant to perform in that higher gear, it has been waiting for this exact invitation and it will respond beautifully to your invitation….

A productive obsession is an idea that you choose for your own reasons and that you pursue with all of your brain’s power. You take the seed of an idea and nurture it, providing it with genuine neuronal devotion. When you live your life as a series of productive obsessions, your interest never flags and life feels genuinely worth living. If you’ve been reluctant to raise the bar and turn your interests into genuine productive obsessions, now is the time to unleash your brain and let it to work beautifully.

(Cal Newport, by the way, invokes a similar idea with his talk of “deep interests”.)

It’s not a clear path. It’s not supposed to be. Interestingness involves ambiguity and risk, and sometimes controversy: if it was known, easy and safe, it wouldn’t be interesting. But if you use your strengths as guide and compass, you won’t just find your interestingness: you’ll find your soul.

* Don’t get scared off by the title. It’s a great and helpful read for anybody, not just students.

Aug 19, 2010

13 comments · Add Yours

Even the naturals practice. Look at classical musicians like the pianist Lang Lang, a child prodigy, and yet he never stopped practising. I knew a young girl once whose IQ was 145 and she was understandably a bit cocky about it till I cut her down to size by pointing out that that number only reflected her potential and was no guarantee of anything. The one thing she lacked was what you talk about in your article: passion. She could have directed that intellect in a number of ways and the last I heard of her she was working as a receptionist in a car hire firm. The failure here was partly hers but others too in not looking to see where her true talents lay and helping to develop them. I had a passionate love of music when I was her age and so my father went out and bought me an electronic organ to try to encourage me. It was a shame he didn’t wait a couple of years when he would have realised that all I needed was a pen and a notepad. That was where my true interest and ability lay, in words, not notes.


I need to find ways to disrupt my daily routine. It’s moments like these when I loathe having a normal job. I wish I could just drop everything and wander the city.

Who needs money, right? I’ll just quit.

Thanks Justine, when my boss asks, I’ll blame you.


I think that, in addition to passion and productive obsession, you need to place Real World value on your creativity – both the process and the end result. For a long time, I talked about wanting to act on my creative urges, but the truth was that I put such efforts at the bottom of my priority list. There were other, more “Real” things that needed my attention – work and such.

Recently, I’ve made a decision to move my creative endeavors higher up the priority list. They aren’t yet all the way to the top 5, but I’m making progress.

There are many ways we can spend our time – spinning our wheels, making money for other people, lazing out in front of the TV. But if what we want to do is to create things – art, literature, ideas, communities, etc – we need to define the value we place on those things and then act accordingly. We need to not only feel our passion, but decide that it is important and valuable – to us, and to the rest of the world.

LOVE the series (but, you already knew that).
I’ll be bookmarking this one so I can go check out all those links.


Adam — Oops, I meant to say just say no *if you can*. In any case, wandering the city would get boring after a while. :) And by “disrupt your daily routine” I meant things like taking a different route to work (the exact example I’m stealing from a really good book on the subject of how to “think better”)…Small stuff is good.

Even in a job you hate, though (not saying that you do), do you notice moments, activities that serve your strengths? Marcus Buckingham is good on this subject (slanting your work life around your strengths, which is how you supposedly end up in a job that is tailor made for you — because it is) you might want to check him out.


Jim — I think that’s a familiar story, and demonstrates the danger of praising kids for being smart instead of being hardworking. And also that you need to *observe* your kids and really learn who they are, so you can help guide them to what they love to do.

I took electronic organ lessons too, because that’s what my parents had instead of a piano. It, uh, didn’t stick…:)


Jamie — Great comment. I wonder if that’s more difficult for women than for men — giving ourselves permission to take creative work seriously, making the time for it instead of giving our time to others. We risk being “selfish” and “self-indulgent”. We feel guilty. And then if we can get past those, we feel like we don’t have anything important to say, so why bother?


Justine – Thanks. You inspired the train of thought.
I think you’re definitely on to something re: whether women have a tougher time giving ourselves permission to pursue and value our creative work. For most of us, guilt is part of our DNA and – in the spirit of the Puritans – we often regard anything pleasurable as “bad.”
Time to change those assumptions!!


“It’s not the big bolt of lightning that breaks open your life….but scattered sparks and glimmerings that will light a trail for you if only you pay attention.” — This is wonderful. I am glad that I followed the blog trail from a friend’s blog to here.


This is an awesome series, excellently excuted! Ten stars out of ten! :) I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog. Thanks for inspiring today!


Great to read you. Thanks ever so for sharing!

Can’t help thinking that what’s called “productive obsession”, “routine”, “randomness” are rational ways of explaining the magical connection between our thinking self and our intuition. Trusting the little voice(s) and the brilliant flashes!

Madnadlessly yours


Great article! At the end of the day, I believe passion is worth ten times as much as talent – esp. when it comes to writing. Although a little inborn talent is always a handy thing to have, I truly believe that anyone with the desire and the commitment can learn to write and write fabulously.


Creativity can wither or you can make enough mistakes to be great. I heard some one say once that practice is the difference between mediocrity and greatness. I paint, not very well at this point but I paint a lot so that I can make all the mistakes quicker.

If two people start out to become artists and one paints 4 pictures and the other 12 lack of talent soon becomes “that’s actually quite good” and “wow that’s awesome” for the most prolific painter. The others work may remain mediocre unless there’s some real honest to God natural talent there and even then if that artis only ever paints 4 painting no one will ever know.


Wonderful article, thank you!



  1. How fiction writers (& other creatives) can develop into badass bloggers | Justine Musk
  2. 2 Ways to Listen Differently and Find Your Spark | The Big Life Project
  3. Inspiring Stories | Passionate Wanderings of Steve Jobs
  4. Workplace Hack: Move Your Desk via @Contactzilla

Add your comment