the art of finding your passion in your woundedness ( + discovering the work of your soul)



“You can, you should, + if you’re brave enough to start, you will.” — Stephen King


At the age of 12, Somaly Mam was sold into sexual slavery.

She survived a decade of rape and torture. She saw her best friend killed in front of her.

Eventually she managed to escape.

She became an anti-trafficking activist.

Since then, she has orchestrated raids on brothels. She has rescued sex workers as young as five and six. Through her organization, The Somaly Mam Foundation, she has built shelters, started schools and saved more than four thousand women and children in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. She has been honored as a CNN hero. She was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009. She has a book out called THE ROAD OF LOST INNOCENCE (and you should totally read it).

It’s safe to say she has a passion for her work.



We use the word passion to refer to enjoyment, excitement, or flow: we regard passion as whatever lights us up. Gurus say to “follow your passion” and we translate that to “follow what’s fun and makes you feel good” , hoping this will guide us into a career so perfectly tailored to our whims that we’ll never “work” a day in our lives.

We forget – if we were ever even fully aware — that passion is rooted in suffering. As Todd Henry points out in his excellent book DIE EMPTY: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, the word ‘passion’ stems from the Latin word pati which means “to suffer or endure”. Our culture’s distorted understanding has created what Henry calls “the passion fallacy” and “a false notion of what it means to engage in gratifying work.”

So perhaps — when we try to find the great work of our soul and build out an epic life — we’re asking ourselves the wrong question.

The question shouldn’t be: “What would bring me enjoyment?”

(Dancing at raves, on tables and in cages at Burning Man brought me a lot of enjoyment in my twenties, but failed to develop into my life’s work. Dammit.)

A better question: “What work am I willing to suffer for today?”

In your epic life, you are doing great work, the work of your soul: you are suffering for something beyond yourself. You shape your life around a mission and use yourself up every day in service of something bigger that fulfills, inspires and sustains you. You are on a meaningful journey, and you’re taking others with you.

You are living with passion.

This kind of passion is focused on others, not self; on what you can give, not get. You think about the world in terms of how you can best and uniquely contribute to making it a better place, instead of how it can fulfill your own needs.

This kind of passion is fueled by what Henry identifies as “compassionate anger” (the word ‘compassion’ means ‘to suffer with’). He asks:

Where do you see dynamics in the marketplace or the world at large that cause you to feel a desire to step in on behalf of those who are suffering in order to bear part of their burden or rectify a wrong?

It doesn’t have to be a social evil. It could be, as Henry points out, “an underserved market or a group of people who are not being given an adequate platform or the tools they need to do their work.”

What fires you up? What gets under your skin? What would – if you truly let it – urge you to act, and act now?

Where does your mental and emotional energy go (or want to go)?

If you want to address something that feels “small” to you, go ahead – and don’t worry about the size. Small things have a way of opening into other small things that accumulate into bigger things that connect and connect into something world-changing.


And if you’re completely drawing a blank, let me suggest something: instead of thinking what you’re willing to suffer for, think of how in your life you have suffered.

I don’t like to dwell in the past, particularly the less-pleasant parts of it. (I went for years without talking about my childhood.) I know that I am not my past. At the same time, I’ve come to understand the story of your past as a useful tool with which you can deliberately create your own future. Your backstory may not be who you are, but it holds some fascinating keys as to who you can be.

Suffering changes us. It forces us to grow. Whether it’s extreme suffering, like Somaly Mam’s in the example above, or comes in a much lesser form, it sends us down into the underground. We’re forced to find the knowledge and tools, and develop the abilities and strategies, that get us through to the other side.

A lot of your ‘onlyness’, as Nilofer Merchant calls it, shapes itself according to the whorls and grooves of these experiences, as unique to you as a fingerprint.

When you come up from the underground, you can take this knowledge, this deepened awareness, these skills and strategies, and find a way to apply them in the world. You identify the problem or need with which you feel a special resonance: the call of the times that reverberates through your personality, that echoes in your life.

Often we choose what we do in order to fix or heal ourselves, the wounds from the past that distort the present until we resolve them – and grow from them.

Often it’s this personal connection to the issue – the way the issue has woven itself in your lifestory — that grants you credibility and authority in the eyes of others. You become a symbol of your big, defining idea.

Somaly Mam is a powerful advocate for trafficked girls and sex workers because she used to be one of them.

Todd Henry’s background as a working musician connects him to creativity, which helps him serve his target market of “overworked, undervalued creative professionals”.

Your experience and hardwon knowledge allow you to be not just the hero in your own hero’s journey, but the mentor in someone else’s.


There’s that saying: Heal yourself, and then heal others.

(I’m reminded of this every time I meet a personal trainer who has overcome food addiction or an eating disorder. There seem to be a lot of them out there.)

I find, however, that it’s not so straight-forward. It flows both ways. We may learn to love others through the act of loving ourselves, but we learn to love ourselves through the act of loving others. We work to heal others – and continue to heal ourselves. We teach to discover what we most need to learn.

That’s the power of connectedness.

Passion takes the workings of your life, and your inner life, and finds ways to manifest them in the world.

Suffering transforms into vision and meaning that pulls the world forward.

It’s the ultimate alchemy.

It requires self-knowledge and the willingness to dig deep and work hard – even when you don’t want to, and even when it’s not fun. What separates those who work with passion from those who don’t is that passionate people know exactly what they’re doing all the hard work, and all the gruntwork, for — and they believe in it, enough to sacrifice their time and energy, blood and sweat and tears.

For a life to be epic, there must be sacrifice. An epic life demands nothing less than everything you’ve got to give it. As human beings, we’re wired for this kind of striving, struggle and achievement, even as ancient survival instincts keep pulling us to the comfort zone and the couch. (That gap between the need to self-actualize and the need to stay safe has many names, including ‘depression’.)

There’s a great quote by Albert Einstein: “The greatness of an artist lies in the building of an inner world + the ability to reconcile this inner world with the outer.”

What’s your ultimate work of art, if not your life? click to tweet

photo credit: cambodia4kidsorg via photopin cc

Jul 27, 2013

8 comments · Add Yours

Brilliant and straight! As a person who got exposed to passion through philosophy (especially Vedanta which discusses only the subject of Self-Knowledge or Atma-Gyana), i simply loved your passionate call for living one’s passion. Thanks! I also got introduced to two new books, hope to read them and post reviews on my blog so that some more people will (may) trigger this question within themselves. Knowing oneself is the first business of life and your write-up very rightly brings up this important activity of life to the forefront. Thanks!!

Hope to read more of what you write.


As a former child who was sexually abused for years I would love to be there for other children who go through this horrible ordeal. But how do I find my niche in a small community that is not hiring people in a position for this purpose? How do I get started? Ay ideas would be welcome!


Jennifer, kudos to you for tapping into the brave desire to help others. From my experience I say, create your own opportunity. When I moved back to my smallish hometown seven years ago, I had a passionate desire to teach yoga. Yoga had helped me to heal from an abusive relationship with a previous partner and even more profoundly, helped me heal my abusive relationship with myself. The only thing was, there were no yoga studios in my town. So I started teaching classes in a spare room at a massage therapist’s office. I connected with local businesses to see if they wanted to offer classes to their employees (which they did). I just kept looking for the places where yoga was not and sought to change that. Today I own a thriving studio and spend my day working with my passion. Get rooted in yourself and don’t be afraid to make a position for yourself in your community. You know there are people out there who need what only you can offer.


@Juliet thanks for the advise! And way to go with your dreams!


@Jennifer, I love this: “I just kept looking for the places where yoga was not.” Others would put a word other than “yoga,” to suit. Thank you for that lovely phrasing.


Justine, this is so great. It’s the kind of thinking and writing that I want to hold and turn over and over and look at it this way and that, because it has depth and resonance. I’ve thought there was something self-absorbed and indulgent about “healing yourself by teaching others,” something exploitative. Maybe not, maybe it is the way, perhaps the only way? I’m glad to think that. Also, I wonder if it’s even necessary to consider whether you’d be “making the world a better place.” That trips me up, badly, unless I get to be the ultimate judge of whether what I’m doing is in fact making the world a better place. Anyway, thank you. You make my world a better place.


Hi Justine,

This reminds me of a quote I recently tripped over, “What gives light must endure burning.”

And I think you are right, we do teach what we need to learn, and there is a two-way-street element to service. But/And we must be conscious and honest about our motives and what we get from our service. It is a myth that one must be completely selfless in doing good work. There is no need to pretend to be selfless about giving/teaching/serving; in fact, pretending to be completely selfless leads to dishonesty and hidden agendas, even if unconscious. Better to give ourselves permission to accept what we need from our work, as long as we are not exploiting others.


My sister was abused in every manner possible – repeatedly. It distorted her personality, and her destiny.

One day, in the kitchen of Grossman’s tavern, working for less than minimum wage, she walked out and never looked back.

She followed her passion and trusted her instincts. She started covertly selling bulbs out of her backyard, like a dope dealer. Within 3 years she was running the most successful boutique perennial store in Toronto.

When she died at 45, every major newpaper in Canada ran big articles. Several luminaries such as Michele Landsberg were at her funeral.

And in May of this year, I completed the first draft of a book about her.

Passion is the stuff of life; the blood in our veins; the fire in our bellies. Thank you for giving passion a voice.


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