Sufi mystic and poet Rumi said, “Respond to every call that excites your spirit.”
I met a guy in line at Starbucks who found a three cent nickel while digging in his garden, dated 1859. He brought the worn coin out of his pocket to show me, and proceeded to tell me the fascinating history around this era, so eloquently. Then he picked up his latte and left.
That was what excited his spirit.
I heard a story on NPR about a scientist who has been studying how oysters and mussels make the glue that helps them stick to rocks. He has been studying this for 13 years! He said he’d love to invent that billion dollar recipe for surgical glue, but it isn’t the end result he’s interested in—he loves the process. He came up with the idea while scuba diving. When he was being batted around by the waves on a stormy day, he noticed the mussels and barnacles were staying put. They were sticking firmly to the rocks that his face was bashing up against. And then he knew—that’s what he wanted to study.
That’s what excited his spirit.
I love running into these moments of the excited spirit. I love to see what makes your face light up when you talk about something, what carries you away, what you geek out on. I love the way the tone of your voice changes, the way you start talking faster or, sometimes, slower. Your eyes get a little wider, cheeks ever-so-slightly flushed, a little short of breath.
You could say that is what excites my spirit. I have a passion for passionate people.
For many years, it was the rock I kept bashing my head against. Then it hit me in an instant –this is what I need to be exploring, passion itself. Over the next year I will be delving into that excited spirit, and sharing what I learn at The Passion Project, an exploration of passionate people and the work they love.
I recently spent the day with my friend Mark behind the scenes at the museum where he works. (Read the full story in the first installment of The Passion Profiles here.)
One of my favorite parts of the day was lunch. The group of staff and volunteers gathered around the office’s kitchen table, a ritual that occurs every day. Munching on take-out Mexican, last night’s leftovers, and homemade sandwiches, they had engaging discussions.
I sat quietly eating my burrito, just listening, struck by what I was hearing. The topics jumped from trips to hot springs, to debating the differences between amoeba and bacteria, to the benefits of a run-off voting system. They ran off to print out articles when they couldn’t remember something, or wanted to find out more information. It was stimulating talk that sometimes had nothing to do with their work. It was wonderful. I learned they didn’t just have one passion, but many.
Plus, they ate their lunch. They took the full hour to savor their meal, sip their sodas or tea, and enjoy conversation before getting back to work.
The only similarity between that lunch and the ones I ate at my old job was the saran-wrapped tray of cookies in the center of the table. I remember the rushed lunches we wolfed down, usually solitary at our desk or in the car. If we did happen to converge, what was the only thing we talked about? Work. This chatter would not at all be interesting to a fly on the wall. Usually and quickly it would digress to complaining, venting, bitching. These short bursts of quasi-conversation were often impassioned in tone, but not passionate. They would leave me feeling a bit of relief, a bit lighter. I’d unburdened my burden. But they also left me heavier at the same time. I’d just taken on someone else’s burden, someone else’s stresses became my own. I then ate my third cookie and went back to work.
Writer Elizabeth Gilbert says, “The only boring people I know are bored people.”
I believe this. At my old job, I bore a hole in my watch from looking at the time so often, willing the day to end. When I met someone who asked about my job, as everyone always does, I’d tell them, but dread any follow up questions. When I ran into old classmates from grad school, the talk would inevitably turn towards what we had in common, our jobs. At this turn in the conversation I noticed I began to get itchy, had a strong urge to run out of the room, literally run. This boredom with my job was becoming a visceral experience.
I didn’t want this to be about me. I resisted telling my story. But sometimes what you resist is the thing you must go towards.
I realized it is important to understand the motives behind The Passion Project, what’s driving it. So here it is:
I must confess that I had a job many people love, many people even feel passionate about. I was a speech language pathologist, working with young children. When I think back on my lunchtime conversations with co-workers, if I am truly being honest with myself, their impassioned tone was fueled by passion. Mine was not.
I felt no passion for the job I’d been working at for the last six years, the career I’d spent three years in school for (and am still thousands of dollars in debt because of). I have a certain amount of guilt over this because I was working in a helping profession, doing (I hoped at least) good things for young children and their families. Then why couldn’t I be happy in it?
Because it wasn’t my passion.
When I made the decision ten years ago to get my masters in speech therapy, I made the unconscious decision to take the safe path. I often describe grad school as creativity-squashing. It took many years for it (and me) to bounce back.
I remember in the weeks before I moved across the country to Eugene, Oregon, where I would attend grad school, I read an article from the local paper there. It was about the hazelnut farms in the area succumbing to blight. An industry was collapsing, and a species almost went extinct because of a little fungus. For some reason I couldn’t stop thinking about this story.
I still think about it. The blight of the filberts was similar to the thing I had let gnaw at my soul around that same time.
I am happy to report, after a quick Google search that the filberts have rebounded. Blight-resistant trees were developed, the hazelnut industry is now thriving once again.
A tree takes a long time to grow.
What grad school had squelched hadn’t died. It had merely gone underground for a bit. When it resurfaced, it did so in small ways –a poem that needed to be penned in the car, or a story I’d draft in my journal. Then I started a blog, and that was the beginning of the end of my safe life. Giving myself a weekly writing commitment stirred all those things that had been suppressed. I couldn’t kill it. That was three years ago.
Roots deepened, branches budded. Last year I finally said enough. My husband and I quit the jobs we hated (yes, he too had fallen into that trap). We packed up or sold all of our possessions and spent the next five months on a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail –one of our shared passions. We then moved to the west coast to find jobs. I was looking for a job that didn’t make me itchy, or want to run away when I talked about it.
A few months ago my husband found his dream job (maybe we’ll hear more about that later). I am pursuing my passion, albeit, on a smaller scale thus far. We are more in love than we’ve ever been. We have great conversations about our interests. I get to listen to that sound of an excited soul in his voice. He gets to hear it in mine.
And that’s the thing –when you become interested again, you become interesting. You also become more loving and, therefore, more lovable.
You are literally sexier when you are pursuing your passion.
Now I know not everyone can just quit their jobs. But it is all about that first step.
What is the one little thing you can do today that makes your soul fly up in the air?
What will make you stop a stranger in a Starbucks line to talk about it?
Really, I want to know! Drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Or do you wish you worked at your dream job? Are you still looking for your passion? Then come along for the ride.
Portions of this article were originally published on elephantjournal.