S2E4 - What are you interested in?

Many people I meet are on the search. Searching for opportunities, for ideas, for their passion. What do I want to do with my life? Which opportunities to seize? What path do I want to take? Steve Jobs addresses this search in his famous speech to recent Stanford graduates:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.“ - Steve Jobs1 (2005)⁠

German version of this article / deutschsprachige Fassung.

Finding what I love, what I have a passion for, makes perfect sense, but many have difficulty implementing this advice. Why? Simply because most people don't know what they're passionate about, what they love so much that they're willing to spend their life doing it. If you feel the same way, don't panic. This is completely normal, because passion is the result of a journey, not its starting point. So if you look for your passion at the start of the journey and don't find it, don't be surprised.

„… 80% of people of all ages don’t really know what they are passionate about (…) We believe that people actually need to take time to develop a passion. And the research shows that, for most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery - not before. To put it more succinctly: passion is the result (…) not the cause.“  - Burnett & Evans2 (2016)⁠

But how do I find the subject for which I can develop a passion? The starting point of the journey for me is an openness to many possible experiences and encounters. Be curious. Dare to look outside the box. Talk to as many different people as possible. Be empathetic. Travel. Read. Do. And then pay attention to what topics interest you, what activities make time fly by, what you tell friends about, what you enjoy. These are the topics you want to look at more closely. From the intensive engagement with these interests, a passion for a topic can develop.

Motivation begins with interest. Neuroscientists now regard interest as a fundamental human emotion3 and, perhaps, a child’s first emotion – an emotion that guides our engagement in the world. Interest leads to exploration and to the development of projects. Projects then become ambitions and goals.“ - Barish4 (2014)⁠

I prefer the term interest5 to the term of passion Passion usually suggests that there is one destiny in life, the one right path. But I believe that there can be many different paths for each person to pursue passionately. And just as there are many possible paths in life, there are many possible interests. Interests also change over time.

Being curious about the world, discovering new topics and then pursuing those that are of interest is a possible starting point for ideas that match you. However, you can often only answer whether something that sounds exciting is actually exciting if you become active in this area. You find it exciting to become a Youtube-Influencer? Then shoot a few videos and upload them (spoiler: It may sound easier and funnier to be a YouTube influencer than it actually is). Want to be an author and write a book? Then start by putting the first thoughts on paper. Write a few pages, an article, a first paragraph. Often you can't get a feel for it until you actually do it (see my article on decision making with the Think-Act-Feel decision frame). And talk to people who already live in your envisioned future. For example, approach YouTube influencers or authors and talk to them. How does their day-to-day life look like? What keeps them busy? What would they do differently if they were starting over today?

A note at this point: Interest and, based on that, a passion for your idea are important and enable you to pursue it in the long term. However, if your idea is also supposed to secure you financially, you also have to consider other criteria, such as whether someone is willing to pay for the value you create. More on this in the following episodes.

„Many people operate under the dysfunctional belief that they just need to find out what they are passionate about. Once they know their passion, everything else will somehow magically fall into place“ - Burnett & Evans6 (2016)⁠

But interest is a very good starting point to explore possibilities and realize ideas, because interest has a positive effect on your motivation, your energy, your perseverance and consequently on your success. Rounds & Su report the following effects of interest in their meta-study:

„These findings support our assertion regarding the unique value of interests, as contextualized information (interest congruence) enhanced prediction of individuals’ behaviors and performance across a variety of outcomes, including students’ grades (r = .30) and persistence in school (r = .34), as well as employees’ task performance (r = .30), organizational citizenship behaviors (r = .37), and persistence in jobs (r = .36). 2011) (…) Compared with other important effect sizes in the field of psychology (i.e., r = .32 between psychotherapy and subsequent well-being; Meyer et al., 2001), the relationship between interests and performance is substantial and far from negligible.“ - Rounds & Su7 (2014)⁠

The following figure illustrates the positive impact of interest on your chances of success.

The positive impact of interest on your chances of success (Own illustration by Prof. Thomas Metzler inspired by Rounds & Su; UpgradeSpace.io)

A strong interest in a topic also gives you a certain competitive advantage over your competitors, because it's easy for you to invest time and energy in a topic that interests you. You don't mind going the extra mile, dealing with the topic after work, discussing it with friends in your free time or writing an article about the role of interest for a handful of readers on the weekend ;) Or as Silvia (2008) appropriately puts it:

„Humans are curious creatures: They devote a lot of effort and brainpower to the things that interest them. How much money would it take to persuade an indifferent personto memorize a team’s baseball statistics, compile a four-volume encyclopedia of Danish furniture, learn to play the banjo, or spend a career studying an obscure academic topic?“ - Silvia8 (2008)

Which topics are of interest to you? Write a list of all the topics that interest you. In the following episodes we will refer back to it and work with it further.

1

Jobs, S. (2005). Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address. YouTube.

2

Burnett, W., & Evans, D. J. (2016). Designing your life: How to build a well-lived, joyful life (First edition). Alfred A. Knopf.

3

Also interesting at this point: Is interest even an emotion? Here is an excerpt from a paper by Silvia (2008): „Many theories don’t include interest in their lists of major emotions (…) [but] A good case can be made for viewing interest as an emotion. Modern theories of emotion propose that emotions are defined by a cluster of components. Typical emotional components are physiological changes, facial and vocal expressions, patterns of cognitive appraisal, a subjective feeling, and an adaptive role across the lifespan (Lazarus, 1991). Interest appears to have these components: It has a stable pattern of cognitive appraisals (Silvia, 2005b), a subjective quality (Izard, 1977), and adaptive functions (Sansone & Smith, 2000).“

5

„[Interest] (...) is characterized by increased attention, concentration and affect. The term interest also refers to a relatively enduring predisposition to re-engage with particular content such as objects, events and ideas (…) The brain’s emotional systems generate affective states. Being interested in an activity or a specific content is associated with distinct brain-generated, internally experienced feelings that tend to be positive. These associations should lead to optimal learning and performance.“ - Hidi (2006)

6

Burnett, W., & Evans, D. J. (2016). Designing your life: How to build a well-lived, joyful life (First edition). Alfred A. Knopf.

7

Rounds, J., & Su, R. (2014). The Nature and Power of Interests. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

8

Silvia, P. J. (2008). Interest—The Curious Emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science.