Finding your small pond in (more than) three steps

The Web and your local bookstore are full of advice on “finding your passion” as the key to happiness at work.

In fact, there’s so much passion-finding advice out there that it invites a backlash. And sure enough it seems an entire new genre of self-help journalism has emerged dedicated to debunking the find-your-passion craze. For example, articles in support of a something-other-than-passion approach to work are now all over the Web. In fact, I’m a long-time fan of the writer Cal Newport. And I adore his latest book “Deep Work,” which is a sort of anti-passion screed. (I’ll share my thoughts on that book and my appreciation for Cal’s approach in an upcoming post.)

But the Big Fish in a Small Pond (BFSP) approach we’re developing on this site is neither pro- nor anti-passion. Rather, BFSP sees “find your passion” as a small but useful tool that can help show whether or not you’re in the right pond.

Here’s what I mean:  the BFSP approach suggests that you spend as much of your life as possible in Small Ponds, i.e., places

  • where your authority is clear, even when you are not the sole authority or the leading authority
  • where you lead more often that you follow
  • where you are often responsible for others, but seldom responsible to others

And the Big Fish approach suggests that when trying to decide if any particular small pond is the right one for you, it’s wise to ask a series of questions related to mastery, value and love.

Passion is not a requirement in BFSP.  And I would argue that there are small ponds worth selecting — particularly those that involve charitable pursuits — where passion need not be a significant factor at all.

So although it’s safe to say that Big Fish don’t feel passionately about passion, it would be misleading to say that we feel totally dispassionate about it.

The search for your passion can be illuminating (and fun. ) It can help point the way toward Small Ponds that might otherwise escape your notice. And it can help you understand why some Small Ponds wouldn’t work for you.

Let me explain:

One of the best methods I’ve found for discovering your passion is from the author and self-described “book mentor” Mary DeMuth. In a guest post several years ago on the website of Michael Hyatt, DeMuth outlined “How to find your passion in three steps.

Step two in her approach is to list your three favorite movies. Give it a try. Do it quickly, without thinking about it too much. Then look at the list and try to find the common thread that runs through each film.

When I did the exercise my three favorite movies were:

  • Quest for Fire
  • Book of Eli
  • Fly Away Home

By most any measure, these are wildly different sorts of movies. Quest for Fire is about three friends in prehistoric Europe searching for a new source of fire; The Book of Eli is about a dystopian future in which one man travels the land with what may be the last copy of the Bible on Earth; and Fly Away Home is about a teenage girl who adopts a motherless flock of geese.

But if you know those three films you’ll agree there is a common thread running through them:  people finding meaning through the acceptance of difficult duty in service to others.

And that — searching for meaning, accepting duty, serving others  — is my passion in life.  I can’t pretend that it is the only theme in my life, or that it is constant. But I can say that it calls to me.  And I can say it reappears consistently throughout what  I see as the the highlights of my life — from my childhood obsession with generating money for the poor, through my brief stint in the military, to working with the disabled, to taking on ethical battles in journalism, to coaching young staff, to my role as father to my daughter.

I also know there were periods in my life in which I ignored the call of that theme. I took on jobs that were devoid of meaning, with people who ignored duty to anything other than revenue, in companies that served only their owners.  The money was usually great; the jobs were often glamorous. But I was miserable.

Thus for me it’s important to know … and to remember … what my passion is. Because it holds the final key to knowing whether or not a particular Small Pond is the right Small Pond for me.

— by Paul Conley