Passion: Why To Unfollow It, According To TEDx Speaker

By Melody Wilding

You were probably conditioned from a young age to believe that, in order to be successful, you must “find your passion.”

But it’s time to forget that old idea, says author Terri Trespicio, whose TEDx talk, Stop searching for your passion, has more than seven million views.

In her new book, Unfollow Your Passion: How to Create a Life that Matters to You, Trespicio takes a counterintuitive view on career and life, providing readers tools to define success on their own terms.

In this interview, she shares the personal experiences that inspired the book and how women can unsubscribe from society’s expectations to unlock a personal path to greater meaning and purpose.

Melody Wilding: What led you to write this book? Is there a certain story or event that led you to write it?

Terri Trespicio: I gave a TEDx talk in 2015 called “Stop Searching for Your Passion” which has more than 7.5 million views. It looks like I gave the talk and then wrote a book about it. But that wasn’t how it went exactly. I was thrilled the TEDx talk did so well and continues to, but never once did I say to myself, “I need to write a book about that.” I was like, OK, I said what I had to say, moving on.

I’ve always been a writer and wanted to explore a book-length project; I just had no idea what that was. So rather than sit down and write The Book, I just … wrote. And after a few years and tens of thousands of words later, I realized that what started as a take-down of a widely held belief with the TEDx talk was really me questioning ALL the ideas we’ve been handed about what makes for meaningful life and work, and offering an alternative and fresh take on it.

When my agent pitched what I thought was a book of essays to Atria Books, they said, “We think this would sell as a self-development title, and it has to clearly tie to that TEDx talk,” and I said, “Oh. Ok!” I made the switch and with this particular format and genre in mind, decided to take everything I knew and believed about not just passion, but about how the platitudes fail to serve us in any real way.

Wilding: Why do you think the message to “unfollow your passion” is important for women to hear right now?

Trespicio: Unfollowing your passion is critical for women because the passion myth plays on an age-old fairy tale that women have been fed for centuries: That there’s one true love out there and if you’re very good, that love will come save you from your life and yourself. Usually, it was presumed this would be in the form of a “he” who would sweep you off your feet and give your life meaning that you couldn’t have created on your own. We may laugh at the fairy tale prince idea now, but in fact, when we fall into this way of thinking, that there’s one true purpose or passion to give our lives meaning, how is that any different? We have simply swapped out a romantic dream for a professional ambition, the prince for passion, and our inner princess for the modern career woman. We believe that a singular passion or purpose must, like a glass slipper, fit perfectly in order to work—only to discover that it’s unyielding, rigid, and impossible to walk in.

Does that mean you shouldn’t love what you do or look for something you can love? Of course not. My point is that you don’t necessarily have or find the passion first. No one’s given a set of instructions or a map to true purpose. You will love lots of things and fall out of love with them, too, and discover something new and surprising in its place. We have to be open to it, and to give opportunities, and ourselves, a chance to take root and see what blooms.

Wilding: You say the first step to unfollowing our passion is to “unsubscribe” from old beliefs and other people’s agendas. Why is this the place to start, and what are some initial steps readers can take to let go?

Trespicio: Before you can reach for, explore, or try anything new, you have to let go of some things. In our modern parlance, it’s the decision to “unsubscribe”—from old beliefs and dumb ideas, from patriarchal notions and biases that have been handed down and forced down our throats for too long. We need to say, explicitly, please remove me from your list of agendas and expectations and rules that in fact do not apply to me, thank you! You have to literally look at what you’ve been adhering to, or using as your guidelines, your metric, and say, “Really? Why? Why is that the rule? Why do I have to do this or that? Guess what? I don’t.” You cannot own your own decisions or your own life until you free yourself from the tyranny of dopey ideas. You cannot please everyone. You can’t even please most people. And to try to live your life to please or appease others is a recipe for stress and unhappiness, because you will forever feel a tension running like a fault line between what you want and feel drawn to, and what others “think” you should do.

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As far as how to do this? I always go to the page. It’s the place where your thoughts take physical form, and where you can decipher what’s what from the amorphous stew and cacophony of voices in your head. The key is not to think about what you’ll write, but to write first, think later. Write it all out, without overthinking, what you feel you “should” do—what are all the things you have swallowed about who you should be, what you should do? Brain-dump it all out. And then take a good look at it. It’s ridiculous and impossible, and you’ll see that for yourself. You know how we get hamstrung by impostor syndrome, thinking that we aren’t who we say we are, and someone will find out? This is the inverse of that. Look at all those ideas. THOSE are the impostors, masquerading as your own beliefs and ideas. But you didn’t put them there. Other people did. Pick out the real impostors – the things that create stress, anxiety, and that simply do not feel aligned with who you want to be or what you want to do.

The point of unsubscribing is to make room — for things you actually want, for ideas you can actually get down with. And to intentionally choose what you will believe and do. And you can’t do it while you’re hanging onto a thousand other wrongheaded, conflicting, and limiting ideas.

Wilding: You talk about career experiences where you “made it up as you went.” What did those opportunities teach you about understanding your skills or finding your calling?

Trespicio: My career has taught me that no one knows anything and that we’re all making our best guess. That’s the big secret to adulthood. And I for one found that revelation to be a huge relief.

The people who swear there is one path and one way to do things and a guaranteed outcome? They’ve chosen to believe that because if they think otherwise, they might feel frightened or insecure. But the idea that anyone can know what could unfold, in any one life or career, is not only untrue, it’s unimaginative. It lacks vision.

Growing up, I assumed that everyone knew better, and someday I’d have all the answers. I figured at some point, someone ushers you into the adult room and gives you the skinny on everything. This doesn’t happen, and it should come as a relief. Because if there’s no one right way to do things, there’s no wrong way, either.

At one point, when I was a magazine editor, I looked up the ladder and thought, Not interested. And I figured I was going to either step off that rung or be asked to step off. I wasn’t going to do be doing this thing forever. And I was right—I got laid off. When that phone rang from HR, I felt a shot of adrenaline like you just don’t feel every day. I knew I could read that electric sensation as fear, or as excitement. And I decided it was excitement. Because something new was about to happen.

What I learned in the months and years after was that I didn’t have to start “over” anywhere. I simply took stock of all the skills I had acquired up to that point and said, I can use these to build and leverage new skills, new networks, and new opportunities. How? Who the hell knows. Start asking around. This is how I look at skill and talent — that everything you learned up to this point can be used and developed further, and that what you’re good at and interested in will always come in handy and inform your new experiences. And because no one on the planet has precisely your blend of skills, talent, and insights, you should be less worried about what you “don’t” have and more interested in who could benefit from what you have to offer. And by the way, I’m not special in this regard. Everyone has a wildly diverse talent set; they just tend to discount, disclaim, or disregard it, and that’s a damn shame. It’s how you see what you have that matters.

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Wilding: In an age when more people are job searching than ever before and most interaction is online, how can we stand out and differentiate ourselves?

Trespicio: I think the term “stand out” is what’s intimidating, this idea that we should be better or different from anyone else. Two ideas that pull at us in different directions is the call to be at once “authentic” and “different.” Fact is, we are all different by design. The challenge isn’t in being different; it’s in being able to point to all the things that being different allows you to do, make, or see.

My point is we shouldn’t have to try that hard, not only because it’s exhausting, but because then we find ourselves trying really hard to be better and authentic. I don’t believe I’m all that special or different from anyone else, and I don’t actually feel the need to make people think I am. Does that mean I am not able to bring something special to the table? Nope. What I, and all of us, must is learn to communicate the value of what we offer and can do—not that somehow we as people are ‘better’ than someone else.

There’s so much focus in our culture on the “me” part, on how “I” am different, and then we wonder why we go down the rabbit hole of compare and despair. I’d much rather focus on the work itself: What am I doing, making, creating, or helping others to do, make, or create. The work is what can fulfill and serve. When we try to take that on, as in I have to be special enough to please someone else, then we start to question everything.

My point is that rather than work really hard to tell everyone why we’re better or different, simply be those things—no one can dispute good work, whatever work that shape takes. Because while more people are job searching right now, there’s also a whole lot of places dying to find and retain great talent. Lots of job openings and the people on the hiring side are having one hell of a hard time. I don’t think I need to be better than anyone else to get a gig; I have to be the best person for them, and the way to help someone see that is to make them feel seen, to be someone whom they feel connected to. Every opportunity, job, gig, you name it, that I have landed, was because that person or group of people “felt” I was the right fit. That meant part of it was my effort and part of it was how they received it. I don’t think we want to “stand out” as much as we want our work to matter to others, and the way to do that is to spend less time on ourselves and how we appear, and more on seeing the people we want to be seen by. That makes all the difference in the world.

Wilding: Can you share a bit about the Gateless method and how we can use it to quiet the inner critic?

Trespicio: Gateless Writing is a methodology that draws on the interdisciplinary study of Buddhism and meditation, brain science, and creativity, to help people access their best work. It draws on the research and work of Suzanne Kingsbury, a Fulbright scholar, novelist, and one of the most sought-after developmental editors in the country. And it changed my life. By barring criticism and competition, and focusing on what works, we can shift the dynamic of teams and organizations in surprising ways.

A few years ago, Google set out to study, and determine, what made for the most effective teams; it was called Project Aristotle. They found that while meaning, impact, structure, and dependability were critical, the #1 contributing factor? Psychological safety. What mattered most was whether team members felt they could ask questions and share ideas without being penalized or criticized.

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This is precisely what the Gateless Method does: Creates a safe container and a strict set of rules for how we generate, share, and respond to one another’s ideas. I’ve seen it transform individual and group efforts, aid in consensus gathering, and establish trust. Leading these workshops is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my work.

I became a certified instructor of the method in 2017, and while I use it in my own programs and offerings for people of all backgrounds, I’ve had tremendous success taking it into the corporate environment—from small teams and organizations to established businesses in every industry from financial to health care. I’ve taken the method into the companies behind many household names and brands, and not because they wanted to become writers, but because the method can transform how a group relates and works.

Most of the time we’re so busy focusing on flaws and fixing things that we miss the genius of what we’re doing. Gateless shifts the balance so that we can change the group dynamic, shift the way think about and use feedback, and push past the critic so that we can get real work done.

Wilding: Anything else you want readers to know?

Trespicio: One thing that comes up a lot in my work is the idea of being “stuck.” And it is an idea we have about where we are. I could be talking to a writer, an HR manager, an entrepreneur. Doesn’t matter what the work is. There are points when we believe we are, in fact, stuck, and cannot move forward. I’m not denying your reality here, because if you believe you are stuck, then you are. But what I’ve found is that when people say they’re stuck, it’s because they’re suspended between two or more options, and one of them is what they want to do, and another is what someone else wants or expects, or what they “think” is the better thing.

If you’re walking down a road and you come to a fork, are you stuck? No. But in order to move forward, you must choose. I believe that we’re not so much stuck as we are hesitant to make a decision, because of the effect it may have. And that’s real, no doubt. But I have this sneaking suspicion that people would rather be stuck and claim stuckhood than make a decision that could cost them. And fact is, every decision does cost something. But every decision you make, in work and life, is also an investment in what you want and believe in.

So the next time you tell yourself you’re stuck, ask yourself what is the risk of moving forward? What is the opportunity of doing so? And would you rather stay stuck than move? For some, yes, they would. Are some people more privileged and have more options? Of course. We’re not all on an equal playing field. But I believe we have choices, whether or not we’re willing to make them. And ultimately, your freedom, your sovereignty, will depend less on how much you stand out or how good others think you are, and far more on whether you trust yourself to make a decision that’s right for you.


Photo Source: Terri Trespicio

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