This is by far the most common question that we’re asked, and it’s not an easy one to answer. Humans are universally bad at introspection and reflection. At best, we can see the passions in others, but when it comes to figuring out what we ourselves are really passionate about, we struggle. This is particularly true for high schoolers. In the High School years, students are forming their identities, and their identities are largely composed of or at least formed by one’s interests and passions, so this is a critical topic for kids. Surprisingly very little deliberate reflection and structured thought goes into understanding one’s interests and passions at this age, or ever! Have you ever sat down to rigorously map out and analyze your interests? If you ask a High School kid (or even adult) to sit down and write down a list of their interests, most struggle to list more than ten. They don’t know what they’re passionate about. Building an acute awareness for your interests is critical to pursuing the things in school and life that you love. It’s a big part of success and happiness in life, and, closest to our hearts at The Spike Lab, it is an essential ingredient to making sure you stand out in the college admissions process. Therefore, we’re going to give you a quick “how to” framework for how to discover your passions.
The words interest and passion are thrown around a lot colloquially without much thought so let us first clarify the difference between the two. A passion is a combination of one or more interests that cumulatively exceed what we, perhaps over-dramatically, call the “passion threshold,” which I’ll explain in a moment. Like Mozart’s deep passion for the Piano from a very young age, this means you could have one really strong interest that, by itself, exceeds the threshold. Or you could combine two or three less strong interests that, added together, exceeds the threshold. For example take somebody who likes coding and likes teaching kids but isn’t passionate about either one on its own. If that person were to build a website that teaches kids, then that project might be something she is really passionate about.
The threshold varies from student to student and is hard to define, but there are some helpful ways to gauge for it. One measure is to think of it as the point at which other people who know you can fairly consistently say, “yes, you’re obviously passionate about this.” An internal metric we like is to ask yourself, “When I wake up in the morning, am I eagerly looking forward to doing it?” If the answer is yes, then you’re probably passionate about it.
Let’s get started!
So… what are you REALLY passionate about?
If you’re like most people, this is a really hard question to answer. You might be drawing a blank or you might have too many ideas that come to mind. You might be doubting yourself about whether colleges will care about your ideas or if your ideas even count as passions. This question is really hard to answer for most people because it isn’t the first step. It’s actually the last step in a longer process of reflection and self-discovery. Don’t jump ahead. Starting with the question “what are you passionate about?” is like if your teacher, at the start of the school year, began with the last chapters of the book before you even glanced at the first ones.
To help you out, we’ve outlined some of the main steps that will ultimately take you to a place where you can start answering the tough question, “what are you passionate about?”
Step 1: List Everything
Start off by listing ALL of your interests. It’s important to note here that you’re going for quantity and not quality, so don’t limit yourself to only interests that you think colleges will care about. Do you love to listen to jazz or really like exploring new foods? Write those down! If you find yourself wondering, “does this count?” you should always err on the side of quantity and write it down anyway.
This is a thinking process called divergent thinking, which is the process of generating many options from one starting point. The opposite of divergent thinking is convergent thinking, which is the process of reducing many options into just one option or a small number of options. I’m drawing attention to this distinction because you’ll have a much more productive brainstorm if you don’t try to mix these two processes. When you’re trying to come up with as many ideas as possible, don’t limit yourself by prematurely evaluating them. When you’re trying to narrow down your choices, don’t keep putting new ideas into the mix.
Step 2: Force Rank
Take your list and rank the items in order of most interesting to least interesting. It is important to note here that steps 1 and 2 should NOT be combined. Step 1 is a divergent thinking process and step 2 is a convergent thinking process, and the two should never be combined because, as already stated, it will limit the effectiveness of your brainstorm. Just like step 1 though, you should be ranking these based on your own personal interest and not what you think colleges will care about.
Step 3: Deconstruct
Deconstructing is the process of breaking something down into its component parts but in a way that retains its essence. Ask yourself, “What aspects of this interest do I enjoy the most?” For example, if you’re interested in violin, are you most interested in performing? What about composing your own music? What about remixing modern songs into classic violin formats? What about learning music theory? What about your friends from the orchestra? Deconstructing is a great way to better understand WHY you’re interested in your interests. We suggest you break your interests down into:
- Activities: What are your favorite tasks or activities that are involved with that interest?
- Topics: Are there more specific topics or subtopics that you’re particularly interested in? For example my colleague lists Cooking as an interest but one of his topics is Argentine BBQs. A student might list Music or Guitar as an interest but then the topic could be “Jazz” or “70s Rock”.
- Peoples: Who do you like interacting with in the context of that interest?
This is a divergent thinking process again since you’re trying to generate more ideas out of each of the interests you already wrote.
Step 4: Select
By now you should be looking at a hundred or so sub-interests. From all of these pick out the top ones based on 1) your degree of interest, and 2) the “spikey-ness” of the sub-interest. We define spikey-ness as specific (Argentine BBQ is specific, Cooking is not), uncommon (Asset Management is rare for a student to be interested in, Medicine is not) and current (something you are currently doing or are knowledgeable about, not something you have no experience with or don’t know much about).
This is a convergent thinking process because you’re narrowing down around a hundred ideas to only a few of your top ideas.
Step 5: Review & Finalize
Now at last, we can finally arrive at the question: “What are you passionate about?” After this long and systematic process, it’s important to remember that discovering your passion is still a very human activity. In the end, no one knows you better than you. This entire process is designed to help you increase your self-awareness by reflecting deeply on an aspect of your persona that is so important but is rarely analyzed. After going through all of these steps, you will hopefully have a fuller understanding of yourself and be able to make this subjective decision. Now, go through the interests you selected in Step 4 and ask yourself: Are there any interests that are spikey enough that they can stand alone? Can your less spikey interests be combined into something more?
It’s important to clarify that this process is just one of many possible ways to discover your passion. We like this one because it works really well with High Schoolers; it builds off of the interests that you’re already engaged in or at least already aware of. There may be other interests that you never knew you had because you haven’t yet experienced them. Discovering and developing these types of interests takes a whole different kind of strategy that I’ll cover in a future blog post.
Now that you’ve identified some of your passions, you have the building blocks for your Spike. The whole point of identifying your passions is to then do your best to arrange your life so you are pursuing these passions. If you are living a life that is not aligned with your passion, then you’re very likely to not only be unhappy but also less successful. In the context of High School, you’re less likely to get into your “Reach” colleges. Stay tuned for the next installments in this blog series that will discuss how to align your very busy High School schedule and life so you can pursue your passions.
If you haven’t done so already, check out our article about crafting your story, which takes a look at how to create alignment between the various parts of your college application. While discovering your passions, it’s very common to go back and revise your story, so it’s smart to keep both articles handy while you’re trying this.
This kind of work is essential not only for getting yourself into a great college, but it also leads to a more successful and fulfilled life. This process is a tool for helping you understand yourself better. As you go through high school, college and your young adult life, your passions will evolve and adapt, and you can always come back to this process to help you intentionally think about what you’re really passionate about.