Lots of people, including some of the smartest, get caught in a dangerous trap while pursuing their dreams and goals. It can result in years of wasted time and leave you depressed, burnt out, and devastated. This trap doesn’t have a specific name but it has a simple definition. It’s liking the idea of doing something as opposed to liking doing something.

Cubicles Be careful what you wish for. Credit: Wall Street Journal

I didn’t really put much thought into this dichotomy until my early 20s. Even then it was very difficult for me to figure out if I truly enjoyed being involved in a project as opposed to being tricked by a pretty facade into thinking that I fancied it. Neither my parents nor my mentors ever brought up this problem during our conversations about passions and career paths. I wasted a lot of time doing things because I liked the idea of doing them as opposed to actually liking those things. However, things have been getting more clear in the past few years and I am fairly certain that I’m on the right track in terms of pursuing things that truly excite me.

Loving what you are doing is the proverbial Holy Grail of a successful life and feeling fulfilled all the time. There is no lack of literature about how to find those magical passions that give you the life you’ve always wanted. However, very few books and articles address the gap between liking the idea of doing something and liking doing something. The tricky part about it is that the former generally triggers all the “right” feelings at the outset. You feel excited, passionate, and determined. You wake up every morning like you are on a mission. You feel like a beast!

But the longer you let the activity that you thought you liked doing linger on, the more unmotivated, bored, and even depressed you become. At the end, you feel confused about why you stopped liking (and in some cases started to hate) this thing that gave you the chills in the past. You also become a lot more accustomed to the daily routine and it’s harder to judge whether it’s just the rut that’s making it seem dull or whether you never really liked it in the first place.

Many people recommend trying to recall childhood interests to discover passions. I agree that in certain cases it could be helpful but in general it’s a bad idea. As a child, you don’t really have a good grasp on what constitutes a certain activity. Lots of kids want to be doctors, cops, lawyers, and scientists for all the wrong reasons. They just don’t know what those professions really entail unless they have a role model that can patiently share and explain the details about their day-to-day activities at work.

I wanted to be a doctor when I was seven. I even read some medicine and biology-related books and thought that being a doctor was one of the coolest things. Little did I know that being a doctor involves a ton of memorization, lots of encounters with the patients, and dealing with things that most people consider unappealing. I certainly didn’t have any real interest in those things but my biology books didn’t reveal any of them. I just liked the facade and some theory behind medicine. Arguably, at that age my interest in medicine wasn’t a waste of time because I learned a lot and it benefited me in other ways. However, if I tried to follow the advice of recalling my childhood “passions” to try to follow one of them, picking medicine would be a huge mistake.

The task of finding what you like doesn’t get any easier when you get older. There are lots of professions and lifestyles that you get exposed to while growing up and after joining the workforce. For many people they only add to the confusion. Trying to distill inclinations into a list of actionable passions requires a lot of introspection but it’s certainly possible. I will be addressing this topic in the future with a follow-up essay. Stay tuned!