By Rayne Lacko, coauthor of Dream Up Now™: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery
In an uncertain world, being uncertain of yourself can create anxiety. Feeling anxious can mean different things to different teens. It can take the form of vulnerability or shame, it may make a teen feel powerless or too sensitive, or it may manifest as worry about the future.
From the time children are very small, curious and caring adults ask: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” And we often ask one another a variation of this question: “What do you do?” It seems harmless. However, during the teen years, this question is loaded, and can cause a lot of anxiety. Its answer represents a decision that will forge a young person’s post-secondary school experience, and for many teens, forms an impression of the adult life they’ll have long after high school is a distant memory.
We do well to remember that, for teens, discovering their passion—and answering the question of what they want to do as adults—can feel like a high-stakes test. (In reality, how many of us can truly say we’re following our passion and doing what we love?) But you can remind teens that discovering what they love doesn’t have to be stress-filled; it can be a lot of fun.
Anxiety Lurks in Bright Places
Often the more potential a thing holds for a teen, the more anxiety they’ll have about it. Big tests and exams? Check. Important athletic competitions? You got it. Dating? Absolutely. So it makes sense that uncovering their passion can cause a certain amount of stress.
There’s a risk involved whenever we expose a desire for accomplishment. This is especially true for teens, who developmentally are in a phase of self-discovery. That guitar propped in the corner represents last year’s love of alt rock. The too-small soccer cleats and cosplay costume half-buried in the back of the closet demonstrate how feelings can change. If a teen reveals a passion to the world and then changes their mind, they may feel anxiety if others expect them to follow through on a skill or talent that no longer interests them. Even bright possibilities—like doing well on a test or making the team—can cause anxiety.
You can use this fun free-drawing activity to invite teens to mine the secret triggers of anxiety and focus in on what they want. What interests or desires will they discover?
What Is Passion and How Can Teens Find It?
Some people know from an early age exactly what they want to do with their lives. They don’t have to question what they “should” be doing; their passion found them first. For other people, finding their passion isn’t quite so easy.
A passion can be anything a teen discovers, explores, and enjoys so much that they choose to dedicate time and attention to it. In doing so, the teen’s enthusiasm for the activity or topic continues to grow. As an adult, you might notice that you can’t get the teen’s attention—because the teen is totally absorbed in what they’re doing and, once they stop, is eager for the next time they’ll do it (Proe 2020).
What If a Teen’s Passion Isn’t Exactly a College Major?
If a teen is not strong academically, isn’t an artist, or isn’t into sports or other extracurricular activities, they might wonder what exactly is their passion. As a caring adult, keep in mind that passion frequently lies in being a part of something bigger than oneself (Berry 2020), and remind teens of this.
One of the most effective things a teen can do to turn a hobby like gaming, comic book collecting, or gameshow watching into a career is to go where people are making a living at it. By telling people about their passions and interests, they can connect with relevant groups and causes. They might volunteer at a conference or seek an internship or entry-level position at a studio, design house, or distributor. The day-to-day work they do isn’t what matters—their deep interest and enthusiasm is. And leaders of those industries can point an interested and enthusiastic teen down an appropriate learning path. Doing what they are good at makes teens six times as likely to be engaged, and more than three times as likely to be happy with their life (Rath and Harter 2014).
What If a Teen Has Several Interests?
Rarely is passion found by thinking about it, following trends, or doing what peers or parents want. Teens must take action and find their own way to what brings them joy and inspires their curiosity.
If a teen wants to determine which of several interests is worth cultivating into a passion, one powerful technique is to dedicate the very best of themselves each time they engage in the interest. This requires that they throw themselves into an activity or interest 100 percent, allowing themselves to engage and play as they did when they were little: for fun and without any concern for the outcome. This full-throttle commitment to give their all must be in pursuit of joy, of satisfying curiosity, and of feeling good. This approach will quickly weed out those interests that aren’t worth the energy and uncover a teen’s authentic strengths. By fully giving of the self, a teen can differentiate between an interest that is fun for an afternoon and a passion they wish to develop and explore again and again.
What If a Teen Doesn’t Have a Clue What They Want to Do?
One of the most common obstacles to living a passion-based life is figuring out what you’re passionate about in the first place. “We focus too much on our teens’ weaknesses, and not enough on uncovering talent or passion,” says Maitland (Berry 2020).
So if a teen is experiencing difficulty uncovering their passion, they might look to their personal space for important clues. They might consider the items and decorations in this space and make a list of “passion candidates”: things they like to do, hobbies, or objects they’ve chosen for their room may spark ideas. That guitar in the corner might be grounded in a love for music; a soccer player may discover that it’s not the sport they’re passionate about, but being part of a team; a display of Lego projects may reflect an affinity for design, architecture, science, or technology—or screenwriting, travel, or even product development. Encourage teens to explore what their hearts and bodies tell them when they think about these pursuits. What makes them feel alive, enthusiastic, and energetic? What makes them feel bored? (Chang 2000).
If teens still aren’t sure, they might consider how they can contribute to their community. As mentioned earlier, being part of something bigger than oneself is, statistically, a surefire way to improve overall happiness and confidence and bring a deeper sense of purpose. Feeling as if you are a part of something bigger is another way to spark passion.
A Quick Quiz to Uncover Teens’ Interests
The leadership tools that accompany the Dream Up Now journal include a mini-quiz (see pages 17–22 in the free download) that can help teens uncover their interests. These thoughtful questions shine a light on teens’ strengths and on those interests that light them up.
Though this quiz can be helpful for self-discovery and brainstorming, keep in mind that no amount of knowledge can light the fire of passion. Action is required! Passion is sparked by engagement—by giving oneself fully to an activity.
If teens are feeling stuck, encourage them to focus on the present moment. It’s okay not to know what they’ll be doing a few years from now. Rather than becoming stymied waiting for the perfect gig or the one thing they think they can stick with forever, taking a job (any legitimate paying position) can get them unstuck. Going to college (for anything they don’t abjectly hate) can get them unstuck. Volunteering (in any capacity for a worthy cause they believe in) can get them unstuck. Anxiety may follow; remember, it is attracted to the unfamiliarity of trying new things. However, in this way, anxiety is a positive indicator: it means the teen got out there and tried something that was scary or that they deeply valued. It means the teen prioritized the longing in their heart ahead of their worry about the outcome. Frankly, anxiety would likely follow if the teen didn’t try at all, which would further reinforce the stuck feeling. If the result of trying or not trying is anxiety either way, isn’t it better to risk earning what you truly desire?
Remind young people that it’s okay to fail. And it’s okay to if they don’t really enjoy what their friends—or you—enjoy. It’s also okay to be so-so at something, because they’re free to move on and try another thing, and another, and another.
Passion Is Sparked by Engagement
The more a teen steps up to try new things, the more they’ll learn about what matters to them, and the clearer they’ll be about the life they wish to create. Expect some fluctuation in teens’ interests; it’s not uncommon for a passion to dwindle during the teen years (due to academic and social pressure) then reignite at a later time. Put off scheduling more lessons, buying more equipment, or seeking a mentor unless a teen is fully engaged (Proe 2020).
Keeping in mind that they aren’t locked in forever, invite teens to try giving their 100 percent enthusiasm when working at their part-time job, doing homework, or practicing a musical instrument or sport—just as an experiment to see what happens. Daring to give generously of yourself is the first step to finding passion. Finding your passion can be a fun and playful exploration. Teens can release considerable anxiety by letting go of the pressure to choose one thing and stick with it forever. When a teen builds their life around something they love, this is an act of loving themselves. And nothing is more important than that relationship.
Berry, P. 2020. “Where’s the Passion? How to Help Your Teenager Find His Unique Talents and Skills.” ADDitude, October 9, 2020. additudemag.com/wheres-the-passion.
Chang, R. Y. 2000. The Passion Plan: A Step-by-Step Guide to Discovering, Developing, and Living Your Passion. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Proe, J. 2022. “How to Find Your Passion in Life (And Not Just for College Admissions.” Your Teen, accessed April 19, 2022. yourteenmag.com/teenager-school/teens-high-school/how-to-find-your-passion-in-life.
Rath, T., and J. Harter. 2014. Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. New York: Gallup Press.
Rayne Lacko is a Young Adult author and an advocate for the arts as a form of social and emotional well-being. A teen-writing mentor, she cohosts a youth creative workshop, an annual writing camp, and a teen arts showcase. Through her work, she inspires young people and their families to use creativity to stimulate positive change in their lives and communities. Rayne lives near Seattle, Washington, with her spouse and two boys (a pianist and a drummer), a noisy cat, and her canine best friend.
Rayne is the coauthor of Dream Up Now™: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery.
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