Practical suggestions for identifying side projects with high passion potential.


We all want more passion in our lives. And while we usually associate the term passion with romantic relationships and careers, many of us crave passion on a slightly smaller scale—we want to feel passionate about one or more of our interests outside of relationships and work. In other words, what we’re looking for is a side project we can be passionate about.

And we all know people who seem to have found a passion for one of their “extracurricular” side projects:

We see folks like this and admire their passion and dedication to these side projects.

The trouble is, passionate side projects can seem mysteriously and frustratingly unattainable if we don’t already have one. How does someone get so passionate about CrossFit that they’re willing to wake up at the crack of dawn every morning and go flip tractor tires for an hour?

I don’t have all the answers, by any means. But it strikes me that if we want to increase our odds of finding an activity or side project we can be truly passionate about, we ought to try and get a little more clarity on this powerful but fuzzy term, passion.

What is Passion, exactly?

The Canadian psychologist and researcher Robert Vallerand has made it his life’s work to study the psychology of passion.

He laid out his original theory of passion in the paper Les Passions de l’Ame: On Obsessive and Harmonious Passion and wrote a more recent review of his theory and the current research around passion.

Of course, just because the guy’s got a PhD and has done a bunch of research doesn’t mean he’s the final word on what passion really is. But I think his work does offer a useful starting point for getting some clarity about this important but confusing concept of passion.

To very briefly sum up Dr. Vallerand’s work on passion, he defines passion as a “strong inclination toward an activity” that has the following 3 characteristics:

  1. It’s something that people enjoy
  2. It’s something that people find important
  3. It’s something that people invest significant time and energy into on a regular basis.

He also suggests that:

In the rest of this article, I’ll walk through how we can use Vallerand’s definition and theory of passion as a starting point and framework for identifying side projects with high passion potential.

STEP 1: Identify an activity with high positive reinforcement potential and a high satiety threshold.

In Vallerand’s research on passion he found—unsurprisingly—that the first important criteria for what type of activity counts as a passion is that it’s one we enjoy. Seems obvious, right?

I think we can elaborate a little more helpfully on this, though, by thinking of enjoyment in terms of positive reinforcement. Because things we enjoy tend to be things we get positively reinforced for doing (we enjoy eating ice-cream because the that frozen yet smooth combination of sugar and fat makes our brain’s pleasure center light up like the 4th of July), it might be useful to look for activities that are not simply enjoyable, but that have a high positive reinforcement potential.

For example, I enjoy ice-cream. It’s delicious. But eating ice-cream doesn’t actually have a very high positive reinforcement potential because the first bite, while delicious, is as good as it’s gonna get. And by the time I hit the bottom of the Ben & Jerry’s pint, I’m shoveling down the last spoon full simply because I don’t want to be that guy who leaves the pint of ice-cream in the freezer with 2 spoonfuls left.

From the perspective of positive reinforcement, eating ice-cream has a pretty low ceiling in terms of how much enjoyment we can get from it. In more technical terms, it has a low satiety threshold, meaning we quickly become satiated and stop getting much enjoyment out of it.

On the other hand, making ice-cream might have higher positive reinforcement potential and satiety threshold.

In other words, making ice-cream has a much higher positive reinforcement potential than simply eating ice-cream because it contains many possible sources of and different types of positive reinforcement. It also tends to generate new ideas and activities the more you get into it, which will continue to generate more and more positive reinforcement. And lastly, it has a high satiety threshold, meaning we don’t easily run out of enjoyment from making ice-cream (like we do from eating it).

STEP 2: Identify an activity that aligns with and elaborates on your values.

If we’re looking for an activity with high passion potential, we obviously don’t want to pick something that directly conflicts with our values—if we’re passionate about animal rights, big game hunting’s probably not a great choice.

But I think the more subtle idea here is that, in addition to avoiding value-conflicting activities (which are usually pretty obvious), we also want to look for activities which both support our values but also, ideally, help us clarify or elaborate on them.

For example, suppose environmentalism and the appreciation of nature and the outdoors is very close to your heart, and you enjoy hiking and volunteering for local state parks from time to time.

Instead of hiking has a side project, what if you started an email newsletter and small website where you shared interesting local hikes and volunteer conservation activities with other folks?

Not only would you be engaging in an activity that supports and doesn’t conflict with your values, but the process of researching and sharing experiences and ideas related to your values might help you learn more about them, clarify and elaborate on them, discover other folk’s approach to them, etc.

Along the lines of ice-cream making vs ice-cream, we want to choose an activity that has the potential to continue to grow into something larger and more interesting than one simple activity, both in terms of our values (understanding what’s important to us) and how we feel (pleasure, enjoyment, satisfaction, etc.)

But what if I don’t have something I really care about, like environmentalism…?

If you’re finding it hard to come up with a value that you really care about, try this: Ask yourself, What do I get really fired up about? What topics or ideas tend to get me really frustrated or even angry? If you can’t come up with something yourself, ask a friend or family member who knows you well about those two questions.

STEP 3: Identify an activity that is logistically feasible.

This step is pretty straightforward. When considering activities that may have a high passion potential, make sure that you have the required time, energy, and finances to pursue it given your current situation or stage of life.

If you’re a poor graduate student with lots of debt, little income, and a dissertation to finish up in the next year, you probably want to choose something that’s more modest or minimal in terms of time commitment, energy, and money.

To be clear, just because you have some major financial and time constraints doesn’t mean shouldn’t have a side project at all; in fact, you arguably need one more than most. The trick is to find one that’s logistically feasible given your current situation.

Suppose you’re this hypothetical graduate student and you’ve always wanted to fly planes. Taking up aviation lessons may be a little unrealistic given your lack of funds and the time/energy constraints of grad school.

But you could volunteer at the local aeronautics museum twice a month and give tours; or start a model airplane building meet-up in your city; or create a shared Pinterest board that collects and posts vintage photos of World War II fighter planes…

STEP 4: Identify an activity that can be broken down into consistent routines.

My advice in steps 1-3 were based on Vallerand’s 3 characteristics of a passionate activity: enjoyable, important, and significant in terms of time and energy.

Step 4 is about the idea that passion tends to be tied to our identity. Obviously, Step 2 is an important part of this—choosing an activity that aligns with and helps us elaborate on our values.

And while most would agree that our identity has a lot to do with our values and what’s important to us, I think an overlooked part of identity is routines. What we do on a regular basis plays an under-apprecaited but important role in how we think about ourselves.

Consider two people:

Which person is more accurately described as a runner?

Annette, of course. While values (what’s important to us) are an important component of identity, consistent behavior or routines is equally if not more important.

The implication for picking a side project with high passion potential is to look for an activity that can relatively easily be turned into a routine, something you just do on a consistent basis. Consequently it will be more likely to become a part of your identity, which is key for an activity to hit passion levels.

Suppose you’re interested in and care a lot about travel and learning about new places, people, and cultures. Travel is tough for most of us to just do on a even semi-regular basis. For a lot of reasons, most of us can’t jump on a jet and see a new state or country every couple weeks.

Then again, that’s only true if we confine the idea of travel to interstate or international travel. What if we thought about travel as a local, even hyper-local, activity?

What if every week, you choose a specific neighborhood in your city and went for a walk their followed by dinner in a restaurant you’ve never been do. Then, when you get home, you write a short blog post about your “Local Travel Adventures.”

Here’s another one: Create an travel guide for your hometown. Brainstorm all the things there are to do in town—restaurants, local traditions and attractions, events, hiking trails, best place to get coffee, best thing to do by time of year, etc. Each day, commit to writing a paragraph about a specific topic or place, or doing research by visiting the place or looking up something about its history online. Eventually, self publish your work as a book or create a website.

The point is, when considering activities for a side project with high passion potential, try to think creatively about them in terms of routines, small behaviors you can do on a regular basis. This will mean there’s a higher likelihood of the activity becoming a part of your identity, and therefore something you feel passionately about.

STEP 5: Identify an activity that is primarily intrinsically motivating and secondarily instrumental.

An intrinsically motivating activity is one that we enjoy for its own sake.

An instrumental activity (or extrinsically motivating activity) is one we do because it gets us something else:

When it comes to choosing activities with high passion potential, look for an activity that’s primarily intrinsically motivating—something you enjoy for its own sake—and only secondarily instrumental—results in other things you want.

A good test for this is to imagine yourself several months into a side project that you think really has some strong passion potential, and then all of a sudden all of the instrumental benefits disappear and you’re only left with the activity itself and whatever satisfaction you got from it. Would you keep doing it?

Here’s an example: Avery loves writing sci-fi stories. Several years ago, one of her self-published books got noticed by a small publishing house, and for the last several years she’s been publishing books regularly and making a pretty decent second income from them. Then, without much notice, the small publishing company goes out of business and all her book sales dry up. Avery’s sad to see the income go, but she’s so in love with writing sci-fi stories that there’s no way she’d let that stop her from writing.

Of course, all this isn’t to say that a side project that’s instrumental in addition to being primarily intrinsically motivating is bad. Quite the opposite—I think it’s actually better to have a side project that’s both intrinsically motivating and instrumental. In fact, there are plenty of passionate and successful side projects that are slightly more instrumental than intrinsically motivating.

But, in the long run, activities that are primarily intrinsically motivating tend to last the longest and be the most rewarding.

Summary

The key to establishing a genuine and lasting side project seems to be passion, but unfortunately it can be hard to find a set of activities we’re truly passionate about, in part because most of us aren’t very clear on what exactly passion is.

But the idea of passion has been pretty well studied in the psychology research literature. And that work suggest that passion is a strong inclination toward an activity that is enjoyable, important, and something we can invest significant time and energy into. Additionally, passionate activities tend to become a part of our identity (via consistent routines) and can be split into those that we do largely for their own sake and those that we do primarily because they lead to some other outcomes.

Given this psychological framework, I’ve introduced 5 suggestions for finding a side project you can really become passionate about:

  1. Look for activities that have high positive reinforcement potential and a high satiety threshold.
  2. Look for activities that not only align with your values, but also encourage your to clarify, elaborate on, and expand your values.
  3. Look for activities that are logistically feasible given your current life situation.
  4. Look for activities that can be broken down into routines that you’re capable of engaging in on a regular basis.
  5. Look for activities that are primarily intrinsically motivating and secondarily instrumental.

Keep in mind that it’s unlikely that any one or two of these criteria is sufficient on its on to produce a side project you can be passionate about. The trick is to look for and test out activities that sit at the intersection of all or most of them.

It’s no guarantee, but it’s a start.

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