Lesson #6: Your passions and talents
Our journey of change
The Hero’s Journey or “monomyth” – first proposed and detailed by 20th-century American mythology and folklore writer Joseph Campbell – is a template of sorts, distilling striking commonalities amongst ancient hero stories from around the world. It has offered a roadmap for many modern stories, including Stars Wars and The Matrix, proving as resonant for modern audiences as those from centuries and millennia past. While the monomyth certainly does not capture all the richness, diversity, and nuance of human mythology, it does seem to offer a compelling recipe both for story itself and for how transformation occurs within humans and humanity.
While the monomyth has many different elements, it can perhaps be boiled down to a few key steps. First, a person sets out on an adventure amidst some sort of crisis. Along their path, they face various trials and tribulations. Eventually, they achieve victory or resolution. And then, finally, they return home with both the world and themselves forever transformed. In the monomyth, internal and external transformation are a package deal, inextricably linked, two sides of the same coin.
Change agents might think of themselves as on a similar kind of hero’s journey, following many of the same essential steps. We are called to action due to some sort of crisis and the very act of remedying that crisis catalyzes profound and often unexpected transformation not only in the world but in ourselves.
On the hero’s journey, the hero-to-be begins at home in relative peace and normality. Soon enough, they receive a call – whether from a dream, a community member, a foreign messenger, or otherwise – to set out into the unknown. At first, they refuse the call. Out of a sense of duty, inadequacy, or fear, they resolve to stay home and continue on with their life as is.
But eventually, something changes their mind. They finally set out on their quest. And as soon as they do, they are astonished to come across a supernatural guide who bestows them with a powerful gift that will prove critical in their journey. Aladdin meets Genie. Cinderella meets her fairy godmother. Luke meets Yoda. As Joseph Campbell puts it in his 1949 book The Hero Of A Thousand Faces, “Having responded to their own call and continuing to follow courageously as the consequences unfold, the hero finds all the forces of the unconscious at their side. Mother Nature herself supports the mighty task.”
We might think of our genius as that supernatural aid. It is the forces of our unconscious that make us capable of a journey that no one else in the world is capable of. It is our superpower.
The three elements of genius
Genius is the capacity within all humans to bring something entirely new and unexpected into being. In this sense, it’s almost like magic or divine intervention. One moment our minds are blank. In the next, an entirely new idea or possibility has arisen, seemingly out of nowhere, often through no perceived doing or intention of our own.
Where this creative spark comes from or what circumstances provoke it remains largely a mystery. In fact, in many ways, trying to create definitions, frameworks, or diagrams to pin it down is a fool’s errand, an attempt to give shape to liquid or words to the ineffable. This is perhaps similar to the notion expressed in the first lines of the ancient Chinese text the Tao Te Ching:
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The genius that can be fully explained, expressed, or captured is not our true genius. Our deepest, fullest genius remains always just a bit beyond our mind’s conscious grasp. There will always be ways to know it more deeply. There will always be more left to discover.
And yet, there are still some ways we might at least begin to think about and frame our genius. In doing so, we can better orient ourselves to it so that we might more easily tap into and harness it.
One way in which we might conceptualize the unique genius within each of us is through three core elements or ingredients::
- Passions: The roles, abilities, and activities that generate energy for us and make us feel our most alive
- Talents: The roles, abilities, and activities in which we naturally excel
- Values: The core principles that we seek to embody in ourselves and instill in the world
By understanding each of these three elements within us and how they relate to and build off one another, we begin to put words and structure to our own unique creative capacities. We begin to see the change that is ours to create in ourselves and in the world.
Passions are the roles, abilities, and activities that generate energy for us and make us feel our most alive. They are whatever motivates and inspire us. They light our internal fires.
Everyone’s passions are different. For some, passions are something “creative” in the narrow sense: painting, playing music, writing poetry, etc. But this is certainly not always the case. Passions can also be activities outside our traditional ideas of creativity or art: competing in sports, playing board games, running marathons, building model trains, reading books, going to the beach, or working in the garden. Heck, even formatting Excel spreadsheets can be a passion.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to passion. Anything can be a passion. Our passions are simply whatever sparks our inner fires.
On our journey to change, passion is our fuel. With it fully engaged, we have nearly limitless energy to continue along our path. Without it, we find ourselves depleted and weary, moving ever more slowly or eventually giving up entirely. Oprah Winfrey put it well: “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”
If a change agent fails to integrate their passions into their change work, their journey will ultimately fail or at the very least lack the vitality and energy needed to be its most transformative. For any serious change agent, engaging their passions is not an indulgence or “nice-to-have,” but rather a key discipline vital to their success.
Today, it is common for motivational speakers and self-help books to urge us to follow our passions or our “bliss.”. For some, it’s as if passion seems to be the one single ingredient to personal fulfillment.
But while passion is absolutely vital, there is more to our genius and purpose. There are more disciplines vital to our success.
There’s a scene in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting where the exceptionally bright protagonist Will is trying to explain to his love interest how he understands organic chemistry and mathematics so easily. He likens his relationship to math and chemistry to how Beethoven might have looked at a piano. He says, when it comes to those fields, “I could always just play.”
This is another way of saying that he has exceptional talent in these fields, just as Beethoven had exceptional talent in playing and composing music on the piano. Math and chemistry seem to just come to him naturally without much if any effort.
Notice that talent in this sense does not necessarily imply passion. Will is not saying he loves math and chemistry. It does not necessarily light a fire within him. In fact, in the scene, he seems more focused on going to the batting cages. In other words, passion and talent are two related, but separate, concepts. Passion is what fuels us. Talent is what we naturally excel at.
On our journey of change, talent is more like the vehicle into which we put our fuel. It determines what terrain we can best navigate. If we have a road bike, we can move with great speed on the pavement. If we have a mountain bike, we can go on dirt trails. If we have snowshoes, we can go up through the mountaintops. If we have a canoe, we can float down the river.
Everyone has passions. Similarly, everyone has innate talents. Everyone has special abilities at their disposal at which they could always “just play” – whether they might be related to numbers and mathematics, communication, design, collaboration, artistic expression, or something else entirely. Of course, our talents can always be enhanced through practice and acquiring knowledge. But our greatest gifts are typically the abilities at which we have a deep intuition and an innate head start.
Your zone of genius
Our passions and talents can and often do overlap. For Beethoven, for example. playing piano was almost certainly at once something that lit his fires and something that he excelled at innately. But this is not always the case. Sometimes what we truly love most is not something where we necessarily have special gifts. We may love to dance ballet, but not have the coordination needed to truly excel at a professional level. And often, the areas where we have special gifts may not feel inspiring, fun, or exciting. We might be math wizards, but truly love and get energy from something more creative.
The role of the change agent is first and foremost to seek out these areas of overlap between our passions and talents. We might call this our zone of genius. When acting from our zone of genius, we make an outsized, often seemingly effortless, impact while also refueling and enlivening ourselves in the process. It’s a win-win.
But the role of the change agent is also to honor and embrace the areas where there is no overlap. In our journey to change, we will certainly need to pursue our passions, whether or not we excel at them. This is essential to our practice of fostering well-being. We do whatever we need to charge our batteries and bring ourselves more alive. We will also need to harness our greatest talents, whether or not they truly sustain, inspire, or fulfill us. This is essential to our practice of driving well-doing. If we have something impactful and meaningful to offer the world, we offer it whether or not it’s always easy or enjoyable.
As long as we truly honor and commit to both our passions and our talents, we will always both bring ourselves alive and make a meaningful contribution to the world around us.
- Passions are the roles, abilities, and activities that generate energy for us and make us feel our most alive
- Talents are the roles, abilities, and activities in which we naturally excel
- Our zone of genius is where our passions and talents overlap