Your passions and talents

The three aspects of genius

The three elements of genius

Like change itself, genius is a mysterious concept that eludes concrete definition. In some ways, trying to create frameworks and diagrams to explain it is a fool’s errand, an attempt to give shape to liquid or words to the ineffable. Perhaps one of the most important principles when delving into our genius is to not put it in a box, but to allow it to be mysterious and emergent, to embrace and stand in awe of the ways in which it is beyond our grasp.

And yet, there are still some ways to come to know it more closely and to orient our exploration of it. In particular, our genius can be at least partially understood through three elements:

  • Passions: The roles and activities that generate energy for us
  • Talents: The abilities at which we naturally excel
  • Values: The core principles that we seek to embody and spread

By understanding each of these elements within us and perhaps more importantly how they interact with and build off one another, we begin to put words to the essence that defines us as truly unique individuals. We begin to see the change that is ours to create in ourselves and in the world.

The journey of change

Joseph Campbell, a 20th-century American writer on mythology and folklore, famously described what he dubbed the monomyth or The Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey represents striking commonalities amongst ancient hero stories across cultures around the world. It has now offered a template for modern stories, such as Stars Wars and The Matrix, proving as deeply resonant for today’s audiences as it was for those from past centuries and millennia. While it certainly does not capture all the richness and diversity of humanity’s hero stories, it does seem to tap into a profound template both for the story itself as well as how transformation occurs within humans and humanity.

The monomyth has many different elements, but can be boiled down to a few key steps: 1) a person sets out on an adventure amidst a crisis, 2) faces various trials and tribulations, 3) eventually achieves victory, and 4) then returns home with both the world and themselves transformed.

One way to think about the work of the change agent is this same kind of journey. We are called to action due to a crisis and the very act of remedying that crisis catalyzes profound transformation not only in the world, but within us. Internal and external transformation are a package deal.

One way to think about our genius is as the parameters of our own personal Hero’s Journey. By sparking our genius, we not only provoke the call to action within ourselves, we generate the fuel, the vehicle, and the path that make success possible.

Your passions

Passions are the roles and activities that generate energy for us. They motivate and inspire us. They spark our innate creative juices. They light our internal fires. 

Everyone’s passions are different and they can be almost anything. For many, they are something “creative” in the narrow sense of the word: making art, playing music, writing poetry, etc. Our passions are often the act of exploring and expressing the deeper truths and possibilities within us. But not for everyone and not all the time. Passions can also be activities that might be outside our traditional ideas of creativity or art: playing sports, playing board games, running marathons, building model trains, reading books, going to the beach, working in the garden. Heck, even formatting Excel spreadsheets can be a passion.

There is no right or wrong. Our passions are simply whatever sparks our fire. And whatever sparks our fire, by definition, is inherently creative.

On our journey to change, passion is our fuel. With it, we have nearly limitless energy to continue on our trek. Without it, we find ourselves depleted, unable to keep going. If as a change agent we fail to integrate our passions into our work, our journey will ultimately be unsustainable or at the very least lack the vitality and energy needed to be its most impactful. Oprah Winfrey put it well: “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”

Your talents

Today, it is common to hear quotes from motivational speakers and self-help books about how following our passions is literally the only thing that matters and the only element of personal fulfillment. But there’s more to our genius than just our passions.

There’s a scene in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting where the exceptionally bright protagonist is trying to explain to his love interest how he understands organic chemistry and mathematics so easily. He likens himself 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.

Notice that talent does not necessarily imply passion. He is not saying he loves math and chemistry. In fact, in the scene, he seems more focused on the batting cages. These are two related, but separate, concepts. Passion is what fuels us. Talent is what we excel at. 

On our journey of change, talent is more like the vehicle that we put our fuel into. It determines what terrain we can best navigate. If we have a road bike, we can go 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 mountains. If we have a canoe, we can go up the river.

Everyone has passions. Similarly, everyone has innate talents. Everyone has special abilities at their disposal at which they could always “just play.” Of course, our talents can be enhanced through practice and acquiring knowledge. But our greatest gifts are the abilities at which we have a deep intuition and an innate head start.

Both sides

Our unique passions and talents can and often do overlap. For Beethoven, playing piano was likely at once something that lit his fires and something that he excelled at innately. But not always. Sometimes what we truly love most is not something where we necessarily have special gifts. And often, the areas where we have special gifts might feel ordinary and uninspiring.

The role of the change agent is first and foremost to seek out these areas of overlap. These are our true areas of genius. In these roles, we make an outsized impact while also refueling ourselves. It’s a win-win. But the role of the change agent is also to honor and balance 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. And we will also need to harness our greatest gifts, whether or not they are truly something that sustain, inspire, and fulfill us.


This lesson is drawn from our training program Change 101. To access the full lesson, including images, diagrams, exercises, resources, and comments, join Change Community and enroll.

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