Ask Polly: I’m 25 and My Life Has Been Great, So Why Don’t I Have a Passion?

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Lena Dunham in Girls. Photo: JOJO WHILDEN/HBO

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Dear Polly, 

I always love reading your columns because I feel like they hit the nail right on the head and I hope you can maybe hammer some sense into me. 

I'm 25 and really so lucky and privileged. I have the most amazing parents who believe in me, love me fiercely and unconditionally, and have been able to give me everything: top-notch schools, travel, the ability to take unpaid internships and low-paying jobs in overpriced cities. I have great friends who are caring, loyal, and like family to me. I'm healthy and alive and loved. Despite all this and how lucky I am, I still feel like Kelly Kapoor from The Office, like my life is buffering. 

I was working as an assistant in an art gallery and now am taking a break to find another job after traveling with my parents (who the fuck am I to complain), and I feel totally unmoored. I have some idea of what jobs I am looking for, work at a museum or a nonprofit in development or arts education, jobs I think are reasonable paths toward a career. But my mom said to me, "You know, it seems like you're not passionate about anything," and she's right. I'm so afraid of grabbing onto a big dream and failing that my secret wish to be an arts writer/artist stays deep, deep inside me and I don't even have the balls to write or make art for myself, let alone make something for the world to see. 

And when it comes to boys/men, I feel equally lost. I had a serious relationship in college that was wonderful, but ended when we graduated and I realized the thought of one day marrying him made me feel like I was drowning rather than excited. Now I just feel like I'm meeting people, waiting for the big lightning bolt to strike me and I will know "He's the one I'm gonna marry and make babies with and make a life with," but instead I'm going on dates and hooking up, feeling like I don't know what I'm doing or how to get where I want to be going or even knowing whether a serious marriage-track relationship is something I want/can handle given how I barely feel like a fully formed human myself. My friends say and I say to myself that when the right guy and the right time comes along it will work out and to trust my gut, and I usually believe it, but it's hard to keep the positivity going when I feel like I can't trust my own judgments. 

How do I find my anchor, within myself and in someone else? How do I feel like I'm making a life that I can be proud of? 

I imagine that you get piles and piles of letters from people with problems that are far more interesting or unique than mine, but I want to thank you because simply the act of typing all this out has made me feel like I'm finally naming my dark cloud and confronting it. 

Signed, 

Life Is Buffering

 

Dear Life Is Buffering,

So your mother and father gave you everything you've ever wanted, paying for your apartments in expensive cities and subsidizing your income at barely paying internships and dragging you on luxury vacations all over the world, and then they turned to you and they said, "It seems like you're not passionate about anything."

That's like someone who gives her dog a fluffy bed and shoves treats in its mouth over and over and then says to the dog, "Gosh, why aren't you hungry?" And then, after the dog throws up all over the place and sleeps for several hours, the owner offers it more treats and when it doesn't want them, she says, "Jesus, why are you acting so ungrateful? Can't you see how much I've done for you?"

Your parents are obviously nice people, but they haven't taught you how to enjoy hard work. They haven't let you fend for yourself, so you've never learned to take satisfaction from just that: surviving on your own. I'm guessing that their perfectionism and drive modeled "ambition" for you, but their coddling and hovering and hand-holding prevented you from feeling ambitious. And look, to turn to your kid whose life you've made sure has been nothing but easy and relaxing and say to that kid, "It's weird, you don't seem that passionate about anything"? I'm sorry, but that is so fucked up! It makes me really angry just thinking about it.

So many parents are misguided this way: They're used to having control over every dimension of their kids' lives, so they get anxious and project that anxiety onto their kids the second they aren't charging forward. Maybe at some level, they want their kids to be dependent on them, so they'll never get left behind. They send these strangely conflicted messages ("You are a brilliant genius, but this is not quite good enough yet, but you will succeed at whatever you do, at least I hope you will").

How could you NOT doubt yourself when that's what you hear? Most of us doubt ourselves even without that! Even if our parents say the perfect things all the time (no parents do this, of course, because it's impossible, but theoretically …) we still doubt ourselves constantly.

You've colored within the lines and worked hard at the very clear goals — good grades in high school, graduating from a good college. You've been a patient and agreeable student and travel companion. Your parents have curated your entire life. They've made everything safe and comfortable. Now you have a feeling of learned helplessness. You're still in the terrarium, but you feel like you can't grow anymore.

But that's okay! It's okay that you've been spoiled a little. Don't feel shame over that. Most upper-middle-class kids are in the same boat. Feeling guilty for it is crazy and pointless. Even though it sounds like I'm giving YOU shit about it, I'm only pointing out the complete absurdity of giving a kid a deluxe experience and then saying, "You seem to have no passion." Just because your mother or father or both worked very hard to secure that deluxe experience, doesn't mean that YOU will somehow magically share in the satisfaction that comes from experiencing luxuries that THEY PERSONALLY MADE POSSIBLE and that THEY CAN ENJOY BECAUSE THEY'RE 50-SOMETHINGS. That's one of the benefits of being 50-something. People who are over 50 truly enjoy life's pleasures! Because they worked really fucking hard to get there.

You have not worked really fucking hard yet, not at things you chose for yourself that were uncommon or unlikely or risky or unknown. Instead, you've been floating along, showing up to take shit from self-involved art-world types who run galleries and don't have time to hold your hand the way your parents did. You feel weird in the real world. You don't know where you belong. You're not sure what the answer is. So it sometimes seems like the answer is to quit and take a break and travel and get your head together and reassess and figure out what your passion is. But every time you do that, you feel like a loser because there's no passion there, at the bottom of the wineglass and the dessert plate.

But LISTEN UP, YOUNGSTERS! Passion doesn't come at the end of a good meal in Biarritz that someone else paid for! That's why the first scene of Girls consists of a girl, finishing an expensive meal, bubbling on to her parents about what her true calling might or might not be. The girl's problem is clear: She isn't passionate about anything yet, and she doesn't know how to work hard yet. IT'S CALLED GIRLS FOR A REASON. That show is about overgrown, coddled female babies.

Passion comes from hard work. Passion bubbles up from intense, sometimes tedious labor. Passion floats in when you're exhausted from doing something by yourself, for yourself, just to survive. Passion emerges once you've given up on your shitty job 15 times and then asked 15 different guys to save you from yourself and those 15 different guys have said, "Okay, sure," and then, "Let's keep having sex but skip these other times where you worry out loud about whether or not you're passionate about anything." Passion arrives when you stop seeing men and babies as a kind of solution to not having enough passion. Passion materializes once you give up hope and then you're just sitting there, without hope, and you think, I might as well do something. I have to pay the bills some way, don't I?

If what you want is an easy life, keep doing what you're doing. Take another internship, let your parents pay your rent indefinitely, listen to them when they wonder out loud why you aren't more like them, hardworking and passionate. Listen to them feed you the same glowing compliments and tasty meals. "You'll figure it out, you're so talented, you're so special, you should figure it out soon, though," they tell you. "It's true, there might be something wrong with you, you're so great, though, you're so wonderful and perfect." That's the sound of two perfectionists trying to be cool about something they can't control. Listen to them and take it personally. Believe that you're superior and inferior. Believe that you are everything and nothing, a winner and a loser, a goddess and a maggot. Then walk around, in a haze, looking for love, shiny and lost and haunted.

If you're truly a seeker, though, that path will lead you straight to a nervous breakdown at the age of 30 or 35.

If you want a passionate life instead, you need to walk up a very steep hill until your ass burns and your legs turn to rubber. You need to get up at 5 a.m. every day and stare straight into the abyss and write about it and drink coffee and look through your art books and THEN show up for your crappy, intolerable job that pays a living wage or doesn't. You need to share a place with a few roommates, some of whom you can't stand. You need to put all of your bills in your own name, and pay them yourself. (Okay, your parents can cover your health insurance if you don't get it through work, but that's it.) You need to set up a little desk in the corner of your room that feels like your temple, your sanctuary. You can't spend all of your time there. Your time there is limited. You need to treasure that time over all else. Even if you don't treasure that time, you need to treat it as sacred. Even if you dread it, you need to recognize it as your salvation.

You need to do thankless work. You need to show up for your job and be treated like someone who is not very important and not very precious or unique or special. You need to tolerate that by telling yourself, every fucking second of every day, "I have something to give. I am doing great. I am proud of myself." And also, "This is me, working hard, making it on my own. No one will save me from this. This is me, doing it all by myself. No one can swoop down and make this better. I am not very good at anything yet, but goddamn it, I'm going to GET good at something, because I'm going to work very fucking hard at some things until I figure out what I want to be good at, and then I'm going to work very, VERY hard at that one thing until I'm fucking GREAT at it."

If you work very, very hard at something, you will be great at it.

And then, you will feel differently about yourself. And you will understand what passion is, and you will understand how it feels to love your work passionately and love another person passionately. Passion is not relaxing in a beautiful place and saying, "WOW IT'S GREAT TO BE ALIVE!" That's a side effect of passion, but it's not passion. Passion is working hard, every single fucking day, for this minuscule sense of satisfaction and progress. More than the progress, though, passion is that moment BEFORE there is progress, before you're even sure that you'll make any progress at all that day. Passion is the tiny desk shoved into the corner of the terrible apartment with the terrible roommates.

That's all passion is. It is not much. It is everything.

From this day forward, never, ever let anyone tell you that you're not passionate. Forgive your mother for this, and give her your love. But never, ever feel fear and self-hatred just because the question "WHAT IS YOUR TRUE PASSION?" leaves you blocked by a big question mark, a big unknown that makes you feel small and stupid. When your mother implies that you're not passionate, it only shows that she has a bad memory. She can't remember the gravelly, unforgiving, uphill path she took to get here. She only knows that she earned those soft linens on the bed in the hotel room in Paris or Florence or Madrid. Bless her heart. You won't be like that, though. You won't forget what passion is made of. You won't pretend that it's something that descends like magic at cocktail hour, when all the work is done. 

The work is never done. You will learn to feel thankful for that, to celebrate it, to embrace it, someday. And even if you don't believe anything else I've told you here, believe this one thing: Those people with the biggest question marks are usually the ones with the most passion of all.

Polly


Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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