“Follow your passion” is advice we hear so often, it almost seems like a cliché. It sounds fabulous, except for one thing: What if you don’t have a passion?
When I first started graduate school a million years ago, I was passionate about my chosen field of social psychology, but social psychology is just too broad a topic to provide much focus. I needed to figure out a more specific theme for the research I would be doing.
The problem was, there was no particular research question that meant the world to me.
My advisor at Harvard was Robert Rosenthal. You might know him from his research on the Pygmalion effect, or how our expectations for other people can shape their behavior, and for his contributions to research methodology. When I was in graduate school, he was interested in how our expectations are communicated nonverbally. That meant he was interested in nonverbal communications that were honest. I thought that if I was going to study nonverbal communication, it would be more interesting to learn how body movements and facial expressions and tone of voice are used to deceive other people.
I will also confess that there was a strategic element to this. If I just studied the nonverbal communication of expectancy effects, the work would most likely be attributed to Rosenthal, even if I was the first author or maybe even the sole author of the work. I wanted to have my own area of research, so I studied deception. That was my primary area of interest for the first two decades of my career, and it expanded to include many aspects of the psychology of deceiving and detecting deceit other than just nonverbal cues.
I’ve been thinking about this because I was asked to give the Invited Presidential Keynote at the 2018 meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association (EPA) on the theme of the many uses of psychology outside of academia. My research on lying opened some nonacademic doors to me. For example, I got to do some consulting for a think tank, and I gave some talks and workshops to groups of polygraphers, attorneys, and congressional staffers, and to members of organizations such as the FBI and the CIA.
But it wasn’t until I realized that my real passion was single life that I learned how many other doors that my training in psychology would open for me.
It was probably around 2003 when I fully committed to putting single life at the center of my professional life and not just my personal life. That’s when I decided that going forward, most of my research and writing and lecturing would be about single people and single life.
I did not start pursuing my passion until 2003. You know how old I was in 2003? I was 50 years old. I want to tell you that in case you are in your 20s or 30s and you are thinking to yourself – there’s nothing I’m really passionate about, so now what am I supposed to do? My suggestion is to do something that is interesting enough.
That’s what I did for those first few decades of my career when I was studying deception. That was interesting. Who’s not interested in understanding liars and their lies? I could have studied that for the rest of my career and I would have been perfectly happy.
But by the time I had been around for half a century, I found something that made me more than happy. It made me feel passionate.
The title of my EPA talk was, “Psychology is your secret weapon: What you have that other people need and want.” Much to my great disappointment, I did not get to give that talk in person. The Nor’Easter was headed to Philadelphia the same time I was, and every flight I booked and rebooked was eventually canceled. I ended up giving my talk remotely, by Skype and phone. Apparently, the audio in the conference room was not great, so I decided to post the entire talk at my personal website in case anyone is interested. You can find it here.