One of the worst pieces of advice we give to people about pursuing a meaningful career is to "follow your passion."
In my experience, most people have a very narrow sense of what they are passionate about and, in many cases, they've lost touch altogether with any sense of passion in their lives. That is often what brings them to seek career advice in the first place. They essentially feel dead inside. Passion is nowhere to be found.
A better plan is what John Stepper calls "purposeful discovery." This is a form of goal-oriented exploration that opens up possibilities and reconnects you to the juiciness of your life.
The Purposeful Discovery Process
You start by defining something you care about. What questions are keeping you up at night? What do you feel yourself drawn to? What big problems do you want to solve? How do you want to grow your "sparks"?
Open yourself to your own curiosity. Follow the energy of what seems interesting or exciting. Pay attention to what you want MORE of in your life.
Recognize that if you are feeling dead inside, you may need to be on the alert for the tiniest seeds of possibility. They will be small sparks, not a raging blaze, and you may have to spend some time intentionally learning about what captures your interest.
Also be aware that what piques your curiosity may have nothing to do with your actual job. Not only is this OK, it's probably preferable. The most fulfilling, profitable work in today's economy is a mash-up of skills and opportunities, bringing together different interests and ideas to form something unique.
And frankly, you are less likely to find your calling when you are following a path already well-worn and defined by others. Be willing to go off-road for awhile.
As you identify avenues for exploration, you can begin to set goals for yourself. At this stage I suggest loose goals--"I want to learn more about X" or "I want to develop my skills in Y."
I love this goal that John Stepper suggests: "Explore what's out there." It's the ultimate goal for when you aren't really sure where you're going.
The point of your goal is to give some sense of purpose to your discovery process, the smallest nudge of guidance to your search.
Once you've set your goal(s), it's time for the discovery portion of "purposeful discovery."
Here, John's Working Out Loud Circles can be really helpful. He provides 12-weeks of purposeful activities that will guide you through a process to achieving the goals you've set, working with others who want to commit to the Working Out Loud process. There's an emphasis on making your work visible, connecting to others with generosity, expanding your circle of connections, and improving your work as you go.
Part of what makes John's Circle process powerful is that you are doing it in community with other seekers. Although this is certainly something you can do on your own, I think you get further faster if you do it with others.
There's also a lot to be said for the accountability that a group can provide. Sometimes it can be too easy for other parts of our lives to intrude, making it less likely that we'll persist.
If 12 weeks feels like too much of a commitment, consider an initial 30-day commitment to discovery. What can you do in 30 days to expose yourself to new possibilities and allow yourself to explore? Treat it like an experiment, where you are just trying some things out to see where they lead.
If you're struggling with how to get started on inspiring yourself, try what The Artist's Way author, Julia Cameron calls Artist's Dates. These are regularly scheduled dates you keep with yourself to explore and try out new things. This is about play and inspiration and does NOT have to be directly related to work. Again, you may find that it's better for you to explore realms outside of what you consider to be your normal work activities. You don't know where it might lead. (Here's a list of 101 Artist Date ideas to spark your imagination).
And don't think that the purposeful discovery process is only useful if you're considering a career change or are unhappy with your current job. It's also an incredibly valuable strategy for life-long learning and development, leading you to grow your skills and create new projects and ideas.
Ultimately, purposeful discovery is about expanding your horizons and exploring new possibilities with intention. I think it's far more powerful advice than just "follow your passion" that will get you much better results in the long run.