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Today’s story brings us to the busy intersection of fear, emptiness, creativity, self-love and passion. To get us there, I interview Jessica Semaan, founder of The Passion Company. Jessica has made it her full time job to help others discover and follow their passions.
What does it mean to follow your passion? Is this really possible or is it new-age, bull-shit? Is it only for the privileged or can anyone do this? What kind of risks are you willing or able to take?
I definitely didn’t decide to become a therapist for the money. I did it because I felt deeply drawn to this work. But because following your own vision is more vulnerable than following someone else’s, self-doubt, fear, and overwhelm are par for the course. There’s no one else to blame when the work doesn’t get done or when you don’t get a raise. There’s no one to tell you when you can go on a paid vacation. And this is a great opportunity for the inner critic to rear it’s ugly head and make me question everything.
So, back to Jessica. The Passion Company, a program designed to help you find and follow through on a passion project, came out of a blog Jessica started 4 years ago called “Passion Stories” which was her first step towards following her own passion.
I asked Jessica how she eventually came to found the Passion company and unsurprisingly like most stories of transformation, her’s began with discomfort – actually, pain. She said she was on the “Golden Path”. Born and raised in war torn Lebanon, Jessica was kicking ass, going to the right schools, working the prestigious jobs, and finally heading to Stanford business school all at pretty young age.
She says, “Everything was going really on paper. Up until I got to Stanford I actually got depressed. It was very surprising and mostly shameful because how would you be depressed about life when everything is going well? The truth is, everything was going well from the outside but from the inside I was burning myself out. I became such a stranger to who I am as a person that it became unbearable to be around me.”
Finding and following a life path, whatever that may be, isn’t a straight, comfy line for most of us. Like Odysseus fighting one-eyed monsters, descending to the underworld, resisting sirens on his journey away from and back home, our triumphs are usually accompanied by failures, losses, and extreme discomfort. And then followed by more. For some of us, the dangers of the journey are metaphorical, for others, the physical threat of living is literal.
This is that crucial moment. That bottoming out for Jessica where she can feel it down to her bones that something needs to change. That she’s been doing everything she’s supposed to but can’t find where she actually belongs in any of it.
“Part of hitting rock bottom”, Jessica says, “was asking the questions ‘Who am I and what do I want to do with my life?’ And one of the first steps was for me to go to therapy – which I had never gone to because it’s taboo back home – so I forced myself to go. And I remember the therapist talking about self love, which I thought was masturbation.”
We both have a good laugh here.
Self Love. Huh. Jessica’s therapist brought forward a concept that can seem elusive, unattainable, cheese-ball, new age, woo woo. What does that even mean? And when I think of Jessica’s assumption that it relates to masturbation (though it certainly can), there’s all this stigma there – like, we only masturbate when we can’t get any. Like, we only need to develop self-love because we’re alone.
Jessica said, “What does it really mean tangibly? I couldn’t get to it…”
Jessica needed something concrete to attach self-love to. She loves taking action, executing a plan. Her therapist did something that surprised me. She recommended Jessica read a book called the 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman. But wait – she was there for individual therapy, not marriage counseling! Yet, when Jessica began applying some of these principles to her relationship with herself, something clicked for her.
Here Jessica further describes what stood out for her, “The book talked about how you build a relationship with someone that’s healthy and long lasting and a lot of the principles were making sense about having a relationship with self. One is learning how to forgive and not hold a grudge, not escalate – which is something I was doing constantly. I was being really hard on myself, not forgiving myself when I make mistakes.
“The second thing is really, he [Gottman] says, knowing your partner’s love map and for me it was knowing who I am as a person. What do I like and what do I not like? What am I good at and what am I not good at? Who are my people and who are not? Again, that is something that I distanced myself from because I was caring more about who people wanted me to be and what people wanted me to do.
“And the third thing he talks about is keeping promises and I realized if I want to care for and love myself I have to keep my promises. If I say I’m gonna write every day, I’m gonna do it because I respect who I am as a person.”
Jessica started applying these principles to her life and initially a big part of this was about getting to know herself.
“As part of knowing myself was the question ‘What are my passions?’ So I started going on dates alone and on one of the dates I wrote down all of the things that excite me, that I love to do – they didn’t have to make money or be the next big thing. And on top of that list was writing. I realized that writing was one of my biggest passions and I had ignored it.”
Jessica’s dates with herself spurred her passion project, Passion Stories and over time her blog gained a lot of traction.
“People started writing from around the world, including a woman from Japan talking about how the stories were inspiring her. And this is when I knew that what I was doing was not just about me, it was helping others, and it became a virtuous cycle.”
The biggest thing Jessica learned from creating her Passion Stories is that the people she interviewed all started with a side project. Just like her.
“It hit me in that one moment – nobody told me that framework in school or whatever – that in order to change your life it takes starting small. Like, it takes starting.”
So this idea grew into a workshop called “Finding Your Passion” and eventually became a 5 week program that’s been running for 2 years.
On one hand, I really know what she’s saying – that at times it really can feel as simple as one small step. On the other hand, for some of us it can be really hard to believe it. That taking one small step is ever going to be enough when the gap between where we are and where we want to be seems so impossibly huge. Yet when we work on loving and valuing ourselves, when we take steps to stay connected to our “why” and not our “should” our paths become more clear and more manageable.
And if you’re not sure why…like, is all of this “follow your passion” crap kind of disconnected from the reality of a suffering world, Jessica would argue that following our passions is the best way to make the world a better place, that there is real value in this beyond our personal gratification.
“We live in times when people are changing the way they’re looking at mass production. They want to make their own, whatever, beer, right? And they don’t want to buy something that’s made in China that’s meaningless. We see the world struggling more than ever from environmental issues, with wars – I come from a war torn country – and people want to make a difference.”
Yes, there’s a lot of shittiness in the world. But Jessica still has faith in humanity. She believes that when we connect more deeply to our passions rather than living a prescribed life, we make choices that are more connected to the well being of others. We chose to learn a craft and make things by hand instead of consume cheaply made products at the cost of the environment and mistreated laborers. We start a blog or organization reaching out to survivors of domestic violence. And so on and so forth. So, if you can believe that – that if you searched your soul for what it is you really want to do, you would actually want to do good – you can see her point.
In a zombie culture, the emptiness and deadness we experience inside, requires greater rates of unconscious consumption. We can’t get enough and we’ll feed at the expense of others. When we live a more connected, authentic life and treat ourselves with love and respect, this has a positive impact on the world around us.
Jessica says, “The world really needs you to find what you want to do and do it. There is a lot of suffering and misery and hatred in the world and you have the power in your own way to change that by taking a stance and saying ‘I’m gonna live a life that I love. I’m gonna live a life that’s meaningful, that’s gonna make a difference.’ So the world needs you to follow your passion.”
I’m so grateful to Jessica for taking the time to chat with me. To learn more about The Passion Company and their Start Conference, coming up October 23rd-25th in San Francisco, visit www.thepassion.co or www.startconference.co.