Clarify Narratives Values Interests Dreams Strengths Impact Align: Experimentation

People are all over the map when it comes to engaging their interests:

  • You could be confident about what you enjoy but feeling blocked regarding the opportunities related to your interests.
  • Perhaps you have interests, but they’re mostly about enjoying yourself and don’t seem to connect to anything purposeful.
  • You may be confused about how genuine your interests are to you, or if you’re interested in things because you were influenced to be.
  • Or perhaps you aren’t entirely sure what you’re interested in at all.

Which of the above feels most applicable to your situation?

When we talk about purpose in popular culture, many minds make a beeline for the complimentary concept of passion.  As has been covered elsewhere, you don’t need to be passionate about something in order for it to be purposeful. Rather than passion being the most important driver, you primarily need to value what you’re doing (so if you were planning on digging out your interests and diving into those before anything else, it would probably be more helpful to go back and focus on what’s important to you first!).

All this said, passion is certainly an asset to purpose (merely being  interested in something enhances motivation and energizes us (Harackiewicz et al, 2016) (Ainley 2006), not to mention engaging in our interests is enjoyable!). But rather than being the determining factor in what we pursue, passion is an opportunity borne by many of our interests since it is something that can be developed. In fact, interest itself can be developed, too.

So before jumping into the oft touted holy grail of passion, it’s wise to start with interest. Starting with interest widens the playing field.

Interest and Passion Can Be Developed

Passion can come with dedication over time (Chen 2015)(Chen 2021)(O’Keefe et. al 2018). We can follow our current interests (or budding interests) and develop them into passions. Being able to grow passion hinges foremost on having both growth and develop mindsets:

  • Growth Mindset: Believing that abilities and intelligence can change over time.
  • Develop Mindset: Believing that through time, effort, and commitment you can develop interest and passion.

Beyond a foundational mindset connected to possibility, there is even more we can do to foster interest and passion.

Beyond a foundational mindset connected to possibility, there is even more we can do to foster interest and passion.

Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, authors of “The Passion Paradox,” use basic neurological principles to demonstrate how we might increase our predilections toward things. They suggest that by paying attention to signals of interest when they show up (such as a little thought of “Huh, now that’s intriguing…”) we can increase how often we become interested. 

Stulberg and Magness warn that we can actually reduce our inclination to be interested in things by not following up when our interests are piqued. The more we ignore interest or not explore things that spark our curiosity, the more we build up neural pathways based on that choice. They suggest that our brains might stop sending us “Ooo that’s kinda cool!” signals because it has learned those signals are not valuable since they don’t lead to a response. They conclude that it is essential to respond to signals of interest to build interest-favoring neural pathways by engaging with and exploring the things that spark even the tiniest bit of interest.

Author and columnist for The New York Times, David Brooks calls the most poignant of these initial moments of interest annunciation moments: “the moment when something sparks an interest or casts a spell and arouses a desire that somehow prefigures much of what comes after in a life, both the delights and the challenges.” He references the childhood of famous naturalist E. O. Wilson, who wandered along the beach enraptured by the creatures he found, marveled at his son’s entrancement with baseball, and delighted in his daughter’s love of hockey. Brooks makes sure to emphasize that these moments can happen at any time in our lives, not just during childhood.

But the moments of interest relevant to purpose cultivation do not have to be life-altering moments of entrancement like Brooks describes in his article. They can be as small and seemingly insignificant as a spark.

Psychologist and author Peter Benson likes to formally call them “sparks” in his work dedicated to helping youth discover and harness their unique gifts in order to live more fulfilling, purposeful lives. Benson was inspired to use the term “sparks” from a quote by the Greek philosopher Plutarch: “Youth are not vessels to be filled but fires to lit.” Thus his body of work centers around tending the sparks of interest and strength in others so they may burst into thriving flame.

A spark is something that creates a feeling of aliveness and joy when engaged with. It is motivated intrinsically and not done for external reasons like validation, acceptance, success, or wealth.

Benson defines a spark more broadly as an animating force that gives us direction, hope, and purpose.

We can apply the wisdom of Benson, Brooks, Stulberg, and Magness to our own purpose development by paying special attention to (and acting upon) the things that enliven us.

The exercises in this section are designed to help you uncover both sparks and potential sparks that can be integrated into your purpose journey. Scroll down to the next heading to dive in.

And in case you were wondering, you can learn more about passion on the passion page!

A Note On Assessments

Writer, speaker, and podcaster Jonathan Fields of The Good Life Project argues that doing what makes you come alive is essential to living a life you’re satisfied with. He provides a framework and assessment for determining your “Sparketype”– one of ten unique archetypes he came up with for different types of work that make people come alive.

The ten types are as follows:

  1. The Maker — the person who lives to turn ideas into reality.
  2. The Scientist — the person who lives to solve problems.
  3. The Maven — the person who loves learning for its own sake.
  4. The Essentialist — the person who feels alive when they create order from chaos.
  5. The Performer — the person who enlivens any interaction.
  6. The Warrior — the person who is driven to organize and lead people.
  7. The Sage — the person who is driven to teach and share wisdom.
  8. The Advocate — the person who champions others.
  9. The Adviser — the person who gives guidance.
  10. The Nurturer — the person who lives to nurture others.

On his website, he offers that he’s come to believe the following:

“We’re all born with a certain “imprint” for work* that makes us come alive. Work that lets us wake up in the morning and know, deep down, we’re doing what we’re here to do. Work that sets us ablaze with purpose and, fully-expressed in a healthy way, becomes a mainline to meaning, a pathway to that transcendent state of flow, and a gateway to connection and joy. Put another way, work that “sparks” us.

You may find thousands of satisfying outward expressions of this deeper imprint. I believe this is much of what people talk about when they use the word passion, and why any one person can have many equally satisfying outlets for this deeper driver.”

Using the Sparketype assessment can be a wonderful compliment to self-discovery along your purpose journey. However, assessments that are prescriptive like this one can also be limiting.

Huh? How can something that helps you understand yourself better be limiting?

Essentially, assessments like these encourage us to “do what we are.” This orientation isn’t exactly the worst thing- it’s an approach that genuinely helps a great many people. However, within it is the subtle implication that not only do we have fixed traits and propensities, but we have a ‘true self’ just waiting to be discovered. Both of which are myths.

Importantly, “do what you are” leaves something pretty serious off the table: i.e, doing what you can be.

So, do go ahead and enjoy assessments like Sparketypes; they will likely provide you with many useful insights! However, keep in mind that there are far more options for you than doing what already feels natural or interesting to you. One can build interest or passion!

*Despite how helpful this perspective may seem, the psychological literature doesn’t exactly support the idea that we’re all “born with an imprint for work”. According to studies on twins, things like personality and temperament are up to 70% influenced by our environments – and that’s a lot! (Zwir et. al 2020)

Searching for Sparks Exercises

As you explore the following activities, keep in mind that you’re searching for both current interests and potential sparks. You may also have fully developed passions that are more obvious– hold onto those too. We’ll want to keep track of all of the ideas we generate so we have more possibilities to play with in the Ideation and Planning phases of Alignment.

(Oh, and you may also generate ideas that are more goal-oriented (something specific you want to be or accomplish in the future). Keep track of these for the dreams and desires section!)

This section is divided into the following phases:

  • Locating Sparks – Using activities and reflection questions to generate a list of our top interests
  • Excavating Sparks – Unearthing the deeper patterns, influences, and motivations behind our interests
  • Re-imagining Sparks – Creatively recombining our interests for new ideas

Get access to ALL the interests exercises in The Purpose Workbook

The Purpose Workbook has 7 beautifully designed resources dedicated to interests. Print out the Purpose Workbook to use as you read along.

Locating Sparks

If you only do one exercise, do this one:

Use the following bank of questions to generate sparks. You can go through it two different ways: with haste to try to bypass any filtering or slowly, to give yourself ample time to dig. Both are great approaches- you could even start with rapid fire and go through them again slowly to see if you get different answers. You can use the blank space on the next page to record your answers.

More Locating Sparks (and related) exercises:


We can look to the past, present, and future to gain insight into our interests.

To do this exercise:

  • Access it through the Purpose Workbook.
  • Use the summary below to make up your own version

Here’s the gist of the exercise: 

Consider what brought you alive when you were younger, in various stages of your youth. Then, think about what lights you up today. Finally, imagine an ideal, fulfilled, passionate, and purposeful version of your future self. Deconstruct what drives them and how they became who they are.

Energy Audit

Tracking our various emotions over time can help us uncover what brings us alive.

To do this exercise:

  • Access it through the Purpose Workbook.
  • Use the summary below to make up your own version

Here’s the gist of the exercise: 

Track positive and negative emotions and low and high energy levels over three days to a week. Record what you are doing and what you are feeling for each entry. At the end, look for patterns.

Excavating Sparks

Our interests and sparks may meet various needs for us. Some of them will contribute more to meaning and fulfillment while others may contribute more readily to buffering our insecurities or meeting other external pressures. It’s important to suss out why we’re invested in certain activities- where does our motivation come from? If an interest contributes to something deeply meaningful to us it may be a more impactful source of engagement to invest in as we cultivate purpose.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that there are likely many different motivations and influences behind your interests and desires. Things are rarely cut-and-dry “good” or “bad” (in fact your motivation might not be on that spectrum at all). Being aware of the mix so you can focus your energy towards what serves you is the endgame.

Consider the following examples of different ways each person may be motivated to engage in an interest:

Gerald is interested in making music (in three versions)

He doesn’t like to admit it but making music feeds Gerald’s ego.  He thinks being an artist is cool but actually finds the day-to-day of the work pretty tedious. He is most engaged when imagining or receiving social praise for his work. He loves to come up with ideas and share them but finds that he hates to execute them.

He occasionally dips into states of flow while working on his music, and it is often very challenging (which isn’t very enjoyable for him). He worries that he is also motivated to make music in order to be respected and admired as an artist, but he knows that isn’t his only motivator.

Gerald gets lost in most parts of the music-making process and genuinely enjoys seeing a project from conception to finale. He feels very motivated to share music that has an uplifting impact on those that listen to it. He can’t say he doesn’t enjoy getting positive reception for his work, but it’s not his main motivator for doing it.

Nelly is interested in motherhood (in three versions)

Nelly wants to have kids. She knows having kids will add meaning to her life and give her many new things to be engaged in. She doesn’t want to miss out on what all her friends are experiencing, and she doesn’t want her friends to pity her for not having kids. A picturesque family life that people will envy feels like a dream to her. She knows having kids will be enjoyable in many ways. She also realizes it would be great to have someone take care of her when she’s older, and to matter significantly to her children.

Nelly loves being with children and making them smile. She feels fulfilled when she is caring for others. She believes she would be a caring and supportive mother who would inspire her children to be self-empowered and compassionate people. She also notices a desire to have children because she would have a family to love and be loved by, and that connection and companionship is important to her.  She worries that she is partially motivated to have kids because she is lonely.

Nelly wants to have kids because she wants to offer the love and understanding she received as a child to others. She has decided to adopt and offer her support to kids who might not normally have a secure and loving home, rather than bring even more people onto the planet.

The above examples need not be exclusive silos. Most people are likely a mixture. You can learn more about how our interests can drive us in healthy and unhealthy ways on the Passion page. Go there to learn about Obsessive and Harmonious Passion.

It’s valuable to know what we truly like about (or in other words, what we get from) the things we get lost in. Do they meet any of our core values? Do they help us access freedom or play? Is it the act of learning that we enjoy so much?

“Whatever it is, don’t just look at the activities that keep you up all night, but look at the cognitive principles behind those activities that enthrall you. Because they can easily be applied elsewhere.”

–Mark Manson

When we look closer at the things that enliven us, we may discover patterns that hint at something deeper and even more important than the enlivening thing itself. If we then focus on those deeper sources, we may be able to channel them into a broader range of pursuits while also narrowing down what will and what will not work for us.

To understand the underlying forces at play with our sparks, we will “excavate” what is underneath them. By excavating, we mean digging down to see the underlying sources and influences.  In another sense, it’s basically boiling them down in order to get to their essence. We do this by asking ‘Why?’

If you only do on excavation exercise, do this one:

Use this simple exercise to help you visualize what needs each of your interests satisfy.

More excavating sparks exercises:

AEIOU Excavation

Take a few of your top items (at least 3 but you can do as many as you like) and use the AEIOU framework for each one. To do the AEIOU activity, remember a specific instance of you engaging in the interest or spark you’ve chosen to excavate. The questions in each stage address different elements of your experience, rather than the spark itself. Examining them can reveal insightful patterns about what we enjoy.

  • Activity: What activities are you doing? What is your role?
  • Environment: What is the place you do this activity in like and how does it make you feel?
  • Interaction: Are you interacting with objects, people, or both? What is the interaction? How do you feel about it?
  • Object: What objects are involved? How do you feel they impact you?
  • Users: What people are there? How do they contribute? How do they affect you?
  • Look back at the AEIOU answers for all of your sparks.  Do any patterns occur? What similarities can you draw about your spark activities from breaking them down in this way?

AEIOU originated in 1991 at Doblin by Rick Robinson, Ilya Prokopoff, John Cain, and Julie Pokorny as an ethnographic practice. It is being applied outside of its original intended use in the above exercise.

Why X 5

Exploring where an interest came from and why it’s important to us can tell us if it is authentically our own or something we inherited from someone else. Inherited interests may still be interests, however it’s useful to know which ones are which so we can consciously determine what is important to us. Print multiples of this exercise to carry multiple interests through it.

To do this exercise:

  • Access it through the Purpose Workbook
  • Use the summary below to make up your own version

Here’s the gist of the exercise: 
Choose an interest. Ask yourself why you think it’s interesting. Then ask why of the answer you came up with. Do this five times and see what insight you gain. The intention is to ask why in a nested way- rather than come up with 5 independent whys.

Before Moving Forward:

Create a masterlist of sparks and interests

  • After answering several sets of the Sparks questions from “Locating Sparks,” go through your answers and compile a masterlist of Sparks: things you enjoy and that inspire you, etc.
  • Narrow the list down to the top ten. Then of these ten, which are your top five?
  • Use these as fodder for the following two exercises in Reimagining Sparks, then revise your top ten with any new insights you’ve gleaned.

Reimagining Sparks

Clearly a list of sparks alone is not enough to cultivate purpose! It is valuable insight that can be put to work. The next step you’ll need to take to develop passion or optimal purpose,involves taking the information you learned here and combining it with what you’ve learned from exploring your values and strengths in the Ideation part of the Alignment process.

And in the meantime, a fun thing to do…

If you only do one exercise, do this one:

Try this fun exercise to generate fresh ideas of ways to engage your interests!

More Reimagining Sparks (and related) exercises:

“Grow Up” Your Interests

Take a few of your Sparks from when you were a kid and “grow them up” — as in, turn them into an adult version. If you liked to draw dogs as a kid, maybe the “grown-up” version is an animator for Disney. If you liked to make mud pies with all the plants you found in the yard, perhaps the “grown-up” version of this is a baker or an herbalist. You could also consider what that activity could look like in the far future for even more ideas!

Still Looking for More?

Not feeling like your list is fleshed out enough? We’ve got you. Check out these masterlists of activities (aka “potential interests”) and the Expression cornerstone for more inspiration. Also, if you’re feeling this way, it may be time to check out the Experimentation section!

Feel like you’ve got too many interests?

You’re not alone! Check out the page on “Multipotentialism,” the concept of having multiple interests and pursuits in your life.

Clarify Narratives Values Interests Dreams Strengths Impact Align: Experimentation

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