An Honest Guide to Walking The Line of Passion (and Purpose) — Six Years Later
By Darshana Sivanantham, Strategy Director (Illuminairre)
NOTE TO READERS
**I’m revisiting this article that I penned six years ago in 2015 , at a time I was ‘in the eye of the hurricane’, exploring entrepreneurship with zero experience or guidance. Now that I find myself back in the shoes of a (more) experienced entrepreneur and business owner, I thought I’d give this article an update. This article was first published on my LinkedIn profile.
Here we go.
It’s 2021, and it seems like the ‘passion’ phase has somewhat phased out. A word that contends passion today is purpose. Like every other stereotyped millennial in the early 2010s, I too, followed my passion the day I quit full-time employment on the brink of one hell of a promotion at a PR agency I was working with, and decided rather abruptly that I was going to become a (wait for it) photographer.
So here’s the updated story of my passionate years, painful reminders of purpose, and how that honestly panned out for me.
2012–2015: The Years That Were
2012 was a truly life changing year. But then again, so was 2020. And I suspect, perhaps 2021 too.
Anyway, nothing absolutely drastic occurred in 2012 apart from the fact that I decided that I couldn’t (for the life of me) look at another newspaper from cover to cover as I monitored the news every morning, or spend my Friday lunch hour looking through all the magazines we had sent our PR kits to, hoping that someone, somewhere, had published something on one of our client accounts.
Fun fact for the new generation of PR practitioners: just a decade or so ago, media monitoring was still done very manually. I used to accidentally smudge my face with newspaper ink residue after an hour of flipping papers and calculating PR values, complete with a ruler (to measure the column) and a calculator. You lucky *&%!*@*^&.
After a very long and exhaustive project for a client one day, I finally decided to call it quits — I wasn’t feeling the energy and drive anymore. It felt like I had been wrung out to dry, with nothing left inside. I had experienced my first full blown burnout.
So I quit in October 2012, and took time off to start a new chapter — being my own boss, and running a sole proprietorship business: photography. At first it was so exciting — the adrenaline rush, the feeling of creating new things, no one to report to but myself, making my own rules, working from fancy cafes… oh, what an adventure! But then, reality started to sink in.
With zero entrepreneur experience and just my passion to sustain me, I made countless mistakes, bad business decisions and even experienced what I now know was depression. There were some months where I didn’t know if there would be a paycheck (classic rookie mistake; kicking off with insufficient savings), and I was too proud (read: stubborn) to ask for help. It was no walk in the park, trust me. But I persevered somehow. Somehow, I found progress, made better decisions, made more money in those four years. I found some sense of passion (and purpose) again.
All the things you read about in articles and books about passion — some of it is true, but most of it isn’t. It’s not all pretty flowers and bright blue skies. In fact, it’s a lot of dark storms, and rainy days. The key really, is to keep swimming, even when the tide becomes too strong. And it isn’t passion that keeps you going…it is purpose.
After going back to full-time work four years later with a social enterprise, two global NGOs, and now, six months after co-founding a boutique communications coaching and consulting agency, here’s a little list of honest insights I’ve learned on my journey of walking the line of passion and purpose.
1. Passion alone isn’t going to get you through it all. People do.
It’s good to keep passion at the forefront, but never overuse this word with clients or people you meet. I cringe every time I hear someone say, “I am so passionate about xyz, and that’s why I want to work in bla bla bla.”
Passion doesn’t sustain you. And in times where you cannot find that passion, or reconnect to your purpose, people is what you need.
What I truly missed out on as an inexperienced entrepreneur back then was a sense of community. Today, we are so lucky to be connected digitally to so many other entrepreneurs, industry leaders and like-minded individuals. I read somewhere that entrepreneurs and founders particularly, struggle deeply with mental health. This is one hundred percent true. If I had the sense and access to the kind of folks and support we have today, chances are I could have navigated early entrepreneurship better.
As a co-founder now, I am grateful that I have a business partner who believes in the same purpose and values, and holds a shared vision with me. I am lucky to have a life partner who advocates for mental health, and sees seeking help through therapy as a positive experience. I am privileged that I have the ability to access life and wellness coaches, as well as business coaches through my network and reach. I am honoured to be a part of a truly global online community that so openly shares and exchanges ideas, information and learnings on LinkedIn, Clubhouse (you can find me as @darshanabala) and other spaces.
In these two entrepreneurship journeys I have had so far, it’s really people who have made all the difference in helping me get through the tough times.
2. Not everyone will understand your journey, even in 2021.
This was a big one in 2012. And I think, it still rings true today.
It took a lot of guts to go cold turkey back then in my early 20s. There were so many times I questioned my decision, especially when I could clearly see that the road I chose to take was sooo different from everyone else’s. I lost my mojo repeatedly, found it, and then lost it again. Stories of entrepreneurs making their six-figures in year one set me up to believe in fairytales. I learnt the hard way that this is an exceptionally rare experience.
I started our little agency with my business partner in the middle of a raging global pandemic. While we were better prepared than I was in 2012, absolutely nothing could prepare us for 2020.
As we soldiered on, pivoting our business offerings, changing our marketing strategies and navigating business meetings across timezones (I was indefinitely stuck in Los Angeles for about six months last year), we also had to bravely defend our decision to start Illuminairre, particularly to those who were the closest to us — like friends and family.
What’s interesting about this is, we never had to explain Illuminairre to strangers the way we had to with our nearest and dearest. While we knew that they were trying to be realistic and supportive, a seasoned communications professional never misses the tiniest nuances in tone of voice and body language. We knew they were worried, but we put on a brave front and worked our butts off anyway.
As an entrepreneur again, I find it useful to always remind myself why I started Illuminairre — I go back to my why. Purpose propels me forward, especially on the hard days. Only then does the passion kick in. The other things that makes all the difference is perseverance, patience, consistency and plain old hard work.
And we came to terms with the fact that not everyone will understand this journey. And that’s perfectly okay.
I can tell you, it is paying off now. Our 2021 is off to a brilliant start, with three new micro business clients signed on monthly retainers (yes!) and a very successful online learning programme happening next week.
3. Creativity doesn’t have boundaries. Don’t limit yourself to a self-imposed box (or circle or rectangle).
This point here, is something I am learning again. In 2012, I made the serious mistake of limiting creativity to only photography when I started. It really made me lose out on a lot of opportunities.
I am a highly creative person, and at the same time also someone obsessed with keeping things in order. Structure brings me great joy. A former boss used to say that I define what organised chaos means.
I express myself through a lot of things — art, writing, amateur interior decorating, tarot reading, and things that I do through work — branding, creating compelling PR campaigns, developing communication strategies and coaching others. By limiting myself back then, I actually denied so much creative energy from manifesting into tangible results.
This time round, trying new things is my way of ‘unlimiting’ myself.
While I have over a decade of communications and PR experience to support the work we do with helping micro/small businesses access professional communications services, I make it a point to continue learning and finding new ways to express the inherent creativity.
Illuminairre was never meant to be your average communications agency. This was something my business partner and I decided very early on as we were still ‘carrying Illuminairre in our collective womb’.
So our business strategy is set up very differently from a regular agency. We work with business owners and professionals on the serious stuff (North Star pillar), and we also run two other big pillars that support the experience of communications through creative arts (The Creative pillar) and personal/spiritual growth (Soul Circle pillar). Dig deeper, and you’ll find the holy trinity of mind-body-soul in there.
And I have to tell you — it’s very liberating! To be able to redefine what communications means to us has shown us that anything is possible, if you remember your purpose and give yourself the benefit of doubt.
4. Passion requires persistence. So does remembering your purpose.
Trust me, doing it alone (or with a business partner) means you’ll face many long nights and days alone. Like I mentioned, there’ll be days where you’d just want to give up and go back to what was safe and comfortable. I consciously chose to leave a five-figure salary to slum it out while the world came to a perpetual standstill. There would be days where you’d question your decision, and doubt if it was actually the right one. Persist. Trust that this journey is meant to open up a world of endless creative possibilities for you, whatever that may be. See the difficulties as stepping stones to learn and grow.
This one thing helped me a lot — be humble and genuinely open to knowing that you will never know everything. Because honestly, you can never truly be an expert at anything — the world is constantly changing! We can have advanced expertise that give us an edge, and we can offer that experience to the world. But becoming an actual expert, that’s something I believe is debatable.
So experiment, play, fail, learn, grow. And repeat.
Reaching a breaking point? Good. Take a breather. Reflect. Rest. Read. Realign.
A two-woman startup like ours is a lot of work. Every time things get a little heavy. I take a break — mentally and emotionally. I hope you do too, especially in these times. Breaks help us to sustain the energy, remember our purpose and come back with a renewed passion.
The work we do, entrepreneurs or not, requires commitment, time, and a lot of energy. And most importantly — a passion for our purpose. Taking this whole journey again made me realise that we can find passion in whatever we choose, as long as we give ourselves the opportunities to remember our purpose.
Some parting thoughts
I’m still a long way from mastering anything worth shouting about on passion and purpose. Unsurprisingly, purpose has been an underlying factor to everything I have ever done in my life. Former bosses and colleagues will tell you how I relentlessly ask WHY. Some may hate you for it, but do it anyway. Because getting clear about your why makes all the difference; both in life and work.
So when you walk this line of Passionate Purpose…remember, like any other path, this is also a rollercoaster ride. Enjoy the dips and turns when they come along, use the adrenaline rush to your advantage and savour the sweet success of smooth bends. And take breaks. Get off the rollercoaster once in a while.
And finally — enjoy the entire journey. All of it. Because I honestly feel that the journey always outweighs the destination.