There is a folk tale about a prospector in gold country. Every day, he bought supplies and headed off to pan for gold in the local river, returning each night empty-handed.

One morning, at the town’s mercantile store, a woman asked the man how much gold he’d found, and he replied as he always did that he hadn’t found any but would be back at that task again the next day. When the woman asked how long he’d been panning for gold overall, the prospector told her: 20 years.

The woman couldn’t believe it. If he hadn’t found any gold in all those years, why would he continue? And to this, the man simply replied, “How else can I justify what I’ve been doing for 20 years?”

From an entrepreneurial point of view, that response is sad, because the message of the story, especially for an entrepreneur, is that you must be willing to let go of whom you’ve learned to be and instead become who you are.

To find out what that is, look back at your childhood. As a child, everything you encountered was new — sights, sounds, faces, nature, food. So, you began to discover how the world worked by separating things into categories. Some of those things completely excited you. Others were decidedly unappealing. And the rest left you feeling ambivalent.

The empirical definition and nature of entrepreneurial “passion” are evolving, and so is the debate over its role in the success of entrepreneurial endeavors. However, one thing is clear: When you’re determining the key ingredient necessary for your individual success, the things you loved as a child are going to be powerful clues because chances are, you probably still love those things.

Chances are, too, that you encountered obstacles to those things along the way: As you grew up, designing roads for your matchbox cars or building shortwave radios, for instance, may have become more difficult because a bully showed up: Someone mocked, ridiculed or judged what you loved in a way that made this activity feel wrong:

  • Maybe your brother told you that collecting stamps was for nerds, or a classmate told you playing the flute was uncool.
  • Maybe your mom steered you away from sports because she didn’t want you to get hurt, or your dad said science was just for boys and why couldn’t you be more like your sisters?
  • Perhaps your interest in bugs, geology, giraffes, cars, ice skating, cooking, reading, climbing trees, building model airplanes, sewing, or writing poetry was criticized as frivolous, silly or a waste of time.

The desire to fit in and be accepted is a natural part of the human condition, even for those with an entrepreneurial spirit.

And here, the pressure can be staggering, especially when you’re a young person. So, you may have let the things you loved slip away and learned to be content with other, more acceptable things. But you are unique for a reason. What you love doing, what piques your interest, what gets you excited to learn more: Those are clues to your entrepreneurial passion, direction, and big ideas.

These four steps will help you find those clues.

1. Begin by making a list.

List 10 things you enjoyed doing as a child or young adult that you don’t do anymore and would enjoy doing again. (Note: if it helps, pretend that no one could see you or find out about it.)

2. List 5 natural talents unique to you.

These should be things that are easy for you but hard for other people. It doesn’t matter how silly they may seem; just list them.

3. List 3 books you read as a teenager that had the biggest impact.

These should be books that reflected how you saw yourself then. What did you like about those books and how did they make you feel?

4. Create a timeline of your life.

On a piece of paper, draw a horizontal line, with the left side being the day you were born and the right side being today. Draw vertical lines above or below the line representing the highs and lows of your life. These lines can be different heights depending on the significance of the event. Fill in as many specific moments or events as you can remember; then look for patterns among both the high and low points. Often, the thing that knits together a series of moments is a clue to what you want or don’t want going forward.

Discovering your entrepreneurial passion may be as simple as rediscovering who you used to be and the things you enjoyed before someone expected you to conform.

The people who judged, ridiculed, or mocked what excited you may not have meant any harm. In fact, they may have thought they were helping you be more accepted by your peers. But, as an entrepreneur, those interests are some of the very things you may want to bring back to your life.

Going back in time may be exactly what you need to discover the way forward.

Originally published at