Telling People to Find Their Passion Is Bad Advice

Here's what we should probably tell each other instead.

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Jul 11 2018, 4:00pm

Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

“Develop your passion” might not have the same ring to it as “find your passion," but it’s probably a better way to approach your interests, according to a series of recent studies. Guidance counselors and commencement speakers mean well when they tell students and graduates to find their passions, but Paul O’Keefe, a professor of psychology at Yale-NUS in Singapore and the lead author of the studies, says this advice can be misleading.

“When you tell somebody to find their passion, it can suggest that one’s interests and passions are inherent; that they are within you, waiting to be revealed, and you just have to find them," O'Keefe says. "Once you find them, you’ll have this magical moment that will come with limitless motivation and inspiration."

O’Keefe teamed up with Carol Dweck, a pioneer in the field of mindset research, and Greg Walton, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, to investigate why some people succeed at pursuing and developing interests, while others don’t. They drew from Dweck’s research, which found that mindset plays an important role in whether or not people are resilient in the face of educational challenges.

“Decades of research has shown that mindset causes people to interpret their challenges in very different ways," O'Keefe says. "People can either believe that their intelligence is fixed and relatively unchangeable, or that intelligence is malleable, meaning that if you put in effort and try hard, you can actually become a smarter person."

Though Dweck’s research has focused on the impacts of mindset on intelligence—specifically, O’Keefe and his colleagues set out to measure whether mindset had similar impacts on the development of passions and interests.

A series of studies that included 470 student participants revealed that students who had a growth mindset were more open to developing new interests. This suggests that having a growth mindset makes us more likely to connect with a range of interests as part of an ongoing process, as opposed to finding one passion or interest and believing the growth stops there.

“Think about all the things that we have to learn in the world—classes, new skills at work, or just things that make life meaningful," O'Keefe says. "With a growth mindset, we can continue to develop new interests and seek connections between the core interests we currently have and the ones we’re developing."

Being open to continuously exploring new areas is important not only because it makes life more interesting, but also because it facilitates the bridging of disciplines and spaces, which is a key component of innovation. Now well-established fields like neuroscience were made possible because people were able to bridge diverse areas of knowledge, like physics, statistics, anatomy, and psychology.


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The studies also found that the romanticization of "passion" is also problematic because it makes people more likely to lose interest when things became challenging. In one study, students were shown an engaging animated video about black holes and astrophysics to pique their interest. Then, they were given a research article on the same topic that included equations and abstract language. The fixed theorists in the group lost a substantial amount of interest upon receiving the more challenging content, despite having been captivated just minutes earlier.

“Their expectations had been violated. They thought that this new interest was going to come with all of these magical, motivational powers, and when things actually got difficult, they reevaluated it and said, ‘you know, maybe this isn’t my interest after all,’” O'Keefe says. “Fixed theorists have this idea that passion alone should make pursuing that passion easy.”

While interest levels among people with growth mindsets in the group dipped a little bit, on average, they were still interested. The understanding that new interests probably won’t come with an endless source of inspiration and that they will likely involve being challenged helps people sustain interest, even when things get difficult.

Growth and fixed mindsets are likely learned early. Dweck’s groundbreaking 1998 study found that children who were praised for how smart they were after completing a task were more likely to believe that intelligence was a fixed trait. Those who were praised for their efforts, on the other hand, were more likely to see intelligence as something that could be worked at and improved upon.

Dweck’s research has identified one possibility for the origins of a fixed or growth mindset, but it’s not too late for you if you were praised more often for your intelligence than your efforts as a kid.

Stanford psychology professor Greg Walton, one of the coauthors of the new studies, suggests that the way we approach prospective interests and passions might be, at least in part, a matter of choice. Self-reflection might help us notice when thoughts stemming from a fixed mindset arise, and intercepting before they take us down the path of giving up.

“If you’re a college student, and you try something out and say, 'Oh, I thought I was interested in that but I’m not because I found that second class boring,’ you can ask: Is this a thought that’s valid? Is it reflecting this view that passions are just found? Or is this an area that I could develop?” Walton says. This line of questioning could help people make better choices that are more aligned with their goals and values.

And for those who are actively engaging in the pursuit of new interests and passions, Zorana Ivcevic, a research scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and director of the Emotion and Creativity Lab, recommends actively committing and setting goals around new interests.

“We would hypothesize that developing interests and passions can start with commitment—incorporating the activity into one’s daily life and setting goals. As people get better at the activity and gain confidence, they develop the desire to continue with the activity, building the emotional component of passion,” Ivcevic says. She adds that having broad interests tends to inspire new ideas, which may be in part why Nobel Prize winners have been found to engage in arts and crafts, for instance, more often than the general public.

In other words, “find your passion” might not be the worst advice in the world, but it should be taken with a grain of salt. Finding something that you could potentially be passionate about is just the first step of many.

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