Why 'Finding Your Passion' Isn't Enough

We like to say that people should "find their passion" to experience success in their careers and therefore, in their lives. If you really love something, it will feel easy and right. Right? That may actually be the worst possible way to approach new ventures.

Image: Flickr/Jim Whitaker

A new study from psychologists at Stanford suggests that the old saying has infiltrated our minds so deeply, it's altered our perception of what passion for your work is really like. The story has become quite popular on Reddit, where it was posted by u/ekser on Wednesday.

Stanford News reports that researchers Paul O'Keefe, Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton believe telling someone to "find their passion" has unvoiced implications — basically, if you really love something, it will be a breeze. And that means that when you inevitably come up against some obstacle, you're much more likely to give up.

The Problem

The team started with data developed by Dweck on mindsets. In previous studies, Dweck had found that when either children or adults believe in fixed levels of intelligence are fixed, they're less likely to persist in school. What's the point if you're at your intelligence ceiling? They decided to test how having a "fixed" perspective could be limiting in other regards:

In the first set of experiments, the researchers recruited a group of students who identified either as "techie" or a "fuzzy" — Stanford vernacular to describe students interested in STEM topics (techie) versus the arts and humanities (fuzzy). The researchers had both groups of students read two articles, one tech related and the other related to the humanities.

They found that students who held a fixed mindset about interests were less open to an article that was outside their interest area.

It was alarming to discover how few people were open to things they perceived as being outside their interests, because as Walton pointed out, innovations usually come form the merging of worlds.

"Many advances in sciences and business happen when people bring different fields together, when people see novel connections between fields that maybe hadn't been seen before," he said.

The next experiment showed how people with fixed mindsets can be limited within their interest area, too. Participants were shown a video about "black holes and the origin of the universe." It was supposedly extremely engaging, and the students were hooked.

They were then handed a dense paper on the same subject, and most lost all interest — especially those with an identified fixed mindset. The researchers believe this is because they thought they must not be that interested in something they'd just found so fascinating. It got too hard.

The Solution

It's not as simple as snapping your fingers and forgetting every inspirational Instagram post you've ever seen about following your dreams. It's hard to shake off widespread cultural ideas. The advice from the study's authors is pretty simple: instead of following your passion, develop it.

Instead of expecting to have good feelings about everything you do, practice the every day work of it, like a musician running scales, an athlete in the gym, or a scientist who parses through the difficult, boring paper. Think of your passion as something you're feeding to give it strength. You nourish it, not the other way around.

"My undergraduates, at first, get all starry-eyed about the idea of finding their passion, but over time they get far more excited about developing their passion and seeing it through," said Dweck. "They come to understand that that's how they and their futures will be shaped and how they will ultimately make their contributions."

The pursuit of anything you care about will still include days that drag, work that mounts up, and moments that feel impossible to get through. Keep going; if you're really passionate about something, it's worth the work.


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