‘Find Your Passion’ is Terrible Advice


As a leader, your Vision of yourself and your future matters. You may be deeply interested in only one or two things, or somewhat interested in several areas, or you may not feel passionate about anything in
particular at all. In this article, psychologist Carol Dweck discusses the importance of having a growth mindset. A growth mindset allows you to be open to all the opportunities that present themselves to you,
giving you the chance to develop a Vision even in the most unexpected of circumstances.

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, remembers asking an undergraduate seminar recently, “How many of you are waiting to find your passion?”

“Almost all of them raised their hand and got dreamy looks in their eyes,” she told me. They talked about it “like a tidal wave would sweep over them.” Sploosh. Huzzah! It’s accounting!

Would they have unlimited motivation for their passion? They nodded solemnly.

“I hate to burst your balloon,” she said, “but it doesn’t usually happen that way.”

What Dweck asked her students is a common refrain in American society. The phrase “Follow your passion.” has increased ninefold in English books since 1990. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” is another college-counseling standby of unknown provenance.

But according to Dweck and others, that advice is steering people wrong. “What are the consequences of that?” asked Paul O’Keefe, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale—NUS College. “That means that if you do something that feels like work, it means you don’t love it.” He gave me the example of a student who jumps from lab to lab, trying to find one whose research topic feels like her passion. “It’s this idea that if I’m not completely overwhelmed by emotion when I walk into a lab, then it won’t be my passion or my interest.”

That’s why he and two co-authors—Dweck and Greg Walton of Stanford—recently performed a study that suggests it might be time to change the way we think about our interests. Passions aren’t “found,” they argue. They’re developed.

In a paper that is forthcoming in Psychological Science, the authors delineate the difference between the two mind-sets. One is a “fixed theory of interests”—the idea that core interests are there from birth, just waiting to be discovered—and the other is a “growth theory,” the idea that interests are something anyone can cultivate over time.

“If passions are things found fully formed, and your job is to look around the world for your passion—it’s a crazy thought,” Walton told me. “It doesn’t reflect the way I or my students experience school, where you go to a class and have a lecture or a conversation, and you think, “That’s interesting.” And then, through a process of investment and development, you develop an abiding passion in a field.”

Another reason not to buy into the fixed theory is that it can cause people to give up too easily. If something becomes difficult, it’s easy to assume that it simply must not have been your passion, after all. In one portion of this study, the students who thought interests were fixed were also less likely to think that pursuing a passion would be difficult at times. Instead, they thought it would provide “endless motivation.”

The authors also had students learn about either fixed or growth theory and then exposed them to a new interest: Astronomy. First, they had them watch a video made by The Guardian for a general audience about Stephen Hawking’s ideas. It was easy to understand and entertaining. Then the authors had the students read a highly technical, challenging article in the academic journal Science about black holes. Despite saying just moments ago, after viewing the video, that they were fascinated by black holes, the students who were exposed to the fixed theory of interests said they were no longer interested in black holes after reading the difficult Science article. In other words, when you’re told that your interests are somehow ingrained, you give up on new interests as soon as the going gets tough.

How to cultivate a “growth” mindset in the young, future-psychology-experiment subjects of America? There’s not a clear way to develop a growth mind-set about interests, other than knowing that it’s a valid way to think, and that your passion might still be around the corner. “We’re just trying to pull the veil back on the hidden implications of things like, ‘find your passion,’” Walton said. “Is that really how things work? A little bit of knowledge is power.”