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Yale and Stanford Psychologists Say “Follow Your Passion” is Bad Advice

The way we think about our passion is key.

“Find your passion.” People give this advice constantly, whether it’s the proverbial phrase,“Do what you love!” or “Follow your dreams!” or “Never give up!” Just recently, I encouraged a friend who’s pursuing the podcast life to quit her job and “follow her dreams” — and I meant it (though I hope my pitch sounded less cliché)! But according to a new study from psychologists at Stanford and Yale-NUS College (a collaboration between Yale University and the National University of Singapore), telling someone to find their passion may not be the best advice.  

The study’s researchers examined implicit theories of interest: whether our passions are inherent, and thus “hidden” until we “find” them (a fixed theory), or are something to be developed and nurtured (a growth theory). They theorized that the former (and often more popular) belief has “hidden implications” that could stifle the experiences of young, impressionable people. For example, they note that people with a fixed theory assume that they’ll experience “limitless motivation” in the pursuit of their passion — meaning they think that the journey will be easy. Alternatively, those with a growth theory will expect periodic roadblocks and may even embrace the tumult. But what exactly are the effects of fixed versus growth theory on our learning and resilience? The researchers administered five tests to a group of college students to find out.

About a month before the main study, student participants who self-identified as “techy” or “fuzzy” (students interested in the arts and humanities) took an online questionnaire that revealed their theories of interest. So going into the experiment, researchers had a sense of whether the participants had a fixed or growth theory.

In the first three tests of the study (a month after the initial questionnaire), students were asked to read articles on topics that were different from their claimed interests. After reading, students were asked a series of questions to gauge their interest, and the results revealed that those with a growth theory were more likely to find the articles intriguing.

The fourth test went back to the question regarding “limitless motivation” and false expectations. Students were asked to answer a variety of open-ended questions like, “Once someone has discovered a passion, what happens to their motivation as they pursue that passion?” and “Will they stop procrastinating?” Their responses revealed that the more a person endorses a fixed theory, the more likely they are to believe that following their passions would be of “limitless motivation”, and thus, a simple endeavor. Of course, the path toward one’s passion isn’t always easy, and the study revealed that a person with a fixed theory is more likely to abandon their interests when the going gets tough, as if “the topic was not their interest after all.”

As the final test, researchers had both the “techys” and the “fuzzys” do two things: watch a short but engaging video, and read a challenging article, both on black holes. They all loved the video, but interest dropped when it came to the article, especially among the fixed theory folks. Considering the findings from the fourth and fifth tests, it’s reasonable to believe that interest dropped for those with a fixed theory because their expectations felt violated, whereas “those endorsing a growth theory may have more realistic beliefs about the pursuit of interests, which may help them sustain engagement as material becomes more complex and challenging.”

In conversation with Quartz, lead researcher and Yale-NUS college psychologist Paul O’Keefe said the results have implications for those of us who are in mentoring roles — like parents, teachers or employers. “Telling people to find their passion could suggest that it’s within you just waiting to be revealed. Telling people to follow their passion suggests that the passion will do the lion’s share of the work for you,” he said. Alternatively, it’s important to encourage realistic thinking, and “a growth mindset makes people more open to new and different interests and sustains those interests when pursuing them becomes difficult.”

We shouldn’t discourage people from pursuing the things that they’re passionate about, but we should view the idea of passion more broadly: Particularly, we should remember that one’s interests can evolve, and that one should expect challenges in the pursuit of their passion.

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