Stanford and Yale psychologists recently published a paper titled “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?”. They conducted several studies that claim those who seek to “find their passion” — which they define as believing one has “fixed interests” as opposed to believing your interests change over time — might develop mindsets that make them less successful.
They conclude with a warning that “urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket, but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”
Why does there have to be a dichotomy between finding your passion and developing it?
First, the dichotomy seems to assume that each person can only have one passion at any given time, and that the career people initially pursue is the one they keep for the rest of their lives. Also, the analogy of “dropping the basket” insinuates that people with fixed interests are not willing to work hard and adapt in the face of challenges.
There is a difference between anticipating a challenge (which “fixed passion” people might be less psychologically prone to, according to the research) and finding a way to overcome it. The study showed no evidence that those with fixed passions were actually less successful over time and did not track whether their passions remained in place after they encountered difficulties or changed course.
A couple of news outlets then picked up on this study, and came to even more damaging conclusions.
The Atlantic poked fun at the idea of finding a fixed passion, saying it is unlikely that anyone in accounting ever listed that as their dream job growing up. Another article from CNBC paired it with a quote from Mark Cuban in which he said, “Follow your passion is one of the greatest lies of life.”
He goes on to say that he used to have the ambition of being a baseball player, until he realized his pitch was far too slow. Instead of working on his pitch, he promptly abandoned that dream and found success in business, saying everyone just wants to be the best at something.
Like other misinterpretations or limiting interpretations of this study, Cuban draws a dismissive correlation between a certain mindset and a certain kind of success. In his experience, passion is something easily tossed aside at the first sign of difficulty.
This does not feel true to the experience of many people who have the “fixed passion” mentality indicated in the study, and may even be harmful to people working hard to build a career based on a passion in spite of difficulty.
I’m concerned with how all of these assertions, all of these proclamations about the relationship between passion and success can affect college students.
Just by virtue of attending college, we are already, presumably, working toward a stable future. Sure, not all of us are studying to become engineers, doctors or lawyers, career paths equated with success in terms of financial stability. The art studio, theatre and music performance majors have likely been told countless times that they are going to embark on dead-end careers, or that they’re studying something they’re passionate about but that won’t constitute their “real” job.
I’m surrounded by “found passions” in every area of my own life. The owner of my Crossfit gym graduated as an anthropology major before discovering the sport and his talent as a business owner.
A Crossfit athlete in our gym who earned the title of “one of the fittest women on earth” from her qualification for the Crossfit Games began in rugby, tore both ACLs, and found a new passion for Crossfit. She’s now in medical school at UNM, and works toward that with equal effort.
I have a professor who, after a failed football career, became a war correspondent in Africa before getting gravely injured on the job. He’s admitted to our class that although he likes teaching, it isn’t his passion. He now hopes to open a bookstore.
By chance this last year, I met a millionaire in Oakland talk about financial success. He revealed to me that he achieved this financial success after years of a minor league baseball career, which gave him many of the skills he used in his next career phase. He encouraged me to pursue a rugby career before one in the field of my major.
Unlike Mark Cuban, he got to live out what the study might call his “fixed passion,” the one he carried with him since childhood, and still developed passion and success in business after.
I was accepted to West Point Military Academy my senior year of high school. I had a long, arduous decision-making process between the prestigious institute and staying at UNM. When I decided on the latter, many expressed their disapproval of this decision, saying I was giving up “certain success.”
Part of my hesitation with West Point was the fact that cadets needed to pick a major and extracurriculars early on and stick to them. In my declination letter, I wrote, “I need flexibility to figure out where I want to go and who I want to be, not structure and uniformity.” That decision was a risky one where I chose “finding my passion” over “developing it.” This doesn’t hold true for all, but it holds true for me.
One of the main problems with how this research has been received is the determination of a one-size-fits-all “success.” These articles seem to favor a “realist” career path, which can be quite damaging to the reality of how our passions intersect with our careers.
Creative writers who become doctors can still be passionate about writing; visual artists who shape their career paths entirely around art can still find financial stability. I would not have wanted to grow up with the mindset that I had to pursue whatever I was good at, whether or not I felt passionate about it.
Keep teaching kids to find their passion. Keep encouraging their interests. Teach them also to work hard towards the things they want to achieve, and to have flexibility if they “come up short.” Encourage multi-dimensional thinking, and methods of adapting if one possibility is lost.
I believe that there is a root to each passion, no matter when a person finds or develops it. Maybe by encouraging these roots, we encourage people to define their own success.
Gabriella Rivera is a news reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter as @gabbychlamps.