"Finding Your Passion" Is an Ineffective Way to Live Your Life, Say Scientists

So much for eat, pray, love.

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When Steve Jobs delivered his commencement speech to Stanford University’s class of 2005, he instructed them to find their passion. “You’ve got to find what you love,” Jobs said. “If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” Jobs no doubt had their best interests in mind, but now Stanford psychologists say that his advice wasn’t actually the most helpful.

In a paper soon to be published in Psychological Science, they explain that if someone wants to successfully pursue their interests, they should “develop their passion” instead.

The difference between finding and developing your passion is nuanced but crucial, the team argues. Telling someone to “find passion” enforces the idea that each of us has a great passion within us and our life purpose is to realize what that is and be happy. That’s a dangerous mindset because it can limit the passions that a person ultimately pursues — and may prime them to give up if their passion is proving difficult to commodify into a job. “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket,” the researchers write, “but then drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”

Point and counterpoint.

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The psychologists say they proved the limiting nature of the “find your passion” mindset through a series of five studies involving 470 participants. Each of these studies tested the choices made by two types of people: those who think their personal interests are fixed (they called this “fixed theory”) or those who believe intelligence and talent can be developed (“growth theory”).

Their experiments involved university students who either identified as a “techie” or a “fuzzy” — nicknames on the Stanford campus that respectively identify STEM students or arts and humanities students. The team gave them articles related to tech and the humanities to read and, after a survey, found that the “techies” were less open to the idea of reading articles about humanities, and the “fuzzies” were less open to the idea of reading about tech. These people have “fixed” identities, study co-author Gregory Walton, Ph.D., said in a statement released Monday, and this mindset can prevent narrowly focused people from “developing interests and expertise” needed for a cross-disciplinary workplace.

In another trial within the study, participants were asked to respond to several open-ended questions about passion, including:

Once someone has discovered a passion, what happens to their motivation as they pursue that passion? Will they have limitless motivation? Will they stop procrastinating?

Students who endorsed a fixed theory — that is, they decided they had already found or would find their passion — were more likely to report that “a newly discovered passion would unleash boundless motivation.” These people were also less likely to report that “pursuing a newly discovered passion would be difficult at times.” In other words, they believed that once they found their passion, everything would fall into place.

That belief, however, didn’t hold up in the final trial when the students had to put in some work. When they were first shown a video about black holes and the origin of the universe, all the students were stoked about it — that is, until they were asked to read a challenging paper that explained more about the topic. The researchers found the “students’ excitement dissipated within minutes,” noting their new passion for space immediately dropped and “difficulty may have signaled that it was not their interest after all.”

To explain their theory, the team draws a parallel between personal interests and romantic relationships. Instead of trying to find “the one” and demand absolute perfection of your partners, they write, it’s healthier to maintain relationships by resolving differences when they arise. The same is true for interests: A future isn’t decided by a set path; rather, it’s shaped by a series of choices and hard work.

“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,” explained Carol Dweck, Ph.D., in the statement. “They come to understand that that’s how they and their futures will be shaped and how they will ultimately make their contributions.”

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