Is the idea of ‘finding your passion’ unhelpful?

Finding Your Passion


The phrases “Find your passion” or “Follow your passion” are so ingrained in western culture that I’m confident that most people have heard them at some point in time, and many of you may have offered them as advice to friends and family. I am very confident that I have used these phrases repeatedly over the course of my life: both as advice to myself and to others.

In most cases, I think these phrases are proffered with good intentions. They are often provided in response to seeing someone struggle with work or duties they don’t like, or to someone at a loss in terms of meaning and purpose in their life. I think the intention is to invite that individual to entertain the possibility of a life that is more enjoyable and rewarding. It is a way of giving the person hope that there is a passion or talent in them waiting to be unleashed that will give them the meaning and purpose they so desire.

Whilst well-intentioned, I think there are a number of problems in inviting someone to find or follow their passion. What if they don’t know yet what they are interested in? What if they know what they are passionate about but aren’t very good at it? What if they are stuck working a job just to make ends meet, and don’t have the luxury of searching for their passion? What if culturally, it is more appropriate for them to be pursuing the goals of their community and not themselves?

Instead of inspiring someone, we might just end up making them feel guilty or inadequate or broken if they’ve not yet discovered their passion and/or are working furiously bringing it to life.

Are we just making life more hard for people by encouraging them to find their passion.

Now it seems there is some preliminary research to suggest that the idea of ‘finding your passion’ might have some significant downsides. It comes in the form of a series of experimental studies conducted by O’Keefe, Dweck and Walton in a paper titled ‘Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?’ to be published in Psychological Science.

The starting point for these studies is the study of implicit self-theories. Implicit self-theories are beliefs that individuals hold about different personal attributes and the extent to which those attributes are modifiable. The types of attributes that have been studied to date include ability, intelligence, and anxiety.

Individuals who have a ‘fixed’ model of a particular attribute believe that the level of that attribute is static and unchanging. Those who have a fixed model of intelligence, for example, believe you can’t change your basic level of intelligence. Individuals who have a ‘growth’ model of a particular attribute believe that the attribute can be developed or changed with deliberate action; which in the case of intelligence would mean improvements with targeted practice and feedback.

When the concept of implicit self-theories are applied to interests (i.e. ‘passions’), those with a fixed model believe passions are something you find and once you have, they are infinitely sustaining and rewarding. Furthermore, engaging with your passions isn’t hard work or challenging, because you were meant to find them. In contrast, those with a growth model of passions believe passions are developed over time, with sustained and repeated interactions with new situations and information. Because passions are developed over time, those with a growth model expect that motivation to engage in, and the rewards from these passions will wax and wane. They believe that hard work will be required at times to work on a passion.

Based on these conceptualisations, the authors hypothesised that individuals with a fixed model of interests/ passions, in contrast to a growth model would:
a) Be less likely to engage with content outside of their passion area;
b) Be more likely to endorse the idea that a passion is a constant source of motivation and inspiration;
c) Be less likely to sustain interest in a passion following a period of difficulty.

They constructed 5 experiments to test these predictions.

Let’s have a closer look.

In the first two experiments (one laboratory and one online), they took a group of students; half of which self-identified as ‘techy” (science and engineering students), and half that self-identified as ‘fuzzy’ (humanities students). Each student completed a questionnaire assessing their implicit theory of interests/passions (fixed or growth) and then read and rated two articles: a science one and a humanities one. What they found was that the more participants endorsed a fixed theory, the less interest they expressed in the mismatched article. Their conclusion? The more fixed you are in your theory about interests, the less interest you will show in a topic outside of your existing interests.

In the third experiment, the authors looked at whether manipulating students (who were similarly divided into techy and fuzzy groups) to adopt a fixed or growth model of interest would impact on their engagement with a topic outside of their area of interest. This was achieved by getting half of the students to read an article saying that interests are stable, unchanging and revealed over time (fixed), and the other half to read an article saying interests are malleable and developed over time through interaction (growth). All students were then asked to report their level of interest and engagement with two articles: one science and one humanities. Those manipulated to take a fixed model of interests were much less engaged with the article outside of their topic area, than those with a growth model.

In the fourth experiment, the authors compared students with a fixed model of interests to those with a growth model of interests on their responses to several open-ended questions.
1. “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? Please explain.”

2. “Once someone has discovered a passion, what is it like for them to pursue that passion? Please explain.”

Coders, who were blind to each student’s model of interests, rated how strongly each student endorsed ‘limitless motivation’, ‘ceasing of procrastination’ and ‘difficulty pursuing the passion’. Those with a more fixed model of interests were more likely to endorse the concept of limitless motivation and less likely to endorse the idea of a passion being difficult to pursue at times.

In the final experiment, the authors looked to see whether a person’s implicit theory of interest predicted their ability to sustain interest in the face of difficulty. Students were first exposed to the same manipulation as in experiment 3. Half of the students read an article saying that interests are stable, unchanging and revealed over time (fixed), and the other half to read an article saying interests are malleable and developed over time through interaction (growth). They then watched an entertaining and accessible video about black holes, after which they reported their interest in black holes. They were then given a much more challenging scientific article about black holes and asked to re-rate their interest in the topic. Those in the fixed model condition experienced a greater drop in interest in black holes than those with a growth model, particularly those who found the article difficult to understand. The conclusion? Those manipulated to take a fixed model of interests/ passions were less likely to sustain interest in a topic, once the topic got difficult.

What do these results mean?
It is not always easy to generalise studies from the laboratory to the real world, but at face value, the implications are this.

Those with a more fixed model of interests/passions (i.e. that passions are discovered) appear to show reduced interest in areas outside of their interests, anticipate limitless motivation (which is highly unlikely to be the case), expect less difficulty in pursuing the passion (which is also highly unlikely) and finally show a more marked decline in interest after experiencing difficulty.
In contrast, those with a more growth model of interests/passions (i.e. that passions are developed over time, with interaction and involvement) seem to have more realistic beliefs about the pursuit of interests, maintain interest in new areas, anticipate challenges, and have their interest sustained more in the face of difficulties.

So what does this say about the idea of ‘finding your passion’? To me it says that perhaps we should refine the phrase to something more like “develop your passions” and instead of sending people off on a journey where they abandon their existing place in the world, to search for a ‘better’ one, that we instead give people the tools to find meaning in the activities they are currently doing.

Interestingly, I’ve written about this before in a post called “How to derive meaning from your studies”. In that post I looked at 5 strategies for finding meaning in the context of your studies: fun, social connection, contribution to the bigger picture, goals, and routines. Perhaps instead of being concerned that your studies aren’t your ‘passion’, instead you could work on connecting more closely with those studies and developing a passion.

Man staring out window

I’d like to finish this post with a bit of a reflection on my own life that fits the narrative of this article.

There was a time in my life where I subscribed wholeheartedly to the idea of “following your passion”. It was during the latter stages of my psychology training, where I was focused, engaged and energised by the work I was doing. I was doing my PhD, learning how to be a psychologist, having great conversations with friends and colleagues and was well and truly convinced that I had found my ‘calling’. Psychology was my ‘calling’. I carried that passion and interest into my first job.

As my career developed though, my connection with psychology as a career started to wane. I started to question whether it was indeed my ‘passion’ and whether I had just made a huge mistake. I definitely lost faith in the idea of ‘finding one’s passion’ and I spent many years working, but feeling disconnected from being a psychologist.

When I started the job here at Flinders, I noticed that quite quickly my interest in psychology returned. What slowly dawned on me was that the issue wasn’t psychology. It was a combination of what other factors were attached to the job and the attitude that I brought to the work. When I started at Flinders, I found myself in a close-knit supportive team, where we could have fun as part of our work, where we could see directly what impact we were tryting to have on the world and I could have some agency (control) in what I did with my work. I realised those were many of the same factors that sustained me early in my career.

Does this mean you can find meaning and passion in any kind of work or study? I won’t go that far. You will still have interests and preferences and things you like and don’t like. But you do have some control over a number of factors that might help you turn your everyday into something more rewarding. Being open to the idea that engaging more readily with what is happening to you in the present moment may open up avenues you may never have expected.

What are your thoughts?
Does the idea of ‘finding your passion’ still fit ok?
Could you see the potential for finding more meaning and purpose in the work you are already doing?

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