This is why finding your passion can be bad advice

When you are at a loss at what to do with your life, you may have been given the well-intentioned advice to “just find your passion,” as if it is something you can just dig up from the ground. Now, new Stanford research explains why this can be bad advice.

Photo by Autumn Mott

When you are at a loss at what to do with your life, you may have been given the well-intentioned advice to “just find your passion,” as if it is something you can just dig up from the ground. Now, new Stanford research explains why this can be bad advice.

Paul O’Keefe, along with Stanford psychologists Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton, found that the mantra of “finding your passion” implies that passion is easy to pursue and sustain. It implies that it can just be discovered, fully-formed. If you encounter any difficulty in your pursuit of passion, the problem is you.

“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,” they cautioned in their paper.

Finding your passion limits your mindset of potential

If you believe in finding your passion, you are more likely to believe that your passions are relatively fixed and cannot be developed. People with fixed mindsets are ones that think that their chosen major is central to their identity. For them, science majors can only care about science and humanity majors can only care about humanities. To test this mindset, the researchers recruited college students, a demographic that is likely to hear the “find your passion” advice.

In one experiment, the students watched a popular video about black holes. Most students were fascinated, but when they were asked to read a scientific article on the same subject, the students who held a fixed mindset about interests were less open to reading it. Meanwhile, people who were open to new experiences and interests were down to read an arcane science article, even when it was outside of their wheelhouse.

“A fixed theory, more than a growth theory, leads people to anticipate that a passion will provide limitless motivation and that pursuing it will not be difficult,” the authors wrote in their paper. “When this expectation is violated, a fixed theory leads to a sharper decline in interest—as if the person comes to think that the topic was not their interest after all.”

When we tell students to find their passion, we are doing it to encourage them. It means, “Do not worry so much about talent, do not bow to pressure for status or money, just find what is meaningful and interesting to you,” the researchers said. “Unfortunately, the belief system this message may engender can undermine the very development of people’s interests.” This advice backfires, in other words, when we forget to tell starry-eyed students that pursuing your passion is going to require more than just finding it —it’s going to take a lifetime of hard work, so don’t get discouraged when the going gets tough.

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.