BE WILDLY CURIOUS

“Find your passion” is bad advice, say Yale and Stanford psychologists

Your passion isn’t out there, waiting to be discovered. It’s not a mysterious force that will—when found—remove all obstacles from your path. In fact, psychologists argue in a new study that the pithy mantra “find your passion” may be a dangerous distraction.

In a study (pdf) by researchers from Stanford and Yale-NUS college in Singapore—a collaboration between Yale University and the National University of Singapore—soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers examined “implicit theories of interest.” Administering five tests, they measured the effects of fixed versus growth mindsets—belief in inherent interests as opposed to those that are developed—to determine how our convictions influence learning and resilience. “Are interests there all along, waiting to be revealed?” the researchers ask. “Or must a spark of interest be cultivated through investment and persistence?”

The answer to these questions, it turns out, hinges on our approach to interests. Based on the latest findings, people who have a fixed mindset—the almost mystical belief that passions are revealed to us magically—seem to be less curious and motivated than those with a growth mindset, who understand interests unfold as a process.

Let’s get less passionate about passion

“We need to carefully consider what we communicate to people about interests and passions,” Yale-NUS college psychologist Paul O’Keefe, the lead researcher, tells Quartz. “Parents, teachers, and employers might get the most out of people if they suggest that interests are developed, not simply found. 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.”

O’Keefe warns that the directive to “find your passion” suggests a passive process. Telling people to develop their passion, however, suggests an active one that depends on us—and allows that it can be challenging to pursue. This, the psychologist says, “is a realistic way of thinking.”

Instead of looking for a magic bullet, that one thing you must be meant to do even though you don’t know what it is yet, it can be more productive to perceive interests flexibly, as potentially endless. A growth mindset, rather than a fixed sense that there’s one interest you should pursue single-mindedly, improves the chances of finding your passion—and having the will to master it. This approach will also inform your work by providing additional perspectives gleaned through multiple interests, O’Keefe tells Quartz.

This latest study builds on the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who has written a great deal about the benefits of a growth mindset. She worked on the new study as well. Dweck’s previous research has shown that people who perceive of themselves as works in progress, who believe in the possibilities of development rather than the fact that we’re all born with inherent fixed traits, tend to be happier, more motivated, and more successful. “In this [growth] mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts,” Dweck wrote in her 2007 book Mindset, the New Psychology of Success.

The paths to ultimate flexibility

The new research examines the effects of fixed and growth mindsets on learning, curiosity, and motivation. In three different test with different subjects, college students who identified either as technology and science types or as art and literature types—but not both—were assigned articles to read outside of their stated areas of interest. Subjects answered questions on their theories of interests about a month before, so they wouldn’t connect the test with their mindset and adjust for the experiment. The studies—done with Stanford University students and online with college students from all over the US—showed that those with a growth mindset were more inclined to find the articles interesting.

In a fourth test, students answered a questionnaire about the effects of passions and interests. They could respond as they wished to these queries—it wasn’t multiple choice. They were asked to consider questions about obstacles one might face in an area of interest.

The researchers learned that even within a person’s area of interest, “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.” When that expectation isn’t met, those with a fixed mindset may decide that, since their passion isn’t carrying them, maybe the subject isn’t really what they are meant to study. “[A] fixed theory leads to a sharper decline in interest,” the researchers conclude.

A fifth experiment had tech and science types and the artistically inclined all look at a video on black holes. The video was short and engaging, created for a lay audience. Almost all of the subjects said they found it “fascinating.” Then they had to read a difficult scientific article on the theories behind black holes and that’s when mindset came into play. Even the artsy types who showed a growth mindset on a previously administered questionnaire were more inclined to slog through the tough text than the science nerds with a fixed perspective. “A growth theory…leads people to express greater interest in new areas, to anticipate that pursuing interests will sometimes be challenging, and to maintain greater interest when challenges arise,” the psychologists write.

Incorporating dreams into real life

O’Keefe says that these findings can be applied to our individual lives and society. By encouraging a growth mindset in schools, demonstrating it in our approach to information, and minding our mantras, students and all of the other people we encounter might be more inclined to adopting a growth mindset, too. “There’s no problem with encouraging students to pursue that one ‘thing,'” he says, “But why can’t that ‘thing’ be informed and complemented by the world of knowledge that exists?”

Adopting a growth mindset won’t turn you into a superficial generalist. But it could help you better understand the topics you’ve chosen to master. “Our work shows that a growth mindset increases interest in areas outside of students’ pre-existing interests. Furthermore, this newly developed interest does not appear to detract from their pre-existing interests. In other words, by encouraging a growth mindset, we don’t see evidence that students become dilettantes. Instead, they might be seeing connections among new areas and the interests they already have. That’s a powerful learning tool,” says O’Keefe.

He argues that a growth mindset can only offer benefits, whereas a fixed perspective can have dangerous downsides, including a tendency to abandon interests when faced with any difficulties. “One can have a growth theory and still be highly focused,” according to O’Keefe. “A growth mindset makes people more open to new and different interests and sustains those interests when pursuing them becomes difficult.”

The researchers liken this approach to learning to perspectives on romance. Those who search for their one true love have unrealistic expectations and can end up on an endless and empty quest. Meanwhile, those who believe that love is a project and a process will exercise more patience when their partner falls short of expectations and can ultimately experience moments of true love. Extend the logic to interests, and the chances of actually being passionately fascinated increases.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the study was conducted by Yale-NUS in Singapore, not Yale University in the US, and that Paul O’Keefe teaches at Yale-NUS.

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