Find your passion? That's bad advice, scientists say.

Tara Bahrampour

By Tara Bahrampour The Washington Post

Published July 26,2018

Find your passion? That's bad advice, scientists say.
"Find your passion" is a mantra dictated to everyone from college students to retirees to pretty much anyone seeking happiness.

But according to a forthcoming study from Stanford and Yale-NUS College in Singapore, it's actually bad advice - and may actually make it harder for people to figure out what they love to do.

Why? The idea of "finding" one's passion implies that people have built-in interests just waiting to be discovered, and if you can simply figure out what they are you will magically be able to embrace them, says the study, which will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

But people with that mind-set are more likely to give up on their newfound interest when they hit the inevitable roadblock, the study found. Instead, researchers say true passion develops - through being open-minded about delving into a new topic, and being willing to put some work into it.

Earlier studies had focused on people who had "fixed" versus "growth" mind-sets about intelligence - that is, whether one believes intelligence is fixed (you either have it or you don't) or it can be cultivated. In this study, researchers looked at the differences between people who believe interests are static and those who believe they can be developed with time and effort.

They conducted five experiments involving 470 participants. In one, they recruited undergraduate students who identified either as "fuzzy" (interested in the arts and humanities) or "techie" (interested in STEM topics). They had the students read two articles, one about technology and the other about literary criticism - and found that those who held a fixed mind-set about interests were less open to the article that was outside their interest area.

In another experiment, students were shown a video about black holes and the origin of the universe, which most found fascinating. But when asked to read a denser scientific article on the same topic, the students with a fixed mind-set lost interest more quickly than the ones who believed interests can be cultivated.

The study used undergraduates because "they're young and they're at a time in their life when they're being bombarded with the idea that you have to go out and find your passion," said Paul O'Keefe, assistant professor of psychology at Yale-NUS College and the paper's lead author. "They might be waiting for that trigger to happen - 'Oh yeah, that's my interest after all' - versus, 'Maybe I'll take this astronomy class, even though it looks hard.'"

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, a co-author of the study (and a pioneer in earlier research on fixed versus growth theories of intelligence), said her 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."

If finding a calling through developing yourself sounds too vague, here's a more concrete incentive: Developing a range of interests can also boost your grades and predict future success.

That's because focusing too narrowly on one kind of interest can cause people to miss developing knowledge in other areas that could help them succeed in their field, O'Keefe said.

Students with a growth mind-set "engage in their coursework more deeply and more enthusiastically, resulting in better learning," he said. "And if [they] are more open to things outside of their previous interests, then they might be seeing more connections between what they're learning and what the other things are."

In a world that is becoming more interdisciplinary, the future will belong to those who cultivate passions in a variety of areas, such as science and the humanities, O'Keefe said.

"That's what Steve Jobs was all about - he didn't just make a computer; he made a computer that was a piece of art."