Why following your passion might not be a good thing
“One of the greatest lies in life is ‘follow your passions’.” – Mark Cuban
It feels like ever since your 12th birthday party, people are always telling you the secret to a happy life is to follow your passion. This is reaffirmed everywhere with quasi-motivational mantras like “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life” and “Follow your dreams” etc, etc.
This is a lot of pressure. What if you don’t know what your passion is? What if your passion is something really, really hard to make it doing? What if you don’t know how to follow it?
From young people who have been there (and maybe still are), this is pretty much everyone.
Last year, StudyTime wrote an article on working out what to do with your life. In it, we talked about the sometimes unhelpful notion of passion, and why it’s actually good not to have a singular, certain one.
“The best thing you can do right now is to experiment with what you enjoy and are good at, and figure out what skills you have gained from your experiences. Eventually, somewhere down the line, you’ll stumble upon a vocation that is engaging and enjoyable enough to fuel a desire to succeed in that field.”
Recently, Stanford University conducted a pretty groundbreaking study entitled ‘Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?” that’s about to be published in Psychological Science. The purpose of the study was an exact reply to the societal and self-inflicted pressure to follow your passion: to examine the beliefs that lead people to success or fail.
“People are often told to find their passion as though passions and interests are pre-formed and must simply be discovered.”
That line is the first sentence of the study – and we couldn’t agree more. The scientists in the lab pretty much wanted to figure out if interests and passions are there within us all along, lying dormant until the stars align and we’re rocketed into success and happiness…
OR if interest and passion must be actively formed through investment and persistence. The former (the idea that your passion is something innate) they say, has pretty detrimental effects on motivation.
First, this belief in a magical passion leads us to become frustrated when we’re not succeeding in something we think we love.
Second, idolising a singular interest as the only ultimate goal narrows the scope of our life, causing us to disregard other opportunities and strengths before giving them the time of day.
It’s possible to be passionate about many things. It’s possible to grow passionate about something through living life and taking opportunities that present themselves to us. And it’s possible to be passionate about something that isn’t a future career.
The study was pretty simple: take two groups of people, one group who were “passionate” about STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths) and one group who were “passionate” about humanities and the arts.
A total of 470 people were recorded as they read and watched resources on what they were and were not interested in. What they found was that the people who constructed a belief that they were only passionate in one area meant that they ignored the rest.
Their belief meant that they were deliberately blocking out other things in their life in order to exclusively focus on one thing – and that, the study concluded, was detrimental to their success.
Being narrow-minded doesn’t mean that you’re doing whatever it takes to achieve the one goal you have. It means that you’re reducing your chances of success by narrowing the opportunities, chances for more success, and skills that you can cultivate. More than that, it means that you can get down and frustrated in yourself when your “passion” isn’t rewarding you right now.
“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.”
The researchers explained their study using the analogy of love. Often, popular media indoctrinates us to believe in “the one”: this perfect, destined soulmate that life is about desperately trying to find before we die.
Or, people can believe it’s something to work on and grow. The first idea can means people get frustrated with their ‘bad luck’ and give up when challenges arise – the second can actually motivate people to proactively take chances and resolve challenges.
Similarly, focusing on the idea that there’s the “one” passion can lead us to become disheartened, frustrated, and a less-successful person. In fact, the study found four main conclusions:
- People focused on a passion were less open to new interests and experiences.
- People focused on a passion viewed themselves as having a fixed identity regarding their intelligence and ability to learn new things.
- The people who focused on a passion were more likely to expect boundless motivation following it; the people who didn’t were more likely to expect that following passions was going to be difficult at times.
- People focused on a passion were more likely to give up when difficulties arose.
Stop worrying about finding your “one” passion!
You are not genetically predetermined to become a successful actor.
What you are is someone capable of growing and failing and succeeding in everything that life throws at you – as long as you put in the key word: effort.
People who are successful often love what they do, because they are proud of what they accomplish, and love the feeling of working on their strengths. In this sense, effort and self-improvements fuels success, and success fuels passion.
Dwayne Johnson, one of the most successful human beings on the planet, once referred to his high school American football passion as “the best dream that never happened”.
So, work on realising and exercising your strengths, and by bettering yourself through the opportunities that come your way. We live now in a world that is unprecedented, interconnected and open: just look at the lives of fitness YouTubers combining “passions” in film and the gym. What this means is that we live now in a world where being narrow-minded is really, really unhelpful.
Unlike what some of the people in the Stanford study believed, it’s possible to be interested in both painting and the scientific calculations of Stephen Hawking – in fact, that makes them a more interesting, successful, and often happier person.
In the words of the researchers themselves:
“The message to find your passion is generally offered with good intentions, to convey: 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. Unfortunately, the belief system this message may engender can undermine the very development of people’s interests.”