All that advice to 'find your passion' isn't just cliché — it could be actively bad

Strelka Institute/FlickrTry developing your passion instead.
  • The psychology of being passionate about something is complicated.
  • A new paper distinguishes between college students who think their interests are innate and those who think their interests can be cultivated. The first group of students was more inclined to be interested in topics outside their field of study.
  • The paper authors, as well as other experts, say it’s dangerous to believe that passion is something you simply find because you may be unwilling to do the hard work necessary to develop it.

As a sophomore in college, I took an introductory chemistry class. To this day, I’m not entirely sure why.

I remember that semester as being spent mostly in the library with the teaching assistant, watching her draw the same image on a chalkboard dozens of times until I “got it” (i.e. understood just enough that I wouldn’t fail the exam).

I suspect that I’d enrolled in the course because I thought that chemistry was “cool” – that learning more about atoms and molecules and… other chemical stuff would afford me a new understanding of the way the world worked.

Needless to say, my experience in the class disabused me of that optimism. I was clearly not a “science person,” and I threw myself into my literature and psychology coursework with renewed vigour.

But what does it mean exactly to be a “science person” – and what happens when we decide that we are (or aren’t) one? A new paper, forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science, yields some preliminary answers.

If you think interests are innate, you may be less intrigued by new topics than if you think interests are developed

The paper, which was highlighted recently in The Atlantic, describes a series of studies in which researchers at Yale-NUS College and Stanford University test the implications of having a “fixed” theory or a “growth” theory when it comes to academic interests.

These terms come from psychologist Carol Dweck, who was one of the authors on the study.

Dweck’s years of research suggest that a growth mindset – believing that you can get smarter or better at something – is generally preferable over a fixed mindset – believing that intelligence and ability are innate. (It’s worth noting that there’s recently been some controversy over whether Dweck’s past research is replicable.)

In the context of interests, a fixed theory means you believe core interests are innate, and you discover them; a growth theory means that you develop interests over the course of your lifetime.

In one study described in the paper, college students indicated whether they were interested more in technology, maths, engineering, and hard sciences or in the arts and humanities. Then they indicated how much they agreed with statements such as, “You can be exposed to new things, but your core interests won’t really change.”

Finally, the students read articles that did and not correspond to their field of interest (i.e. the students interested in techy subjects read an article about the arts and humanities and then an article about techy subjects, and the students interested in the arts and humanities did the same).

The researchers wanted to know how interested the students were in the articles.

Results showed that students who displayed a stronger fixed theory (meaning they agreed more strongly with the statements) showed less interest in the article if it didn’t match their field of interest. A follow-up study suggests that having a strong fixed theory actually causes students to be less interested in topics outside their field.

Further studies looked at how fixed theories might influence students’ willingness to pursue an area that they were interested in.

The researchers had students watch a short video about black holes that was geared toward a general audience. Then the students read a journal article about black holes, intended for a scientific audience.

Results showed that most students were “fascinated” by the topic of black holes after watching the video, but less interested after reading the article – especially if they displayed a fixed theory of interest.

Believing that interests are innate isn’t always a bad thing – especially because time is a limited commodity

The authors are careful to note that a fixed theory of interest, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. I couldn’t help but think of psychologist Anders Ericsson’s research on the development of expertise: Ericsson suggests that focusing so intently on one skill means you necessarily sacrifice the ability to work on others.

But a fixed theory could be detrimental, the authors say, when it leads you to close yourself off to new interests, or to give up when the area that interests you proves too difficult.

“If passions are things found fully formed, and your job is to look around the world for your passion – it’s a crazy thought,” study co-author Greg Walton told The Atlantic. “It doesn’t reflect the way I or my students experience school, where you go to a class and have a lecture or a conversation, and you think,That’s interesting. It’s through a process of investment and development that you develop an abiding passion in a field.”

Walton’s argument jibes with insights from Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of “Grit.” As Duckworth previously told Business Insider, “passions begin with interest and interests are not merely discovered” – as is popularly believed – “they’re also actively developed and deepened.”

Since reading through the Psychological Science paper, I’ve been thinking about my college self. Was I too quick to dismiss chemistry – and science in general – as a field outside my interest and ability? Maybe, but maybe not.

After all, there’s a limit to how many courses you can realistically take as an undergrad, and I probably would have been sorry to miss out on all the literature and psychology classes I was drawn to.

Which is why, unfortunately, there isn’t a neat solution to this problem. Perhaps the best thing to do is simply know that there’s no career or area of study that’s off-limits to you. You can try anything, within reason. And the worst-case scenario? You cut your losses and move onto something else.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.