“Find Your Passion” — Smooth Ride or Train Wreck?

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You follow an interest to a career. If you’re really interested, your career might become your passion. So why not go straight for your passion as a career strategy?

It depends whether you operate with a “fixed” or “growth” theory about what interests you. “Follow your passion” might work if you’re a growth theory person. But if you’re a ‘fixed theory” person, it could be a disaster.

That’s the message of “The Truth About Finding a Satisfying Career:  Why Linking Your Work to Your Interests Can do More Harm Than Good.” Medium (Jan. 22, 2019).

“You hear it everywhere. It’s on graduation cards, in motivational speeches, and practically wallpapers the halls of Silicon Valley: ‘Find your passion.’ As if each of us was born with one ideal pursuit that will fulfill us until our final day on Earth. All we need to do is locate it, and everything else will fall into place.

“The problem isn’t just that this is totally unrealistic; according to psychologist Paul O’Keefe, a professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, it’s also selling us short in our careers, our studies, and how we interact with the world. In a recent study titled Implicit Theories of Interest, O’Keefe and his co-authors, two psychologists from Stanford, identified a compelling case against the idea of finding your one true passion.”

“We got inspired because of the saying ‘find your passion,’” O’Keefe said in an interview with the article’s author.

“It’s something you hear all the time, and we were thinking a potentially unintended consequence is that it’s suggesting to people that a passion is there somewhere, like buried treasure: You just need to awaken it, or find it, or reveal it in some way.

“So we started thinking, well, what is the consequence of believing that it’s there waiting to be uncovered? That’s essentially the idea of a fixed theory of interest, the belief that interests are inherent and relatively unchanging. If you’ve already found your interest, and you think you have these limited, inherent interests, then there’s no reason, logically, to keep searching or exploring for other interests.

“But if you have a growth theory, you believe interests are developed. So even if you already have a very strong interest or passion, it wouldn’t preclude you from exploring new things or developing new interests.”

A fixed theory means you believe there’s a career passion out there with your name on it. If you don’t find it, you’ll be frustrated. In fact, “the rallying cry to ‘find your passion’ may actually be the blind spot that ultimately cripples your resume.” Better for you to stay where you are and deepen your expertise instead of chasing after a passion you’ll never find.

On the other hand, if you operate from a growth theory, you’ll “expect [your career] to be a developmental process that has difficulties from time to time.” As a result you’ll accept career disenchantment as part of “the nature of things,” and be energized, not demoralized, by the need to try something new — a useful outlook in today’s job marketplace:

“Growth theory, we think, is extremely advantageous for people’s careers. The world is becoming more globalized, it’s becoming more complex, and it’s about seeing how information is integrated, and how solutions can be much more interdisciplinary. We think people with a growth mindset might be drawn to these interdisciplinary careers, while people with a fixed theory might just want to live in their silo of interest.”

O’Keefe and his collaborators are unequivocal that “the idea that people must find their passion [is] sending, we think, a pretty terrible message to people.” Sure, “if a career can align with your interests or passions, that is the best-case scenario.” The trick to getting that best-case alignment is to know your theory of interest. But how would you find out?

You might try one of the study’s experiments:

“In one experiment, the researchers observed self-identified ‘techies’ and ‘fuzzies,’ Stanford lingo for liberal arts geeks, as each group read an article that pertained to their field. Not surprisingly, the participants enjoyed the articles relevant to their interests. But when they switched to read the less relevant article, the researchers made a discovery: Those [with a fixed theory] were less interested in learning about an unfamiliar field. By contrast, those [with a growth theory] were more engaged with the article outside their expertise.”

Your response might explain your patchwork resume — and maybe also why you’re okay with it.

Or it might save you from a career train wreck.