Why ‘Find Your Passion’ Is Such Terrible Advice

This article is authored by Stephanie Lee and is originally published by The New York Times.

Are you passionate about your work? Fulfilled in every aspect of your career?

If yes, congratulations! You’ve done what we all strive for but rarely achieve.

As for the rest of us, there’s hope: Part of why we haven’t found our passion yet is that we tend to give up quickly on new things. The reason? Prepare for a hard truth: We’re pretty bad at most things when we first try them.

People “often assume that their own interest or passion just needs to be ‘found’ or revealed. Once revealed, it will be in a fully formed state,” said Paul A. O’Keefe, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Nonsense, of course, he said.

“By that logic, pursuing one’s passion should come with boundless motivation and should be relatively easy,” he said.

Dr. O’Keefe was part of a team that published a study in 2018 that examined how two different “implicit theories of interest” impacted how people approach new potential passions. One, the fixed theory, says that our interests are relatively fixed and unchanging, while the other, the growth theory, suggests our interests are developed over time and not necessarily innate to our personality.

In other words: Do we truly find our passions, or develop them over time? (You can probably guess where this is going.)

The researchers found that people who hold a fixed theory had less interest in things outside of their current interests, were less likely to anticipate difficulties when pursuing new interests, and lost interest in new things much quicker than people who hold a growth theory. In essence, people with a growth mind-set of interest tend to believe that interests and passions are capable of developing with enough time, effort and investment.

“This comes down to the expectations people have when pursuing a passion,” Dr. O’Keefe said. “Someone with a fixed mind-set of interest might begin their pursuit with lots of enthusiasm, but it might diminish once things get too challenging or tedious.”

Passion alone won’t carry you through in the face of difficulty, he said, when overcoming those challenges actually counts.

Sunny Verma, founder of the tutoring service TutorBright, said that if “desire drives your actions, which in turn, align with your belief, that’s when great things start to happen.”

He added: “If we are not naturally good at something, it becomes really easy to give ourselves a label of, ‘I am just not good at whatever I am trying to do.’ Then we carry this mind-set of learned helplessness with us to adulthood, and if we don’t succeed on our first or second try, we think it’s better to quit.”

As a result, we tend to internalize this intense fear of being terrible at something and failing, making it difficult to enjoy the difficulties and struggles, which are necessary and healthy parts of any process for growth and success. What’s missing, according to Mr. Verma, is an emphasis on positive psychology techniques, like affirmations and encouragement.

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Think of toddlers learning to walk. They struggle to find strength in their legs and not trip every few steps, but parents cheer them on instead of focusing on the failures. While we’re not all lumbering toddlers, the point is that many of us rarely feel that positivity and encouragement around our endeavors later in life.

One important step to change our approach to potentially new passions is to redefine failure as the catalyst to change and improvement, rather than as a final destination. When you look to successful people you admire, study them not only for their victories and achievements, but also for how they overcame failures and changed as a result of them. (Click here for more advice about learning from your failures.) And when you’re pursuing new passions, remember that the process itself and the steps you need to take are just as important as your end goal. Temper your expectations and build failure in to your plan, then learn to recognize and celebrate small milestones along the way.

Still, knowing when to call it quits matters, too. If you’re struggling with the question of whether to give up or persevere, Dr. O’Keefe suggests asking yourself: Am I enjoying this? Do I care about becoming good? Are these skills useful to me?

When you understand that the process “is the nature of developing interests and passions, it likely won’t invalidate your feeling that the activity is your passion,” Dr. O’Keefe said.

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