The Truth About Finding a Satisfying Career

This article is written by Stephanie Buck and is originally published by Medium.

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.

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 who believed we all have a single passion waiting to be uncovered (also known as fixed theory) were less interested in learning about an unfamiliar field. By contrast, those who identified with the idea that we can develop many passions and interests over time (also known as growth theory) were more engaged with the article outside their expertise. In other words, believing that we’re all limited to a narrow set of innate interests can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I talked to O’Keefe about his research on fixed theory versus growth theory, how our personal approaches to this dichotomy can influence our success, and why the rallying cry to “find your passion” may actually be the blind spot that ultimately cripples your resume.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Medium: Can you describe your theory about fixed versus developed passion for someone who’s not familiar with the concepts?

Paul O’Keefe: We got inspired because of the saying “find your passion.” 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.

It reminds me of the soul mate debate — whether we’re destined for one preordained partner or whether we can match and evolve with any number of partners. Did that come up for you at all?

Totally. You can think that you need to find “the one,” and if you’re dating around and you’re not completely wowed by that person, then you might just keep dating. Like, “It’s a nice date, but clearly it’s not the one because I wasn’t blown away.” That’s how someone with a fixed theory might think of it.

But someone with a growth theory might go on a first date and have a nice time and think, “There’s something that could grow there. And that growth takes time. So let’s go on a second date, and a third date, and a fourth date.” It’s this expectation that it’s a process.

Why do you think this study was important to do?

I think in particular of how ubiquitous it is, the idea that people must find their passion. It’s sending, we think, a pretty terrible message to people, and a very passive message. It’s almost saying, “Your passion exists. It’s just that you’ll stumble on it. You don’t really need to do anything. Everything will fall into place.” Obviously that’s not true, so that expectation can really hurt people.

Whereas someone with a growth theory, they never expect it to be easy. They expect it to be a developmental process that has difficulties from time to time. So for them, when they’re dating, or pursuing their passions, sometimes it’s difficult, but that’s not a signal that this wasn’t their passion after all. It’s that this is the nature of things.

And we find that too, in our research. When we spark a new interest in participants and then we follow it up with a task that’s difficult, but on the exact same thing they just found fascinating, people with a fixed theory will show a decrease in interest quite significantly. They just shed their interest that we just gave them. But people with a growth theory maintain that interest, even when it becomes difficult, and that’s because their expectation for what that passion or interest will do for them was never violated.

How do people who favor one approach over the other — either finding passion or developing passion — tend to develop their careers?

That’s definitely not something that we know yet. We haven’t examined it. However, we have speculated a bit.

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.

Interest is not a zero-sum game, where gains in some area means subtractions in another.

It’s possible that fixed interest could be good in some cases. I wonder if there are cases for a fixed theorist where they’re in a field that is really insular — I’m just making something up here, and I don’t really believe this — say, a mathematician who’s just working on proofs. Maybe it’s not so great for them to be developing all these other interests that might take them away from that singular focus.

But the downside is that they might be left behind in many ways. If a fixed theorist goes to college and just stays in one field and thinks that’s the only thing they want to do, they’re going to be released into the real world to find out that they only have some of the skills that are useful for employers.

Playing devil’s advocate, though, wouldn’t a fixed interest lead to more focused expertise?

We questioned this ourselves. Is a growth mindset creating dilettantes? And so far we don’t have a definitive answer, but we have evidence to suggest that that’s not the case at all. What we’re finding is that there is a beautiful additive effect — it’s not a zero-sum game, where gains in some area means subtractions in another.

Let’s say someone finds themselves in a career they’re not enjoying, or perhaps that the economy obligates them to take. Can a growth mindset help people remain open-minded to that experience, or cultivate interest or value in that job even if they might not like it?

I think it’s the first step, absolutely. Virtually everything has a potential for interest. You need to understand that this is the nature of interest, that it can be developed anywhere.

There’s a theory of the development of interest that suggests that we hold interests in different ways. Something we call “situational interest” means something in the environment is grabbing our attention. Imagine a physics professor does this really cool experiment, and there are explosions in the lecture hall. Everyone in class is riveted. That’s one way we can be interested, but it’s very external.

The other way, of course, is when we think about individual or personal interests, maybe even interests as part of identity — “I am a math person,” for example. To get to that point, there are a few components that are needed. One is positive feelings, some sort of fascination or excitement. The other part is the value we see in it, the personal relevance of it all.

These two components are very important: positive affect and personal value. The whole idea here is that a growth mindset has to be there to begin with, but once that is in place, you can start to make these personal connections.

Can companies create a growth mindset inside their workplaces? How would that work?

There are lots of ways to do this. Some are really basic, like changing the culture of a business. Managers and organizational cultures send signals about what they value, whether they know it or not. And if they’re sending signals that what really matters is staying in your lane, staying with that one little silo of interest, you might end up with an organizational culture that really is pushing a fixed mindset.

Or you look at companies like the design firm IDEO, which is famously creative and innovative. They talk about it as a “T-shaped person,” the vertical line of the T being one’s core interests, one’s depth of knowledge and expertise, and the horizontal line being their ability to collaborate with people across domains and having various interests. That’s essentially someone with a growth mindset. Clearly, in their company, they’re sending a strong signal that what they value is not only expertise but a breadth of knowledge and a breadth of interests — that you could work with anyone, and what you create will be better than just staying with your one core interest.

There’s a lot of optimism in your words and in this study. But if you’re looking at it from a different perspective, why does work need to be something you’re passionate about, versus something that you’re just good at or makes you money?

I don’t think people need to be passionate about their work. Maybe this is the cynical side of me, but I hate the overuse of the word “passion.” Especially in the West, we throw it around like it’s nothing, when in fact, only some of us have real, true passions, and we probably only have one or two of them. But the thing about a career is that you’re spending your life, decades, doing something, so people want to at least like it. If it can align with your interests or passions, that is the best-case scenario.

If a career can align with your interests or passions, that is the best-case scenario, but I don’t think people need to be passionate about their work.

If you’re not happy with your career — maybe you’re just good at something but you don’t like it — a fixed theorist may be more miserable than someone with a growth theory. A fixed theorist might just have thought initially that it was a passion, and they’ve lost passion for it. People with a growth theory, they’re probably able to find some cool things about their job that keep them going, because they’re more open. But they probably also have these other interests that they indulge in on the weekend, or at night. Maybe they’re in a band and playing pubs, and that helps keep them going and happy.

You said Western culture tends to focus a lot on passion, rather than just interest. Which side does the West tend to fall on: fixed or growth?

Growth. You find that people in America have a stronger growth theory, but it’s a matter of degree. It’s actually a really interesting question, because culture matters quite a bit.

In the United States and Canada, we’ve been prosperous for a long time, for centuries. In a place like Singapore, which is where I live right now, it’s only been prosperous and economically stable for a few decades. When you talk to parents there who lived through these really, really hard economic times in Singapore, the way that they talk about passions and interests is different than the younger generations. For the parents, it’s foolish to be indulging in these things. For the younger generation, like my students, more and more they want to pursue something that moves them, that is meaningful and fulfilling to them, even if it doesn’t pay the most.

I moved to Singapore at a time when it’s reaching this economic stability; it’s kind of an economic powerhouse now. And you see the arts creeping in. You see people exploring other interests. You see people exploring different career paths because, now, their parents are wealthy. It’s been really fascinating to see how these things play out differently between cultures.

What passion are you developing next?

I have a much stronger interest, after moving to Singapore, in cross-cultural differences and why those differences exist. It’s been a really fascinating experience for me, having been an American educated in America, where most of this psychological science is conducted and to feel like you know something really, really deep and true about the human condition. And then you move to the other side of the planet and you realize, ‘Oh, that’s true for those people, for Americans. That’s not true here.’ That’s been a real eye-opener.

That’s the direction my research has been going recently — to understand how people from different cultures think about their passions and the value they place on them, and whether they think it’s even smart to pursue them in the first place.

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