It’s graduation season, and that means it’s time to celebrate the grads in your life, revel in their accomplishments—and prepare yourself to wedge into some uncomfortable seating for a speech about the importance of uncovering your passion in life.
The “follow your dreams” talk has died down a little since the economic collapse of the late aughts. Still, remain in the orbit of a recently graduated high schooler long enough and you will still hear some well-meaning adult deliver advice to the same effect. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” “Find what you’re passionate about and the rest will follow.” It’s as inevitable as potato salad at a summer cookout.
However, some psychologists now suggest it may be less nutritious.
Recently, researchers from Stanford and Yale-NUS college (a collaboration between Yale and the University of Singapore) administered a series of tests to look at what they call “implicit theory of interest.” The question is, are our interests innate, lying dormant inside us like buried treasure until excavated? Or do we develop and nurture those interests like a garden?
If this dichotomy sounds familiar, that’s because it is: our old friend mindset has returned.
In her book Mindset, the New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck discusses two basic frameworks for life. Fixed mindset believes that traits like intelligence, creativity, and talent are inherent in a person—you either have it or you don’t. Growth mindset, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of practice, effort, and learning through failure—challenges are opportunities to stretch new muscles and become stronger. Again and again, Dweck demonstrates the benefit of growth mindset, how it leads to better achievements and a steadier, happier frame of mind.
Dweck’s book also discusses the role of mindset in romantic relationships. Fixed mindset partners are on a quest for “the one” with whom everything will be smooth sailing, while growth mindset people are more likely to put work into a relationship, understanding that love is not something to be discovered perfectly formed and intact, but instead something which must be built—and maintained—over time.
In their paper “Implicit Theories of Interest,” the researchers (including Dweck, as a matter of fact) suggest that what holds true for romantic passion appears to apply to life passions as well: it’s all about attitude.
In one study, the researchers found students who labeled themselves as either science kids or humanities kids (but not both). These students answered a survey about their own theory of interest—fixed or growth?—and then, a month later, were assigned an article outside their areas of interest. The growth mindset camp was more likely to be engaged.
In another study, students filled out an open-ended questionnaire about the obstacles one might encounter in pursuit of a dream. The researchers found that the fixed mindset students put a lot more faith in the power of passion, articulating a belief that passion would be motivation enough, and that it would carry them through the hard times without difficulty. Unfortunately, that way can lie tremendous disappointment.
This was illustrated in a small way by an additional study, in which growth-minded students were more likely to stick with a dry, challenging article about black holes than the fixed mindset crowd, regardless of their stated interest or disinterest with science. In other words, the self-identified science kids with a fixed mindset tended to give up before the growth mindset artsy kids.
“Urging people to find their passion may lead them to pull all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry,” notes the paper.