Do You Find or Develop a Passion?

by Nancy Ordman

How many commencement speakers advise graduates that a key to professional satisfaction is to find and follow their passions? Such advice assumes that everyone has a singular passion — which is not necessarily an accurate assumption. And researchers at Stanford suggest that this well-intended guidance could backfire.

Psychologists Carol Dweck, Gregory Walton and Paul O’Keefe started from Dweck’s prior research on fixed versus growth mindsets and tested the effects these different mindsets have on interests. A person with a fixed mindset assumes that individuals are endowed with a given and unchanging amount of intelligence and talent. A person with a growth mindset believes that intelligence and talent can develop and increase over time, given the proper care and feeding. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that interests already exist and are merely awaiting discovery; a person with a growth mindset believes that interests can develop.

In the course of five experiments, the researchers discovered how fixed mindsets could ultimately limit an individual’s ability to contribute to his or her field of endeavor. Fixed-mindset research participants showed less interest in articles outside their defined areas of interest; in an increasingly interdisciplinary world, workers ignore knowledge from other disciplines at their peril. Growth mindsets leave their owners open to gaining and applying this knowledge to seemingly unrelated problems.

“Many advances in sciences and business happen when people bring different fields together, when people see novel connections between fields that maybe hadn’t been seen before,” Walton said.

Another experiment tested individuals’ ability to keep plugging away developing an interest when confronted with challenges, such as understanding a complicated concept or difficult mathematics. Fixed-mindset individuals assume that they lack the ability to overcome challenges and so abandon the interest. “Difficulty may have signaled that it was not their interest after all,” the researchers wrote.

Those with growth mindsets believe that they can learn what they need to know to succeed when a difficulty comes up. The researchers propose that this group’s beliefs about interests may be more realistic than their fixed-mindset peers.

The research team suggests that instead of waiting for a passion to manifest itself, people keep an open mind, follow an interest where it takes them and push through difficulties.

“If you look at something and think, ‘that seems interesting, that could be an area I could make a contribution in,’ you then invest yourself in it,” said Walton. “You take some time to do it, you encounter challenges, over time you build that commitment.”