Don't Find Your Passion -- Cultivate It, Psychologists Say

A new study suggests that the old adage may not be the best way for students to learn.

July 24, 2018
 
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The traditional message to students…

When students enter college, many are told it’s an arena “to find your passion” -- that in classroom lectures, late-night debates with roommates, student clubs and/or literature, you will unearth the thing -- your career, your calling, an area that will sustain your mind and soul.

It’s just waiting to be discovered, that thing you can explore with boundless motivation.

But perhaps that’s poor advice, at least according to psychologists from Stanford University and Yale-NUS College, in Singapore.

Passions are not necessarily inherent, waiting to be found, but rather they are cultivated, the researchers argue in a new paper to be published in the journal Psychological Science.

How students are taught this lesson can affect how they learn, because those who believe the old adage -- that passions are “fixed” -- tend to give up on new interests when they get too difficult to learn, the study suggests.

"It's the idea of broadening the possibility of having more interests, allowing for the possibility that your interests could stretch," said Carol Dweck, Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford and one of the paper's authors. "And especially in higher education, that’s the time when you can readily expose yourself to a number of areas and see connections."

The researchers explore two mind-sets of developing interests -- “fixed” versus “growth.” Dweck has also notably applied these two categories to intelligence -- that you either are born with a certain degree of intellect (fixed) or it can be created (growth).

To determine how the mind-sets can affect students’ pursuit of certain interests, the researchers performed five different experiments. A total of 470 college students, some traditional-age undergraduates at four-year institutions and others from community colleges, participated.

On one test, students were asked to classify themselves as either “fuzzy,” meaning their interests lie in the arts and humanities, or “techy,” slang for being engaged in science, technology, mathematics and engineering. They were also asked whether they endorsed more the “fixed” or “growth” mind-set.

Then they were presented with an article that was deliberately mismatched to their interest. Students who believed in the “fixed” mind-set were much less interested in the subject that went against their identity as a “fuzzy” or “techy,” the study’s authors found. They also learned in another experiment that when students believe in a “fixed” mind-set, they tend to be less open to new interests.

Another test asked students to watch a video on black holes and how the universe was formed, theories from famed physicist Stephen Hawking. The video was created by The Guardian and introduced complex ideas in an easily digestible and entertaining form, the researchers said. Most of the participants said they found the concept interesting.

But then they were told to read a much more technical article about the concept, and the students who subscribed to the “fixed” mind-set theory tended to lose interest. This suggested to the researchers that when individuals believe in the “fixed” mind-set, they might be limiting themselves, even in something they’re already interested in. Dweck said that with a "growth" mind-set, students are less likely to give up when their chosen passion becomes challenging. She said college administrators can communicate to students that passions are most often developed through investigation.

The fixed view can be problematic professionally, too, according to Greg Walton, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford. He said in a summary of the paper that people who are too narrowly focused on one interest may not develop knowledge in areas that could be important to their chosen career path later. Dweck in her interview referenced Apple founder Steve Jobs, who considered aesthetics and beauty when it came to his technology.

“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.

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