This short article  on National Public Radio a few days ago has me thinking about the meaning and consequence of passion.
My husband grew up in the Pacific Northwest. In the few photo albums that document his childhood, most of the pictures are of fly-fishing expeditions. My husband developed a passion at an early age. He remembers the stats on just about every fish he ever caught; where he caught it, how big it was, what kind of fly he used, what time of year… etc. He happily tells stories of bouncing around, sleepily, under the canopy of the family pickup as his dad drove the truck through the cold and rainy mid-winter wee hours of weekend mornings to be on the river before first light. It’s no surprise that my husband grew up to get a bachelors’ degree in biology, a PhD in fish feeding mechanics, and an academic position teaching biology and studying functional morphology of fish. His career followed a natural progression from an almost innate love of fish (actually a love of stream biology in general). He was hooked, if you’ll forgive my pun.
When I was young, my father told me that the earlier you know what you want to do, the better off you’ll be. This is the follow your passion notion. I so much wanted to be like my best friend, who from age 6 was set on becoming a writer. Instead, I skimmed the surface of many topics, finding myself torn between diverse interests. What a lot of pressure - what was my passion? How could I choose? I waited until the last possible day of my sophomore year in college to declare my major. And though I did love biology (which I finally settled on as a major), I also really loved my art history and music theory classes. I discovered as I worked through my biology degree that I hated introductory chemistry, but by the time I struggled through three chemistry prerequisites I mastered the subject and ended up loving it so much that I took an extra semester of organic chemistry.
Unlike my husband, who had a ready-made passion to run with and happily explore to great depths, and which, by the way has grown and branched into lots of passions, I built a passion by doing it, and mastering it, and then enjoying it. The more biology I did, the fonder I grew of it. I love what I do now, a non-traditional mix of teaching and writing about biology. Maybe I’m just lucky that I could find something to love doing. Or maybe I would enjoy almost anything that I worked on hard enough to master. I’m not sure.
The NPR article that I alluded to above featured Max, a talented college grad who knows he is supposed to follow his passion to find the “right” career for him. However, he is a generalist, he can’t find his passion, and he is lost. Does he need to first find a passion to find a career? How do you do that? If he can’t do what he loves, will he love what he does? Should he base his career on more practical constraints?
I wonder: are academics more likely to be people that followed strong innate passions from an early age? Have you found your passion? Is your career based on it? Do you have more than one? And how much do you force your kids to do in order to encourage passion? For example, I’m thinking about my daughter who kicked up a huge fuss for the first couple years that I required her to do piano lessons. Now that she has gotten pretty good at it she enjoys sitting down and playing the piano. Even if it’s not a “passion” for her I think it will bring life long enjoyment, and in retrospect I’m glad I stuck it through (painful though it was). How do you advise your kids on passion?