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The folly of ‘following your passion’

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If you’re a young person in America, you’ve undoubtedly been bombarded by calls to “follow your passion,” “pursue your dreams,” or “do what you love and love what you do.”

But do these sugary mantras truly represent the path to vocational clarity, economic abundance, personal fulfillment, and human flourishing?

Not according to a new study by researchers from Stanford University and Yale-NUS College, which found that “following your passion” is likely to lead to overly limited pursuits, inflated expectations (career, economic, or otherwise), and early or eventual burnout.

“People are often told to find their passion as though passions and interests are pre-formed and must simply be discovered,” write the authors (Paul O’Keefe, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton). “This idea, however, has hidden motivational implications…Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”

The paper, “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?“, assesses the differences between a “fixed theory” and “growth theory” of interests, and how each might effect ones psychology and actions over time. The key question: “whether interests and passions are understood as inherent and relatively fixed or as developed.”

Although the popular culture tells us to “look within,” assuming a fixed set of passions to guide us on our way, researchers found more positive results among those who allow room for interests and intelligence to develop over time. The paper summarizes the findings as follows:

Relative to a growth theory, a fixed theory reduces interest outside people’s preexisting interests (Studies 1–3). Within people’s area of interest, a fixed theory, more than a growth theory, leads people to anticipate that a passion will provide limitless motivation and that pursuing it will not be difficult (Study 4). When this expectation is violated, a fixed theory leads to a sharper decline in interest—as if the person comes to think that the topic was not their interest after all (Study 5).

A growth theory, by contrast, leads people to express greater interest in new areas, to anticipate that pursuing interests will sometimes be challenging, and to maintain greater interest when challenges arise. These differences were found both when we assessed naturally occurring variation in theories of interest (Studies 1, 2, and 4) and when we experimentally induced theories, demonstrating their causal effect (Studies 3 and 5).

The results are helpful in taming those more common cultural prods. But even if we accept a “growth mindset” and prepare ourselves for a difficult and wide-ranging vocational journey, we still have to ask ourselves some basic questions. Amid that growth and personal development, from where are we getting our direction? Are we still looking only to the self and its momentary passions—fixed or not—or are we looking outward and upward as well?

As the researchers note, the very existence of this debate is due to the unique individualism of our age. “The injunction to find your passion draws on an independent view of the self in which important properties are seen as arising from within individuals and as defining them in contrast to others,” they write. “In interdependent cultural contexts, by contrast, interests may be understood as arising from duties and the desire to maintain harmony in families and communities.”

We’d do well to acknowledge those cultural differences and consider the role that “interdependence” ought to play in our vocational actualization, even (or especially) in the context of modern democratic capitalism. What about the problems that actually need to be solved in the world around us? How might our gifts and economic contributions meet the needs of our neighbors? As David Brooks once wrote: “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life.”

Further, for Christians, this sort of external, others-oriented “needs assessment” corresponds closely with basic faithfulness and obedience to God. The Bible is filled with examples of God calling people to tasks, careers, and vocations that at first seemed largely misaligned with their gifts, talents, and “passions.” From Moses to Gideon to Jonah to Saul to Elijah to Peter and beyond, God routinely gives specific direction to specific people, and in doing so, confounds the designs of man, redirecting us instead toward new forms of service and sacrifice.

Discerning that path involves a whole lot more than a self-centered pursuit of the passions. As Charlie Self explains in his book, Flourishing Churches and Communities, not until we synthesize spiritual formation, personal wholeness, and relational integrity can we hope to find vocational clarity and connect the dots between this, that, and the other — discovering, knowing, pursuing, and loving “our purpose” in the Christian life:

Vocational clarity occurs when believers understand that their new identity in Christ aligns with God’s revealed will in Scripture and they begin to grasp their specific role in the body of Christ and broader society. Clarity includes knowledge of natural strengths and spiritual gifts, specific callings, and skills that add value in chosen fields of work.

Flourishing churches and communities depend upon all parts of the body fulfilling their functions. God’s callings and gifts are not static—they are dynamic as Christians learn to live by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit (Rom. 8:1–17; Gal. 5:22–26). Vocational clarity is not overspecialization or vague feelings but rather increasing wisdom regarding the value each person brings to the mission or the task.

Vocational clarity will enhance flexibility and make maturing believers more employable in an ever-changing labor market. Regardless of college major or past positions in industry, Christians who are clear about their abilities and value will have greater opportunities. Such flexibility is not just for the highly educated or technologically skilled; it is the privilege of every child of the King. There are no inferior or superior people, just unique assignments.

So while the results of such studies are meaningful, showing us the bigger picture and complexity of healthy and fruitful vocational journeys, we needn’t only look to the self and its supposed range of gifts, preferences, and needs.

Surely it is better to say “develop your passion” than “find your passion,” as the study concludes. But as we do so, let’s remember to follow the voice of God and consider the needs of our neighbors throughout that development, aligning our hearts and hands accordingly.

Image: AJEL, CC0

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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