“Find your passion!” Whether we hear it from our parents, teachers, bosses or college commencement speakers, this injunction is woven into the fabric of American culture. It is well-intended and meant to inspire. But is it good advice?
“Finding” a passion implies that it already exists fully formed and is simply waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, this idea doesn’t square with what science tells us. Instead passions, like interests, are developed. They often begin with a spark of curiosity caused by something in one’s environment, such as a fascinating physics lecture or a moving piece of art. Through a process involving repeated engagement, positive experiences and accrued knowledge, people can come to personally value that content or activity and internalize it. What was at first interesting becomes an interest. If these qualities continue to intensify, a passion can emerge.
In several studies, we and our colleagues have found that misunderstanding this idea can hold people back. Assuming passions are immutable and essential—rather than something to cultivate and build—can cause people to be less open to different topics, less resilient to challenges in pursuit of new interests and less creative when problem-solving. Fortunately, our latest research reveals that there are ways to correct course and cultivate a more open, accurate perspective about interest.
To study these ideas, we use a framework of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets, which may be familiar from educational research. In school, conceiving of one’s intellectual abilities as fixed can be detrimental, whereas believing one can develop and grow skills supports greater learning. We argue that encouraging people to “find” their passion may cause them to eventually believe that interests and passions are inherent and relatively unchangeable. People who think this have a fixed mindset of interest. By contrast, some people, whom we refer to as having a growth mindset of interest, view their interests and passions as developed.
Our work has revealed that fixed and growth mindsets about interest are distinct from fixed and growth mindsets surrounding intellectual abilities. We have also repeatedly found that a growth mindset of interest comes with many advantages. People with a fixed mindset of interest, for example, may fall into the trap of thinking, “If I have already found my passion, why keep exploring?” In our studies, after engaging in a new science task, arts students with a fixed mindset expressed less interest in that scientific topic than arts students with a growth mindset. Meanwhile science students with a fixed mindset responded similarly to an art-related task. For those with a growth mindset, having a strong pre-existing interest in the arts or sciences did not preclude them from viewing a new area as interesting.
In addition, people with a fixed mindset of interest tend to expect their passions to provide limitless motivation, such that their favorite topics should never feel too difficult or demanding. In one study we tested this idea by sparking people’s interest in a topic that was new for them—the science of black holes—with a fun, easy-to-understand animated video about Stephen Hawking’s theories. But when we next asked our participants to read a dense and complex article on black holes from a scientific journal, people with a fixed mindset were frustrated by the technical reading and came to dislike the topic. Meanwhile those with a growth mindset maintained their newfound interest despite the difficulty.
A fixed mindset of interest can also inhibit creativity and innovation. If people believe they are limited to only a few inherent interests and, in consequence, do not explore other areas, they may miss seeing important connections across different domains. When we recruited undergraduates who identified as either an “arts person” or a “sciences person,” we found that those with a fixed mindset were less likely than those with a growth mindset to generate novel solutions—for example, ideas for new university programs—that integrated the arts and sciences. In other words, seeing interests as fixed stymied their creative potential. That loss is especially unfortunate when we consider how leaders at innovative companies have long prized problem-solving that melds ideas from diverse disciplines and brings together science, technology, art and the humanities.
So can a growth mindset of interest be taught? In June we published findings from an intervention that succeeded in that aim. In two studies involving more than 700 first-year liberal arts undergraduates in total, we began by assessing how our participants saw themselves. The majority held strong interests in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Moreover, most reported that they were not a “math-and-science person.” We then randomly assigned students to either our intervention or a study skills module. Both programs were online and took most students less than half an hour to complete during their university orientation week.
Our intervention included reading and reflective writing activities that helped students think about interests and passions as cultivated rather than as simply found and fixed. For example, the students read a short article that presented research on the benefits of viewing interests as developable. They also wrote a paragraph about an occasion when they developed interest in a new activity. We were careful to present this material in a neutral way—not as a corrective of their current behavior but rather as part of an exercise by their college to better support students’ transition to college. The study skills module had a similar set of exercises but with an emphasis on building classic skills, such as time management and active learning.
Importantly, these students were required to take at least one math and science course during their first year. That meant we could check how the intervention may have influenced their perspectives on math and science. By the end of the year, students who had received the intervention were more interested in their required math and science courses than those who received the study skills module—and this boost was particularly apparent among students who initially reported that they were not a “math-and-science person.” They also earned better grades in those courses than their counterparts who had received the study skills module. These students, who might have otherwise eschewed these disciplines, became more skilled in math and science and grew into interdisciplinary scholars.
Although our intervention offers a way for schools to support students in cultivating a growth mindset, we believe people can do a lot independently to embrace this way of thinking. First, realize that your interests and passions aren’t pre-existing and waiting to be “found.” Take an active role in developing your passions. Indulge your curiosities, get involved, and don’t expect that pursuing new interests will always be easy or exciting. If you’re a parent, teacher or boss, consider how you might foster a growth mindset of interest in others. Create opportunities for them to pursue their curiosities and interests and engender a culture that rewards exploration; the seeds of passion cannot grow in infertile soil. Of course, exploration can at times lead to failure or disappointment, so communicating that such negative experiences are normal will help others stay motivated through challenges. Finally, consider how you phrase feedback. When someone expresses waning interest in a novel task, signal that interests can develop with time and engagement.
Of course, not every activity will become a burning passion. But a growth mindset of interest will help you remain open and curious. The old saying “find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” needs to be updated. The science tells us we should instead work toward loving what we do. We might expand our horizons and become more creative and resilient as a result.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about for Mind Matters? Please send suggestions to Scientific American’s Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.