Find Your Passion? If Only It Were That Simple

Finding your true purpose isn't always a eureka moment. (Photo: John Christian Fjellestad/Shutterstock)

It's the stuff of earnest college graduation speeches: "Find your passion and follow it!" It follows that if you do work that you're passionate about, you'll be a happier and more successful person.

Sounds great, doesn't it? In fact, finding your passion has become a big business, with colleges, self-help books and courses, and experts lined up to help people discover their one true path. But for many people, that specific passion can be awfully elusive. That's because, contrary to how the idea is popularly understood, most people don't just magically find their passion one morning. That truth can be frustrating and discouraging. But even those who have ferreted out their passion can find themselves stuck in a narrow path.

That's because the very thinking behind the idea of a pre-ordained passion is a limiting way to understand yourself. Psychologists call thinking in this manner a fixed mindset. Luckily, there's another way to do it.

Fixed vs. growth

Photo: Triff/Shutterstock

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, defines fixed vs. growth mindsets in kids (but it applies to all of us):

"When children are in a fixed mindset, they believe that their intelligence and talents are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that. However, when they’re in a growth mindset, they believe that their intelligence or talents can be developed — through hard work, good strategies and help from others. They don’t necessarily believe that everyone’s equally smart or talented, but they believe that everyone can grow."

So the idea of "finding your passion" depends on this fixed mindset — that your passion is hiding inside you, that everyone has one, and that once you find it, you are set for life. That kind of thinking about your life's interests is too limiting. Instead, they suggest a healthier (and more realistic) way to approach the problem.

So what does that look like? Dweck, along with her colleague at Stanford, Gregory Walton, and postdoc Paul O'Keefe, looked at five previous studies in a new analysis. By analyzing the previous studies — which looked at different aspects of the mindsets in various groups — they were able to draw conclusions about the impact of fixed vs. growth ways of thinking.

The researchers found that, "a fixed theory was more likely to dampen interest in areas outside people’s existing interests. Those endorsing a fixed theory were also more likely to anticipate boundless motivation when passions were found, not anticipating possible difficulties." Fixed-theory thinkers were also less likely to do cross-disciplinary thinking, which is more important than ever in an information-based work world. "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 in a release from Stanford. "If you are overly narrow and committed to one area, that could prevent you from developing interests and expertise that you need to do that bridging work," Walton said.

All-or-nothing approach doesn't work

Fixed mindsets cause other problems too: In most of the more complex work we engage in today, challenges are common. If you believe that your passion should give you some kind of super-power to avoid or power through challenges, that could cause you to give up. When you aren't able to meet every challenge, your belief in your passion can wane. "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," wrote the researchers in their paper's abstract.

Conversely, a growth mindset looks like this: "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. Instead of finding your passion, you're developing it by wrestling with it over time. "You take some time to do it, you encounter challenges, over time you build that commitment." Thinking this way — developing your passion instead of somehow magically "discovering" it, means failure, small and large, is understood as a normal part of digging deep into what you love or are at least really interested in.

A growth mindset also allows you to pursue new paths when the time is right: In most industries, you should be changing jobs every three years, or at least assessing where you are and where you want to go. Developing new and emerging interests will keep you competitive and personally interested in new challenges as they come your way.