Struggling To Find Your Passion? Science Says That's Actually A Good Thing
You've been told that if you want to be happy, successful, and fulfilled, you should find your passion and just do that...forever.
What this presumes, of course, is that we have a singular, defining passion and know precisely what it is. If being asked what your passion is throws you into an existential tailspin, join the club. The problem isn't that you don't have an answer, however; it's that you're being asked the wrong question.
Do you have a fixed or a growth mindset?
The belief that anything about you (passion, personality, preferences) is set in stone is what social psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., calls a fixed mindset—there's no changing who you are or what you can do.
A growth mindset, on the other hand, is based on the belief that "your basic qualities are things you cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others," she writes in Mindset: Changing the Way You Think To Fulfill Your True Potential.
Dweck says that being fixed in one area of your life doesn't necessarily mean you're fixed in all of them. "We're all a mixture of the two," she writes—which is why you may be open to learning as you practice yoga but rigid about whom you'll date.
What your mindset has to do with passion.
As I explore in my new book Unfollow Your Passion: How To Create a Life That Matters to You, our mindset plays a significant role in how we think about and pursue things we're passionate about—as well as what we give up on.
In a paper published in Psychological Science in 2018, Paul O'Keefe, Ph.D., along with Dweck and Gregory Walton, Ph.D., explored what role the two mindsets play in exploring and developing interests.
"People are often told to find their passion, as though passions and interests are pre-formed and must simply be discovered," the authors write. "This idea, however, has hidden motivational implications."
The researchers conducted five studies on college students to examine how a fixed vs. a growth mindset about passion affected participants' willingness to explore and develop their interests.
Participants were asked to identify as either a "techy" (think math, engineering, science) or a "fuzzy" (arts and humanities) and then were given articles that matched and mismatched their interest identity. They found that a fixed mindset was associated with less interest in a topic outside of their identity; i.e., a fixed-mindset techy was less likely to entertain an interest in the humanities, whereas a growth-mindset techy might.
Worth mentioning is that those with fixed mindsets about passion believed that once they found one, it would provide "boundless" motivation, whereas those with a growth mindset knew it wouldn't always be easy. (You can probably guess who's more likely to stick with something.)
In one of the studies, the researchers showed participants a fun video about black holes, which everyone loved. Next, they were handed a difficult article on the topic, written for a scientific audience. As predicted, interest in black holes fell—but the drop-off was far more severe in those who endorsed a fixed mindset ("Guess I'm not that into astronomy after all!").
This research demonstrates that being dogged about passionate pursuits or believing you're "meant" to do something may actually undermine your ability to grow, evolve, and discover new and potentially fulfilling interests—or give up on them altogether.
As the study authors put it, "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."
What if we let go of this idea of the passion-as-Easter-egg hunt? What would it look like to embrace or explore a growth mindset around our own interests?
Here are some ways to put these insights into practice:
Don't marry one passion; date around.
Does the notion that finding your One True Passion will guarantee happiness sound familiar? It should. It's a fairy tale you were told many times over.
And while the most feminist among us will surely roll their eyes at the proverbial prince riding up on a white horse, the search for The One passion isn't really all that different.
Fact is, you don't have to marry one role, one purpose, one passion forever. Rather than wait for The One, you can give yourself the chance to develop a range of interests, even the ones that surprise you.
Every one of us would love to discover that we're a secret genius like Will Hunting or that chick from The Queen's Gambit, that one day, our brilliance will dawn on us, emerge without effort, and shine like the sun.
Chances are, your genius won't reveal itself like a hole-in-one on your first day of golf. And if you believe talent, like passion, is fixed, you may not put in the time it takes to cultivate it.
In his bestselling book First Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham says that great managers define talent not as a fixed thing, but as a "recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied"—the operative word being recurring. Your genius emerges, he says, when you cultivate your unique filter, which allows you to see the world in a way that only you can.
It's worth asking: Where are you putting your attention and effort, and giving yourself a chance to get really, really good at it? Because the more you hone your skill, the more fun it becomes to use it.
Beware of the urge to monetize everything.
These days, you can't bake a great cupcake without someone telling you to open a shop. Sing a beautiful song and you'll be encouraged to audition for America's Got Talent. This pressure to turn everything you like into a paid engagement may seem like success, but it can be counterproductive.
Look no further than humorist and national treasure Fran Lebowitz, who, as incisive, witty, and brilliant as she is, says she loved writing...until she got paid for it. She hasn't published a book in decades.
Ask yourself: What role does money play in your pursuit of this or that thing? How would getting paid change the way you think about and approach that project or passion? Is it possible or preferable to do something for the sheer pleasure of doing it?
Remember: No motivation required.
Expecting boundless motivation is unrealistic—and unnecessary. Waiting for motivation to kick-start any of your efforts is like waiting for the bus: The longer you wait, the longer you have to wait. If you just start walking, you could be clear across town sooner than you think.
And while I'd love to think that I can motivate you, or that anyone can, that may not be possible. Just ask Jeff Haden, author of The Motivation Myth, who says, "Motivation is a result, not a precondition."
Only progress, he says, can provide lasting motivation. This is good news because it means the development of your passions, your interests, and your life start with you. And the best part? There's no predicting how great it can be.
Terri Trespicio is an award-winning writer, speaker, and author of Unfollow Your Passion: How to Create a Life that Matters to You (Atria / Simon & Schuster, December 2021), whose TEDx talk, “Stop Searching for Your Passion,” has been viewed more than seven million times. For more, visit territrespicio.com.