Find your passion, they say. As if it were easy. As if, just by looking around the place, you might stumble into what you love – a glimmering spark hidden, just out of sight, until that very moment.
It doesn't work that way, psychologists say in a new paper examining the basis of people's interests. And while people might mean well when they tell you to 'find your passion', the advice isn't just a cliché, the researchers explain. It's bad advice.
Why? Because belief in the notion that passion is something that's 'fixed' – ie. pre-formed and perfectly complete – can hinder people's abilities to nurture their own budding interests into full-fledged passions.
"The message to find your passion is generally offered with good intentions, to convey: Do not worry so much about talent, do not bow to pressure for status or money, just find what is meaningful and interesting to you," the researchers, led by psychologist Paul O'Keefe from Yale-NUS College in Singapore, write in their paper.
"Unfortunately, the belief system this message may engender can undermine the very development of people's interests."
In the new study, O'Keefe, together with colleagues from Stanford University, conducted a series of experiments with students to examine the extent to which personal interests are fixed (fixed theory) or developed (growth theory).
In one experiment, students were categorised according to their interests, either as being into STEM topics or into arts and humanities.
The more the students subscribed to a fixed view of their existing interests, the less they were able to enjoy reading an article from outside their interest, the researchers found.
In another experiment, students watched an engrossing video about astronomy and astrophysics – but when made to read a technical scientific paper on the same phenomena, their interest levels waned. However, it waned the most for students who viewed their interests as fixed, as opposed to open and capable of development.
In terms of education and bettering yourself in an interdisciplinary world, the benefits of the growth mindset outweigh the alternative, the researchers argue.
"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," says psychologist Gregory Walton from Stanford University.
"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."
According to the researchers, by holding to growth theory and being open to the idea that their interests can be nurtured, it gives people the ability to anticipate that pursuing their interests will sometimes be challenging, enabling the ability to maintain interest in something even when it becomes difficult or challenging to do so.
Because of this, the team says we should tell people to develop their passions, not to try and just find them – and even though they're only words, it's an important difference in meaning, between something that's an active process, not just passive.
"We need to carefully consider what we communicate to people about interests and passions," O'Keefe explained to Quartz.
"Telling people to find their passion could suggest that it's within you just waiting to be revealed. Telling people to follow their passion suggests that the passion will do the lion's share of the work for you."