Ok, so I’ve heard worse advice, some of it from my husband.* But I was intrigued when I read an article on The Atlantic entitled ” ‘Find your passion’ is awful advice.” It’s always been one of those sayings I love to hate, so of course I clicked on the link. The phrase is ubiquitous in our culture (along with “Do what you love” et al), to the point where it’s almost meaningless – I’m guessing someone out there probably has it emblazoned on a coffee cup or fridge magnet or something. Cliches in general irritate me, but underneath the irritation I find fear lurking: is my lump of passion still hiding under a rock somewhere?
Maybe I just need to search a bit harder, and suddenly I’ll stumble upon what I’ve been looking for all this time: my one true passion. And that is exactly the problem that the researchers in the Atlantic article highlight: many people (undergraduates in the study’s case) expect to discover their passion, fully formed. If they try a class that doesn’t immediately click, they assume it won’t be their passion, and switch out. Their mindset assumes that passion is fixed: if you don’t feel an immediate wave of emotion, you haven’t found it. If it’s hard, or you don’t feel endlessly motivated, you haven’t found it.
The researchers talked to other students, however, who have a growth mindset when it comes to passion. They believe that passion is something that can grow with time and investment in a subject, that passion is less a great sweep of emotion than a deep satisfaction that accompanies real proficiency in an area.
I both hated and loved reading this article. Hated, because I’m kind of a romantic when it comes to finding passion. I’m like a rom com addict who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believes that if they just look hard enough, they’ll find the perfect relationship. That’s me and passion.
I loved the article because it hints at freedom. Just like ditching the unrealistic Hollywood idea of relationships can give you the freedom to be in a real relationship with a real human, the idea that passion can develop and grow means that you can dig in to something that interests you. You can pursue an area that has actual career prospects, and not worry that you’ve missed your one chance at living a passionate life. You can try something new.
But as much as I appreciate academic studies that broaden the definition of passion, I think the whole concept needs to be reexamined. The way it’s often presented – the whole ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ schtick – is a first-world luxury. It simply isn’t an option for most people in the developing world, because they’re too busy trying to survive. If finding your passion is what makes life worth living, a large percentage of humanity is…screwed. And in my opinion, any idea that isn’t universally applicable is of limited value.
I’m not shooting down the idea of being passionate about something, or working in an area that you love. If you can, that’s great. And as far as people are able, I think they should develop their unique gifts, abilities, and interests. But I think the consistent messaging – particularly directed at young people – that you must find your passion needs to be reexamined. It creates a lot of pressure and unrealistic expectations. And life is about so much more than whether you’ve found your lump of passion.
*Example: “Ruth, those Indian army officers stationed in an airport in a highly sensitive political region would totally LOVE to have their picture taken with you. Do it!”