Find your passion: Good advice or bad?

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

Find your passion. Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

It’s advice that’s been passed down for centuries, attributed to everyone from Confucius to Mark Twain to Marc Anthony. It’s cited so frequently it’s become a commencement address cliche. It might be well-intentioned advice. But is it actually good advice? What do you think?

On the one hand, work should be enjoyable — fulfilling, even. The alternative could be tedium at best and misery at worst, and lots of it. On the other hand, turning something that’s loved into work changes the dynamics. What people used to get to do becomes something they have to do, and that’s different. That’s not to mention the issue of whether or not doing what you love will actually put food on the table. Doing what you’re good at could pay better. Clearly, there are pros and cons to either approach.

I have my own theories based on my experiences, which I’ll share in a moment.

First, though, recent research conducted at Stanford offers some insights  — more specifically, the admonition to find your passion could undermine how interests actually develop.

Two Stanford psychologists conducted experiments with students to explore whether interests are fixed and basically just waiting to be discovered or interests take time and effort to develop.

In one experiment, students who identified themselves as either “techies” interested in science, engineering and math or “fuzzies” interested in arts and humanities read two articles. One article related to technology, the other to humanities. Students who held fixed mindsets about their interests were less open to the article outside their interests.

In another experiment, students were shown a video about black holes and the origin of the universe. Most students said they were fascinated. But after reading a challenging scientific article on the same topic, students reported their interests had quickly dissipated — especially among those with fixed mindsets.

The researchers suggested focusing too narrowly on one area could prevent people from developing interests and expertise in other areas or in making the new connections between fields that lead to innovation. Even when people believe they’ve found their passions, challenges could discourage them to the point they discount their interests. It’s better, the researchers said, to encourage people to develop their passions rather than try to find them. Those who develop their passions and invest time and effort in those pursuits are more likely to sustain their commitment when they encounter difficulties.

I can see how those circumstances played out in my life.

I was interested in science as a child. I was the geeky kid who played with the chemistry sets that used to come in folding metal cases. I thought of myself as the boy genius who was going to grow up to become a scientist and make important discoveries. In high school, my interests shifted to airplanes and rockets. I just knew I’d found my passion. I was going to become an aerospace engineer.

My pursuit of science continued when I started college, but headed in yet another direction. This time, the job market and potential wages entered into my calculation to study computer science That’s when I encountered challenges: declining grades, for one, but also the realization I preferred working with people far more than machines. Two semesters into college, I knew I was either going to fail as a computer science major or change majors.

Fortunately, I’d developed another interest — in journalism. I’d worked on the high school paper and covered sports for my hometown weekly. Forced into a choice in college between interests, I settled on journalism. I changed majors and went to work for the college newspaper.

Although it wasn’t my first choice, it was among the best choices I’ve ever made. More than 40 years later, I’m still working for newspapers. I found my passion.

Make no mistake, journalism remains work. I generally love that work, but not all of it. Still, the good outweighs the bad. That’s an important distinction.

I consider myself blessed to work at a job I enjoy and, hopefully, one at which I’m also proficient. That’s another important distinction. It’s one thing to pursue a hobby you enjoy, even if you aren’t necessarily adept. I enjoy playing guitar. But I suck and haven’t made the time or found the motivation to put in the practice required to improve. It’s another thing to work in a job you enjoy, but one in which you don’t excel. Sooner or later, your boss, your customers or your own frustrations will bring an end to the endeavor. I suspect if my livelihood depended on playing a guitar, I’d loathe even the thought of picking up that instrument.

The question remains: Does the admonition to find your passion constitute good advice or bad?

My advice would be keep an open mind about passions. They’ll likely change, probably more than once. Stay curious, my friends. In the meantime, find your proficiency. It well could turn out your proficiency becomes your passion.

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at phil@thebusinesstimes.com or 424-5133.