What Does it Mean to “Follow Your Passion”?

Every year during spring graduation season, we hear variants of the advice to “follow your passion” in life. In today’s social media-enabled marketplace of personal brands and curated public images, it may seem like anything is possible and simply being one’s best self is a foundation for a lasting and fulfilling career. But is this true? More importantly, is it helpful?

I have always been mildly suspicious of this strain of advice… it feels simplistic. How does one know what’s really important? Is a passion stable enough to build a life around?

Is Following Our Passions Enough?

A recently published piece in The Atlantic bluntly asserts that “‘Find Your Passion’ Is Awful Advice.” The author differentiates between two mindsets – the “fixed theory of interests” and the “growth theory.” The first supposes that our interests (or passions) are pre-determined at birth and that success is a matter of unearthing them. The second embraces the possibility that our interests are something malleable that we develop for ourselves.

The problems arising from the fixed theory of interests include the fact that often our interests and abilities aren’t perfectly aligned. A passion for classical music doesn’t guarantee skill at the piano, just as an interest in innovation may not correspond with the qualities needed to create a new product or launch a business.

In addition, the fixed theory may actually encourage people to give up too easily when acquiring new skills, because “follow your passion” advice tends to suppose that true passions provide ongoing motivation. If the desire falters, therefore, the passion may be set aside. In this way, “doing what you love” can negatively impact both well-being and performance development.

Passion Plus Perseverance

The “growth theory,” on the other hand, encourages self-direction in a way that allows for flexibility, change, and the application of sustained effort. Author, speaker, and psychologist Angela Duckworth provides a powerful addendum to “following your passions” in her book Grit, a New York Times bestseller which asserts that “the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence.”

Duckworth flips the narrative on the fixed theory of interests to demonstrate how perseverance in the face of failure is what creates success. In her widely viewed TED Talk, Duckworth examines the psychological underpinnings of motivation and how they impact our mastery of the skills we pursue. “What if doing well in school and in life depends on much more than (our) ability to learn quickly and easily?” she asks before positing that “grit” is the missing piece.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” she says, “it’s living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” In sharp contrast to advice such as “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” Duckworth finds that it’s actually doing the day-to-day work that is the best indicator of happiness and success.

Building Our Passions

Conclusions such as Duckworth’s indicate that our passions or interests aren’t something to be followed or led by – we must build them for ourselves over the course of our lives. This doesn’t mean that we can’t make our dreams into reality, simply that we must create that reality rather than stumble into it.

The combination of passion and perseverance that Duckworth calls “grit” means that it’s never too late to follow our passions, as long as we understand that our “following” must remain active. The hallmark of passion isn’t a lack of effort or a feeling of ease. Passion is the willingness to put in the work, day after day, until we’ve built the life we dreamed of.

 

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