The Mistake People Make When Trying to Find Their Passion in Life Revealed in Study

"Find your passion." "Follow your dreams, and the rest will fall into place." That's the sort of meaningless talk we are fed everywhere, from motivational posters to graduation speeches. But mantras like these could actually stand in the way of innovation, according to a study.

Psychologists at Stanford University arrived at this conclusion by investigating whether receiving encouragement to simply follow one's passion could affect the subjects a person explores. They also wanted to understand whether it narrows where we invest our time. Such motivational slogans wrongly suggest that having an interest will make pursuing it easy, the study authors said. And when people encounter inevitable setbacks they risk being put off and losing interest.

What's more, phrases like "Find your passion" indicate each of us has a narrow set of interests and could cause a person to neglect their untapped potential in a range of fields.

Researchers at Stanford University have investigated why mantras like “Find your passion” might do more harm than good. Getty Images

Instead, "Develop your passion" is a better form of encouragement, the psychologists said.

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology and co-author of the study, commented in a statement: "My undergraduates, at first, get all starry-eyed about the idea of finding their passion, but over time they get far more excited about developing their passion and seeing it through. They come to understand that that's how they and their futures will be shaped and how they will ultimately make their contributions."

The research built on previous work by Dr. Dweck, who famously developed the theory of "fixed" and "growth" mindsets in how we perceive intelligence. A fixed attitude toward learning is centered in the belief that we are naturally talented in some areas, and not others. The growth mindset, however, dictates that talents and intelligence can be nurtured.

Honing in on interests specifically, the team considered whether they are fixed and awaiting discovery, or if they take time and effort to build.

To test answer this question, they carried out five experiments on 470 participants. In one, the researchers asked students who were interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or arts and humanities subjects to read one article related to tech, and another on humanities. Students who had a fixed idea of their interests were less open to the article that was outside this area.

In a separate experiment, researchers showed students videos about black holes and the origin of the universe, and noted that most students were interested. But when they were tasked with reading a difficult science article on the topic, students who had a fixed mentality were most likely to lose interest. This suggested those with a fixed mindset could quickly abandon an interest if it is perceived as challenging.

Gregory Walton, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of the study, argued in a statement that having a narrow view of one's interests could stop people from building their knowledge in other topics.

"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," he said.

Study author Paul O'Keefe, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Yale-NUS College, said in a statement: "In an increasingly interdisciplinary world, a growth mindset can potentially lead to this type of innovation, such as seeing how the arts and sciences can be fused."