Higher education has adopted the word ‘passion’, painted it pink, dipped it in glitter and slapped it on every brochure and pamphlet possible. Every school boasts its ability to help students find their passion, unlock their passion, unleash their passion. But the notion that students must look within themselves for their truth may be limiting. Instead, students must look outwards to their world, which boasts far more opportunity than passion ever could. They must acknowledge all of their possibilities rather than assuming there is a singular passion burning inside.
The truth is: passion burns out. Students need more than a passion to keep them going. While they may feel they are passionate about math or science, they may find themselves struggling as classes become increasingly difficult. What happens to those students when their passion is no longer fun but rather takes every ounce of brain power to comprehend? Can passion withstand such a difficult period?
This is where sheer dedication and growth mindset supplant passion. Psychologists at Yale and Stanford University performed a study titled, “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?” Their goal was to understand the notion of passion. They asked students where they believed they stood on the STEM/ creative spectrum. Participants categorized themselves as either “fuzzy,” referring to students who felt an affinity towards the creative or “techy,” referring to students who enjoyed hard sciences, math, etc. They also asked students whether they believed people had ‘fixed’ abilities, meaning you are born with certain abilities that cannot be changed or that people’s abilities can change over time, the ‘growth’ mindset. They, then, asked students to read a paper purposely outside of their field of interest. Not surprisingly, the students who maintain a growth mindset expressed more interest in the material provided despite the fact that it was incongruous to their interests.
The scientists concluded their experiment by expressing the dangers of the fixed mindset saying, “a fixed theory, more than a growth theory, leads people to anticipate that a passion will provide limitless motivation and that pursuing it will not be difficult [sic]. When this expectation is violated, a fixed theory leads to a sharper decline in interest—as if the person comes to think that the topic was not their interest after all.” By contrast, people with a growth mindset are more open to new experiences and understand that they will encounter some level of difficulty in any area they pursue.
Innovation Labs, a division of The Myers-Briggs Company, has also done extensive research on the role of interest and ability on student success both inside and outside the classroom. Their white paper, “What Makes Interests So Interesting?” explores the role of interest in student’s educational pursuits. The paper cites many studies that confirm the idea that more people stick with a subject they find interesting—even when it becomes difficult. The more effort they put in, the more likely they are to succeed.
By no means should interests or passions be dismissed. Everyone has a subject that makes them excited to learn. In fact, based on research from Rounds and Su, we can conclude that interest alignment leads to engagement, which leads to student action and achievement. Our interests play a large part in our entrance into certain fields of study. Our passion provides love at first sight, but it’s our growth mindset that keeps us committed.