Terrible advice

We frequently entreat students to “find their passion.” Indeed, the notion that there is one thing for which they are destined and which they must discover can figure centrally in our work with students. We put significant resources into tools that help them identify their strengths and personality traits (or types), yielding a set of descriptors that then inscribes how they understand themselves, as if that is the key to unlock the door of vocation. But, as a recent article in the “Smarter Living” section of the New York Times suggested, “Find Your Passion” is terrible advice.

Drawing upon the work of Carol Zweck and others on mindsets, the author briefly summarizes the findings, contrasting “the fixed theory” versus “the growth theory” when it comes to our interests:

The researchers found that people who hold a fixed theory had less interest in things outside of their current interests, were less likely to anticipate difficulties when pursuing new interests, and lost interest in new things much quicker than people who hold a growth theory… People with a growth mind-set of interest tend to believe that interests and passions are capable of developing with enough time, effort and investment.

From Stephanie Lee, “Why ‘Find Your Passion’ Is Such Terrible Advice”; New York Times (April 21, 2019)

A more expanded discussion of this same research can be found in a July 2018 essay in The Atlantic by Olga Khazan. Either essay could serve as a prompt for fruitful discussion among faculty and staff. Perhaps “follow your passion” is another problematic myth about vocation that we ought to stop perpetuating (see “Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths About Vocation”).

How would our mentoring have to change to incorporate these new insights about mindset and interests? Certainly we would need to change the kinds of questions that we pose students. Rather than asking “what are you good at?” we might ask “What do you want to be good at?”

The fixed theory prioritizes enthusiasm (literally “filled with spirit”) while the growth theory encourages characteristics such as honest self-assessment and tenacity. Both Aristotle and Confucius taught that the most important human capacities require cultivation over the span of a life. Our work with students is often framed by a “four year plan,” but we have to help them develop longer-term thinking.

One resource for mentors that focuses on helping young people develop a growth mindset emphasizes the power of the simple word “yet”:

Yet implies that something is achievable. Yet puts a person back in charge of their destiny. Yet hints that there is work to be done in order to get to the desired place… Reminding your mentee that they haven’t accomplished something “yet” really can make them feel better about where they are at currently and makes the pursuit of their goals, even the very lofty ones, seem less daunting. “Yet” can make things sound less fatalistic and more optimistic. Yet equals possibility…

From “Growth Mindset for Mentors” (Mindset Kit) from Stanford Universitiy PERT project

This literature also underscores the importance of how we handle failure or set-back and it’s worthwhile to think about how we might thoughtfully incorporate that into our mentoring practices.

Thanks to Betsy Verhoeven at Susquehanna University for alerting me to the recent piece in the Times mentioned above; she intends to use it for faculty development workshops this summer. – Ed.

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