Passions aren't fixed. You can develop them.

A Stanford new study delves into whether passions are fixed or developed.


We are often told to follow our passions when entering into the work world. It’s become a common bit of wisdom to do so. "If you love what you do"—they commonly say—"then you’ll never have to work a day in your life." However, it's often the case that this is much easier said than done. 

On top of this, sometimes we may be cultivating a passion that isn't right for us. Rather than branching out and developing new passions, we’re stuck with dead ends. Indeed, if you’re not careful, following your passion could lead you to being broke and frustrated.

In one of George Orwell’s earlier novels, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his protagonist disavows working a well-paying job in advertising. Rather than subject himself to the system, he resigns himself to abject poverty working in a bookstore to follow his dream of writing poetry. Throughout the novel, he begins to see that his passion is holding him back as he obsesses over the ability to live beyond the grasp of what he calls the “money god.”  

Oscillating between disparaging the money-driven society he lives in and envying the power of riches, he begins to realize that he’s playing a losing game. Unconsciously, what he really wants is wealth, and by the end of the novel, he accepts that fact.

Orwell’s novel is illustrative of the idea that following your passions can sometimes be a limiting belief. That is to say, passions are not fixed, and by believing that they are, you restrict your capacity to grow into other areas of interest. It turns out that the idea of building your passion, rather than trying to find it, may be a better approach to life. A new Stanford study suggests just that.

Like pottery, new passions can be fashioned. Photo by ritesh singh on Unsplash

A deeper look into theories of interest 

There are many beliefs we hold that determine whether or not we’ll succeed or fail. In a research paper titled Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It, which was published on September 6, the authors set out to explore the implications of the beliefs behind finding your passion. In the abstract, they state:  

People are often told to find their passion as though passions and interests are pre-formed and must simply be discovered. This idea, however, has hidden motivational implications.

In a series of five studies, they tested and examined “implicit theories of interest," which refers to the idea that interests are either fixed or developed. These two theories were compared to one another in order to find out which was more advantageous for learning and cultivating a passion.   

The authors theorized that once someone has a fixed interest, they will have little reason to explore other passions. Next, the researchers aimed to find out whether having an internalized passion made it easier for a subject to be motivated and inspired while they set out for their goal with minimal frustration or struggles. In all of these studies they gave subjects learning materials and information to spike interest in new fields of study. They then gradually increased the difficulty it would take to pursue these types of newly found passions. They also determined the theories of interests through questionnaires.   

Briefly, here are the results from each section study:

  • Studies 1–3: “Those endorsing a fixed theory were also more likely to anticipate boundless motivation when passions were found, not anticipating possible difficulties.”

  • Study 4: “When engaging in a new interest became difficult, interest flagged significantly more for people induced to hold a fixed than a growth theory of interest.”

  • Study 5: “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket, but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”

The more believe you can do, the more you do

Fixed and growth theories are two different approaches to the way people pursue their interests. In their general discussion part of the research paper they came to the conclusion:  

The message to find your passion is generally offered with good intentions, to convey: Do not worry so much about talent, do not bow to pressure for status or money, just find what is meaningful and interesting to you. Unfortunately, the belief system this message may engender can undermine the very development of people’s interests.

In the end, however, neither theory is necessarily better or worse than the other one. Instead the results showed that the development of interest varies significantly due to the implicit theory that a person possesses. 

 

So what does this mean for people pursuing their passions?

A person who held a fixed theory were unlikely to pursue new developments in other areas of interest. In the event they do start something new, and encounter difficulty, they are prone to quit right then and there. Those with a growth interest mindset are more likely to follow through on a variety of interests. This is helpful for people who require interdisciplinary knowledge, which in our world is a sought-out commodity. It also frees you up to not be a slave to unfruitful passions.

It's not all shade, though, when it comes to holding a fixed theory. It's not a liability. The laser-like focus can even help deepen someone’s grasp of their individual interest or passion, which can, in turn, make them an expert in a field. Beyond the work sphere, however — when it comes to bucket lists — one should see how their mindset, the way they chase their passions, is affecting their goals in life.  

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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