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Personal development: is passion a key ingredient for a successful career?

10th Jun 2019
chef with a pan on fire
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It’s a widely held myth that passion is essential when trying to forge a successful career, but it takes a little more than this for our brains to master new skills.

One of the implicit assumptions about work is that we should be passionate about what we do. A lot of anxiety and dissatisfaction occurs because most people don’t feel that way most of the time.

Lets take a personal example. My son completed his masters degree last September. During the course of the year-long programme it became clear to him he didn’t want to do a PhD.

He started to explore what he might feel motivated by, starting with professions that called for his writing skills, doing some copywriting for contacts and editing for me. He also started tutoring in case that was the right path. Nothing was really jumping out at him.  

One evening over drinks with a friend they started talking about their love of food and cooking. Suddenly, my son saw what his passion could be. He loves to cook for family and friends and is interested in creating new dishes and experimenting with flavours. He decided to explore the idea of becoming a chef.

Within a couple of days, he had reached out to his network for advice, secured a temporary job in a kitchen and written to a number of high-end restaurants asking for work experience.

We don’t yet know if this is his passion, but he in on a path to find out if it might be.

Learning new things is hard

Research suggests that part of why we find it so hard to find our passion is that we tend to give up quickly on new things.

That’s partly because when we start doing something new our brain sends an error signal trying to get us to go back to what is familiar.

It takes a lot of cognitive effort to do something new and persist until it becomes an acquired skill, something we can do without much thought, a habit. We have to push through and persist with the effort to acquire the skill. Intrinsic motivation and a sense of purpose help with this.

People often assume that their own interest or passion just needs to be ‘found’ or revealed. Once revealed, it will be in a fully formed state.

One important step to changing our approach to discovering new passions is to redefine struggle and failure as the catalyst to change and improvement, rather than as a final destination.

Unfortunately, the research doesn’t align with this intuitive view. In fact, passion comes with moving towards mastering something we are motivated by doing.

Paul A. O’Keefe, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, was part of a team that published a study in 2018 that examined how two different mindset or beliefs impact passion. He calls these the “implicit theories of interest” and his research looked at their impact on how people approach finding passion.

One, the fixed theory, says that our interests are relatively fixed and unchanging, while the other, the growth theory, suggests our interests are developed over time and not necessarily innate to our personality. These are very close to Carol Dweck’s fixed and growth mindsets.

The researchers found that people who hold a fixed mindset of interest had less interest in things outside of their current experience. They were less likely to anticipate difficulties when pursuing new interests, and lost interest in new things much quicker than people who hold a growth mindset of interest.

People with a growth mindset of interest tend to believe that interests and passions are capable of developing with enough time, effort and investment.

“This comes down to the expectations people have when pursuing a passion,” O’Keefe said. “Someone with a fixed mindset of interest might begin their pursuit with lots of enthusiasm, but it might diminish once things get too challenging or tedious.”

In the early learning phase, it becomes easy to label the cognitive effort as us not being good at whatever it is we are learning. In this frame of mind people are more likely to give up, the research found.

What to do

One important step to changing our approach to discovering new passions is to redefine struggle and failure as the catalyst to change and improvement, rather than as a final destination, i.e. adopting Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Dweck talks about how we see struggle as a negative thing rather than a sign we are learning and growing.

Instead of giving up, think of the challenge a stage in the journey, i.e. ‘I am not able to do this yet, but further work will help me get better’.

Role models

When you pick role models, study them not only for their victories and achievements, but also for how they struggled, overcame failures and changed as a result of them.

When you’re pursuing new passions, remember that the process itself and the steps you need to take are just as important as your end goal.

Set expectations that you are on a journey to discover your passion and there will be some challenges along the way. Recognise and celebrate small milestones along the way.

If you are not enjoying the struggle, ask yourself a few questions to help you determine if it’s part of the process or you are on the wrong path. Questions like, ‘Am I enjoying this? Do I care about becoming good? Are these skills useful to me?’

Reframe your belief that passions come naturally and understand that they form over time.  

My son’s experiments in the kitchen continue. His struggles over the coming months will tell us if it’s the right path for him.

Interested in this topic? Read Mindset matters - what’s it all about and why it matters.

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