The Truth About Finding a Satisfying Career
Why linking your work to your interests can do more harm than good
You hear it everywhere. It’s on graduation cards, in motivational speeches, and practically wallpapers the halls of Silicon Valley: “Find your passion.” As if each of us was born with one ideal pursuit that will fulfill us until our final day on Earth. All we need to do is locate it, and everything else will fall into place.
The problem isn’t just that this is totally unrealistic; according to psychologist Paul O’Keefe, a professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, it’s also selling us short in our careers, our studies, and how we interact with the world. In a recent study titled Implicit Theories of Interest, O’Keefe and his co-authors, two psychologists from Stanford, identified a compelling case against the idea of finding your one true passion.
In one experiment, the researchers observed self-identified “techies” and “fuzzies,” Stanford lingo for liberal arts geeks, as each group read an article that pertained to their field. Not surprisingly, the participants enjoyed the articles relevant to their interests. But when they switched to read the less relevant article, the researchers made a discovery: Those who believed we all have a single passion waiting to be uncovered (also known as fixed theory) were less interested in learning about an unfamiliar field. By contrast, those who identified with the idea that we can develop many passions and interests over time (also known as growth theory) were more engaged with the article outside their expertise. In other words, believing that we’re all limited to a narrow set of innate interests can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I talked to O’Keefe about his research on fixed theory versus growth theory, how our personal approaches to this dichotomy can influence our success, and why the rallying cry to “find your passion” may actually be the blind spot that ultimately cripples your resume.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.