My first steps into the working world were guided by the advice that had dogged me since my college graduation: To be happy, I was told, I needed to follow my passion. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what that was: I loved fashion but I was better with words than design, so my plan was to work in communications for a global fashion brand, translating an iconic vision for a broad audience.
But a few years later, after I landed a gig doing public relations at a brand’s fancy studio in New York, I was miserable. Behind-the-scenes, the ugliness and bad behavior soured me on the industry. As my interest and tolerance faded, I looked around for inspiration. What else was I passionate about?
The answer: a lot. In time, I launched into a dynamic freelance career working across varied interests: writing, acting, life coaching, modeling, and content creation.
It was a far cry from the vision I’d had as a newly minted graduate: that I’d find a singular, passion-fueled path that led straight to long-term happiness. But, the truth was, following my passion didn’t get me anywhere. Following my curiosity is what got me unstuck.
Research suggests that telling people to “find their passion” isn’t just ineffective advice; it can actually be harmful. In a paper published last year in the journal Psychological Science, the authors compared the “fixed” theory of passion — the notion that passion lives within us, already fully formed and waiting to be discovered — to the idea of “destined” love. People who have a “fixed” perspective on romance may believe in “the one,” the researchers write, which causes them to move on quickly when met with relatively small relationship challenges.
Similarly, the authors found that believing in the idea of a singular and innate theory of passion led people to move on too quickly from paths they found interesting but challenging: “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket,” the researchers wrote, “but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”
On the other hand, those with a “growth” perspective on passion are more likely to see it as a malleable quality that can be cultivated, which makes them both more open and more resilient. This thinking, the authors wrote, “leads people to express greater interest in new areas, to anticipate that pursuing interests will sometimes be challenging, and to maintain greater interest when challenges arise.”
And when passion burns out, a well-cultivated sense of curiosity is the best cure.
Research suggests that telling people to “find their passion” isn’t just ineffective advice; it can actually be harmful.
When I quit my day job, it was because I realized that I had been sticking to what I called “passion” out of fear. I’m an immigrant and first-generation college graduate, and the pressure to succeed financially for my family’s sake weighed heavily on me. Switching gears felt impossible. But I needed to feel a sense of control over my life again.
Then it hit me: I didn’t need to start over, exactly. I just needed to be more flexible. Once I was willing to let go of my fear of failure, I found that my rigid idea of success was holding me back. I didn’t need to follow a neatly defined career trajectory; instead, I could use my skills as a former publicist to pitch myself to brands for content creation and partnerships. And now that I was out of the job I hated, I found that I could easily reconnect with the communications skills that had driven me toward fashion, and redirect them toward my new areas of interest.
Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, one of the authors of the Psychological Science study, might call this an example of growth mindset, which she defines in her book Mindset as facing a challenge with curiosity, and allowing oneself to see difficulties as building blocks for enhancing inherent talents. That might look like engaging in ongoing professional training to stay dynamically interested in the field you’re in. Or being flexible enough to recognize when it’s time to pursue a new opportunity. Or both.
Believing you’re only cut out to do one thing makes it easy to get stuck in a rut. But to grow, by definition, means getting unstuck. It means opening yourself up to new ideas and new interests and allowing yourself to be steered by them.
And you know what the best part is? Nobody — maybe not even you — knows where that path will lead.