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Growth Mindset Advice: Take Your Passion and Make It Happen!

The latest growth mindset research encourages people to "develop your passion."

This year, Independence Day began for me by reading the latest science-based press releases on EurekAlert! while sitting alone at an old kitchen table in my family’s small, New England farmhouse near the Berkshires while everyone else was still asleep.

The first headline that jumped out at me was, “'Find Your Passion' May Not Be the Best Advice After All,” which describes a soon-to-be-published study by researchers from Stanford University and Yale-NUS College. Their paper, “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?” is currently in press at Psychological Science.

For the latest study on the importance of developing your passion, Yale-NUS Assistant Professor of Psychology Paul O'Keefe collaborated with Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck and Associate Professor Gregory Walton, also from Stanford. All three co-authors worked together to develop this study and contributed to the study designs.

Carol Dweck is legendary for her pioneering work on fixed mindset versus growth mindset. One of the keystones of “growth mindset” (a term coined by Dweck) is a self-belief that your intelligence and other abilities are malleable and never "fixed" or set in stone. (For more, see Dweck's TED lecture, "The Power of Believing That You Can Improve,” and my PT post, "Self-Compassion, Growth Mindset, and the Benefits of Failure.")

Fixed and growth theories regarding the malleability of intelligence and academic performance have been researched extensively. However, applying growth/fixed theory to specific pursuits that people feel passionate about through the lens of "growth interest" versus "fixed interest" is a new field of investigation.

Those who adhere to a “fixed theory of interest” tend to believe that once they "find their passion" that the associated tasks and skills will be pleasurable and easy to master.

The potential backlash of this system of belief is that if — or rather, when — a so-called "passion" begins to feel like drudgery and is harder than expected, people often experience disillusionment, throw in the towel, and give up. Therefore, instead of simply aspiring to "find your passion” the researchers encourage everyone to start with the assumption that each of us have to “develop passion” by sticking with something we want to get better at, even when the going gets tough.

As the authors sum up, "Those holding a growth theory should expect that pursuing even strong [passionate] interests will sometimes be difficult. If a fixed theory is associated with expectations that pursuing a strong interest will be easy, that belief may lead people to discount an interest if it becomes difficult.”

Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

After reading through the PDF of this study in the predawn hours, I was itching to go for a run. As the sun was coming, I headed out for a long jog with a random playlist on shuffle mode blasting in my headphones. Serendipitously, “I Sing the Body Electric” from the Fame soundtrack (1980) was the first song to play. This uplifting anthem always feels like an injection of rocket fuel into my bloodstream. Especially in the climax of the song when Irene Cara belts out, “And, I look back on Venus, I look back on Mars. And, I burn with the fire of 10-million stars. And, in time. And, in time. We will all be stars...” In many ways, these lyrics capture the essence of investing time and energy into developing your passion with a growth theory that some day you'll become a 'star' (however you choose to define that term).

When I got home from my run, I was feeling nostalgic. So, I went up to the attic and grabbed some early-80s albums, an "Uprising" Bob Marley and the Wailers cassette (1980), and a random tube of Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée I’d stashed away in a wooden box of 'Proustian' scented memories. (Seen in the snapshot above.)

The smell of this vintage sunscreen was surprisingly well preserved and instantly brought back vivid flashbacks of my adolescence. It was amazing to have this time-capsule-like summer aroma wafting through the air this Fourth of July while also listening to music from a distinctive bygone era with family and friends. (*In the second part of this post I’ll share personal stories of how I stumbled on the life-changing power of “developing your passion” and was inspired to pursue “growth interests” that didn't come naturally to me as a seventeen-year-old in the summer of 1983.)

In my opinion, when it comes to developing one's passion through hard work, Irene Cara is the quintessential poster girl. Many of her songs from the early 1980s echo the latest advice from O'Keefe et al. (2018) to "develop your passion" even when it's not easy.

For example, exactly 35-years ago, Cara co-wrote the song "Flashdance...What a Feeling" in which she gives listeners a direct call to action: "Take your passion and make it happen!" There is nothing about the protagonist represented in the title track from Flashdance (played by Jennifer Beals) that suggests waiting to "find your passion" is a good idea or that "developing your passion" will be a walk in the park.

The Clarion Call to “Find Your Passion” May Be Bad Advice

The O’Keefe, Dweck, and Walton triad designed and conducted five separate studies for their latest paper, “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?” All five studies show that college-age participants who adopted a fixed theory (as opposed to a growth theory) were less receptive to topics outside their existing area of interest. On the bright side, the researchers found that growth theory was correlated with increased motivation to pursue diverse interests and more openness to experience.

Identifying specifically how growth theory makes people more open to exploring new interests and helps them sustain passion despite setbacks or difficulties could have a positive influence on the trajectory of people's lives.

O’Keefe hopes that unearthing the keys to “growth theory of interest” will inspire students to explore broader interests and devote time to developing their passion, even when it's a struggle. He’s also on a mission to help students appreciate the value of connecting-the-dots across diverse fields, such as between the Arts and Sciences.

“In an increasingly complex and interconnected world, viewing interests as developable is important for encouraging innovation as new and interdisciplinary solutions are needed. Believing one's interests are fixed might hinder exploration into other areas,” O’Keefe said in a statement. "Encouraging people to develop their passion can not only promote a growth theory, but also suggests that it is an active process, not passive. A hidden positive implication of a growth theory is the expectation that pursuing one's interests and passions will be difficult at times because people are less likely to give up on them when faced with a challenge."

Paul O'Keefe is based in Singapore, where he's currently investigating the impact of implicit theories of interest in their school system, which leans towards a fixed-interest pedagogy. His ultimate goal is to help students adopt a growth-based approach to developing their passion.

At the peak of my athletic fitness, I broke a Guinness World Record by running 153.76 miles nonstop in 24 hours. After accomplishing that feat, I decided to retire from sports and reinvent myself by sitting still in a chair for year to write a neuroscience-based book about the mind-body benefits of exercise.

Writing doesn't come naturally to me. But, I love the challenge of trying to become a better writer. And, I pour the same amount of passion into the writing process as I did into training for ultra-endurance sports. Luckily, the daily habits and mindset I hardwired into my brain through sports training are a transferable skillset. My daily workouts continue to fortify the patience and persistence it takes to continually "develop my passion" for writing even on days when it makes my brain hurt.

Below is a re-edited excerpt from my first book, The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (2007). This revised synopsis of the "My Life" chapter gives a first-hand account of how I unwittingly nurtured a growth mindset and “developed my passion” for running in the early 1980s:

Source: LesPalenik/Shutterstock

“On a sunny June day in 1983, I bought a pair of clunky gray New Balance 990’s and started jogging for the first time. My coming-of-age anthem that summer was “Flashdance…What a Feeling” by Irene Cara. My favorite albums at the time were Bruce Springsteen’s “Greetings from Asbury Park” (1973) and the first Madonna LP (1983) I had all of these songs on one home-made mixtape that I listened to religiously.

Every day, I hit the park for a jog with my Sports Walkman and played this tape at top volume. If my batteries were running low, I'd turn on Top 40 radio. This music became the soundtrack for my athletic conversion. I pounded all the popular songs from the summer of ‘83 into my head when I ran. The musicians who created this music nourished my athletic mindset and helped me feel passionate about working out.

When I started running in June of 1983, I was clinically depressed and my body was a toxic waste dump. I could only run for about 10-minutes without taking a break. When spring semester ended, I was an uninspired, out-of-shape, drug-abusing teenager.

From June to September, I went from being a cynical and self-destructive kid to being an enthusiastic, ambitious go-getter with endless drive. More impressive to me than having physical strength and stamina was that my brain had been transformed. I had mental toughness and felt like I could become anyone or do anything I wanted after that summer.

Running turned my life around. My confidence and self-esteem grew in tandem with measurable mileage markers. In June, I could only make it once around the reservoir at a very slow pace. By August, I could run for more than an hour and do the whole outer loop of Central Park. My learned helplessness and self-destruction waned; I had developed a sense of conviction. That summer I metamorphosed from being a straight-C student in high school to someone who would go on to blaze through college in three years.

Any time I smell a smell from this period, I am instantly transported back to the exact time and places I was in 1983. Any familiar song from that era that isn’t overplayed will give me an instant flashback of being seventeen again. I can still relive how powerful this mental and physical transformation was in every cell of my body when these scents or songs catch me off guard.

The summer of '83 marked a life-changing conversion for me. It was a time of explosive personal growth fueled by music and aerobic exercise that I believe is universally accessible to everybody. When you tap into the power of 'sweat and the biology of bliss' for the first time, it's like being born again. Exercise gives you the fortitude and tenacity to make a fresh start. And the mettle to say “Yes—I can!"

In closing, I've curated 10 chart-topping songs from the summer of ‘83 that were on Billboard’s Hot 100 during Fourth of July exactly 35 years ago. Hopefully, watching these videos and channeling some of the energy held in this Flashdance-era music will be a source of inspiration and motivation for you to “develop your passion.” Or, as Irene Cara would say: “Take your passion and make it happen!” (For any pop music trivia fans: I’ve also included the date each song reached its peak chart position.)

Ten Top-40 Songs from July 4th, 1983 That Have Stood the Test of Time

1. "FLASHDANCE…WHAT A FEELING" by Irene Cara (6 weeks at #1 from June-July, 1983)

2. "ELECTRIC AVENUE" by Eddy Grant (Peaked at #2 on July 2, 1983)

3. "EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE" by The Police (8 weeks at #1 from mid-July to Sept., 1983)

4. "I'M STILL STANDING" by Elton John (Peaked at #12 on July 12, 1983)

5. "LET’S DANCE" by David Bowie (Peaked at #1 on May 21, 1983)

6. "IS THERE SOMETHING I SHOULD KNOW?" by Duran Duran (Peaked at #4 on Aug. 6, 1983)

7. "STAND BACK" by Stevie Nicks (Peaked at #5 on Aug. 20, 1983)

8. "FAITHFULLY" by Journey (Peaked at #12 on June 11, 1983)

9. "ROLL ME AWAY" by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band (Peaked at #27 on July 2, 1983)

10. "STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART" by Bryan Adams (Peaked at #29 on May 28, 1983)


Paul A. O’Keefe, Carol S. Dweck, Gregory M. Walton. "Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?" In press at Psychological Science (July 2018)

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