Lybi Ma

Brainstorm

What Is Passion? Part 2

Guest Post by Angela Duckworth, Ph.D.

Posted May 02, 2016

Part Two of Two:

Sometimes, when I talk to anxious parents, I get the impression they’ve misunderstood what I mean by grit. I tell them that half of grit is perseverance—in response, I get appreciative head nods—but I also tell them that nobody works doggedly on something they don’t find intrinsically interesting. Here, heads often stop nodding and, instead, cock to the side.

“Just because you love something doesn’t mean you’ll be great,” says self-proclaimed Tiger Mom Amy Chua. “Not if you don’t work. Most people stink at the things they love.” I couldn’t agree more. Even in the development of your interests, there is work—practicing, studying, learning—to be done. Still, my point is that most people stink even more at what they don’t love.

Angela Duckworth by Zach Teris/Used with Permission
Source: Angela Duckworth by Zach Teris/Used with Permission

So, parents, parents-to-be, and non-parents of all ages, I have a message for you: Before hard work comes play. Before those who’ve yet to fix on a passion are ready to spend hours a day diligently honing skills, they must goof around, triggering and re-triggering interest. Of course, developing an interest requires time and energy, and yes, some discipline and sacrifice. But at this earliest stage, novices aren’t obsessed with getting better. They’re not thinking years and years into the future. They don’t know what their top-level, life-orienting goal will be. More than anything else, they’re having fun.

In other words, even the most accomplished of experts start out as unserious beginners.

This is also the conclusion of psychologist Benjamin Bloom, who interviewed 120 people who achieved world-class skills in sports, arts, or science—plus their parents, coaches, and teachers. Among Bloom’s important findings is that the development of skill progresses through three different stages, each lasting several years. Interests are discovered and developed in what Bloom called “the early years.”

Encouragement during the early years is crucial because beginners are still figuring out whether they want to commit or cut bait. Accordingly, Bloom and his research team found that the best mentors at this stage were especially warm and supportive: “Perhaps the major quality of these teachers was that they made the initial learning very pleasant and rewarding. Much of the introduction to the field was as playful activity, and the learning at the beginning of this stage was much like a game.”

A degree of autonomy during the early years is also important. Longitudinal studies tracking learners confirm that overbearing parents and teachers erode intrinsic motivation. Kids whose parents let them make their own choices about what they like are more likely to develop interests later identified as a passion. So, while my dad in Shanghai in 1950 didn’t think twice about his father assigning him a career path, most young people today would find it difficult to fully “own” interests decided without their input.

Sports psychologist Jean Côté finds that shortcutting this stage of relaxed, playful interest, discovery, and development has dire consequences. In his research, professional athletes like Rowdy Gaines who, as children, sampled a variety of different sports before committing to one, generally fare much better in the long run. This early breadth of experience helps the young athlete figure out which sport fits better than others. Sampling also provides an opportunity to “cross-train” muscles and skills that will eventually complement more focused training. While athletes who skip this stage often enjoy an early advantage in competition against less specialized peers, Côté finds that they’re more likely to become injured physically and to burn out.

We’ll discuss what Bloom calls “the middle years” in the next chapter, on practice. Finally, we’ll plumb “the later years” in chapter 8 when we discuss purpose.

For now, what I hope to convey is that experts and beginners have different motivational needs. At the start of an endeavor, we need encouragement and freedom to figure out what we enjoy. We need small wins. We need applause. Yes, we can handle a tincture of criticism and corrective feedback. Yes, we need to practice. But not too much and not too soon. Rush a beginner and you’ll bludgeon their budding interest. It’s very, very hard to get that back once you do. 

Part Two of Two 

Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Pennsylvania.

Excerpted from GRIT by Angela Duckworth. Copyright © 2016 by Angela Duckworth. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.