What do you enjoy doing? What is your passion, interest, or hobby? Do you enjoy cooking, dancing, playing the drums, fishing, gardening...? You might be surprised to learn that your assumptions about interests and passions (your implicit theories) might have an influence on whether you explore unknown areas and try novel activities.
A recent study by Paul O’Keefe and colleagues, published in the October issue of Psychological Science, suggests that some people’s implicit theories of interest might prevent them from finding and developing their passions.
Passions and interests
We are often advised to search for what we love, to discover our passions. As the saying goes, if you find a job you love, you will never have to work a day in your life.
But are we to discover our passions, or cultivate them?
The former view is referred to as the fixed theory of interest; the latter, as the growth theory of interest.
Believing in one or the other view can have major consequences. To explain, O’Keefe et al. compare the search for interests with the search for love:
People can believe that successful relationships are destined or cultivated ... With the former perspective, people see dating as an attempt to find “the one.” Faced with relationship challenges, people may quickly move on. By contrast, the latter belief can increase people’s motivation to maintain relationships and resolve differences when they arise.
Similarly, the belief that passions are fixed means the number of potential passions are limited; therefore, once these interests are discovered, there is no need to explore other domains.
Second, these passions, once found, are assumed to be a bottomless wellspring of motivation. If one finds less motivation than expected or encounters difficulties in pursuing passions, one may conclude that these particular interests are likely not among one’s true interests.
Passions: To discover or cultivate?
O’Keefe and colleagues conducted a series of experiments to test the behavioral effects of assumptions about whether passions are cultivated or discovered.
They found that participants with stronger beliefs that interests are innate showed less enthusiasm when reading about topics outside their area of preexisting interest. They also showed less receptiveness to novel interests. In addition, people who assumed interests are innate had lower expectations of facing difficulties in pursuing their passions.
Finally, participants led to believe that passions need to be discovered—in comparison with those led to believe passions need to be cultivated—were more likely to lose interest in a scientific subject after having read a technical article about it.
Simply put, they expected a true passion to come naturally. This was challenged by reading the technical article and experiencing difficulty understanding what they believed should be easy for them.
Reconsider your passions
Results from these studies supported the authors’ hypothesis that when individuals assume their interests are innate and fixed, they seek to discover these limited inner passions. And once they believe they have found these passions, they expect plentiful motivation while pursuing these interests.
If, in contrast, one expects to grow and cultivate novel interests, she would not stop exploring new domains; nor would she interpret frustration as a sign that she has been digging in the wrong place. She would persist in the face of difficulties.
Based on these findings, I suggest you consider the following questions when contemplating your passions.
1. What are my interests? How do I know these are my interests?
2. Have I worked on developing these passions?
3. Do I assume people who pursue a passion (e.g., painting, learning additional languages, playing an instrument) are highly motivated all the time and do not experience frustration?
4. Have I prevented myself from exploring new areas of interest because of difficulties or reduced motivation during my pursuit of some new passion?
Think about these questions. Perhaps your implicit views of interests have prevented you from pursuing new ones, or from putting in the effort to cultivate your present passions.
The common suggestion that we should discover our passions is likely well-intended, but as O’Keefe et al. note, “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket, but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.” So go ahead, explore new interests and passions. Take up a new hobby. Do not let obstacles stand in the way of finding joy in the unfamiliar.
O’Keefe, P. A., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2018). Implicit theories of interest: Finding your passion or developing it? Psychological Science, 29(10), 1653-1664.