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Is Passion Necessary for Success?

It depends on your cultural background, according to a new study.

Key points

  • Passion may be less important to success than previously thought.
  • New research shows that passion is less important in collectivistic cultures such as certain Asian cultures.
  • In Western nations, passion is still generally strongly associated with success.
 OTA Photos/Flickr
Source: OTA Photos/Flickr

We’ve all been told at one point or another to “follow our passion” or to “do what makes us most happy.” But is this good advice?

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the answer is not as clear-cut as we might think. In fact, there are cases when following our passions may lead us down the wrong path, especially when the things we want to achieve come in conflict with family and cultural expectations.

“In three large-scale datasets representing adolescents from 59 societies across the globe, we find evidence of a systematic cultural variation in the relationship between passion and achievement,” say the authors of the research, led by Xingyu Li of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “In individualistic societies, passion better predicts achievement. In collectivistic societies, passion still positively predicts achievement, but it is a much less powerful predictor. There, parents’ support predicts achievement as much as passion.”

In other words, people raised in cultures that prioritize independence and personal autonomy, such as the United States and Western Europe, are more likely to benefit from pursuing their passions than people living in cultures that value interdependence, harmony, and collectivism (Asian cultures, for example).

“These findings suggest that in addition to passion, achievement may be fueled by striving to realize connectedness and meet family expectations,” the authors say.

This research opens the door to a broader set of questions that all revolve around one core theme: what makes people successful. Here are three additional generalizations that can be drawn from new research about the nature of motivation and success.

1. Setting “self-concordant” goals is an important part of achieving success.

The ability to pursue our passions may not matter everywhere, but it certainly matters. For instance, recent research published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests that people who pursue goals that are aligned with their values, talents, interests, and needs (that is, self-concordant goals) are more likely to attain them.

How do you know if a goal fits these criteria? The following scale can help. Rate how well each of these questions explains why you want to achieve the goals you do:

  1. Does somebody else want me to achieve this goal, or will I get something from someone if I do?
  2. Would I feel ashamed if I didn’t achieve this goal?
  3. Do I really believe this is an important goal to have?
  4. Will this goal provide me with fun and enjoyment?
  5. Does this goal represent who I am and reflect what I value most in life?

If you felt like questions 3-5 described your goals, it's likely that you are on the right path. If you felt that questions 1 and 2 applied better to your situation, then you might want to change course.

Moreover, it turns out that people who exhibit a high degree of “mindfulness,” or the ability to exist in the present moment in a sustained and non-judgmental way, are better at setting the right goals than others.

2. Perfectionism doesn’t always produce success.

Perfectionism is generally viewed as a trait to be desired when it comes to attaining success. But new research published in Frontiers in Psychology challenges this assumption, suggesting that there are cases where perfectionism can actually impede one’s ability to succeed.

According to this research, there are two types of perfectionists. One, the "striving" perfectionist, is characterized by an intrinsic desire to be the best, while the other, the “evaluative” perfectionist, has more to do with the importance of not failing in the eyes of other people.

How do you know if you're a striving perfectionist or an evaluative perfectionist? Again, the following scale can help. Indicate your level of agreement with the eight statements below to see which “type” of perfectionist better describes you:

Strivings

  • I set higher goals for myself than most people.
  • I have extremely high goals.
  • Other people seem to accept lower standards from themselves than I do.
  • I expect higher performance in my daily tasks than most people.

Evaluative Concerns

  • If I fail at work/school, I am a failure as a person.
  • If someone does a task at work/school better than me, then I feel like I failed at the whole task.
  • If I do not do well all the time, people will not respect me.
  • The fewer mistakes I make, the more people will like me.

The researchers found that the evaluative aspect of perfectionism correlated significantly with measures of depression and anxiety while strivings had a weak correlation to anxiety and did not correlate at all with depression.

3. A bit of encouragement can make all the difference.

Part of being successful has to do with the traits we possess and the choices we make. Another part has to do with the environment we work in and the people that surround us.

A recent study published in Psychological Science found that, in work settings, success is easier to come by when people are met with encouragement, not criticism.

“Our society celebrates failure as a teachable moment,” say the researchers, led by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler of the University of Chicago. “Yet we find that failure does the opposite: it undermines learning. Failure feedback undermines learning motivation because it is ego-threatening. It causes participants to tune out and stop processing information.”

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers recruited 422 telemarketers from a call center company in the Midwest to participate in a short online study. In the study, the telemarketers were asked to answer 10 trivia questions regarding customer service and customer satisfaction. For instance, one question read, “How much money, annually, do U.S. companies lose due to poor customer service?” The answers were: (a) approximately $90 billion or (b) approximately $60 billion.

Participants were randomly assigned to receive either success- or failure-oriented feedback. For participants receiving success-oriented feedback, the message “Your answer was correct” was shown after each correct answer. For participants receiving failure-oriented feedback, the message “Your answer was incorrect” was shown after each incorrect answer.

The researchers then asked participants to re-answer the four questions they had been given feedback on, but with one minor alteration. The questions were phrased in the reverse (for example, “Which of the following amounts is NOT the amount that U.S. companies lose annually due to poor customer service?”). The researchers then calculated the percentage of rephrased questions participants’ answered correctly.

They found that telemarketers given success-oriented feedback answered 62 percent of the rephrased questions correctly while participants given failure-oriented feedback answered only 48 percent correctly.

“Our key result is that people find failure feedback ego-threatening, which leads them to tune out, and miss the information it offers,” conclude the researchers.

LinkedIn image: Mavo/Shutterstock

References

Li, X., Han, M., Cohen, G. L., & Markus, H. R. (2021). Passion matters but not equally everywhere: Predicting achievement from interest, enjoyment, and efficacy in 59 societies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(11).

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