Stanford researchers: 'Follow your passion' advice could make you less successful

June 25, 2018

Abigail Hess, CNBC, 22 June 2018

If your college graduation speaker told you to "follow your passion," you may want to ignore them.

According to an upcoming paper in Psychological Science written by three Stanford researchers, that advice may actually make people less successful, since it unrealistically implies an easy path to success and narrows your focus too much.

Stanford psychologists Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton, with the help of former Stanford postdoctoral fellow Paul O'Keefe, conducted a series of laboratory studies that examined the belief systems that lead people to succeed or fail.

The researchers recruited participants from two categories: those who were passionate about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and those who were passionate about humanities and the arts.

Over five experiments, the researchers observed a total of 470 participants as they read articles and watched videos on subjects that interested them and on subjects that did not interest them. Participants who were deeply interested in only one topic were less likely to finish and understand the materials.

The researchers concluded that popular mantras like "follow your passion" make people think that pursuing a passion will be easy. Believers are then more likely to give up when they face challenges or roadblocks.

They also found that focusing on following a single passion made people less likely to consider new potential areas of interest. This close-minded view can be detrimental to the success of the individual and to the success of communities, says Walton.

"Many advances in sciences and business happen when people bring different fields together, when people see novel connections between fields that maybe hadn't been seen before," he says.

O'Keefe adds that the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, making people who are able to make connections between fields such as art, technology and the social sciences more valuable than ever.

"If you are overly narrow and committed to one area, that could prevent you from developing interests and expertise that you need to do that bridging work," says Walton.

Instead of thinking of your career as an opportunity to follow your passion, the researchers suggest thinking of life as a series of opportunities to develop several passions.

"If you look at something and think, 'that seems interesting, that could be an area I could make a contribution in,' you then invest yourself in it," says Walton. "You take some time to do it, you encounter challenges, over time you build that commitment."

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and star on ABC's hit reality television show, "Shark Tank," takes this line of thinking one step further.

"One of the great lies of life is 'follow your passions,'" said Cuban as part of the Amazon Insights for Entrepreneurs series. "Everybody tells you, 'Follow your passion, follow your passion.'"

He argues that people should focus on their strengths rather than their passions, because we are not always good at the things that interest us the most and because perfecting a strength can become a passion.

"I used to be passionate to be a baseball player. Then I realized I had a 70-mile-per-hour fastball," jokes Cuban. Competitive major league pitchers throw fastballs in the range of 90-plus miles per hour.

"When you look at where you put in your time, where you put in your effort, that tends to be the things that you are good at. And if you put in enough time, you tend to get really good at it," he says. "If you put in enough time, and you get really good, I will give you a little secret: Nobody quits anything they are good at because it is fun to be good. It is fun to be one of the best."



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