Passion: Not for Rookies

It’s the time of year when nearly all the seniors have either already chosen the college or university they will attend or will be making their final decision soon. About two weeks ago, one senior sat in my office chatting. Slowly, it emerged that she was a little worried. Did she make the right choice? She doesn’t know exactly what she wants to study, and she is feeling uncertain about whether she chose the right university.

Every now and then, someone – often a student – asks me how I became a teacher. “Did you always want to be a teacher?” someone will ask. The short answer is no. The long answer is much more complicated and not really all that important for the purposes of this post. I didn’t always want to be a teacher, and my passion for my work did not come immediately but grew steadily over time. Unlike the student I mentioned at the start, I thought I knew exactly how my life and career were going to work out, and no one was more surprised than me that I ended up in the classroom and actually have a deep and abiding passion for it. But the point here is that the passion didn’t occur at the start; it came after I began.

But apparently my experience is far from unique. Cal Newport studies how people end up forging careers and lives about which they are passionate. According to his research, the advice to “follow your passion” is as bad as it is common. In the talk I’ve linked to below, he explains why this is the case in a clear, interesting 20-minute talk that’s well worth a watch for students, teachers, and parents. To put it shortly, telling someone to follow their passion may actually make them less likely to develop that passion. I’ll let Cal explain why this is the case.

Unfortunately, more often than not we tell students, even if using different words, to follow their passion and they will be happy and fulfilled in their work. We need to reframe how we think about passion both for own work satisfaction and the well-being of our students. So many of our students are anxious about making the “right” decision about which school to attend and what major to choose. They have no idea what their passion is so how can they possibly follow it? I understand why they are anxious given how much higher education costs these days and given the job market that awaits upon graduation. Still, I want to tell them not to worry too much. Be open to what comes your way, know that you can and probably will change your course, and when you find yourself persistently working at something even when it is frustrating and possibly not all that enjoyable in the moment, that may be a sign that passion is coming your way…finally.

<p><a href=”″>Cal Newport: “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice</a> from <a href=””>99U</a&gt; on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>


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