How Is This Stanford Research Considered “New”?

In a series of laboratory studies, former Stanford postdoctoral fellow Paul O’Keefe, along with Stanford psychologists Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton, examined beliefs that may lead people to succeed or fail at developing their interests. Now I’m a fan of Dweck’s work on the importance of having a growth mindset, and while this current research seems to  build on that work, I’m not sure it adds anything to the “pursue your passion” line of work.

The researchers looked at mindsets about interests: Are interests fixed qualities that are inherently there, just waiting to be discovered? Or are interests qualities that take time and effort to develop?

To test how these different belief systems influence the way people hone their interests, O’Keefe, Dweck and Walton conducted a series of five experiments involving 470 participants.

In the first experiment, they found that students who held a fixed mindset about interests were less open to an article that was outside their interest area. Being narrowly focused on one area could prevent individuals from developing knowledge in other areas that could be important to their field at a later time. O’Keefe notes that “in an increasingly interdisciplinary world, a growth mindset can potentially lead to this type of innovation, such as seeing how the arts and sciences can be fused.”

The research also found that a fixed mindset can discourage people from developing in their own interest area when it becomes too challenging.

I have personal experience with this. I had always loved math, and in fact when I started college I was a math major. However, at some point it became quite challenging, and perhaps because of my mindset at the time, I switched majors. I’ve recently rekindled my interest in math, and I am enjoying it much more at this stage of my life.

A key conclusion the authors draw for their research is that instead of pursuing your passion, you should develop your passion.

And this is where I start to question how this is considered a new finding.

I wrote about this two years ago, based on two books I had recently read at the time, (Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth and So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport).

Duckworth and Newport instead make an argument for pursuing your interests until you get really good at them (deliberate practice is a big part of this process) and once that happens, you realize that you have become passionate about what you are doing. In other words, you shouldn’t follow your passion, you should cultivate your passion.

Thus, people can learn to become passionate about virtually any job if they are willing to put in the work necessary to become highly skilled at what they are doing.

I had first read about this idea in Brandon Steiner’s book, “You Gotta Have Balls”. Steiner also believes that to become passionate about something first requires understanding, then commitment, and then the passion follows. You can’t start with passion and assume that will enable you to commit to what you are doing.

So the research coming out of Stanford doesn’t seem to add much to what is already out there about passion. While they do look at passion through the lens of the growth mindset, a new twist, as I said before, the conclusions add nothing new.

Perhaps that is why they call it REsearch.

Despite not offering anything new, it is nice to see the concept reinforced, giving hope to all of us who are still trying to figure out how best to develop our interests, some of which may become our passion through hard work.

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