Everyone has an opinion about finding your passion. It's either the best piece of career advice you've ever heard or the worst.
Bill Gates is all for it. He discovered a passion for writing software as a kid and kept at it. Seemed to work out pretty well for him.
Mark Cuban is vehemently against hanging your success on finding your passion. Just because you're passionate about something doesn't mean you're good at it. He advises you find where you're putting in the most effort, then double down on that to achieve success.
Stanford researchers recently decided to get to the bottom of the matter. They performed a series of experiments and published their findings in Psychological Science.
Everything that's wrong with the three-word cliché
The Stanford psychologists found a few problems with encouraging people to find their passion.
First and foremost, it perpetuates the misconception that you can only be passionate about--and thus successful in--one thing. It narrows your focus too much. If you go all-in on a single interest, you close yourself off to exploring other interests or passions. The researchers called this a fixed mindset.
In one experiment, they recruited students who had a fixed mindset and identified as "techie" or "fuzzy." This is apparently Stanford-speak for someone who's passionate about STEM or the arts and humanities. The students read articles on both topics. Those who had a fixed mindset about one topic were less open to the article outside their interest area.
People with singular mindsets aren't likely to have light-bulb ideas or bring forth new innovations.
"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," says Stanford psychologist Gregory Walton, one of the study's co-authors.
Finding your passion is problematic
To find your passion sounds like you will simply somehow stumble across it. That passion already exists somewhere out there. You just have to find it. Then you can ride that passion to the top.
Should be easy, right? Totally wrong. Ask anyone you consider successful about their journey. They're likely to tell you it wasn't easy. They probably failed multiple times along the way.
This is yet another problem with the find-your-passion advice. People assume they'll be endlessly motivated to keep going. A passion sounds like it should be easy and fun. So, when you inevitably hit a hurdle or it becomes challenging, you're more likely to get discouraged and quit.
In another experiment, the researchers showed students a video about black holes. Most of them were intrigued. When the same students had to read a complex article on the same topic, they quickly lost interest. It was just too hard to understand.
The researchers wrote a poetic conclusion: "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."
What you should do instead
The researchers propose people follow this advice instead: Develop your passion.
This approach is more realistic. Developing your passion entails working at it. It means you might suck at it at times. And it means the path might be difficult. But if you keep at it, you can achieve. "You take some time to do it, you encounter challenges, over time you build that commitment," Walton says.
Develop your passion might be one piece of advice both Bill Gates and Mark Cuban can get behind. Though Gates found his passion for software development at a young age, he certainly had to develop it to build his Microsoft empire. Mark Cuban's path to success may have been different, but it also entailed putting in time to get really good at something.
Fulfilling work you're passionate about is definitely achievable. Just don't be so foolish as to think this will make every work day amazing. Even Oprah agrees. "Your job is not always going to fulfill you," she told journalism graduates during her University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism commencement speech. "There will be some days when you just might be bored. Other days you may not feel like going to work at all. Go anyway."