Want to spark controversy? Ask a group of highly successful people if they think "follow your passion" is good advice. Trust me on this, it will be fun:

They're all over the map, anecdotally. Ironically, they're also often quite passionate about their answers.

Still, if a newly released psychological study is on track, there's now a clear, right, simple, straightforward answer to the "follow your passion" question, and  it goes like this:

For people who are the best of the best in their field, passion is absolutely the biggest factor. It's the essential key to success.

That's Hermundur Sigmundsson, a professor in NTNU's department of psychology and lead author of the study, which was published this month in the quarterly peer-reviewed journal New Ideas in Psychology.

If you believe him and his colleagues, that's it, case closed: Follow your passion is the world's best advice.

Or is it? Below, we'll break down the study, analyze its results, criticize its limitations, and explore how it might apply beyond the sample size they used. I think we'll also add an important qualitative qualifier to Sigmundsson's conclusions, even if we like the idea in general.

Passion, grit, and mindset

Sigmundsson and a team of academics from Scandinavian universities--mostly in Norway, but one in Iceland--set out to determine whether any specific mental trait might be shared among the most elite school-aged athletes.

Their initial investigation narrowed in on three mental traits:

  • Passion: defined as "having a strong enthusiasm or desire for something"
  • Grit: "a personality factor reflecting persistence in accomplishing long-term goals"
  • Mindset: "belief that achievement is variable, and that abilities can be developed over time"

The mostly Norwegian academics studied Norwegian soccer players, focusing on teams in two age groups:

  • An elite team, averaging age 22, whose players were qualifying to play in the top Norwegian professional league
  • A junior-level regional team, averaging just under age 15, whose players were highly proficient but were at a younger stage of their careers and playing at a lower level

From there, there were two components to the study:

  • First, players were asked a series of 24 questions designed to assess their passion, grit, and mindset.
  • Separately, their coaches were asked to rank their teams, identifying the players with the highest competence and the lowest competence. 

"Clear difference" 

The correlations were clear, as you might expect (given that I'm writing about this). Higher levels of players' passion correlated to higher rankings for competence.

Measurement of the other two mental traits--players' grit and growth mindset--were much less aligned. To quote from the amusingly specific conclusion within the journal article itself:

These results may indicate the important role of passion for achievement and for becoming a good football player.

Our findings indicate clear difference between HFC and LFC groups for both Elite and Junior team in passion, supporting anecdotal evidence. The results of our study suggest that passion may be a key factor for athletic success.

So, if you're trying to field a Norwegian football team, we have a well-documented answer. Still, I think there's more we can do with this. 

Passion, plus ...

The study has its limitations. Most glaring at the outset might be that they only included men and boys in their study. Unfortunately, this is something that comes up quite often in these kinds of studies (example other example). 

But as long as we're jumping in the debate, I think it's worth considering this in a different way. Maybe growth mindset has to do with a person's belief that they'll be able to grow and succeed, while grit has to do with whether they'll stick with any growth opportunity placed in front of them.

Meanwhile, passion has to do with how eager they are to put in the effort to achieve a specific goal to begin with.

It seems to me, Norwegian soccer teams notwithstanding, that all three are important.

But that's why we examine these studies: both to learn how to train ourselves to succeed and to give our kids all the advantages we can glean.

As I write in my free e-book Neuroscience: 13 Ways to Understand and Train Your Brain for Life, there's nothing more fascinating than the human brain, and the unexpected ways in which it works. 

And that's something about which almost everyone can become passionate.