As a college professor, I have the privilege of advising young women and men as they make decisions about course selections, major areas of study, and life directions. Like other college students around the country, many of my advisees are searching for content they find interesting and meaningful, for work that is fulfilling and purposeful. Many are eager to “find their passion.”

On the surface, these goals seem laudable. Instead of seeking power, status or personal wealth, some students are motivated to discover their interests and uncover the path that excites and drives them. They want a career that lights their fire. Presumably they are adhering to the adage, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Recent research by investigators at Yale and Stanford, however, suggests this approach might be a mistake. Rather than seek the one job or career path that ignites our passion, we should invest meaningfully in different interests and work to cultivate a passion in one or more fields. By this view, interests are nurtured over time, not discovered overnight.

The key here is mindset. Some people adopt a “fixed mindset” approach and search for the one, predestined match in their lives. They expect this match to be enduring, full of excitement, and endlessly fulfilling. Fixed mindsets have been observed with romantic relationships and intelligence. Individuals with “destiny” mindsets about romantic relationships often seek “the one,” and tend to move on when faced with relationship challenges. Individuals with fixed mindsets of intelligence believe that intelligence derives from a fixed talent and cannot be cultivated or nurtured through experience. Across all these domains, fixed mindsets tend to eschew the notion that exploration and resilience can lead to positive change.

A fixed mindset about interests can be limiting in two ways. First, it implies that our interests and talents may be narrow or specific. Once we find a path that intrigues us and brings success, we may curb or even abandon exploration of other potential interests. Second, we may expect pursuit of our one true passion to be easy – after all, this is the pathway that will provide endless drive and excitement, and will yield the greatest achievement. Consequently, instead of demonstrating resilience and perseverance in pursuit of this passion, we may fold when faced with failure or significant challenge. Difficulty may be perceived as indication that we are simply on the wrong path.  

By contrast, individuals with a “growth mindset” believe that interests or passions can be developed or cultivated through experience, investment, and struggle. There is not a single, “right” path to be discovered or revealed; instead, many different interests are viable, even simultaneously. With a growth mindset, success in one arena doesn’t preclude or limit exploration of other interests, nor does difficulty signal the need to change course.

Evidence from five experiments demonstrates that mindsets significantly influence what we expect to happen when pursuing our interests and how we respond to new possibilities and challenges. In one study, researchers first determined whether participants had a fixed or growth mindset about interests using a simple questionnaire. This survey gauged the extent to which individuals perceived interests to be permanent, steadfast and static (fixed mindset), or malleable, flexible and dynamic (growth mindset). Participants then gave answers to several open-ended questions concerning their expectations about outcomes when pursuing a passionate interest. Relative to participants who expressed a growth mindset about interests, those who expressed a fixed mindset were far more likely to expect endless motivation and minimal struggle when pursuing a confirmed passion.

Additional studies demonstrated that mindset influences more than expectations; mindset changes behavior. In one paradigm, participants read two different articles, one that matched their personal goals and pursuits, and one that did not. Participants rated their interest in each article. When the article content matched participants’ pursuits, having a fixed versus growth mindset did not matter; everyone found the matching article interesting. When the article content mismatched participants’ pursuits, those with a fixed mindset reported far less interest in the material than those with a growth mindset. In other words, a fixed mindset diminished curiosity about topics not directly relevant to one’s primary pursuit.

Mindset also affected outcomes in the face of difficulty. In a final study, participants first watched a popular science film clip about black holes, and rated their interest in the clip. Most found it fascinating. Those expressing high interest in black holes after viewing the film then read a complex technical report on black holes. They rated both how difficult and how interesting they found the report. Among those who found the technical report difficult to read, those with a fixed mindset subsequently expressed far less interest in black holes than those with a growth mindset. These findings suggest that when individuals with a fixed mindset pursue an emerging interest, they are more likely to lose interest in that topic if it becomes challenging.

On the bright side, a fixed mindset about interests may have its benefits. It may foster a single-mindedness that reduces distraction and promotes completion of a task. Assuming an individual faces minimal frustration when pursuing a passion, a fixed mindset may promote contentment and prevent endless consideration of alternative interests.

A fixed mindset about interests is likely to be a hazard, however, when advances within one’s field require the integration of broad and diverse knowledge sets, or when resilience is needed in facing new hurdles. For these reasons, college students would be wise to enroll in a variety of courses and to seek an array of experiential learning opportunities, including those that stretch them out of their comfort zones. Rather than searching for their one true passion, they should understand that interests, expertise, and even passion can be cultivated through experience, persistence, and hard work.