Saturday, July 14, 2018

another Atlantic piece "Find Your Passion" is disastrous advice

Perhaps in keeping with a theme this weekend, now that we've looked earlier at student debt as a nexus of crises related to economic and social life by way of higher education, here's another piece that discusses how a generation or two of students has been admonished to "find your passion".
Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, remembers asking an undergraduate seminar recently, “How many of you are waiting to find your passion?”

“Almost all of them raised their hand and got dreamy looks in their eyes,” she told me. They talked about it “like a tidal wave would sweep over them,” he said. Sploosh. Huzzah! It’s accounting!

Would they have unlimited motivation for their passion? They nodded solemnly.
“I hate to burst your balloon,” she said, “but it doesn’t usually happen that way.”

What Dweck asked her students is a common refrain in American society. The term “Follow your passion” has increased ninefold in English books since 1990. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” is another college-counseling standby of unknown provenance.

But according to Dweck and others, that advice is steering people wrong.

“What are the consequences of that?” asked Paul O’Keefe, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University. “That means that if you do something that feels like work, it means you don’t love it.” He gave me the example of a student who jumps from lab to lab, trying to find one whose research topic feels like her passion. “It’s this idea that if I’m not completely overwhelmed by emotion when I walk into a lab, then it won’t be my passion or my interest.” [emphasis added]

That’s why he and two co-authors—Dweck and Greg Walton of Stanford—recently performed a study that suggests it might be time to change the way we think about our interests. Passions aren’t “found,” they argue. They’re developed.

A passion that is developed is also not necessarily indicative of gainful employment. Some of my cultivated passions have involved early 19th century guitar sonatas and cycles of polyphonic music for classical guitar.  Another cultivated passion is Batman cartoons. I can tell you that while one of those passions helped me pay the rent it wasn't the highbrow stuff!  It was writing about Batman cartoons that helped me pay rent one month back when I was looking for full time work! 

Having a passion isn't the same as having a passion that can be translated into a job market skillset.Had I not been flexible enough in my approach to adapt to where I was at, if fitfully, even that might not have come up.  That's a bit of a lame transition into the following, a discussion of how there's a difference between who define their passions as a fixed range of interests and those who have a more flexible way of defining what their passions are in relationship to methodologies.  This may be a transition into a study of such a tiny sample that the methodology may be moot, as seems so often the case in social science ... since social science is still the only term that can probably be used. 

In a paper that is forthcoming in Psychological Science, the authors delineate the difference between the two mind-sets. One is a “fixed theory of interests”—the idea that core interests are there from birth, just waiting to be discovered—and the other is a “growth theory,” the idea that interests are something anyone can cultivate over time.

To examine how these different mind-sets affect our pursuit of different topics, the authors performed a series of studies on college students—a group that’s frequently advised to find their passion in the form of a major or career path.

First, students answered a survey that would categorize them as either “techy”—slang for interested in math and science—or “fuzzy,” meaning interested in the arts or humanities. They also filled out a survey determining how much they agreed with the idea that peoples’ core interests don’t change over time. They then read an article that mismatched their interests—a piece on the future of algorithms for the fuzzies, and a piece on Derrida for the techies. The more the participants endorsed a “fixed” theory of interests, the less interested they were in the article that mismatched their aforementioned identity as a techy or fuzzy.

The authors then repeated a similar procedure, but they had students read first about either the fixed theory of interests or the growth theory. Again, those who learned that interests are fixed throughout a person’s life were less captivated by an article that mismatched their interests.
The authors believe this could mean that students who have fixed theories of interest might forgo interesting lectures or opportunities because they don’t align with their previously stated passions. Or that they might overlook ways that other disciplines can intersect with their own.
“If passions are things found fully formed, and your job is to look around the world for your passion—it’s a crazy thought,” Walton told me. “It doesn’t reflect the way I or my students experience school, where you go to a class and have a lecture or a conversation, and you think, That’s interesting. It’s through a process of investment and development that you develop an abiding passion in a field.”
Dweck, one of the paper’s authors, has previously studied different types of mind-sets as they relate to intelligence. People who have a growth mind-set about their own intelligence tend to be less afraid of failure, according to her research, because they believe smarts are cultivated, not inherent. Interests are related to, but distinct from, abilities, the study authors told me: You can be interested in something but not very good at it. “I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years, but I can’t say that my abilities have gotten that much better in the past 10 years,” O’Keefe said.

Dweck told me that “Find your passion” has a laudable history. “Before that, people were saying, ‘Find your genius,’ and that was so intimidating. It implied that only people who were really brilliant at something could succeed,” she said. “‘Find your passion’ felt more democratic. Everybody can have an interest.” But this study suggests that even the idea of finding your “true” interest can intimidate people and keep them from digging further into a field.

That gets me thinking about how there are people who say that a shift happened on defining what "genius" meant from the last few centuries.  "Find your genius" sounds positively old school compared to a post-Romantic way of saying that someone IS a genius. Because we may still have a post-Romantic notion of passion and genius we can be taught that if you find your passion you'll find your genius, so to speak.  I am not convinced that "find your passion" isn't ultimately the same basic premise as "find your genius". 

There's writers who claim that we need to look at whether or not "genius" came about in part due to bitter rivalries and whether or not genius has something to do with copycats.  Leonard B. Meyer proposed that the difference between a "genius" and a "crackpot" probably had much less to do with basic experimental or avant garde work than on the discovery of a solution to a problem that was regarded as a problem worth solving by the public at large.  To describe it another way, the genius was the person who created a replicable solution or paradigm for a solution to something that was widely regarded as a problem or challenge that needed to be addressed.

Which I think would be another way of saying that whatever a "genius" is they have some sense of social responsibility regarding the potential theoretical and practical significance of their problem-solving.  But I am not sure that that in any way connects to "find your passion". 

The authors also had students learn about either fixed or growth theory and then exposed them to a new interest: Astronomy. First, they had them watch a video made by The Guardian for a general audience about Stephen Hawking’s ideas. It was easy to understand, and entertaining. Then the authors had the students read a highly technical, challenging article in the academic journal Science about black holes. Despite saying just moments ago, after viewing the video, that they were fascinated by black holes, the students who were exposed to the fixed theory of interests said they were no longer interested in black holes after reading the difficult Science article. In other words, when you’re told that your interests are somehow ingrained, you give up on new interests as soon as the going gets tough.

This study was a preregistered replication, meaning the authors stated at the outset what their hypothesis and methods would be. This process is meant to prevent p-hacking, a shady data practice that has cast a shadow over many psychology studies in recent years.

K. Ann Renninger, a professor at Swarthmore College who was not involved with the study, has researched the development of interests and said that “neuroscience has confirmed that interests can be supported to develop.” In other words, with the right help, most people can get interested in almost anything. Before the age of 8, she said, kids will try anything. Between the ages of 8 and 12, they start to compare themselves with others and become insecure if they’re not as good as their peers at something. That’s when educators have to start to find new ways to keep them interested in certain subjects.

Though the authors didn’t examine adults, they told me their findings could apply to an older population as well. For example, people’s interest in parenthood tends to escalate rapidly once they have a real, crying baby in their house. “You could not know the first thing about cancer, but if your mother gets cancer, you’re going to be an expert in it pretty darn quick,” O’Keefe said.

A different study done on adults’ views toward passions suggests that people who think passions are found tend to pick jobs that fit them well from the outset. They prioritize enjoyment over good pay. People who think passions are developed, meanwhile, prioritize other goals over immediate enjoyment at work, and they “grow to fit their vocations better over time,” the authors of that study write. “In conclusion,” they add, “people who have not found their perfect fit in a career can take heart—there is more than one way to attain passion for work.”

How to cultivate a “growth” mind-set in the young, future-psychology-experiment subjects of America? If you’re a parent, you can avoid dropping new hobbies as soon as they become difficult. (Your kids might take note if you do, O’Keefe said.)

Beyond that, there’s not a clear way to develop a growth mind-set about interests, other than knowing that it’s a valid way to think, and that your passion might still be around the corner.

“We’re just trying to pull the veil back on the hidden implications of things like, Find your passion,’” Walton said. “Is that really how things work? A little bit of knowledge is power.”

The right kind of a little bit of knowledge may be power but on the whole I haven't found that I'm convinced that knowledge is power is all that true.  It used to be said that it's not what you know but who you know.  A relative told me that over the years when I was job hunting and I told him that it seems to be the "new" job market of the last twenty years is more a double whammy of not just who you know but also what you know, too.  If you don't hit the jackpot across both criteria your job prospects can really stink.

The relative shared that in the domain of computer service and tech support it was seeming over the last twenty-some years that employers wanted you to have a master's in computer science and be willing to work fifty hours a week so that they could give you $11 or $12 an hour with maybe zero medical benefits.

Sometimes my Generation X cohorts may post something about how the jobs were better back in the Clinton era and forgetting that back then we were 20-somethings in an seemingly endless cycle of what was not yet called the gig economy, shuffling from temp job to temp job with no medical coverage of any kind and unstable income. 

Some of the most useless career counseling I got over the years had to do with "find your passion".  I wanted a job I could do that wouldn't ransack my body (let's just say that some of the hotter job-peddlers in the last twenty years could end up having warehouse packing work that could wreck a person's wrists). 

A generation or two sold on "find your passion" might need to be told that this advice plays well to educational institutions who benefit from you trying to find your passion for four to five years in an institution of higher education.  Never mind if your passion is for something for which there's no actual job market. Never mind if you may get a PhD in a field of study for which there may not even been work. 

I try to be slightly upbeat about the basic value of education as a discipline of the mind and toward scholarship but ... like I've been blogging this weekend I have a friend or two who has confided that it feels like higher education has been a bill of goods in job market terms.  Generation X has had to deal with this first but in journalistic terms the appeal is probably still going to be Millenials.  I went from firmly believing in the necessity and value of higher education to imploring my friends who were in their 20s in this new century to NOT go to college unless the work they wanted to do could not be done without it.  Among friends and family I'm happy to lend books that people may want to read on a subject.  There have to be ways among neighbors to share knowledge in a way that doesn't involve getting people on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt. 

Passions can be cultivated and particularly for the arts I'm feeling lately that it's the amateurs rather than the professionals that make a regional arts culture what it is, though professionals obviously play an important part.

I couldn't justify, for instance, going to a seminary just because I felt and thought I had a passion for theology and church history stuff.  I didn't have as much a passion for that as I probably thought I did because I shifted to music and because I felt no sense of obligation to serve in ministry and couldn't justify dumping who knew how much money into going to a seminary just to line the pockets of an institution to learn stuff I could learn as a layperson by simply attending a decent church. 


Cal of Chelcice said...

While I agree with the piece that just about any interest could be cultivated, it's drenched in this man-is-plastic up-beat liberalism of the early 20th c. It's one thing to say that you could learn to develop an interest in just about anything, but there's two things.

One, there's no explanation as to 'why' an interest develops. In my experiences, you have to draw lines between things pre-existing and the new subject; it doesn't just appear out of thin air (a well-produced Hawkings' show is hardly a neutral case for subject material).

Two, they're trying to glide around the fact that some people are better at certain things than others, and that's not a bad mechanism for dissuasion. Sure, the guy says he's had an interest in guitars for 25 years, but what does that pan out to? How many hours a day does he study, practice, struggle? You don't have to do much to have an interest in anything, but there are levels of skill that can't be manufactured through will-power and positive attitude. With the World Cup ending, it's amazing to see some players having a "sense" for ball-placement. That's not something you can exercise into. Some players are good strategists and have a better feel for the lay out of the game and placement. Again, anyone can have interest in anything, but let's not foster some aggressively Jacobin attitude for peoples' gifts. And yes, if you're not good at something, you should have the humility to not make it the primary focus of your life to the expense of other things, your livelihood, other people, etc.

And yet, none of the above says anything about the phenomenon of professionalization. You might be good at scholarly debate, research, study, whatever, but that doesn't mean you should get a job doing x. Especially when that scholarly task is theology, which I am very uncomfortable with being reduced to intellectual interests and skills, as if it's a field of study like math, biology, or literature. The structure of seminaries is horrible, not only full of rank clericalism, but also making the task of pastor or theology a guild, as if God is shackled to only work through the ivory tower. Which is not to endorse anti-intellectualism or charismatic theology, only that turning divorcing a holy life and maturity from study and training is a terrible feature of the institutions as they are.

my 2 cents as always,

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

When I was very young I wanted to be a pilot. It took me mere minutes to realize I could never, ever be a pilot. I shouldn't even try to drive a car and I only felt like it was a relatively safe prospect to ride bikes in Oregon. Once I came up to Seattle, saw the hills and saw how SEATTLEITES DRIVE, I swore off ever riding bikes in this city. It wasn't even that I was a bad cyclist, either, some relatives said that I was getting pretty good at it in my teens. But It's a case study of your point about how being good at something doesn't mean it has to be professionalized.

When I was young I also wanted to play clarinet. Family couldn't afford it, which was a terrible discovery. I thought the guitar, by contrast, seemed like a lame and stupid instrument when I was in second or third grade and here I am tackling my second set of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar because it turns out I'm ... moderately good at playing guitar. I wouldn't even say I'm particularly great, just that I've dedicated a lot of time to it. My idea of a fun weekend is mapping out the possibilities for triple counterpoint for a guitar piece in B flat major.

Which ties back to a shortfall in the article you've alluded to--very very few people on the planet ever call that kind of thing their idea of fun. There's only so far an interest can be cultivated.

And I was telling a coworker a year or so ago that I have realized since being out of school that one of the most important traits a person can have in a research field is the kind of trait nobody can teach you except by maybe example, an ability to recognize the strategic significance of truly tedious and boring details. Even with the watchblogging I did about MH there were details that others skimmed over that screamed out for attention when I saw them, but it was often stuff that literally meant nothing to outsiders. But when Andrew's story mentioned a stepfather for the anonymous fiancée I knew there could only be one Ballard campus pastor that could have fit that description. in basically one sentence MPT gave away the identity of who Andrew was connected to circa late 2011 to early 2012.

Unknown said...

Speaking as a reader of your guitar essays, I am very glad you cultivated a passion for 19C guitar sonatas & polyphony...