3 words of advice that set your students up for failure

Daily Briefing

3 words of advice that set your students up for failure

“Find your passion” is a piece of advice used so generously it’s become a cliché. From the moment students step on campus, they hear this mantra repeatedly, especially in terms of famous alumni who beat the odds to turn their passion into a wildly successful livelihood.

But there’s a wealth of evidence suggesting that this guidance can mislead students and undermine their long-term success.

1: Students’ passions and employment opportunities may not align

Washington Post‘s Christopher Ingraham argues that higher ed leaders should be more realistic about employment outcomes when encouraging students to follow their passions.

He points to one study in which Canadian college students were asked about their passions. Though 90% of respondents listed some variant of sports, arts, leisure, or music, just 3% of jobs in Canada are in arts, culture, recreation, and sports.

Part of the problem lies in the confirmation bias of people who are successful, argues Ingraham. For example, an English professor who attained tenure through her passion for Marxist readings of Shakespeare may believe that her students should also be able to find prosperity in their passion. But, he adds, the professor may not consider the barriers her students face.

“None of this is to say, of course, that passion is bad or that it should be discouraged,” says Ingraham. “But colleges and universities may want to consider a more balanced approach when it comes to encouraging their students to go out and do great things. Passion is fine, but maybe temper it with some more pragmatic pursuits, like computer programming or nonfiction writing, that could be useful down the line.”

2: Grads may be more likely to experience exploitation in the workplace

New research from Duke University‘s Fuqua School of Business suggests that those who are more passionate about their work are more likely to be exposed to exploitative managerial conduct, unpaid work, and heightened workplace demands.

Why? The researchers argue that while passion in the workplace can be beneficial, it can also lead to “passion exploitation.” That is, managers and employers tend to consider it more acceptable to make passionate employees do more work than less passionate employees.

“There is this justification in society that we often jump to, which is: People are getting their own reward from [pursuing] their passion, so it’s more OK to make them do that work,” explains Troy Campbell, one of the researchers and an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Oregon.

3: Students may not understand that their passions can be developed over time

Research from Stanford University suggests that “find your passion”-style advice may contribute to a fixed mindset that leads students to believe that their interests are set in stone and should be easy to pursue. A fixed mindset may also hold students back from developing knowledge in other areas that could be important to their work later on, according to researchers Paul O’Keefe, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton.

Instead, advisors should encourage students to “develop your passion” and convey that interests can grow and change over time, suggest the researchers. This advice fosters a growth mindset and provides students with “more realistic beliefs about the pursuit of interests, which may help them sustain engagement as material becomes more complex and challenging,” according to the researchers.

To help students understand that passion can be developed, several institutions offer brief opportunities for students to test their career plans early on, according to a study from EAB‘s Academic Affairs Forum. For instance, Western Washington University and the University of Chicago offer students highly structured job shadowing experiences and opportunities for reflection during their first year.

4: An obsession with “finding your passion” can be destructive

Students may also have difficulty determining their passion because they don’t fully understand themselves yet, argues Peter Caven for Globe and Mail. He adds that finding a useful passion is akin to finding a “calling,” which he defines as “work that is important to an individual’s life and a vital part of their identity.” 

Therefore, developing a passion for a marketable skill is a process that gradually develops over the course of a career. “Passion is a derivative, not a driver,” Caven argues. He cites research from Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational psychology at Yale University, that suggests that “the strongest predictor of people seeing their work as a ‘calling’ was the length of time they had been doing it.” The research also found that happy, passionate employees are usually those who have stayed with their jobs for the longest period of time.

So how can advisors help students understand this reality? Encourage students to get out there and just start building experience in the workforce—it doesn’t have to directly correlate with what they think is their “passion,” says Caven. But with the right amount of experience and self-discovery, passion will develop over time, he suggests.

Students may even begin developing their passion while in school. As one student tells EAB’s Annie Yi, “I already feel like my years [in college] have had purpose. They’ve made me a better person, kind of refocused what I want to take the rest of my life.”

Sources: Caven, Globe and Mail, 3/1/17; De Witte, Stanford News, 6/21/18; Duke University study, accessed 8/1/19; EAB study, accessed 8/1/19; Ingraham, Washington Post, 6/28/16; Jarvis, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/10/19; Vallerand et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, accessed 8/1/19

Growing public concern about the return on investment (ROI) associated with higher education has created pressure for both public and private institutions to assume greater responsibility for students’ post-graduation outcomes. Explore our report for 34 best practices to incorporate meaningful career exploration into the academic curriculum.

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