obsession with passion

I have worked at enough colleges and universities to discern distinctive cultures. Then again, anyone familiar with art schools would expect students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago are primarily concerned with expressing themselves. Likewise, anyone acquainted with the Great Books Program at St. John’s College wouldn’t be surprised to learn how much students there revere dialogues on curated texts.

The contrast between those two institutions, where I taught successively from 1995 to 2003, is especially clear to me because the students approached their educations in entirely different ways. The students at the School were interested in history only when this information informed their own art. The students of the College were stellar at analyzing how the ideas of others relate to each other but sometimes struggle with their own independent identity after graduation.

When I arrived at Carnegie Mellon fourteen years ago, I quickly observed how students here want to work together, to make things, in order to share those products with the world. Spring Carnival is the most obvious sign of these characteristics. Whenever college students anywhere receive a four-day weekend towards the end of the academic year as the weather turns warm, you can see their true colors. Here at CMU, the students construct human-powered buggies to careen rapidly along the city streets, build two-story booths to entertain and educate themselves as well as local children, design robots to race each other, stage plays, sing a cappella, and otherwise practice for weeks and months before their long weekend in the spring. They do all of this, not for college credit or for pay, but rather because — when given free time — they like to work together, to make things, in order to share those products with the world.

This quality is in the bones of the place. The university started as a trade school to educate the children of factory workers; nowadays, the internships and entry positions are more likely with software companies and financial firms. Either way, the story is the same: CMU students, for all their wonderful virtues, are disinclined to care about knowledge unless it moves them towards employment, and tend not to consider the societal implications of the jobs they take, as long as those pay well. Furthermore, they seem to think of themselves as gears in some vast machinery (“good grades, enough sleep, social life: choose two”) and to overwork themselves to exhaustion.

“My heart is in the work” is the motto of the university, which is a beautiful sentiment on the face of it. Given a choice, who wouldn’t want a job they love? The problem comes when “my work is my heart” — when work is judged significant only if it also possesses your heart, or worse, when work becomes the measure of self-worth.

When I arrived at the university, one of my colleagues frequently advocated that we faculty should help students “find their passion”; she often invoked “passion” when meeting prospective students and advising current ones. She proselytized this gospel of passion because, she observed, students seemed happy and successful when they found a career path that deeply aligns with their interests.

But what does this unrelenting emphasis on passion convey to those who have not yet, or never will, find passion in work? Why should all of us expect to derive unending satisfaction from our employment? Work is not always fun, nor should we expect it to snap us out of our beds every morning. We don’t have to throw our hearts at the same job every day for decades. Let us decide for ourselves where our hearts belong.

Obsession with passion for work is pitiless. It smacks of privilege: few people have the luxury to choose a profession that aligns with passion. It reduces education to a mechanism towards employment, initially to identify passion for a certain line of work, then to receive vocational training. Food and rest exist only to enable further work, which becomes the one true reason for being. Leisure, once considered the basis of culture, is a word that simply ceases to have meaning.

I helped construct the new undergraduate Core Education in the Mellon College of Science, and have taught Eureka, the introductory course in this sequence, since we launched it five years ago. This week in Eureka we assigned students the task to consider goals for themselves.

The lead instructor for Eureka keeps the rest of us yoked together, so that students share a similar educational experience regardless of recitation section.I always question what we do. In particular, two years ago when we were instructed to show our students Scott Dinsmore’s TEDx talk “How To Find and Do Work You Love“, I chose two briefer portions. The first excerpt begins and ends:

Eight years ago I got the worst career advice of my life. I had a friend tell me, “Scott, don’t worry about how much you like the work you’re doing right now, it’s all about just building your resume.” … 

I wanted to find the work that I couldn’t not do.

The second Dinsmore excerpt concludes:

[T]he best way to do this [push yourself to believe what is possible] is to surround yourself with passionate people. The fastest way to do things you don’t think can be done is to surround yourself with people already doing them.

Even knowing that Dinsmore had died while pursuing one of his passions as a mountain climber, I could not let his message pass uncritically to my students. To provide counterpoint, I also showed another video, from the beginning of Terri Trespicio’s TEDx talk “Stop Searching for Your Passion“:

[T]here’s a dangerously limiting idea at the heart of everything we believe about success and life in general, and it’s that you have one singular passion and your job is to find it and to pursue it to the exclusion of all else. And if you do that, everything will fall into place. And if you don’t, you’ve failed … 

This passion vertical is unrealistic and, I’ll say it, elitist. You show me someone who washes windows for a living and I will bet you a million dollars it’s not because he has a passion for clean glass … 

[Scott] Adams says that in his life, success fueled passion more than passion fueled success.

I align with Trespicio more than with Densmore: passion and profession need not be chained together. She and I are not alone in our concerns about this unhealthy obsession with finding your passion, an attitude that corresponds with a fixed mindset, rather than a growth mindset that encourages development.

When I reported the changes I had made to the lesson plan, other professors revealed that they and their sections had also been uncomfortable with the overemphasis on passion. Since then, everyone has modified the exercise to include a hard interrogation of the passion narrative.

My work here is done.

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