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Let’s Stop Encouraging Students to Pursue Passion

Let’s Stop Encouraging Students to Pursue Passion

By
Stephen Carter
May 20, 2024
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I used to give some of the worst advice to graduating seniors.

Now, to be fair, graduating seniors receive no less than 4,561 pieces of advice every week, all from well-meaning do-gooders who wish to bestow life lessons upon these impressionable 18-year-olds.

Do you remember all the advice you received when you graduated high school? Sheesh. It only adds to the pressure of decision making by making you feel like every decision will ultimately decide your entire path in life.

I used to be part of this problem—to all graduating seniors, and to all high school students for that matter, I used to promote this idea of chasing passion. “Find what you love and go chase that down,” I would say followed by, “Life is too short to spend it doing something you don’t enjoy.”

For the most part, these pieces of advice are fine. Sort of. If, however, we encourage our young adults to “find,” “discover,” and “chase” their passions, we are perhaps unfairly biasing them against anything that doesn’t measure up to ecstatic excitement. Consider the student who, since a young age, has been told that the only life worth living is the daily pursuit of intense passion and excitement. This student, as soon as the new job becomes boring, will quit. This student, as soon as the relationship subsides into normal routines, will break up. This student will move halfway across the world to join a monastery for six months before buying a motorcycle to ride around on a journey to “find himself.”

Okay, perhaps too over dramatic on that last example, but hopefully you get the point: if we are only encouraging students to pursue their passion and we are not giving them the tools to build perseverance, we are doing them a disservice. It is, after all, passion AND perseverance that, when applied toward long-term goals, develops grit, according to expert Angela Duckworth. Without perseverance, passion leads to discontent.

Jerry Seinfeld delivered the commencement speech at Duke University recently and his words echoed this sentiment: “I can’t imagine how sick you are of hearing about following your passion. I say, the [heck] with passion. Find something you can do. That would be great. If you try something and it doesn’t work, that’s okay too.”

He went on to say, “just be willing to do your work as hard as you can with the ability you have” and this led to his three pieces of advice or his “keys to life”:

  • 1) Bust your [butt]
  • 2) Pay Attention
  • 3) Fall in Love

As he shared this, I kept thinking of the entrepreneurial mindset. In this framework, we encourage students to work hard (bust their butt) to develop grit. We encourage them to know where they are going by having a vision (pay attention) that they constantly calibrate with. And we encourage them to “fall in love” with the problem they are solving, not just the solution.

Toward the end of his speech, Seinfeld summed up the entire thought in a moving charge: “Don’t think about having, think about becoming.” Imagine that advice played out over a lifetime—if we move from a focus on having (and therefore a focus on “not having”) to a focus on becoming, we look at life not as a destination, but as a journey. And it’s a beautiful one indeed.

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Seinfeld Articulated the Entrepreneurial Mindset in his Speech

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