There is no shortage of messages telling young people to follow their passion these days. Through spoken word and print, today’s students have been receiving this message since they were very young. This is - in principle - a wonderful thing. An evolution in our expectations and collective goals as a society. A movement towards more fulfilling lives. However, as I see it, there are two problems with delivering this message to high school students.
The first problem is that the message tends to come through short, sporadic bursts, rather than sustained conversation. It is injected periodically into career development conversations, but usually without any further support or guidance on HOW to go about following your passion. It is rarely paired with an equally important message: that only a select few have any clue about their lifelong passions by the time they leave high school. The traditional follow your passion message suggests that young people can skip the process of taking action to figure out what their passions are, and jump right into their pursuit.
Human beings are not born with passions – we develop them in conjunction with our personalities, attitudes and values. This is a lengthy process. The problem is that our current message mistakenly insinuates that young adults have solidified this knowledge by the time they leave high school. This miscommunication often results in stress and anxiety for the student, as they believe that they should have “figured it out” by this time. The irony in this perceived inadequacy is that the student is, in all likelihood, right on schedule. During the years after high school, young adults should focus on developing self-awareness and building skills that will help them pursue the things that matter to them. That’s simply not what our current educational structure and messaging tells them.
The second problem with our current message is that it suggests that we each have one ultimate passion in life. As both research in the social sciences and anecdotal experience have demonstrated, it is possible to be passionate about many different activities, subjects, causes and beliefs. In fact, most well-adjusted people have a number of things in their lives for which they care deeply.
People often tend to mistakenly use the term passion when what they really mean is purpose. The difference is that a person’s purpose engages their passions and talents in a meaningful way that enables them to benefit others. A good teacher combines their passion for teaching with their talent as a communicator to help their students become more knowledgeable and well-adjusted citizens. That is their purpose: to help others build the necessary skills to move forward and be happy in life. However, they may have a multitude of other passions that do not necessarily play a direct role in their life’s purpose.
I suggest that we shift our message to students from FOLLOW your passion to FIND your passionS. This is an empowering statement that acknowledges their current developmental stage and clearly demonstrates that there is work involved in the process. It also provides them with the space to confidently move forward while understanding that a certain degree of trial and error is both inevitable and beneficial.
A subtle difference in language, but one that none the less has the potential to bring about significant improvement in young people’s decision-making and long-term fulfillment.
Check in next month for our follow-up installment – The Importance of MicroPurpose