Cultivating Passion

From The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner.

“Michael Jung. . . believes that ‘there are only three reasons why people work or learn. There’s push, which is a need, threat or risk, but this is now a less plausible or credible motivating force [in the industrialized countries] than it has been, even for the disadvantaged. There’s transfer of habits—habits shaped by social norms and traditional routines. But this, too, is becoming weaker now, because of the erosion of traditional authority and social values. That leaves only pull—interest, desire, passion.’ I understand Jung to be talking about three kinds of human motivation. Physiological need is one—the need for food and shelter and so on. But he suggests that with high rates of employment and government safety nets, this is less of a motivational force in many young people’s lives than it once was. The desire to adhere to social norms is another human motivation that is weaker than it used to be, because traditional sources of authority, religion and family, have less influence on young people today. Jung believes that it is the third motivational force—interest, desire, and passion—that increasing numbers of young people are seeking and responding to in school and at the workplace.”

We tend to be products of our environments so I wouldn’t describe the transfer of habits/adherence to social norms argument quite like Jung and Wagner. The influence of significant others, for better or worse, is still there. My clearest childhood memories of my dad are of him pacing the house as he memorized his sales presentations.  Five or six at the time, the impact was indelible. Every family has momentum, whether positive or negative. Because of my parents, ours was positive which is not synonymous with perfect. If a critical mass of adults in a young person’s life aren’t working and planning for a better future, we can’t expect that young person to care much about school work, continuing their education, or making a positive difference in the world.

If we agree that young people are mostly motivated by interest, desire, and passion, as I’m inclinded to do, we need to rethink teaching, coaching, and parenting. In his book, Wagner tells Kate’s story, a senior in high school. “Kate suffered from too much of the wrong kind of adult authority,” Wagner writes. “She was overmanaged for success—success being narrowly defined as getting into a college her parents and teachers considered to be top-notch and having a high paying job.”

What good are high standardized test scores and good grades if a student lacks specific interests, desires, and passion? What if they learn to “do school” but fail to become passionate about anything?

The seventeen and eighteen year-olds that I know are striving to get into the best colleges possible. But what makes one college better than another? US News and Report offers pseudo-empirical answers based upon numbers colleges get good at manipulating, but there’s more art to educational excellence than science. Maybe the best college is the one where faculty and staff help students discover their interests and desires. They advise and teach passionately; consequently, students become more passionate about writing, or a language, a culture, an environmental challenge, a historical period, a social movement, global politics, law, or medicine. I’d like to see USN&R measure staff and faculty passion for advising and teaching.

If I did a focus group with my daughter and her twelfth grade friends, I suspect all of them could identify things they like, but only a few could explain in any detail what they are most passionate about and why. And surely those few that are ahead of the curve need guidance on how to turn their passions into purposeful vocations. My wish for my daughter and her friends is that over the next four or five years they become more passionate and begin translating their passions into meaningful, rewarding work.