Doing What I Love: It’s Just Too Risky

RiskWhen I talk to college students about their careers, there is often a disconnection between what many of them would like to do with their lives and what they are actually doing. It’s not uncommon for me to hear comments like these:

“I really want to be a writer, but I’m going to be a nurse instead.”

“I really want to start my own craft beer brewery, but I’m going to get my degree in accounting instead.”

“I really want to be a musician, but I’m going to major in engineering instead.”

I can certainly identify with these statements. When I was in college, I really wanted to play music, but I instead chose to major in electrical engineering (and, later, in psychology, when engineering became unbearable).

So why did I choose engineering rather than music? And why do so many students forgo a career that truly interests them for one that interests them considerably less (or maybe even not at all)?

There are numerous reasons, but one that pops up a lot during conversation is the notion of risk.

“I’d love to be a writer,” they say, “but it’s too risky.”

Ultimately, many students have the perception that it’s too risky to pursue the thing they love to do. Instead of taking a risk, they take the “safe” path, believing that it’s more practical and will lead to a better life.

But is that necessarily true?

Is Safety Safe and Risk Risky?

In this post, I want to address a misconception that seems to underlie many of the career choices that students make: that some choices are absolutely safe while others are undeniably risky.

First of all, let’s take a minute to make sure we understand what “risky” means. In everyday language, “risk” usually refers to the likelihood that something bad is going to happen (like when someone says, “That’s a risky decision!” or “You’re taking a big risk!”).

Let’s apply this definition to the examples given above.

This implies that (a) being a writer is more likely to produce a bad outcome than going into nursing (which is safe), (b) starting a brewery is more likely to produce a bad outcome than becoming an accountant (which is safe), and (c) trying to make it as a musician is more likely to produce a bad outcome than getting a degree in engineering (which is safe). (It’s probably also important to note that, for many, “bad outcome” simply means “making less money.”)

SafeIsRiskyBut consider this. Isn’t there the very real possibility that the so-called “safe” options are also risky in their own ways? Isn’t it possible that they might also produce a bad outcome?

If you take a minute to think about it, I think you’ll realize that the answer is most likely “Yes!”

If you become a nurse (instead of becoming a writer), you could experience the high levels of burnout that frequently impact people in this profession.

If you get a degree in accounting (rather than starting your own brewery), you may find that you do not enjoy dealing with the incredible stress that comes with preparing tax returns from January to April every year.

If you pursue a degree in engineering (instead of chasing your dream of being a musician), you may realize—like I did—that studying electrical circuits for hours on end was incredibly dull (for me, anyway).

In fact, here’s the reality: There’s risk involved with nearly every choice you make.

If you purchase a coffee at Starbucks, it could scald your tongue (which happened to me just before I typed this sentence).

If you go to college, you could hate your roommate and end up hating college altogether.

If you take a new, high-paying job, you could end up working 100 hours per week and never see your family.

If you get married, you could get divorced.

If you smoke cigarettes, you could get lung cancer.

If you cross the street, you could get hit by a car.

These are all very real possibilities, and yet, the risk involved in making these choices doesn’t seem to deter us. In fact, we hardly think about them at all.

Why, then, does the possibility of experiencing a bad outcome in our career so greatly impact our choices?

Maybe it’s because the risk of getting hit by a car is minuscule compared to the possibility of making a bad career choice.

But what about divorce? The likelihood of experiencing a divorce these days is quite high (over 50% by some estimates). But that fact doesn’t seem to keep people from getting married. And yet, if we told students that they had a 50% chance of failing at a chosen career, many would probably abandon that choice.

There has to be something else involved.

Another Possible Explanation: The Good and the Bad

One reason, I think, has to do with the fact that people perceive good outcomes and bad outcomes differently.

happy sadIn a ground-breaking set of studies conducted in the 1970s, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky examined how people made choices between risky “gains” and “losses.” (Kahneman was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for this work.)

Consider the following question that Kahneman and Tversky asked their research participants (which I adapted from here).

Scenario #1. Which would you prefer, Option A or Option B?

A: You have $100 and find $50 lying on the ground.
B: You have $200 and lose $50.

I’m willing to bet that many of you chose Option A (which is also what Kahneman and Tversky found). Interestingly, though, Options A and B are monetarily equivalent: With both, you end up with $150 in your pocket.

Let’s look at another scenario (adapted from here):

Scenario #2. You have $0 in your pocket, and you can choose either Option A or Option B.

A: You have 100% chance of gaining $1000.
B: You have 50% chance of gaining $2500.

In this case, Option B is, mathematically speaking, the better option: It’s actually worth $1250 (2500 x .50 = 1250). But what Kahneman and Tversky found is that most people chose the “safer” option, Option A. In this case, people were risk-averse. They avoided the risky option in favor of the sure thing.

One more for you:

Scenario #3. You have $2500 in your pocket, and you can choose either Option A or Option B.

A: You have a 100% chance of losing $1000.
B: You have a 50% chance of losing $2500.

Here, Option A is actually the smarter choice, mathematically speaking. If you lose $1000, you will still have $1500 in your pocket. With Option B, a loss ends up costing you more (2500 x .50 = 1250). Nevertheless, Kahneman and Tversky found that people tended to choose Option B more often. In this case, people were risk-takers. They were willing to take a chance because of the possibility of keeping all of their money.

In sum, these studies suggest that we are often unwilling to take risks when we’re thinking about the possibility of gaining something. In contrast, we tend to be riskier when we think about what we might lose.

Back to the Point

So, what does this have to do with students making a choice between writing and nursing? Between opening a brewery and becoming an accountant? Between music and engineering?

In my experience, when most students make career choices, they are thinking of their career choice as a “gain” of sorts. They are gaining employment, gaining a good income, gaining the ability to pay off student loans, gaining the ability to buy a nice house, and so on.

And as shown above, when people are in “gain” situations, they are less likely to take risks. They want the sure thing rather than the less certain outcome that might actually produce a larger “reward” (like greater happiness or better overall quality of life). Consequently, that means that these risk-averse students may be more likely to choose the safer career path of becoming a nurse or an accountant or an engineer instead of choosing the riskier, but possibly more rewarding, career path of being a writer or opening a brewery or becoming a musician. (By the way, please note that I am just using these as examples. I am NOT suggesting that a career in nursing or accounting or engineering cannot be incredibly rewarding for many people.)

I can certainly understand this. From the time we are young, we are repeatedly told to make “smart” choices—which, in essence, means making safe choices.

Choices1But I think there’s something else that gets lost when we focus solely on making choices for gain.

We forget about the possible losses.

When we chose the safe option, we risk not being true to ourselves. We risk living a life that decreases our psychological well-being. We risk not giving our very best to others. And—as a dad to two very cool little boys, this one means a lot to me—we risk teaching our kids that “settling” is okay.

When it comes right down to it, aren’t these losses?

Aren’t these potentially really big losses?

According to Bronnie Ware, who worked as a palliative care nurse for many years and who interviewed people while they were on their deathbeds, the single biggest regret that people had before they died was not living a life true to themselves.

If that’s true—and if we can take away any advice from elderly people who have already “played the game”—then maybe we should spend a little more time thinking about the losses that will come if we make certain career choices rather than focusing solely on the gains. Maybe doing that will be enough to get us to consider the “risky” choice—the one that has the possibility of producing the best possible outcome, even if it is a little less safe.

In fact, when we frame it this way, maybe the “safe” choice isn’t always that safe.

And maybe the “risky” choice isn’t always that risky.


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The Tyranny of GPA


Tyranny: “an absolute ruler, unrestrained by law or constitution” (

There’s a tyrannical ruler roaming the halls of higher education. This ruler has exerted so much control over students that many spend a large chunk of their waking hours fearing its effects. In fact, some students fear this ruler so much that they are willing to compromise their personal integrity in exchange for its leniency.

What is this tyrannical ruler?

I’ll get to that in a minute (or you can simply look at the title of this post and figure it out for yourself).

First, though, I want to start off by telling you four stories—three about students and one about my wife.

Story #1. A few weeks ago, while looking at Facebook, I noticed a post from one of my students. He was lamenting the fact that people judge how “smart” he is based on his college exams. He was really stressed out about having to “prove” to everyone that he was worthy of good grades.

Story #2. Last year, I was talking to a student who had taken several classes with me. He had already been accepted into a top-rate graduate program and was going to be graduating summa cum laude in a few weeks. This student was stressed out over an upcoming exam he had in a general history class—a class that would have absolutely no effect on his future endeavors. But instead of enjoying his last few weeks of college, he was planning on holing up in his apartment and studying all weekend.

Story #3. A student was in my office and was talking about what classes she wanted to take the following semester. She told me she really wanted to take a biopsychology course because she heard it was interesting and because it covered topics that she found fascinating. But she also heard it was hard. She ultimately chose not to take it. She didn’t want to get a bad grade and screw up her chances of getting a job.

Story #4. While writing this post, my wife told me about a decision she made in high school. She had the chance to take a statistics class but decided not to. The class wasn’t “weighted” for honors, which meant it would’ve actually lowered her grade point average slightly and taken her out of contention to be class valedictorian. Although having a statistics class would’ve benefitted her as she went off to college, she decided against it. (Ironically, she now is a college professor and teaches a statistics class nearly every semester.)

So let’s get back to the question I posed near the beginning of the article:

Q: What is this tyrannical ruler that threatens so many students?

A: It’s GPA—the almighty grade point average.

I want to take some time to discuss what happens to students when GPA becomes the ruler that dictates their academic lives.

GPA: It Starts Early

baby report cardFirst, it’s important to note that emphasis on grades starts early. When I was in kindergarten, I remember being asked each day what I had learned in school. I usually mentioned something about squares or how I had learned to spell “banana.” (It’s really easy by the way: You just say “B-A… N-A… N-A.”)

But at some point, the questions changed. Instead, I was asked: “What grade did you get on your spelling test?”

I quickly learned that “Good job” came with a report card full of A’s. Some of my friends even got money for their good grades.

Eventually, people used grades to judge my intelligence: “Look at those A’s. You’re so smart!” I rarely got compliments for getting B’s. Or for working hard. Or for being curious. Or for showing creativity.

GPA1All that mattered was my GPA. Eventually, it got to the point where, when I got good grades, I felt good; otherwise, I felt bad (something I frequently see in my college students).

This continued throughout high school, college, and even, to some extent, graduate school.

Unfortunately, there are, in my opinion, numerous problems with placing such so much emphasis on the almighty GPA.

Some Problems with GPA

problemsThe first problem—as many students can tell you—is that GPA is often not a good indicator of what you know or what you can do. I frequently got good grades in college and yet remembered little of what I had studied. I was nevertheless judged based on my GPA, as if it accurately represented what I knew or could do.

Second, it causes students to focus on a performance marker—getting an A or a B—rather than on trying to truly learn the material or on acquiring a set of skills. Rather than focusing on mastery, students instead identify (a) what grade they want and (b) the least amount of effort they have to expend to get that grade. If you doubt this, grab 20 students on a college campus and ask them if they’ve ever calculated the number of points they need to “get an A” on the final exam. I’ll bet most of them have (I know I did).

Third, it causes students to engage in way too much social comparison. Rather than trying to be the best they can be, students judge themselves based on whether they did better or worse than someone else. But here’s the deal: We’re all good at some things and bad at others. I’m a good teacher (I think) but a bad Olympic sprinter. We’ve all had vastly different experiences in our lives; we all learn at different rates. Why should I be able to do the exact same things you can? Why should our performances be compared? Why should you compare yourself to me?

The final problem—and this is a dirty little secret about GPA—is that it often matters less than people think it does. A 2013 report, for example, asked employers what they look for in potential employees. Nowhere was “high GPA” listed. (Other reports do mention GPA, but it’s usually down the list.) Instead, employers mentioned things like the ability to work in a team, think critically, and organize effectively. Depending on your field, internships—where you learn a specific set of skills—may be important, too.

Now, I’m not saying that GPA doesn’t matter at all. Students with a 3.30 GPA may get more initial interviews than someone with a 2.30 GPA. Similarly, getting into a top-notch PhD program in clinical psychology, for example, probably requires a high(er) GPA, simply because there are so many applicants, and admissions committees need some way to pare down the bunch. But if you have a high GPA and no other skills, you’re probably not going to get the job or a spot in that graduate program you so desire.

“So, are you saying that I can slide by with a 2.00 GPA and still get an awesome job?”

Well, possibly. But let me clarify this a little bit.

In most cases, students who get to college are intelligent enough do well in their classes. In my experience, the difference between people with a 2.00 and a 3.00 GPA often comes down to other factors: things like interest in one’s major, work ethic, whether a student is working 40 hours per week, and so on.

So, What Can We Do About It?

The first thought might be to get rid of grades altogether. Unfortunately, the educational system in which we operate is one that, for the last 100 years, has been based largely on grades. As a result, by the time students get to college, many have bought into the idea that grades are all that matters. If we were to do away with grades, I suspect that students’ motivation for doing things like attending class and reading their textbooks would also greatly diminish.

So, given that the system is unlikely to change any time soon, what can we do to escape the tyranny of GPA?

Ultimately, I think the change has to start with students (with support from parents, teachers, and important others).

The first thing you can do is to realize that your GPA does not define you. Think of all the things you do in your life, all of the roles you play: daughter, son, sibling, friend, basketball player, fraternity member, wake boarder, and so on. Yes, “student” might be an important role for you at this point in your life, but it’s not (and shouldn’t be) the only one. Remembering that you are more than just a student will make it easier for you to remember that you are also more than just a grade or a GPA.

The second thing you can do is remember that employers and graduate schools ultimately want someone with a particular set of skills—some (or many) of which are not assessed very well on traditional exams. As I like to tell my students, “Writing a great essay answer on how to ride a bike is not the same as actually riding a bike.” At some point, someone is going to put a bike in front of you and ask you to ride it. If you focus on acquiring skills during your time in college, you’ll be able to “ride the bike.”

Finally, stop comparing yourself to others. Instead, focus on “mastery goals” and self-improvement. If you focus on learning as much as you can (as opposed to simply getting a particular grade or doing better than your roommate), there’s a good chance you’ll do the things that result in good grades: going to class, asking questions, seeking out additional help, and so on.


Unfortunately, the tyranny of GPA has taken hold of students. But with a change in mindset and a realization that GPA may not matter quite as much as people think, students can break free from the chains that hold them down. Once free of GPA’s grasp, they can pursue their education with a freedom that will not only improve their performance, but will also improve their psychological well-being.


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I’m Passionate . . . So Why Am I Miserable?

miserableA few years ago, I had a student who was clearly passionate about her academics and her major. Objectively, she met the criteria for being passionate: She spent a lot of time on her academic activities, she valued them, she enjoyed them, and her self-image was very much that of a “passionate and dedicated student.”

stressAnd yet she was miserable. So miserable, in fact, that she ended up in my office just a few weeks before graduation, crying, because her stress levels were through the roof.

She was by no means an anomaly. I’ve seen many students (and colleagues and friends) who are passionate about their majors (and jobs) but yet are on the verge of a breakdown.

But wait a minute!

I thought passion was supposed to be about enjoyment and loving what you do. What about the research suggesting that passionate workers are happier than non-passionate workers? What about all of those “find and pursue your passion” websites that promote passion as the solution to happy and meaningful work and to a happy and meaningful life? I mean, even Steve Jobs said so.

To understand why passion isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, we need to spend a little time examining what research says about this important psychological concept.

The Passion Paradox

To many, it seems that being passionate about your major or your work (or your spouse or your family or a hobby) would be a good thing.

Here’s an interesting fact, though. As I teased in my last post on passion, there are actually two different types of passion that might affect a person’s behavior.

* Harmonious Passion

The first type of passion is called harmonious passion. This type of passion emerges when you freely choose to engage in an activity that you enjoy and find important. Because you are making a willful choice, there is no pressure involved. For example, I play guitar often, but no one ever forces me to practice. Similarly, a student who chose a particular major simply because she likes and values it is more likely to be harmoniously passionate.

balanceMoreover, because there is no pressure attached to the choice, the passionate activity becomes nicely balanced in your self-image–it is in harmony with other things in your life. A student who is harmoniously passionate about her major might say: “Yes, I’m passionate about my major. But I also enjoy playing basketball, being a big sister, listening to Mumford and Sons, eating rocky road ice cream, and being a member of Kappa Alpha Theta.” A college professor who is harmoniously passionate about his work might say, “I love my job. But I also spend time with my family, play guitar a lot, go to concerts, and hike at least once a week.”

Because people who are harmoniously passionate about an activity freely choose to do it, they have the ability to engage in it when they want to. But they can also step away from it when other responsibilities or interests beckon.

in controlI think the following sentence nicely summarizes this type of passion: “When you are harmoniously passionate about an activity, you feel like you are in control.” You are also likely to say things like, “I want to do this, rather than I have to do this.” As you will see shortly, that feeling of “freedom” has numerous benefits.

* Obsessive Passion

The second type of passion is known as obsessive passion. In contrast with harmonious passion, obsessive passion results from pressure. Initially, the pressure is external in nature. For instance, the “culture” in psychology is that you have to go to graduate school to get a job (which is a huge misconception). A student might consequently feel pressured to make that choice. Or imagine a student who feels pressure to become a biology major because his mom and dad want him to be a doctor. He may enjoy biology and spend time on it, but his reasons for valuing it are because his parents have pressured him to value it. He may hear over and over again, “You should be a doctor. You should be a doctor. You should be a doctor…” Eventually, the student comes to see himself as a “doctor.”

unbalanced work lifeBecause this type of passion results from external pressure, it comes to dominate your self-image, leading to imbalance. A student who is obsessively passionate about his major might say: “I’m a biology major. I’m a biology major. I’m a biology major. I’m a biology major…” or “I have to get good grades. I have to get good grades. I have to get good grades. I have to get good grades…” Likewise, the college professor (for example) who is passionate about his job might say, “I have to work. I have to work. I have to work. I have to work…”

When asked what else they love to do or how else they define themselves, obsessively passionate people often have little else to say.

Eventually, because obsessive passion overwhelms your self-image, your feelings of worth depend largely on “wins” and “losses.” When you win (get a good grade, a promotion, a compliment, etc.), you feel on top of the world; when you lose, however, it’s a big blow to your self-image. This is often why people who are obsessively passionate about their jobs will work and work and work–because their self-image depends on going until they experience a win.

Moreover, because of the external pressure involved, people who become obsessively passionate often approach their lives with “blinders” on. The pressure they experience puts them in “survival mode,” and they are less open to other things that might be happening around them. In fact, research has shown that being obsessively passionate about an activity has the ability to “spill over” and negatively affect personal relationships.

out of controlSo, how do I explain this type of passion to people? “When you are obsessively passionate about an activity, you feel controlled by it.” You are likely to say, “I have to do this, rather than I want to do this.” As you might guess, the feeling of being controlled ain’t so good.

* My Obsessive Passion

Prior to my “mid-life crisis,” which I wrote about previously, I was definitely obsessively passionate about my work. I spent a lot of time working (often 70-80+ hours per week), I valued it (because I had the chance to influence students and others), I mostly enjoyed it, and I often (always?) introduced myself to others as a “college professor.”

The problem is that I felt very much controlled by external sources: others’ expectations of what I was supposed to do, the pressure to publish my research, students’ evaluations of my teaching, the desire to increase my salary, and requirements that I had to meet to get promotion and tenure, to name a few.

(Similarly, I’m sure that some of my students feel controlled by their academic activities: having to take exams, having to write papers, having to get good grades, having to go to class, and so on. In fact, research in my lab is finding that a pretty good chunk of college students are obsessively passionate about school.)

When I experienced a win, I was happy–albeit only for a short time. After that, I was back at it, trying to chase the next one. The funny part is that, objectively, I had numerous wins under my belt: teaching awards, research awards, tenure and promotion. Subjectively, though, I was not a happy camper.

I remember one specific instance when I got a particularly bad teaching evaluation from a student (she referred to me as the “worst teacher she ever had”). There were several nights where I woke up and was unable to fall back asleep because I was thinking about it (excessive rumination is another sign of obsessive passion). Because my entire self-image was that of a “successful college professor,” getting a bad teaching evaluation was a blow to my self-image.

It was enough to make me question whether I wanted to keep doing it.

When you’re obsessive about an activity–for your work or your major, for instance–this is how you feel: controlled and dependent on your good outcomes to maintain your self-image. You often have a hard time concentrating because you’re compelled to engage in your passion, but you know you need to be doing other things as well. When you’re not doing your passionate activity, you may feel guilty. And you’re likely to feel stressed out.

When I think about my student, who I introduced at the beginning of this post, it was clear that she was obsessively passionate about her academics. I also see this in a lot of my colleagues. In fact, my lab has collected data showing that obsessively passionate academics are more likely to experience higher levels of burnout and significantly less job satisfaction than their harmoniously passionate peers.

So, Which Are You: Harmoniously Passionate or Obsessive Passionate?

First, it’s important to note that everyone who is passionate about an activity is at least a little harmoniously passionate and a little obsessively passionate. The question is whether you lean considerably more to one side or the other.

So, let’s take a quick look at a few indicators of each. 

Harmonious Passion:

The feeling of being in control (“I want to read my psychology book” or the feeling that “I got this!”)

Happiness both during an activity and after you complete it

The feeling of being “in the zone” during the activity (in “flow”)

Your self-esteem doesn’t hinge on “wins” and “losses” (“I didn’t do well on that exam, but that’s cool. It doesn’t define me.”)

You are able to “disconnect” from the activity and easily do other things without feeling guilty

Obsessive Passion:

The feeling of being controlled or the feeling of compulsion toward an activity (“I have to study” or “I have to write this paper” or “I have to work tonight”)

Although you feel fairly happy while doing an activity, you feel guilty or experience other negative emotions afterwards because you may have neglected other important things

The inability to concentrate while doing the activity, because you’re thinking about other things you should be doing instead or you’re thinking about all of the things on your plate

The feeling that your self-esteem ebbs and flows based on good and bad outcomes (“I failed my exam, so I guess I’m not a good student”)

Experiences of conflict because you have a hard time pulling yourself away from an activity

Those are just some of the indicators that you may be more harmoniously passionate or more obsessive passionate about something–your major, your work, a leisure activity, and so on.

In Sum

Yes, as many others have stated, passion matters. But to experience the most positive benefits of being passionate–both psychological and performance-wise–it’s best to approach life with a harmonious passion. In upcoming posts, I’ll address what you might be able to do if you suspect that you’re a little on the obsessive side.

Until then, live harmoniously.


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Are You Passionate?

Passion3 Passion2 Passion5

Find your passion, and then follow your passion!

Do this, and the world is your oyster!

This piece of advice was echoed by no less than the late Steve Jobs, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc. In his 2005 commencement address to the graduates of Stanford University, Jobs said:

“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

Similar advice is everywhere. Googling the phrase “find your passion” produces about 125 million hits; “follow your passion” is not far behind with 110 million hits.

If recent estimates of work enjoyment (where only 1/3 of workers feel engaged) are accurate, or if the looks of complete disinterest on some of my students’ faces are any indicator, it’s no wonder that people are longing to identify and pursue something they love–something that engages them, something that makes them jump out of bed on Monday mornings, something that makes them feel alive!

In fact, a few years ago, when I was unhappy at my work, I took the same path: I spent a lot of time trying to determine whether I was still passionate about my work and, if not, what I could do either to recapture the passion or to find something else I was passionate about.

Was it true that finding and pursuing my passions would make everything all better? Or is this advice just a pipe dream that lives in the minds of people who are completely out of touch with reality?

Before we can answer those questions, though, we have to step back and tackle one other question:

What exactly is passion?

Let’s take a look.


As I perused the Internet and read books on the topic of passion, I immediately noticed that there was little consensus on what passion entails.

Some suggested that passion is “a strong and uncontrollable emotion.”

Another noted that passion is “a feeling of enthusiasm.”

A third source said that passion is “being who you are and doing what comes naturally.” (Sleep comes naturally to me. Hmm… I guess I was passionate for about 6 hours last night.)

None of these definitions (especially that last one) did much for me. So, I did what I’ve been doing since graduate school: I went to the literature to see what research had to say about the topic.

I eventually happened upon the seminal research of Dr. Robert Vallerand, a psychologist at the University of Quebec-Montreal (now at McGill University). His research painted a much more complex picture of passion than what I had been led to believe while reading random “Find Your Passion!” pages on the Internet. (Imagine that!)

(Note: Over the past 2-3 years, this topic has also been the focus of my research. I’ll likely be discussing some of this research, and how it pertains to college students, in future posts.)

Vallerand and colleagues (2003) noted that discussions of passion go back hundreds of years but that the systematic study of this topic is relatively new. In fact, Vallerand and colleagues were the first to provide a integrated theory on the topic of passion–and that was only about 10 years ago.

In their paper, Vallerand and colleagues proposed that passion is a type of motivation that drives your behavior and that it’s defined by four different components.

First, being passionate means that you spend time on an activity. I spend a lot of time each week playing guitar. I also spend a lot of time working as a college professor. Similarly, my students (usually) spend many hours each week on their academic activities.

Importantly, this component implies that you can’t be passionate about something if you’re not spending time on it. If you claim to be passionate about cooking but only cook once a month, I’ve got news for you:

You ain’t passionate about cooking! People who are passionate about something find the time to do it.

Second, being passionate about something means that you value it, or find it important. I find teaching to be important for many reasons: I learn a lot while doing it, and I (think) it benefits my students. Likewise, my students usually find their academic activities to be important because the skills they acquire during college will hopefully help them pursue a particular career.

Third, for you to be passionate about something, you need to love it (or at least like it a whole lot). This one is pretty much a no-brainer. I love playing guitar, and I love talking to students about their passions. Some of my students even love their majors.

(Interestingly, though, I think this is where some of my students miss the boat for being passionate. Many of them spend time on and value their academic activities. But, for reasons I’ve discussed previously, they often choose majors and careers they dislike, which tends to have numerous negative effects.)

Finally, when you are passionate about something, you start to define yourself in terms of your passion:

“I don’t just play guitar; I am a guitar player.”

“I don’t just watch Atlanta Braves baseball games; I am a Braves fan.”

“I don’t just bake cookies; I am a baker.

“I don’t listen to Justin Bieber; I am a Belieber.”

So, there you have it. Time, value, love, and identity: the four components of passion.

What Are You Passionate About?

Take a minute and examine the things you do in your life (of which there are many). What are you passionate about? What do you spend time on, value, and absolutely love? What activities have become a part of your self-image, a part of the way you (and possibly others) view yourself?

Are you passionate about your work?

Are you passionate about your major? (And if you aren’t, why are you pursuing it?)

Are you passionate about other things you do in your free time? (Harry Potter? Basketball? CrossFit? Playing with your kids? Reading incredibly informative and well-written blog posts by a college professor who got his PhD at Auburn University and whose beard is noticeably graying?)

I would venture to guess that many of you are already doing things in your life that meet the criteria for being passionate. Maybe, then, it’s less about finding your passions and more about finding more ways to pursue your passions.

Is that true for you?

So . . . Does Passion Really Matter?

Let’s go back for a minute and tackle the issue that I teased at the beginning of this post: Does passion matter?

Let’s imagine for a minute that you have a job (or other activity) that you spend time on, that you enjoy considerably, that you find important, and that has become part of how you view yourself.

It seems like a pretty good combination, right? I mean, I’m guessing that many of you would like to spend more of your days doing things you love and value.

This seems to suggest that finding and pursuing your passions could be important for being happy and achieving success in life.

It seems totally plausible, right?

In fact, there is some research showing that people who are passionate about their work do experience higher levels of psychological well-being than people who are not. Similarly, in my lab, we’ve found that students who are passionate about their majors have higher cumulative GPAs than students who are not passionate. The benefits of being passionate about an activity thus seem to be both subjective and objective in nature.

So, I guess the formula is actually pretty simple: Find and pursue your passions, and everything will be A-OK.

And . . . Not So Fast!

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy.

Vallerand and colleagues (2003) also proposed that passion comes in two different forms: harmonious passion and obsessive passion.

And as you might guess, one is good; the other–well, not so much.

Have you figured out which is which?

I’ll tell you more about each of these types of passion in an upcoming post. Until then, you’ll just have to wait with bated breath.

Before you go, though, take a minute and tell me what you’re passionate about. I’d love if you’d leave a comment below.


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The Irony of “We Just Want You to Be Happy”

John Lennon

I’m a dad to two wonderful little boys, ages 6 and 4. They make me smile, they make me laugh, they make me a better person. Before becoming a dad, I had always heard that having children makes you experience love that you had never experienced before.


And you know what? It’s absolutely true. 

As I think about their future and what I want them to experience in life, it’s really very simple: I want my boys to be happy.

Although I can’t say for sure, I would guess that happiness is ultimately what most parents want for their kids. Because seeing your kids happy makes you happy.

As a college professor, I talk to a lot of students about their futures. A couple weeks ago, I sat down with one who wanted to talk about what he’s planning to do after he’s done with college. He told me that after graduation, he wants to travel. In fact, he has already planned a trip with some friends that will include hiking and biking through Europe for several weeks. After the excursion is over, he wants to stay in Europe a little longer and explore on his own. His goal is to have some experiences that will help him “figure out” what he wants to do with his life.

His dad, on the other hand, wants no such thing: His dad wants him to come home as soon as possible and map out a plan for his future.

“He told me that I need to have a plan,” the student said. “He’s pressuring me, but I know that he just wants me to be happy.” (Notice how the word “just” implies that the student is not doing the things that will ultimately make him happy.)

I hear this frequently: students whose parents “just want them to be happy.” And you know what? I don’t doubt it a bit. As I said before, that’s what I want for my kids.

But what does “We just want you to be happy” really mean?

I think there are several possibilities.

want-you-happyIt might mean, “We wouldn’t be happy doing what you’re doing; we doubt you will be either.”

Or it might mean, “That’s too risky, and we want you to have secure future.”

Or it might mean, “We don’t want you to make the same mistakes we did” or the related sentiment, “We want you to have a better life than us.”

Or it might mean, “We don’t believe doing that is a viable career choice.”

Or it might mean, “We don’t think you’ve had enough experiences in life to know what will eventually make you happy.”

I’m sure there are others.

Although the intention of the message most likely includes, “We really do want you to be happy,” to students, it gets interpreted as one of control: an attempt, either implicitly or explicitly, to make them do something the parents want them to do.

And quite frequently, this is exactly what happens. Students end up doing what their parents (or professors or others) want them to do.

I remember having a conversation with a student a few years that went something like this:

Student: “I think I want to go to graduate school.”

Me: “Great! What do you want to pursue?”

Student: “I think I want to go into counseling.”

Me: “Great! How come you want to do that?”

Student: “Well, I really don’t want to. I don’t like counseling or even school that much. I just wish I could be done . . . but my parents want me to get my master’s degree.”

As this student completed her last sentence, I could see the dread in her face. In fact, I remember seeing her lip quiver, as if she was on the verge of tears. I never heard what she actually did after getting her bachelor’s degree, but I can almost guarantee that she was not going to be happy in graduate school (and beyond, if she continued to pursue a career in counseling).

Look, I’m not judging students who choose careers for reasons like this. In fact, I completely understand why. Doing what your parents (or professors or others) want you to do is a simple, yet powerful, way to say, “Hey, thanks for all the support you’ve given me over the years.”

Unfortunately, choosing a career because others want you to is, more often than not, a recipe for unhappiness. When you do something because you’re trying to make others happy (or, worse yet, when you’re trying to avoid their anger or displeasure if you don’t do what they want you to), it often comes at the expense of your own happiness.

Ironically, then, the impact of “We just want you to be happy” is often quite the opposite: It makes students anything but happy.

Let’s take a brief look at why this is.

Psychological Control

In psychology, the term “psychological control” refers to the feeling that someone else is trying to control your behavior. Generally, psychological control can come in a few different forms. Someone might threaten punishment if you don’t behave a particular way. For instance, a student once told me that his dad would not pay his college tuition if he chose to major in music. I also knew a student whose family disowned him because they went to the University of Alabama and he decided to attend bitter rival Auburn University.

A second form of psychological control occurs when people try to make you feel guilty for your choices. The parent who says, “Well, if you decide to major in English and you can’t get a job, then I guess you’ll just have to deal with it.” Or the family friend who says, “You still don’t know what you want to do after graduation? Everyone else does.” Or your uncle who says, “Everyone in your family is an accountant. Why wouldn’t you want to be an accountant, too?”

There are other types of psychological control, but I think you probably get the point. Ultimately, people use various forms of psychological control to try and get you to think and feel as they do or to try and get you to pursue goals that will somehow benefit them.

Unfortunately, as the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (1987, 2000) have shown, the use of psychological control is associated with a variety of negative outcomes: decreased motivation, less creativity, lower self-esteem, obsessive behavior, and lower levels of happiness.

People don’t like feeling controlled, and it takes its toll on their psychological well-being.

Autonomy Support

On the flip side is the notion of “autonomy,” which means that you feel free to make your own choices and to express the most authentic, or realest, side of yourself. You are being who you are because that’s who you want to be–not because you’re feeling pressured.

One way that the feeling of autonomy emerges is through “autonomy support,” where others support your desire to act freely and in a way that truly represents who you are.

Like psychological control, autonomy support can come in many forms. For instance, someone can simply (and authentically) support the choices you make: the parents who say, “We support your decision to be a music major. Go for it!” Or the professor who secretly wants you go to graduate school but who nevertheless supports your decision to go into the Peace Corps instead.

A person who is autonomy supportive also tries to empathize with you–he or she attempts to see things from your perspective: your friend who says, “I absolutely see why you’d want to be a family counselor. That sounds so cool!”

As Deci and Ryan (and others) have also shown, autonomy support produces a number of positive psychological outcomes, including increased motivation, higher self-esteem, improved creativity, and better overall well-being.

Oh yeah, it also has a significant effect on happiness: the more autonomy support people experience, the happier they are.

Moving Away From “We Just Want You to Be Happy”

Ironically, by pressuring our kids to do things that we think will make them happy, we often push them in an unintended direction: toward a life of unhappiness. I’m not the parent of a college-age student, but I think I talk to enough of them to have an idea of how they feel. At some point, I think we (parents, professors, and others) need to accept the fact that our kids–especially when they get to be of college age–probably have a better idea of what makes them happy than we do (just as we had a better idea than our parents did). They’ve had enough experiences to sort that out. And I truly believe that most of them don’t want to live a completely frivolous life. They want to do something that will make a difference, something that matters. And they’ll figure that out.

We can give them advice and explain our reasons for doing so, but as my wife always says, “It’s their journey, not ours.” If we ultimately want them to be happy, I think we need to move away from the psychological control that often comes with “just wanting them to be happy” and, instead, move toward the autonomy support that will actually make them happy.


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