Commentary, Opinion

Deromanticizing academic passion

There’s a chance that you don’t have a passion. Or at least not one easily consolidated into an academic discipline. That’s okay. Countless others probably don’t either.

According to a study by researchers from Stanford University, use of the encouragement to simply ‘find your passion’ has increased in frequency in recent years. Many students have heard something similar before: “It’s okay that you don’t know what you want to do with your life yet! University is where you’ll find your passion.”

Often, the conversation doesn’t extend beyond this solitary, all-encompassing assurance. The grandiose idea that undecided or directionless students will serendipitously discover, or eventually develop, a true calling at university is pervasive. Although the saying is often a false promise, that doesn’t mean that the university experience as a whole can’t still serve as a pathway to fulfillment.

The primary implication of the find your passion mantra is that passion is a pre-existing entity, such as an academic discipline, with which students’ interests will inevitably line up. This isn’t always expected to be a perfect alignment—many political science students hate political theory. Still, those who advocate for the existence of a passion presuppose that students will resonate with a discipline in the specific way it has been packaged for academic consumption. The narrative presumes that at university, all students will find a natural or developed match. “Choose one (1) or more lifelong passions from the drop-down menu or bundle now to save big.

The fallout from the ‘find your passion’ sentiment, then, is that it reinforces the impasse experienced by students who worry about their future. Those who don’t worry about their future are seen as lazy, unmotivated, and unrealistic. Those who do are keeners who don’t know how to enjoy the moment and who plan too far ahead. Everyone around these students jumps at the opportunity to reassure them that it’ll all work out.

This doesn’t mean, however, that attending university as a path to self-discovery is entirely useless. The idea that a passion is a single, pre-existing entity is outdated. Emphasis on acquiring an undeniable passion downplays the value of finding one or more activities or topics that bring personal fulfilment. You don’t have to be passionate about something to find it fulfilling. Instead of hastily adding that sociology minor, consider understanding the specific aspects of activities or subjects that motivate you to do them. For me, it’s an initiative that’s self-aware of its limits, which manifests itself in endeavours as obvious as satire and as removed as hiking. For others, this specific aspect may be helping those in need, environmentalism, working on a team, or editing writing for clarity. University as an institution is inaccessible in a wealth of ways, but it does lend access to a unique community and set of perspectives that extend beyond simply ‘get involved!’

Some people do have a passion, and that’s great. An under-acknowledged portion of students might not. But that’s not a reason to quit searching for fulfillment in a general sense. There’s a difference between resignation and acceptance, and only one of those allows you to move forward.

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