Straits Times: ‘Follow your passion’ advice can backfire on the young

Published 30 June 2023

Most young people agonising over the decision on picking the right degree course – or job – would have received the common advice: “Go with your passion.”

Stanford professor Bill Burnett though says that the “passion advice”, as he calls it, is not useful and, in fact, induces anxiety in young people.

The 65-year-old, along with his colleague Dave Evans, authored the New York Times bestseller Designing Your Life: How To Build A Well-Lived, Joyful Life, and runs a popular class on the same theme at Stanford.

He says research clearly shows that less than 20 per cent of young people actually know what their passion is, let alone how to fulfil it.

He says this is evident in the thousands of students who have taken up the course which the book is based on.

“The majority of young people fall into categories that researchers such as my Stanford colleague, Prof Bill Damon, termed as ‘dabblers’ or ‘dreamers’. They may be able to point to interests, hobbies, and a vague sense of direction, but not that single identifiable passion.”

Prof Burnett, who was in Singapore on Tuesday to launch the Designing Your Life Institute that will offer his courses and workshops to Singaporeans of all age groups, says: ”This notion that you have a passion and you follow it, I think, is one of the most destructive ideas. It causes a lot of anxiety in young people when you ask them that question.”

But don’t run away with the wrong idea. He stresses that he is all for people working passionately, but insists that a person does not have to know his passion in advance to figure out what he wants to do with his life.

He explains why it is difficult for young people to have a clear or definite idea of passion.

“It’s a misconception that passions are fixed, predetermined, and uncovered in a fully formed state. Passion isn’t stumbled upon, it is developed. It requires experimentation, exploration, and investment of time and effort.”

He goes on to puncture yet another common belief that only piles pressure on young people – the notion that they should have it all figured out by the time they are in their mid-20s.

“So when a young person hasn’t figured it out, we call them slackers or we call it ‘failure to launch’ – the phenomenon of adult children not making the transition to adulthood.”

He also corrects another dysfunctional belief among young people – that the degree that they are pursuing is going to determine what they do for the rest of their lives.

“Students say what I majored in in college will decide what I do for the rest of my life. No, absolutely not true. Again research has shown that 10 years out of school, less than 20 per cent of people are doing anything that has anything to do with their major.”

He reminds his graduating students that they are the first generation that might live to be a healthy 100, which means that after they graduate, they are likely to have another 80 years ahead of them.

He says it is unlikely that young people will have only one or two jobs for life. In fact, studies on millennials born between 1981 and 1996 have shown that on average, they jump jobs four times in their first decade out of college.

“A college degree used to slot you into a 40-year career. Now it’s just an entry-level point to your first job.”

So, how should young people go about figuring out the jobs that suit them?

In his book, Prof Burnett and his co-author claim that people can design an amazing life in the same way that the Apple iPhone was designed.

Through their Designing Your Life course, as well as the book, the professors walk participants through the process of building a satisfying, meaningful life by approaching the challenge the way a designer would. They are taught to approach problems with curiosity, reframe dysfunctional beliefs that hinder creativity and prototype ideas to figure out what works.

Central to using the design thinking approach is prototyping, a concept borrowed from how product designers work.

Prof Burnett explains how those searching for the right career path can use prototyping.

“Let’s say you’re thinking of changing careers. Interview someone who does the job you are considering. Better yet, ask to shadow them for a day, or work in the field on weekends. If your university requires you to take up internships, seize the opportunity to test-drive different jobs, different industries. If it feels right, take it a step further. If it doesn’t feel right, then move on.

“The magic of prototyping is that instead of sitting around and talking about your plan, you do something. You go out into the world and try things.”

He also brings up the fact that many millennials and Generation Zers no longer want to just do work — they want to do good. They want jobs that have purpose and meaning.

“Gen Zers in particular are passionate about making a difference, and want to work somewhere they feel has a broader mission and purpose that aligns with their own values. They don’t want to make money just to make money – they want to make an impact.”

He says this is a good thing and should be encouraged.

“We need young people to care and to do something about these causes, after all we are faced with several crises, chief of which is climate change.”

But he also encourages his students to look beyond work to other areas where they can make an impact.

“If you want to help disadvantaged youth, go start a community project. If you care about the arts, get involved with an arts group, raise funds for them or set up a website for them.

“There are a lot of ways to find meaning and purpose and to have an impact. It doesn’t all have to come from your job.”

Because his course is so popular around the world, Prof Burnett could have gone anywhere to set up an institute. So why Singapore?

First, he says the non-profit institute co-founded with Mr Mark Wee, one of Singapore’s design thinking pioneers and previously the executive director of DesignSingapore Council, is meant to bring the course to Singaporeans of all ages, including mid-career workers who want to pivot to new jobs, and retirees.

“In their late 30s and 40s, people are sometimes pivoting out of their first career. Maybe it was unsatisfying or they are bored and want to try something else. Those who take up our course in their 50s and 60s could be moving from the money-making side of their life to the meaning-making side. Then there are busy professionals who hit retirement. They had not given enough thought to retirement and find themselves adrift after leaving their busy careers.”

Mr Wee said the course will be tweaked to meet the needs of different groups of Singaporeans.

“I do think it is very much needed in Singapore, as our students from a young age are focused on the milestone exams and getting into a top university and well-paying job. Not many take the time to explore and try out different options and reflect on what will lead to a happy and fulfilling life.”

Meanwhile, Republic Polytechnic will be among the first to introduce the Designing Your Life framework into its curriculum.

The Human Capital Leadership Institute has also signed up as a partner and is keen to tailor the course for diverse audiences – from professionals looking to reinvent themselves, to career military officers aiming to enter the civilian workforce, and human resource professionals seeking to increase employee engagement and retention in their organisations.

The new institute will not have a physical campus but will be holding the workshops and courses at various locations, sometimes in-house at companies and institutions. Prof Burnett will be conducting some of the courses and workshops along with his colleagues here.

“Singapore’s most valuable resource is its people,” he said. “And already Singaporeans are known to be among the best-educated and most hard-working in the world. Imagine how much more productive and creative people will be if we give them the tools and teach them how to get the most out of work and life.”

Read the article on Straits Times here.


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