Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Student Passion Problem

March 2nd, 2014 · 44 comments

studyingByWindow

The Double Degree

A reader recently pointed me to the following question, posted on Stack Exchange:

I am studying a combined bachelor of engineering (electrical) and bachelor of mathematics; I just started this year and will graduate in 2018. The reason why I am doing double degrees and not a single degree is because I love both electrical engineering and mathematics and I could not ignore any of them. So with this in mind, I am thinking of doing two PHDs when I graduate (one in electrical engineering and one in mathematics). Is this a good path or I should concentrate on only one of them?

The responses in the comment thread for this question are fantastic, but in this post I want to add an additional thought to the conversation.

The Student Passion Problem

Over the past few years, I’ve been writing a lot about the negative impact of the passion mindset on recent graduates. The above question reminded me that it is easy to forget this mindset’s negative impact on those who are younger, especially students.

(Indeed, I was first introduced to the problems surrounding passion when advising undergraduates struggling with their choice of major.)

The above student is a perfect example. He feels compelled to maintain a double major (and perhaps even an absurd double PhD) in two hard fields, which, as I’ve argued here and here and here, is a recipe for unnecessary stress and burnout.

Why does he feel compelled to make this sacrifice? He “loves” both fields.

From an objective perspective, what does it mean for a second semester freshman to “love” electrical engineer or mathematics? At best, it means he enjoyed a handful of courses on the topic and/or thinks it sounds interesting.

To feel real passion for an academic subject, by contrast, requires years of honing your craft. Until then, you’re pursuing an idealized simulacrum.

The obvious advice to this student, then, is to choose one of these topics that interest him and then invest the time necessary to learn the craft and develop a true connection to the material. In fact, as long time Study Hacks readers know, this strategy of doing a small number of things really well is my number one piece of advice for college students looking to enjoy life and have interesting options after graduation.

But the passion mindset that dominates our culture corrupts this thought process. Because we’re taught at an early age that we have preexisting inclinations that matter above all else, it’s easy to mistake any idle interest or yearning as an obligatory pursuit — regardless of the consequences.

In other words, when talking to students about passion, it might be better to present college as a place to learn to develop passions, not follow ones that you’ve convinced yourself somehow already exist.

(Photo by JSmith Photo)

####

Student overload is on my mind as I’m heading up to Middlebury on the 10th to give my talk on escaping the cult of overwork. If you’re in the area, I encourage you to attend.

44 thoughts on “The Student Passion Problem

  1. Yilin says:

    cal, I think you give good advice when you recommend students concentrate on one area and focus on developing skill.

    However, you sound very dismissive when you make assumptions about other people’s passions. There are some of us who have things we truly feel passionate about, and that passion influence our choices in career. When I entered university with a desire to study creative writing, I had already been writing on my own for several years. I truly loved it and it motivated me to practice deliberately, to take on challenges, and to make it my major. Perhaps you don’t feel that “passion” towards one particular subject, and there are cases where people weren’t happy about their passions, but I think you’re really taking it too far by rejecting it outright.

    1. Pete says:

      Passion has to be focused – especially as the original questioner was asking about PhDs. If you have a true passion of math, including two distinct topics encompassing 2% of ‘all math’, then likely you will still have to neglect one of them in order to focus just 1% of the area. If you have a passion for math and EE, then you’ll have to neglect and ignore 99.5% of your passion if you have only 24 hours in a day.

      And, at undergrad level, you haven’t even really *seen* any of those areas that you’ll have to focus on. You can’t say that you “love X” simply because you’re currently just seen and handled topics Y,Z and W – which will allow you to approach X after a few years but which are known to require completely different workstyle from X. You may guess that you might like X, but that is just a guess, and it often turns out not to be true.

    2. Blake says:

      Yilin,

      I appreciate your defense of passion especially in the area of writing because I am currently developing that passion myself.

      Although I agree that Cal’s language against passion can be strong, his point is that decisions about what to major in shouldn’t be guided exclusively by reference to a passion. If passion is present, as is the case for you, me and the student in the post, follow the passion up to the point where you are able to pay your bills and maintain a reasonable level of stress. To follow your passion further would be counterproductive.

    3. Yilin says:

      In the context of PhDs, I would agree that it is definitely better to focus on one area rather two. As this student is in his freshman year and still learning about these subjects, he should ideally keep his mind open about different options. At this point, it’s good for him to explore a bit and learn about the subjects, focus on his current studies, rather than look ahead to PhD programs already.

      I would add that, for some people, especially those working in areas relating to fine arts, they may have practiced a skill for years already when they begin majoring in it at university. For instance, many artists and musicians begin studying their craft at a young age and have a passion for it. This is the perspective I am coming from, and the situation is naturally very different from someone who is just starting out in studying science.

    4. John says:

      Hello Yilin,

      I understand where you are coming from. In my opinion, the best way to understand what Cal is talking about is to think about it in this way.

      Cal believes that main stream culture has bought into the idea each person has a unique profession that is “written” in their genes. For example, a person who says I was born to be a writer, etc. So if they believe that they spend most of their lives trying to figure out what their passion is/what they were meant to do/what they are good at.

      From Cal’s point of view 95% of people have no pre-existing passion (a profession/career written in their genes). In order to GENERATE passion you have to become GREAT at something and takes about 10 years.

      In one sentence, passion is not something you are born with. PASSION is something that you have to GENERATE.

      1. Nicholas says:

        Yilin,

        I second John’s opinion above, it is very well written.

        Furthermore, Cal has in numerous talks and his book illustrated that he is not saying this is a blanket statement that applies to all. He refers to people who like you have grown up writing, love the art of writing, continue to develop their skill of writing and work in their day jobs as writers. He would not argue that people like yourself do not love your job or did something wrong. However for most others, like myself, my pre-existing passions as a kid of playing video games would not result in a stable life or life well-lived if I pursued them through adulthood.

  2. BMGM says:

    I roll my eyes and the TV/Movie depictions of multiple PhDs as a marker of intelligence. But, I let it go; it’s just a lazy movie convention to quickly telegraph a message about a character. How many real life mathematicians do arithmetic in their heads and use it as a bar trick? ‘Nuff said.

    Give the kid a break. He seems so clueless, he probably doesn’t come from a background where anyone in his family has actually gone through the PhD gauntlet. Moreover, I don’t think that dual undergrad degrees in math and EE is such a bad thing. He can specialize later.

    I have a friend who earned her PhD in materials science in an archeology department, studying bronze bells. She did not do her undergrad in either archeology or materials science but she’s real and she’s working as a materials scientist at NASA.

    I earned a BA in pure math and a BS in physical chemistry before doing an interdisciplinary PhD in computational chemical physics. The dean at Berkeley assigned to follow my academic progress .triple. majored in math, chemistry and religious studies before earning a PhD in physics and becoming the first African-American physics professor at Berkeley (or any major research university). In fact, of the 3 women who graduated in pure math the same year I did, one double majored in math and English lit and another in Spanish lit.

    I recently wrote about another math/chem double major:
    http://badmomgoodmom.blogspot.com/2014/02/in-defense-of-home-ec-3.html

    I think if you love something that has little economic value, you should double major. You can immerse yourself in something purely for the love of it, and concurrently study something that you also like and for which people will pay you to do.

  3. Melvin Roest says:

    Lol, it seems like the opposition are only people who are doing more things concurrently. I am no different ;) But where are the supporters?

    The first answer on Academia Stackexchange states not to do 2 PhD’s because you will get too much overlap if the topics are alike.

    Anyways, here is a thought. What about combining them?

    The two fields are related. So I think that with careful subject selection it is doable to put in 1.5 times the work of a 4 year PhD program, and finish the 2 PhD’s in 5 years (he’d need to work at 1.2 times the speed then). Then again, this is more for the sake of discussion because he’s doing a bachelor.

    Currently I am doing three study programs that are related in a sense: Computer Science (master), Game Studies (master) and Psychology (bachelor). The interrelatedness is crazy! For example, most things in Computer Science reappear in fiels like Cognitive Psychology and all the ‘soft’ skills in Psychology reappear in Computer Science in all the soft skills you need to know (e.g. working in a team). Doing three study programs does not mean that you have to study three times as hard. On average, I study 1.5 times as hard. For the record, my real subject of study is learning and understanding my limits.

    Anyway, I think the bottomline in this guy’s case is that studying 2 bachelors is fine. You need to explore stuff anyway, and when he encounters overlap, he can skip stuff anyway, so the study load is not 2 times as high. 2 PhD’s is a bit more difficult of a decission, because I am aware that I know too little of what a PhD really entails.

    What I do believe is that only “loving” something can make you blind, and then you cannot see the instrumental value of what you’re studying. I’ve seen many people love things, and more often than not it tore their heart apart. The heart is still not the best organ to think with. Don’t ignore the brain, and don’t ignore the heart, both are needed for warm thoughts (quite literally ;) ).

  4. Melvin Roest says:

    By the way, I got a question. Does the “get only good in one thing” also apply to tech entrepreneurship? I mean, when you are a startup you need to be able to switch to a lot of different roles very quickly.

    The reason I ask this is because it seems to me that your idea (= get extremely good in one thing) is better when you aim to be an employee or choose to opt for an entrepreneurial venture that supports that (e.g. writing).

    There could be some misunderstanding on my part, but it doesn’t get cleared up in your main advice.

  5. Pascal Pagh says:

    Dear Cal,

    For years i’ve been very fond of your books and advices, until i read this post.
    I’ve been using your advices for doing my two bachelors at the same time, one in law and one in political science. I believe that as long as you plan your day right it is possible to do two at the same time, you might even have to sacrifice going to lectures and classes due to how unnecessary they can be.

    I am by no means a straight a student or perceive myself to be above average in terms of intelligence, but the educational system in Denmark can in some ways be sub-par to that of the rest of the western world. I also have to travel 93 miles everyday by train (with no apparent possibility to study in quiet) meaning 4-5 hours of wasted time in regards to studying everyday.

    The way i believe it is possible to get by is to focus on what is important and being serious about your learning. You might not learn much from listening to a professor or by listening to class discussions or student presentation. What if you could stay at home and receive the material online and work by yourself, while sending the teacher a mail if you have any problems.
    Actors, sport stars, musicians and even people that rather work (which is an even better idea for being relevant after your studies) do this.

    Why make University your whole life instead of letting it be part of it?

  6. Pascal Pagh says:

    Dear Cal,

    For years i’ve been very fond of your books and advices, until i read this post.
    I’ve been using your advices for doing my two bachelors (yes, 180 ects. points x 2) at the same time, one in law and one in political science. I believe that as long as you plan your day right it is possible to do two at the same time, you might even have to sacrifice going to lectures and classes due to how unnecessary they can be.

    I am by no means a straight a student or perceive myself to be above average in terms of intelligence, but the educational system in Denmark can in some ways be sub-par to that of the rest of the western world. I also have to travel 93 miles everyday by train (with no apparent possibility to study in quiet) meaning 4-5 hours of wasted time in regards to studying everyday.

    The way i believe it is possible to get by is to focus on what is important and being serious about your learning. You might not learn much from listening to a professor or by listening to class discussions or student presentation. What if you could stay at home and receive the material online and work by yourself, while sending the teacher a mail if you have any problems.
    Actors, sport stars, musicians and even people that rather work (which is an even better idea for being relevant after your studies) do this.

    Why make University your whole life instead of letting it be part of it?

  7. Fred says:

    Cal,

    I entered college last fall with a lot of AP credits, and, since I have a lot of room to explore whatever I want, I’ve chosen to get a dual-degree in Physics and Philosophy. Despite what you say about double-majoring being bad, I can accomplish both degrees in four years (without summer classes/taking extra classes). I don’t see what’s wrong with this since there are a lot of places in which Physics and Philosophy overlap, so the two go hand-in-hand very well while still remaining strong in humanities and the sciences.

  8. Lisa Bleich says:

    This is an interesting discussion and as an undergraduate there is nothing wrong with double majoring as it is still a time to explore interests. However, I agree at some point, it’s important to focus on one area and become a specialist rather than trying to get two PhDs. As someone else noted, there is a lot of overlap in math and EE, so he can certainly focus on one or the other.

    I know when I was that age, I never wanted to close off any doors and found myself afraid to commit to one specific discipline or industry. Ironically, when I started my business and focused all my energy on educational consulting, I found great a way to encompass all my skills and created a successful business. When I was younger I was afraid I would get bored, but by becoming an expert in one area, it’s amazing how many other doors open up.

    1. Adam Bhakrani says:

      Hi Lisa,

      Your response was by far the best. If i am not completely wrong, Cal talks about at least one person in bis last book who had an interest in two fields. At some point the student decided to put her attention on an overlapping topic and found her passion in it.

  9. Phil says:

    One of my Professors even has 3 PhDs, and a number of masters degrees. He is one of the leading authorities in his field, and in addition, he seems to be enjoying his life very much. So it does not have to be a bad decision to do two PhDs.

  10. Adam says:

    Unfortunately, for some of us having multiple areas of focus is necessary, because going headlong in one direction in some fields can lead to a dead end as happens to so many in music (my field) and other fine arts. Holding down “real” job in computers or business is then necessary to pay the bills and massive student debt.

  11. Haiu says:

    Double and triple majors as well as multiple PhD programs are the equivalent of the “try-to-impress” high school student who takes as much course work as possible, ultimately leading to zero interestingness and burnout.

  12. Pete says:

    This is much too soon to be choosing two PhDs. He is in his first year and has (probably) liked Calculus One (which is not too hard) and is in the middle of Calc Two which is also easy until you get to Taylor Series and convergence/divergence. Similarly, the electrical in physics is not hard. Circuits is also easy if you’ve a grasp of diffy q’s.
    However, has he shown any passion so far? Does he have an Amateur Extra License in amateur radio? Has he built any Arduino projects from scratch? Win any high school math competitions?
    So far it’s been fun. He will know by the time he’s a second term junior if he wishes to continue. If he makes it all the way through, without changing his major at least twice, fantastic! Whatever the course — enjoy the ride!

  13. Richard Pesera says:

    Just curious Cal or anyone that may answer,
    For a high school student what is the best way to land a closed community internship so that I may be able to develop a failed-simulation after putting dedicated work after a while. Should I contact a mass amounts of companies and beg for a unpaid internship and hope to land one and work from there? Is there any true strategies, if not how would I be able to impress the companies that I do beg?

  14. Richard Pesera says:

    Cal or anyone else that may answer,
    For a high school student how would I obtain the necessary closed-community internship necessary to start formulating a failed-simulation effect? Currently I am a high school sophomore and I hope to obtain this internship or volunteer in the career field by the summer and hopefully work from there. Should I just beg a mass amounts of companies and hope one sticks? If so how I would I manage to make one stick because many will reject me because I am only in high school? But, If there are any other tips if you may please inform me.

  15. Marty Qartick says:

    Just curious Cal,
    In many of your previous blogs you mentioned that we should work diligently over the years in a company to eventually hold leverage. Leverage in the sense that the company is in need of you because of your expertise and specialty. So you use that leverage to obtain a lifestyle you want, for example working at home. I was curious to know when you know you are in that stage and how to get there as quickly as possible.

  16. Mark says:

    Student overload is on my mind as I’m heading up to Middlebury on the 10th to give my talk on escaping the cult of overwork. If you’re in the area, I encourage you to attend.

    Would love to be there, but it’s probably 4+ hours from where I’m at. If you are ever doing something in the CT area… If this is put on the Internet in some form, I would love to watch/hear the talk.

    I’m battling anxiety and depression and it’s largely do to overwork. I quit my “day job” as a software developer, started my own company with another guy, never had great success, watching it fizzle, and I got sucked into another family business which is overwhelming, especially when the family member that pulled you in then leaves the business altogether.

    I’m trying to create the habit of using the techniques in “How to get A’s in college”, which I read along with my kids, and I think those will greatly help me. I’m trying to force a “shut-off” time for my days. I’m trying to get up earlier before the phones start ringing to get at least a few good hours of “focus” on the most important tasks before distractions start to hit me.

    Biggest thing for me. Letting the worry go, allowing myself to have time for enjoyment and relaxation, and knowing that tomorrow will come and I can spend some time then moving things forward.

    Burnout has let me to total unproductivity. If I’m getting 10% out of myself at this point, I would be surprised. Recognized. And as I get more rest, take time off, organize my priorities and goals, I can feel that productivity rising and see a bit more in the results.

    1. John says:

      Hi Mark,

      I am also from CT.

      From my point of view, many of these problem you have can be cause by your environment. More specifically, I have lived in CT (near the coast) for 6 years and from my experience CT can be a depressing place. This is specially true during the winter.

      My advice would be stop blaming yourself for not being working harder and get around people that are happier and like-minded.

      Good luck :)

    2. Pete says:

      Sounds like a good time to sell the family business and go back into software development. Believe it or not, you will appear more valuable to a potential hire. Just put positive spins on your business experiences.

  17. Mark says:

    I should also add another thing that I have learned first hand, and maybe this doesn’t apply to everybody, but I bet it does: Passion and burnout cannot co-exist.

    I’ve developed a handful of passions in my life. But I’ve said yes to too many things in my life, and I’ve said yes to some things that have consumed my life.

    I’ve found that following your passions with too much gusto can lead to burnout that can make your passions a lot less fun.

    Sometimes, to work on your passions, you have to do other work that you aren’t as passionate about, and if that other work starts eat up too much time, you find yourself doing less of what you have become passionate about. It can be really challenging and at times you regret chasing what you thought was a passion that turns out to be more of a quagmire.

    You become a workaholic to try to get the tedious work done so you can get back to your passionate work, but you wear yourself out and wonder were the energy went and you don’t get back to your passions. No longer are you enjoying your hobbie-passions (cooking, woodworking, tinkering, pleasure reading, a good movie at night, listening to music with your eyes closed, sharing life with friends).

    When the rote work takes up so much time that you can’t step back to see the big picture anymore, and you can’t get back to the creative, interesting work that you longed to do to create a business and watch it grow, you’re on a death march.

    1. RM says:

      Story of my life! When I worked for a firm, I was drowned in so much tedious busywork because my supervisors loved micromanaging that I could never advance long-term projects or my own ideas.

      When I went to graduate school, I thought I would finally be free to work on my own big ideas, but instead they just drown us in tedious coursework analyzing the minutiae of uninteresting topics with the wrong tools. I hear it gets better when we finally start writing our thesis, but the beginning ride is awful and involuntary attrition is nearly 50%.

      How many years do we have to eat crap from others before we are free to do our own real work? Why does the system practically enslave young people to the whims of a tyrannical supervisor? It almost makes me want to opt out of the entire system and become self-employed, but have no idea in what.

    2. Pete says:

      a Yes does not have to be a lifetime Yes. Major corporations re-negotiate all the time as conditions change.

  18. John says:

    Cal,

    I believe that the best example of being “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” is professional sports. If you watch a NBA basketball game you will see the passion the players have for the sport. Some would say that they were born with a passion for the sport, but as you have proved in your book this notion is false.

  19. Susan says:

    My husband had one cousin who was a genius who got 2 PhDs in Math and Physics at University of Chicago and then taught at Stanford before selling out to Wall Street because after all of that, he was stuck in associate professor hell. If you have a 180 IQ, and no social life, go for it. He found the undergrad work ridiculous easy, but getting two PhDs simultaneously was admittedly tougher.

    My husband was a bit lazier. Even though he too was bred to be a mathematician, he went the poli sci route taking math and economic courses for fun. He could have easily gotten a double major, but instead he focused on poli sci and was invited to teach an undergrad course instead. Seriously, all we did was eat pizza, get lofty sounding positions in the student government with titles like Campus Ombudsperson and liason to the president, watch Star Trek and and make out. He got into a couple of top 10 law schools, no problem. He basically pulled the same stunt there and ended up at the Vault #3 firm upon graduation (only meaningful to law students). Even then his big interview question from the hiring partner was what was it like to go to a specialized high school in NYC? It was rare to see a diploma in an office since they only really hired from 3 law schools (law firms are weird that way, very credential obsessed and each have preferred law schools they recruit from), except recently it had become the fashion of those graduates to put their high school diplomas on the wall, leaving off the Harvard and Yales. He thought it was strange but it had not come up in a conversation. Not coming from NYC he wanted to know why were they all making a fuss over these high schools and why we’re they always prominently listed on resumes (my husband explained it was more really about an admittance policy based strictly on a test score with all identifying factors stripped away – the most fair and unfair admission policy ever devised, and therefore, an exclusive meritocracy of sorts that would never be repeated again in their lives). It was just a way to transmit that information, as silly as it is, to each other. This again proves most of Mr. Newport’s theories on high stake interviews, when competing with equally bright individuals, are correct. The man did not want to talk about his grades but wanted to know why a small percentage of his colleagues were doing considered strange in their institution’s culture (which was very white shoe), but everyone else was too polite to ask why.

  20. Sportacus says:

    Would you apply the same logic to sports?
    So my 12 year old is pretty good in a number of sports. Given that time is limited, the post would argue to specialize and hone in skills in only one sport starting now in the hopes that he gets good enough to play in college.
    Others think it’s best for kids to do a variety of sports and just see what happens as they get older.
    Thoughts?

    1. Nate says:

      As someone who played div 1 baseball, I can offer my perspective. When a kid is less than 10-11 years old It’s important to make sports enjoyable to develop a healthy level of interest. Every parent has to a certain extent the irrational notion that their child is the next multi sport star. The reality is the end result 99.8% of the time is the old ” jack of all trades, master of none”. I was an above average pop warner football player, average basketball player, and an above average baseball player. The only one I cared about was baseball. When I was 12, I made the decision to focus solely on becoming the best pitcher I could be. While many of my peers had more pure athletic talent than me, they were burned out trying to be multi sport stars and didn’t develop the finer skills that separate one from the heard. In my view, 11-12 yrs old is the perfect age to stress the importance of specializing, developing, and the discipline required to compete at a high level.

      Something else to consider, the vast majority of “coaches” at the high school and even college level don’t have a clue when it comes to developing talent. Don’t assume that because they have the winning program they understand anything other than game management.
      Finally, your child should have a realistic long term goal in mind. The problem with team sports is when your playing days are over, coaching is usually the only path left to stay involved. In hindsight, I wish I’d developed an interest in an individual sport that I could play the rest of my life. I was on a 1/2 scholarship when I quit after my sophomore year. Being a college athlete was a huge time commitment that was not resulting in the ROI necessary to make it worth my while. 6’2 RHPs with a high 80’s fastball are a dime a dozen in D1 baseball.

  21. Edupark says:

    When I was planning to join graduate degree I was confused whether I should choose engineering or management.I couldn’t do both at the same time, hence I did some research with which I should carry on. At this time, as I already had my engineering degree at bachelor level I was passionate to learn some management skills hence I chose MBA. It is just what you want and where you want to take your career.

  22. Interesting idea to think about. Shared it with my readers at http://www.yourbestfouryears.com/academics/2014/3/25/passions-becoming-problems. Thanks for the quality advice.

  23. Desiree says:

    I really am excited to have found your website and especially that you share my thoughts on the whole “follow your passion” trend that is taking over. I am looking forward to reading more of your blogs!

  24. Tejesh Mehta says:

    Good advice give by you to students we recommend them give attention to one area and give center of attention on developing skill.

  25. Maggie says:

    I am currently doing a distance education program for home inspection from Freedom Business School at California.It was pretty interesting tolearn about home inspection courses. It is only the urge to learn more which can take you to the peaks. Passion is the drive that take you to your goals .So always follow your passion!

  26. Maggie says:

    I am currently doing a distance education program for home inspection from Freedom Business School at California.It was pretty interesting to learn about home inspection courses (http://www.freedombusinessschool.com/Scripts/onlinecourses.asp) It is only the urge to learn more which can take you to the peaks. Passion is the drive that take you to your goals .So always follow your passion!

  27. 14025010 says:

    This is a fascinating read as I am also in my first year of studies. I completely agree that one cannot have a fully developed passion for maths (for example) at first year level as we have only dealt with the tip of the iceberg. However, university is the time in your academic career, where one develops the particular skills we seem to be inclined to into careers which we can be passionate about.

  28. ERIN says:

    Why do you assume that this student is male?

  29. Kim says:

    I agree with Cal Newport. I have two bachelor’s and two master’s degrees. How much of that can I take to the bank? –one bachelor’s and one master’s degree, if that much. Claiming passion for something can devolve into self-indulgent diploma collecting, an expensive addiction.

    Most of what I know that has any value, bankable or otherwise, I taught to myself. I suspect this result is what occurs when Cal spends notebook time dissecting a proof or working on an algorithm. Why collect more degrees? If you are really that good, proceed auto-didactically and make a contribution to the discipline!

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