Worried about helping your children to “find their passion?” Here’s the good news: they don’t need one.
In this age of social media, stories about self-driven youths who seem to have discovered their passions at a tender age have naturally hogged the headlines.
You may have told your children about world-famous young activists such as Malala Yousafzai or Greta Thunberg. At the same time, your child’s educators may have highlighted stories about inspiring youths in Singapore, and the lessons that can be gleaned from their experiences.
However, for a child who is still in the process of self-discovery, such reminders can be grating, or even downright discouraging. Also, even if a child is interested in an activity, it doesn’t mean that big dreams such as participating in the Olympics, winning a prestigious international award, or driving a project for social change will necessarily come with the territory.
For parents, what are some positive and non-judgemental ways to broach the subject of “passion” with children? Here’s how you can break it down for your kids.
1. Liking The Work That You Do
Some of our concerns about our children and their passions (or lack thereof) stem from the desire that they should have a fulfilling — and financially rewarding — career when they grow up, so as to enjoy a better quality of life.
However, according to self-improvement author Cal Newport, a rewarding career has little to do with following one’s “passions,” or even looking for jobs that are suited to one’s personality, as determined by tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
Newport instead cites a science-backed theory of human motivation based on three decades of research, known as the “self-determination theory.” This theory posits that for a person to love his or her work, the work must fulfill three criteria: autonomy (or a sense of being in control), competence (or a sense of mastery), and relatedness (the ability to connect with others).
How can you boost your children’s chances of finding work that checks all three boxes? It’s simple: when they are still in school, give them the freedom to decide what to major in. This will ensure that they are intrinsically motivated to do well.
As for the long-held notion that some majors pay off better than others, Newport has this to say:
“Jobs that require a specific technical skill — such as engineering or computer science competency — pay more money… Outside of these technical majors what you study doesn’t matter when it comes to later wages.” (Read more about this here.)
“Students who choose a major because it was expected or to please their parents are much more likely to burn out by their junior year,” he adds. “Becoming an engineer because your parents think the liberal arts are ‘soft’ is a quick route to mild student depression and falling grades.”
Within their field of interest, however, Newport says it is essential that students should master a skill that is “rare and valuable.” Here’s where your experience-based advice may be useful; you can have conversations with your child to help him or her assess which skills are worth developing. Once students have something valuable to offer, they will then be in a better position to land themselves in work situations that will keep them happy and motivated.
For now, if your child appears to be unmotivated (or lacking “passion”) in any endeavour, you can refer to the self-determination theory framework mentioned above, to find out what your child is going through. Does your child have a sense of agency, or have important decisions been made on your child’s behalf? Is your child struggling to master a skill, or does he or she have access to quality guidance and a support network? Is your child involved in healthy teamwork situations, and does he or she feel a sense of working towards some greater purpose?
2. Leading A Purposeful Life
While work is important, one should be wary of defining oneself solely in terms of work. “When we define ourselves by our jobs, our worth depends on what we achieve,” warns organisational psychologist Adam Grant.
Grant’s advice to parents, and adults in general, is this: stop asking children about what they would like to be when they grow up, i.e. their “passion.” Instead, he says, ask questions about purpose, such as “What kind of a person do you want to be?” and “What are the different things that you would like to do?”
Of course, some individuals do find purpose and meaning in chasing their passions, but as we well know, this is not true for everyone. Another equally effective way of leading a purposeful life is to abide by values that guide your behaviour, provide meaning for everything that you do, and help you to see the world as a shared space.
As parents, we may attempt to pass on certain values, but at the same time, our actions may speak differently. Moreover, the home environment that we’ve created may not be ideal for a child’s healthy growth — which is important if we want them to lead purposeful lives. Positive home environments help children to develop trust (which affects how they view the world) and a sense of autonomy (through opportunities that encourage independence and initiative). You may want to take an honest look at the environment that you are creating for your children, and decide if any improvements can be made.
Those who have spent more time in nature, as well as engaged in diverse activities, have also reported feeling more purposeful later in life. Perhaps, exposure to nature and being involved in activities such as community work help to prevent children from becoming too self-focused — it makes them reflect on their place in the world, and the responsibility that they can assume to ensure society thrives as a whole. (Read more about the childhood experiences that shape adults here.)
Leading a meaningful life doesn’t have to be a complicated affair. Author and executive coach Paolo Gallo shares his simple definition of a purposeful life, handed down by his father, who once said to him, “[D]on’t talk about what you did, but ask yourself what have you learned, if you helped other people, and if you love what you’re doing, because nothing else matters.”
“Of all the millions of words I’ve heard and read over the years, those words from my Dad… influenced my life more than any others,” Gallo says. You too can use these questions to help guide your child — and your entire family — towards a more fulfilling life.