THE FASHION OF PASSION
Sylvia Rimm, PhD
As a psychologist who specializes in working with gifted children, I am constantly aware of the pressures that gifted children often internalize. Teachers also sense that many gifted children feel pressured to be perfect and/or can be very highly competitive. Perfectionism is the term typically used to describe the unhealthy emotional state where children either become unreasonably distraught by mistakes or avoid challenging opportunities, for fear they won't perform best or perfectly. At Family Achievement Clinic (clinic that specializes in gifted children's achievement) and at Menlo Park Academy (a charter school for gifted students), we caution parents, teachers, counselors and students about motivating children realistically, but not setting goals inappropriately high. According to motivation research, achieving students set goals that are moderately high. Underachievers set goals either too high or too low. Children who set goals that are too high, too low, or avoid involvement often become either anxious or depressed (Hostettler, 1989).
Passion is Fashionable
It is reasonable and important to engage children in learning. It is surely crucial that children develop real interests. Engagement and interests will encourage children to achieve and learn in school, but passion is an extreme of interests and has become so fashionable that most every professional education presentation I hear refers to children finding their passions. Teachers and parents remind me that children should find their passions, and even students tell me that they are searching or have found their passions.
Reminders that finding passions is fashionable are visible everywhere. Billboards show Mia Hamm kicking her way to the top (with Passion) and “Schools Search for Educators who are Passionate about Teaching." Adolescents are told to “Find What They Love and Do It often." Oprah Winfrey reminds Starbucks coffee drinkers to “Follow your passion, because it will lead to your purpose." The extraordinary Renzulli Academy now advertises itself as a “public school that supports student passion." Billboards and posters that invite everyone to find their passions decorate airports, stores, and schools. The most amusing one I’ve found recently was on a giant dumpster that read “Trashin’ Is Our Passion."
Dr. Gordon Marino, Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College, shared what he sometimes says to students in an article in the New York Times, “As a counselor, my kneejerk reaction has always been, ‘What are you most passionate about?’ Sometimes I’d even go into a sermonette about how it is important to distinguish between what we think we are supposed to love and what we really love. But is ‘Do what you love’ wisdom or malarkey?" (Marino, 2014)
It is time to ask ourselves if we are setting goals unrealistically high for gifted children, adolescents and young adults? Are we teaching snobbishness and entitlement and allowing our children to assume that they should do what they wish to do when they wish to do it? Have educators forgotten the growth mindset that Carol Dweck has so ably researched? (Dweck, 2000). Why are we not teaching children responsibility and contribution? Are we instead feeding perfectionism and increasing the epidemic of underachievement? Reis (2014) followed the top 5% of students in an inner city high school for 5 years and found that a full 50% underachieved? In our efforts to inspire eminence and joy in learning, are these "too high expectations" spawning further underachievement? I believe we are and that encouraging children to find their passions is horribly naïve, misguided and pressuring.
Many of those of us who have studied successful adults have found that indeed these adults are often passionate about their work (Rimm, Rimm-Kaufman, & Rimm 2014). This author acknowledges that she is passionate about her work some of the time (particularly when a parent, teacher or child appreciates her help). When adults describe their passions, they are talking about their realistic successes and contributions. They recognize the resilience, the failures, the hard work and the grit that came before success.
Children and adolescents view passions very differently than adults. They often become far less passionate when they don’t win awards or aren’t immediately in first place. For many children seeking their passions, they quit activity after activity, certain that when they find challenge or have difficulty, the activity no longer qualifies as a passion. They dream of becoming stand-up comedians and rock stars when their peers notice their jokes, music or sports skills. Leads in high school plays who are passionate about drama sometimes skip college in certainty of becoming immediately successful on Broadway. Athletes give up on academics with dreams of making it into professional sports. One "potential" basketball player (5th grader) even avoided playing competitive sports, but still hoped to become a pro player (true story). My research on 5,000 middle schoolers found professional sports the most frequent choice of careers for boys and media stars the most frequent one for girls. Adolescence is a most imaginative time of development, and children are, of course, entitled to dream (Rimm, 2005).
Too high expectations can lead to depression and anxiety. A talented musician who dreamed of becoming a solo violinist and made it to orchestra potential became depressed over her perceived failure. She could no longer hold a violin or even listen to music. Other potential musicians, writers, and artists become so anxious they drop out of lessons for fear of being criticized or not as good as they had expected. Anxiety prevents their perseverance and acceptance of criticism from their teachers. Some bounce back or at least find other realistic paths with maturity. Very few gifted adults who are passionate about their careers in adulthood knew their directions in elementary, middle or high school and often continued to search for those careers during college and into adulthood (Rimm, Rimm-Kaufman, & Rimm, 2014).
Don’t steal their dreams, but temper passion with reason!*
R Realistic: Are there real career opportunities available in their chosen direction?
E Effort: Effort and perseverance are appropriate mindsets (Dweck, 2006).
A Adolescents: Adolescents should value responsibility and contribution.
L Learning: Learning to be strategic is important.
Strategies For Students With Passions In Highly Competitive Careers*
P Practice: Practice, practice in passion area, so you can better determine your talent.
A Alternatives: Maintain alternative skills in case passion career isn't possible.
S Strive: Strive to win in competitions, and join collaborations to compare your talent.
S Skills: Select experienced and continual coaches to teach you high-level skills.
I Install: Install a deadline for rethinking your career directions should your first goal not
O Opportunities: If opportunities are not realistic, select alternative directions.
N Never: Never stop enjoying your passion, but connect to an avocation.
*Rimm, S.B., Rimm-Kaufman, S., & Rimm, I. (2014). Jane wins again: Can successful women have it all? Tucson, AZ:
Instead, they can encourage young people to explore their strengths and interests, to understand that great efforts and perseverance are needed to uncover their talents and that indeed failures and successes are part of life. (See Figure #3)
Strategies For Students With No Specific Interests
I Interests: Interests can guide you.
N Negotiate: Negotiate time to examine new interests thoroughly.
T Try: Try new activities with friends.
E Explore: Explore many extra-curricular activities.
R Raise Grades: Work hard on school subjects to raise grades.
E Experiment: Experiment with part-time and volunteer jobs.
S Spot: Spot mentors and observe what professionals do.
T Tutor: Tutor young students to build your own confidence and skills.
S Serendipity: Keep alert to serendipitous events or persons who can lead to opportunities.
Gifted children have intensities that we can't ignore, but adults need not worship their children’s emotions. Instead they need to redirect their intensities to creativity, hard work strategy and contribution. As a long time child psychologist and educator, I would strongly encourage parents and teachers to eliminate the word "passion" from their continuous advice and follow my top ten guidelines I've included in Figure #4.
Rimm's Top Ten Advice For Gifted Students
1. Interests: Find a career that utilizes your strengths and interests.
2. Hard Work: Expect to work hard and to do your best - perhaps not be the best.
3. Competition: Good careers are highly competitive. You will win and lose, succeed and fail.
4. Independence: Don’t expect everyone to like and praise you. You’re not perfect.
5. Humility: You will start at the bottom and are more likely to succeed if you help your boss become successful.
6. Responsibility: Try to earn enough to support yourself and your family.
7. Trade-offs: Life always involves tradeoffs. Be prepared to make them.
8. Contribution: Make a small contribution to our world. We need your help!
9. Contribution: If you’re highly successful and do well financially, please give back financially to those who made your success possible.
10. Strategy: Following only passions is irrational. Reason and strategy will allow you to enjoy your work some of the time.
Counselors, psychologists, parents and teachers will see fewer children who feel and expect parents to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of dollars of hard earned money to pay for university educations with little career potential. Young people who relentlessly search for passions are distracted from responsibility, engagement and effort that all people must expect in the complexity of searching for their identities.