Finding Your Passion

Virtually every college counselor preaches the importance of discovering something, anything, and pursuing it passionately. The earlier in one’s high school career that one discovers this passion, the better, because the longer one dedicates yourself, the sooner you might gain mastery over a hard to acquire skill that just might place you near the top of the applicant heap.

Unfortunately, the word “passion” is used by such a large cross-section of counselors and admissions officers, that its meaning is fast becoming a passionate cliché.  The point of discovering a  passion is that it will drive one to do  all the hard work required to master a challenge, such as playing scratch golf.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, the neurologist Daniel Levitin, who studied a range of successful performers in sports, business, and academics, deduces that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a skill. Doing just a little math, if you dedicated three hours a day to practice, it would take a bit over 9 years to gain adequate mastery.  No wonder the admissions office wants you to find your passion during freshman year and pursue it with unwavering dedication. Again, doing the math, assuming you practiced 3 hours a day, every day during high school, you’d still accumulate only 4,380 hours by graduation; you’re not even half way there.

So, when do such athletes as Tiger Woods, John McEnroe, or a Division 1 football player, find their passions?  Is it during freshman year in high school? It’s obvious that that’s not the case. We know Tiger Woods was already putting around on the Mike Douglas Show when he was 3 years-old. Assuming he was doing his 3 hours a day, every day, this would mean that by 13 he was playing at a fairly masterful level. In 1988, just after turning 13, he won the first of 6 consecutive Junior World Championships. In Outliers, Gladwell cites a range of other professionals: the Beatles, Mozart, Bill Joy (programmer par excellence and the founder of Sun Microsystems), and Bill Gates, who all put in their obligatory 10,000 hours.

These 10,000 hours, however, aren’t composed of mindless moments of shooting baskets, or threading needles; rather, they are spent engaged in ‘deliberate practice’.  Such practice needs to be designed by an expert teacher, “to improve performance beyond a person’s current comfort and ability level.” . This is practice that is “very hard, and usually unpleasant”(Ibid.).  Obviously finding a passion and pursuing mastery of it is not for timid souls. It requires discipline, patience, dedication, and tenacity. That’s why many surrender to mediocrity. Sure, passion requires, initially, some talent. Yet, it also requires a lot of hard, generally unrewarding work.

Then, or course, there is the human factor that comes into play: what happens after a passion is selected and   later the passion dissipates?  What a confounding thought , especially  a year or two  into it.  For then one  faces  the Tiger Woods of the world whose  courses have been set , and one finds oneself  lost at 17.  Or look at the throngs of college students  who often change their majors after freshman year: Is this a tragedy? No, it’s the way of normal development. Some of us are extremely talented, and possibly, a bit lucky. Most of us take knocks and dips and still try to achieve a semblance of mastery over something. We might never find our passion, but none of us can ever forgo the need to passionately search. That’s the purpose of attending  college in the first place.