Origins of Passionate Interests: A Survey of Readers

By Peter Gray Ph.D.

“Follow your passions,” they say. But what do passions arise from?

At almost every commencement address, the speaker urges the new graduates to follow their passions. It seems almost cruel. The schools at which I’ve heard these speeches seem to be deliberately designed to prevent the development of passionate interests. If all you’ve been doing is what you’re told you must do, which compels you to suppress your own wishes and interests, then how do you have any idea what your passions might be? Suddenly, after 13 years (K – 12) or, more likely, 17 years (K – college) of being scheduled in such a way that you have almost no time for your own interests, you are exhorted to go out and follow your passions! Are they serious? 

Source: Max Pixel, Creative Commons

If educational institutions were really concerned about passions, you’d think they’d allow young people an opportunity to find and develop those passions. That means lots of time and freedom to play and pursue activities that are self-chosen and personally meaningful rather than engage continuously in activities that everyone acknowledges serve only to get through the next in an apparently endless series of hoops toward some unknown or non-existent end.

Play, almost by definition, is following your passions. It is doing what you like to do. In the past, when children and teens were much freer than they are today, many would spend endless hours acquiring skills and knowledge in activities motivated purely by their own interest, for no prizes or other rewards outside of the activity itself. The great geniuses of the world, who truly did follow their passions, have almost always said that their “work” is play. Einstein, for example, referred to his work in mathematics and theoretical physics as “combinatorial play.” He developed this passionate interest before he was taught any math in school, and he wrote, in his autobiography, that school almost killed it. He continued to nurture his passion only by taking school much less seriously than did his classmates.

Passions also arise from a sense of purpose in the world, a feeling of mission to make the world somehow better. The people I know who seem to be most productive and happy in their careers are those for whom the career is both play and a means of leaving a positive mark on the world. These are lucky people, and we are all lucky that they are here. How can we create an educational environment that fosters rather than inhibits this kind of development?

One of the occasional purposes of my Freedom to Learn blog is to collect stories from readers, which I analyze qualitatively and post in a subsequent blog report. Past examples include my analyses of readers’ stories of how children learn to read without being taughthow children acquire mathematical concepts without being taught; and the recurring dreams that readers have about their school experiences.

So now, with this post, I’m asking for your story about the development of a passionate interest. It might be a story about your own interest, or that of your child, or that of anyone else you know well.

• When (at what age) did that interest first appear? What seemed to cause it to appear?

• What kinds of things did the person with that interest do to develop skills and knowledge related to it?

• Has the interest evolved or changed over time and if so, how?

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