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Why Passion is Important for Success in Work and Life

3 minute read

At Polygence, we believe that the best learning outcomes grow from a student’s own interests.

Our program is completely student driven, a unique approach in the realm of research programs, and also the reason that students often call their Polygence work “passion projects”. 

Our students define their own project ideas, rather than choosing from a limited list of options. They set their own schedules, honing crucial time management skills as they decide when and how frequently to meet with mentors. In our project-based research structure, there are no grades, meaning that students discover and stretch the limits of their own accomplishments. They are even asked to define success for themselves, which helps to develop intrinsic motivation. 

These principles aren’t just at the core of our educational philosophy; they’re also backed by research. A study by neuroscientists at the University of California Davis, published in Neuron, found that people are simply better at learning things when they’re curious about them. Polygence gives students the opportunity to explore their interests with guidance from expert research mentors.

Why Does Success Starts With Passion?

As a shorthand for this student-first approach, we even embrace an axiom that some would call contentious: “success starts with passion.” Indeed, “passion” has become a bit of a lightning rod in recent years. Some critics have argued passion is not the best litmus test for choosing a rewarding academic or career path. Certain studies suggest that asking young people to “follow their passion” can reinforce gender stereotypes, prompting boys to choose, say, math and science fields, while girls gravitate towards the arts or education. 

In later career stages, prioritizing passion in the workplace may also perpetuate inequality. For example, labor scholars have criticized the “Do What You Love” (DWYL) philosophy of work on such grounds. Though it’s true doing what you love is better than doing something you hate, it’s also a slippery slope to exploiting workers in certain professions–like teaching or the arts–where people are expected to work long hours for minimal (or no) pay because they love what they do. 

What are the Benefits of Cultivating a Passion?

This is precisely why it’s important to understand the concept of passion, and its psychological benefits, from a scientific perspective. One of the leading experts in this field of research is Dr. Robert J. Vallerand, Professor of Social Psychology at the Université du Québec in Montréal, who has through hundreds of publications explored a dualistic definition of passion. 

According to this schema, passion can be either “obsessive” or “harmonious”. Colloquially, passion is often depicted as blind devotion to a belief or interest to the detriment of all else. This represents “obsessive passion,” in which a person feels an uncontrollable urge to pursue something they find pleasurable or important. Though motivating, that obsessive feeling does damage, leading to burnout, coercion, or the negligence of other responsibilities.

By comparison, studies have shown that "harmonious passion"-- the kind that is expressed in a consistent but controlled way -- is a key factor supporting psychological well-being that can prevent negative emotions and illness. A 2015 Study from the University of California, Merced and Penn State found that pursuing passions lowers stress and contributes to greater happiness overall; participants reported 34% less stress and 18% less sadness during and after the activities they were passionate about. More recently, a consortium of researchers from the Universities of Virginia, Michigan, the National University of Singapore, among others, explored what happens when students learn about passions and how to develop one. Results showed a kind of virtuous cycle in which the more information gained about cultivating passions, the more enthusiastic students became about their chosen subjects and college majors. “I knew I was interested in the topic,” one study participant explained, “and the more I learned, the more I appreciated the subject in terms of real-world impact.” This is perhaps why, as documented in one of our white papers, some mental health professionals say that the most important thing for students to have in their lives is some kind of passion that motivates them to learn, explore, and grow

Taken in aggregate, these conflicting studies show that, while the scientific understanding of passion is evolving, introducing the concept to students early in their academic careers can be highly empowering. If students are able to test drive a college major by working with a domain expert before heading to college, they’ll not only have a better sense of what motivates them, but also how to balance a true passion with other obligations, like family responsibilities, socializing with friends, and other academic work. By providing students with more precise language about what passion truly is and how to cultivate it, they will gain invaluable knowledge in how to balance their personal and professional lives.

What is the role of Passion’s in Student Empowerment and Academic Success?

Exposure to exciting fields and subjects can also provide students with the confidence they need to overcome stereotypes that can be associated with certain passions. Krrishika, a Polygence alumna, provides a great example. She came to Polygence interested in medicine but in need of guidance. With the help of her mentor Sabin, who holds a PhD in Neuroscience from Washington University in St. Louis (one of the world’s premier research institutions in this field), Krrishika developed a sophisticated research paper titled “Understanding Alzheimer’s Risk Factors Associated with the Prevalence of US Populations and Women.” The experience transformed her perception of what she was capable of in the field. “Before, I would have never considered neuroscience as a career because I thought it was too complex and difficult,” Krrishika writes. “However, this paper changed that. I didn’t merely research and write about the subject, but found myself becoming eager to learn more and more about it. Now, I'm hoping to study the brain well into the future. I am even looking into doing some science fair projects and experiments related to neuroscience.” This kind of student testimonial has even led one of our partners describing Polygence as an “incubator of passions, like the Y Combinator of high school projects.”

Broader evidence shows that Krrishika’s experience of transformation correlates with increased success in their studies and goals. For example, Dr. Nelson O.O. Zounlome, PhD in Counseling Psychology (who is also a Polygence mentor) has co-authored research on how students react to targeted encouragement from advisors and peers. The results were inspiring. These notes of encouragement led to increased academic self-efficacy and reduced psychological distress, especially for certain minority populations like young women in STEM fields and students of color.

Such interventions are part of a trend within certain schools of education, as well as programs like Polygence, to create learning environments that are centered on students. As Dr. Zounlome noted in a recent conversation, “I really love Polygence in part because there aren’t grades. It’s so much easier to empower students when we can just focus on learning and growth, rather than on the pressure of giving or getting an A at the end of the experience.” 

There may very well be pitfalls in simply telling a group of graduating students “to follow their passions” in a commencement address. But when educators work with students over time to define true, harmonious passion and then to help them develop one, the benefits outweigh the risks. Of the thousands of students who have done a Polygence project, 84% reported greater optimism about their academic futures after working with their mentors, and were 5x more likely to be accepted to a top 25 university than the average applicant. That is a convincing sign that success truly is “built on passion.”

Do your own research through Polygence!

Polygence pairs you with an expert mentor in your area of passion. Together, you work to create a high quality research project that is uniquely your own.