Widgets Magazine


Major, major

It’s that time of the year again. The sun’s out late into the evenings, the temperature is an almost-too-comfortable 70 degrees, and the flowers — and the existential crises — are in full bloom. It’s that time when the words “Follow your passion” and “Do what you love” get aggressively thrown around. And the Axess of Evil suddenly becomes relevant once more.

In short, it’s major-declaration season. A tradition as old as stress itself. But are we really having the right conversation this time of year? What does it mean when people say, “Find your passion?” If it, in fact, does mean something tangible, is it even good advice?

The “passion” question has already been beaten to death — and then beaten to death again — but I hope to offer a slightly different perspective other than the standard “Yes” or “No” response. We often tend to think of love and passion as either a missing part of your soul that you are predestined to discover or a characteristic that needs long-term development.

What if it were neither of the above? What if you had very little control over what you fall in love with, and — perhaps more importantly — that what you do love doesn’t even matter? Instead of feeling compelled to question every action as the “right decision,” what if we shifted our focus more to what we could do with the choices we make? Tough decisions would absolutely still exist; dissatisfaction definitely wouldn’t magically disappear. But there would be a fundamental change that is lacking in the traditional “find your passion” approach: scrutinizing decisions — whether you made the “right” choice — would not be the default approach.

This premise is shared, in large part, by author Cal Newport, an assistant professor at Georgetown University. Newport has published many articles rebuking what he calls the “Passion Hypothesis,” the belief that everyone has some latent talent or deep love waiting to be discovered, and that failure in finding that aforementioned ability would doom you for eternity.

In one of his pieces, Newport cites a talk by Mike Rowe, the host of Discovery’s Dirty Jobs, who found that the road-kill collectors and pig farmers he met on the show were extremely satisfied with their jobs. Why? As Newport puts it: “Their contentment instead grew over time as they got better at what they did, and then leveraged this skill to gain traits like competence, autonomy and impact.”

In other words, it’s not so much what you do as what you do with it. Newport frequently cites studies suggesting that job traits like independence and a sense of impact matter far more than one’s actual work. As a result, perhaps it doesn’t matter exactly what we do or even if we have a choice. The more relevant question is how we can put in the work to improve and ultimately maintain a sense of satisfaction in a major or in a career.

Of course, sometimes things just do not work out and making a switch is necessary. Many have argued, however, that shifting gears should not be the default response at the first moment of dissatisfaction.

In a New York Times piece two days ago, titled “A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love,’” philosopher Gordon Marino takes this idea a step further and suggests that in some instances, it can be noble to do something you detest if it means doing what’s best for others.

I agree with Marino’s assessment in the context of making the most of limited options, but it shouldn’t, for example, dictate choosing a potentially more lucrative major over a course of study you find more interesting if you have the option.

In fall quarter, I took a course titled “Designing Your Stanford” through the d.school. In the class, we spent a good deal of time discussing how to navigate the fire hose of decisions at Stanford, including choosing a major. Although we discussed design-thinking ideas like prototyping to help make decisions, the class ultimately boiled down to a discussion of how you can’t always control where you end up, but you can work to engage and try to make the most out of any situation.

Perhaps “passion” doesn’t lead to happiness and satisfaction. Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe we really don’t have a choice in what we end up falling in love with. Camus famously asserted that Sisyphus, condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain for eternity, must be happy because he had meaning and purpose in his life.

As I go through the process of seriously thinking about what I want to major in, I feel confused and stressed at times, but it really shouldn’t have to be that way. Your major — or career for that matter — doesn’t define who you are. It’s the other way around. It’s about what you can do to contribute in a particular way that really counts. Hopefully, I can practice what I preach, but that’s not the real question. What really matters is what you do with the choices you make, and — in a very real sense — that’s far more empowering than “finding your passion.”


Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan “at” stanford.edu.

About Vihan Lakshman

Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at' stanford.edu