When I was applying to business school, part of my personal statement focused on how I found my passion for education and how I wanted to explore it more deeply. At that time in my life, the idea of finding a passion was gratifying, like I had somehow reached a higher plane of self-awareness. Today, after having worked with teenagers for the past twenty years as they navigate the college admissions journey though, my love of the word passion has lost its luster to the point that I rarely even say it aloud.
I used to ask kids enthusiastically, “What is your passion?” And then I would wait for them to blow me away with their answers. Their parents would stare at them expectantly as if meeting their child for the first time. Occasionally, I would get a surprising answer. More often than not, I received a shrug of the shoulders or a timid, “I don’t know.” I quickly, but not as quickly as I should have, realized that this simple question was too heavy to ask a young teenager – that asking them actually did the opposite of inspire, it made them feel like they were behind others, like they were somehow failing the college admissions race because they were still discovering themselves.
Personally, I also realized that passions change over time. While my passion for the intersection between business and education drove me to business school, it is more my profession now. Passion led me to discover as much as I could about the field, to devour articles, to take copious notes at presentations and seminars, to have conversations with as many people as possible. But if anyone asked me now, “what is your passion?” I would struggle the same as most 16-year-olds not because I don’t have interests, but rather because no one interest (other than a love for my children) captures my soul. Rather I want to be inspired by many topics – some in the same moment. I want to have spontaneity and space to learn about new things and take an interest. I don’t want to be defined by any one field or topic or endeavor. I want to be inspired by learning and the journey.
Rather than asking teens to have figured out their life’s calling by the time they are in high school, let’s change the conversation. Let’s ask these questions instead
What are you curious about?
What inspires you?
What do you want to learn about?
And then let’s give them the tools to explore. Let’s teach them that it is okay to read incessantly about a topic only to one day decide that they are no longer interested in the topic, the next. Let’s give them the space to experiment with ideas and projects that may ultimately fail. There is learning there, too. Let’s allow them to ask questions and say things aloud even if the words don’t make sense, because you are allowing them to form their thoughts and ideas without judgment. Let’s challenge them to think broadly and differently. Let’s encourage them to take risks – to try and know that making mistakes is okay. Let’s teach them to ask and answer the hard questions. Let’s teach them to communicate effectively with people of all backgrounds and experiences. Let’s show them that their world and perspective will continue to grow as long as they allow themselves to push themselves.
These days we are so focused on the end goal – getting kids into a certain college or on a path to a successful career. And unfortunately, many families are solely focused on a handful of career options. But if we really stop and look at those around us, what we see is that people who are truly successful and happy took a winding path. They let their lives meander with purpose towards different goals. They allowed new experiences to shape them. They learned from their failures as much as they learned from their successes. They are captivating not because of a given passion but because of an ability to tell stories about their interests, experiences, and ideas.
So, let’s not pressure teens to answer a question that most adults struggle with. We aren’t raising kids to just get them into college. We are raising them to be able to thrive in their lives.
This article was written by Insight’s Co-Founder and Head of Counseling Purvi Mody.
Since 1998, Purvi has dedicated her career to education and is exceedingly well versed in the college admissions process. Her philosophy centers around helping kids identify and apply to the schools that are the best fit for them and then develop applications that emphasize their unique attributes and talents.