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The truth about passion

One of our favorite questions to ask little children is one I find a little strange: What do you want to be when you grow up? We ask the question sometimes seriously and sometimes in a joking manner, but the result is the same — at such a tender age that child begins to feel the pressure of knowing what it is they want to do. This pressure to find your “thing” only grows along with these students. By high school it is expected that students have a clear idea of not only their passion but also of what they want to spend the rest of their lives doing.

Passion is such a catch-all word, meant to encompass something great and powerful, used to describe stand-out students or as general life and career advice. Our culture, in particular, places so much importance on the idea of passionate work. It has become a staple of American lore: we love the idea of the hardworking entrepreneur coming up from nothing, following her passion to success.

Hard work and skill are two celebrated qualities that embody the ideal American worker. But passion is the trait that makes the stars of America stand out — passion, and courage to follow that passion into the unknown, is vital to success. There is something to be admired in following your passion so deeply, leaping over the edge of a cliff headfirst, not knowing if it’s safe on the other side.

But the idea that everyone has everything figured out is a dangerous one. Not everyone has discovered their passions. Some might be looking down that cliff, contemplating the jump, while others may not even see a hill in sight.

That’s something especially important to remember at a school like Princeton, where it can seem like everyone has everything going for them — where everyone has their passions figured out. College is supposed to be a place where students have the freedom to figure out what they want to do, where they can try new things and allow themselves to fail, pick themselves up again, and go right back to work.

I came to Princeton not yet sure that I had really found what I wanted to do. Like most students here, I had a “thing” in high school, something I enjoyed doing and found purpose in — I was the president of my high school robotics team. But I wasn’t so sure that it was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. I thought I would have more opportunities as I entered college, a whole new realm where I could tackle new challenges in the spirit of curiosity and adventure.

Instead I found a student body so hyper-focused on the future that I felt out of place admitting I didn’t know what I was doing. Caught in a current of expectations, I continued along with engineering and went through prerequisites, faking my passion and convincing myself that I knew what I wanted to do.

I felt inauthentic; constantly pretending I had it together and that I knew exactly what I was doing. I was simply going through the motions of my courses, not allowing myself to explore anything other than what I was doing.

It all changed the summer between my first and sophomore years. Removed from the student body and the pressures of the academic year, spending hours of the day in a lab doing research, I had time to reflect on the fact that my behavior was both unsustainable and a betrayal of the lofty ideas I came to Princeton believing in. 

I put together a plan for the coming year, listing things I was interested and corresponding majors and classes. When the year rolled around, I decided to take a few classes that were wholly unrelated to the fields I was interested — I simply wanted to try something new. I took a moral philosophy class just because I found the descriptions interesting, and it ended up being one of my favorite classes here so far.

I don’t yet know if I’ve found my “passion.” But I’m interested in and enjoying what I do, allowing for variety in both my routine and the subjects I am exploring. I’m excited about every coming day, because I am doing things that genuinely interest me. To be completely honest, I don’t know if I’ll ever find my passion — but the thought doesn’t bother me anymore.

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