“Passion Isn’t a Value In and Of Itself”

I ran across an interesting item from Tyler Cowen today.  Apparently he received an email from one “Max” asking for an economist’s thoughts on his personal situation.  Max is an Ivy League grad, who seems to work in Finance or Consulting, generally high G but no particular talents, a few years out of school, and with no particular driving passions.  Hello, Max – I know you pretty well.  Max is the voice of the vast majority of my college classmates – we’re the same age, and like Max most of my classmates are pretty bright people with no real drive towards specialization and no burning passions.

Cowen’s response is deeply unsatisfactory, as he is well aware.  He suggests that Max has internalized the “meta-preference” for having a passion, which in the absence of any real passion will inevitably lead to disappointment and a nagging unhappiness.  Cowen doesn’t say that last bit, but it’s implied.  Or at least projected.

I don’t have a great answer for Max either, just the observation that this “meta-preference” for passion is strong with the smart and ambitious of our generation.  The idea of working hard at a boring job, and taking your life satisfaction in your hobbies or family, is out of vogue with people under about 40 and extremely out of vogue with people under 30.  A friend of mine who works in risk at a huge consumer web company recently related that his coworkers will say with a straight face, “My passion is applying new analytics technique to [insert hyper-defined problem area related to risk or fraud]”.  Which is obviously insane and says more about the social expectations of the environment than the person spouting this nonsense.

My hypothesis is that the college admissions process these days select for two things: ambition and fear.  The ambition part is uninteresting, fear a bit more so.  In short, the college admissions process at selective colleges has become so professionalized that it is increasingly selecting for the people who are anxious enough to begin preparing the day that they hit the ground at high school.  Or who have parents who are pushing them into it.  One must have excellent grades and boards, as well as accumulating a sundry set of “extracurriculars” and “leadership credentials”.  The system rewards those who are anxious enough to begin the genuflections toward it at the earliest age, or are sufficiently cynical/sociopathic to play it for their own purposes.

The combination of ambition and anxiety will produce a lot of people like Max, especially when surrounded by a lot of people who actually are passionate and incredible and what have you. The ambitious and anxious will take their cues from the most successful amongst them, who are the people who really do have the combination of passion and talent.  From there, the idea of Passion” becomes something people like Max feel like they are socially compelled to express.  The combination of this drive to be passionate and a lack of passions produce…Max, who can’t suppress the creeping feeling that something is wrong with him.

Which may be true, but I doubt he’s right about what.


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