Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

The Truth About High Achievers: Many Struggle to Find Their Passion

To ultimately find success, it’s important to try new things
By Angela Duckworth — June 15, 2022 2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How do I help students find their passion?

You don’t find your passion—you develop it. Here’s something I wrote recently about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week, which was adapted from a commencement speech I gave recently at the University of Pennsylvania. You can watch the entire speech here:

The paramecium is an amazing organism. It survives and thrives using just one basic principle: If things are getting better, keep swimming in that direction, and if not, change course.

If the water’s too hot or too cold, if there isn’t enough to eat, or if it gets stuck, the single-celled paramecium simply backs up and tries another angle. If this happens again, it backs up and makes another pivot. If this keeps happening, the paramecium makes a bigger adjustment—maybe even does a 180. But eventually, kind of like a Roomba vacuum, the paramecium finds a way to move forward again.

In other words, the paramecium makes its way in the world by simple trial and error.

Improbably, the brainless paramecium is a model for us all. How so?

More and more, I’m convinced that the vast majority of world-class performers struggle for years to figure out where they’re heading.

For instance, new research reveals that the best athletes in the world tended to play a variety of sports in their youth. Typically, these elite performers commit to their main sport later in life—and, compared with athletes with a head start specializing in that sport, they make slower initial progress.

Take Joel Embiid, star center for the Philadelphia 76ers, five-time NBA all-star, and the highest-scoring player in the NBA this season. Growing up in Cameroon, Joel was passionate about not one sport but two—and neither was basketball. As a young boy, the question in Joel’s mind was whether to pursue soccer or volleyball. In fact, his first game of basketball didn’t happen until he was 16 years old.

As a rule, high achievers like Joel take time to sample before they specialize. When we sample, instead of optimizing same-day performance, we optimize long-term learning.

Don’t worry if your kids aren’t single-mindedly pursuing a passion.

Do tell the young people in your life about the Paramecium Principle: Try something new—if you like it, keep going, and if not, change course. The beauty of sampling is that whether your experience is good or bad, the beginning of a lifelong obsession or a trial you vow never to repeat, you learn something important about the world and yourself. Sampling opens the door to serendipity.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?
A program from the National PTA aims to partner with schools to give parents resources on teaching their children healthy tech habits.
5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students' Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago
Less than half of public schools report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs.
4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Download How to Spot and Combat Student Apathy: A Teacher Resource
A guide to help teachers recognize and address apathy in the classroom.
1 min read
Student reading at a desk with their head on their hand.
Canva
Student Well-Being Social Media Bans Alone Won’t Improve Mental Health, Say Student Advocates
Students need safe spaces and supportive leaders to talk openly about mental health in their schools.
4 min read
Image of hands supporting one another. In the background are doodles of pressures, mental health, academics.
Laura Baker/Education Week with iStock/Getty