Sue the Poet
Imagine some person (let’s call her Sue) who loves to write fiction and poetry. Sue reads and writes prolifically, and she’s really good at it – almost every creative writing teacher she’s ever had has made a note of her ability. Moreover, nothing brings her as much satisfaction as writing fiction and poetry. She finds that writing fills her with a sense of purpose and meaning nothing else can quite match.
Currently, Sue is a college student trying to figure out what to do with her life. She has decided that, given her unique situation (a mix of interest and talent), she should try to write fiction and/or poetry professionally.
However, at some point, she learns broadly about effective altruism and comes to find it attractive/plausible (it’s not important how this happens, whether through a student group, philosophy course, the internet, etc.). One of the things she’s now convinced of is that one important consideration (out of many) when selecting a career is how much good she could do in that career. Her previous conviction to become a novelist or poet or whatever becomes somewhat diminished by the realization that it’s very unlikely (whatever her talent) to do very much good.
The only problem is that she’s just not interested in much else. It’s not that she’s bad at philosophy, or political science, or economics, but that none of them draw her attention quite like fiction and poetry. It’d be great if they did! If she could just wave a magic wand and make her develop a fascination with developmental economics, she’d do that. But she doesn’t have that magic wand. So she concedes that her only option if she wants to be happy is to become that novelist or poet or whatever, and maybe donate some amount of money to keep with her new “effective altruist” sympathies.
Does someone like “Sue the Poet” really exist?
Does Sue’s case seem fishy to any of you? There’s something a bit fishy about it to me, and I’m going to do my best to explain why.
Many people believe that a person is drawn to certain academic subjects over others for seemingly arbitrary reasons. There might be some clear-cut reasons why that person likes some subjects over others – for example, maybe that person doesn’t like chemistry because they’ve had a bad experience with a chemistry teacher, or maybe they don’t like math because they think they’re bad at it. When a person says “I’m interested in X”, they might be communicating, in part, that X has the right amount of difficulty for them, or that X seems important, or that doing X involves socializing with people which makes them happy, or something else entirely. But there’s also something “extra” in them that makes them like X more than the alternatives. Something nonspecific and somewhat mysterious.
Why is that philosopher over there more interested in philosophy of language than metaphysics? It’s not because that philosopher believes philosophy of language is more difficult/valuable/whatever than metaphysics, it’s because of this nonspecific and somewhat mysterious thing. When I asked one of my very bright computer science-studying friends (who could have excelled in physics classes) why he wasn’t into physics, the answer wasn’t because computer science was more lucrative than physics, it was something like “I don’t know, I just like it more!”
When I hear people say “find your passion!”, I usually assume they mean that you should look deep down for this nonspecific and somewhat mysterious thing. That’s the thing Sue has found that made her realize creative writing was for her, and that economics was not.
My (maybe not so) hot take here is that the “nonspecific and somewhat mysterious” thing probably isn’t really in any of us. That’s what makes the case of someone like Sue seem so fishy. I think “passions” and “interests” are comprised of identifiable pieces, like “difficult-but-doable” and “seems valuable” and a bunch of other stuff. And it’s important that we demystify “passions” and “interests” and the like, because I think many people are suffering under the illusion that “X is their ultimate and only passion”, where, in reality, Y could be something they’re just as passionate about, and they would do a lot more good for the world if they spent more time on Y.
(Note: I’m going to assume that people sort of know what I mean by “interests” and “passions” and the like, and intentionally avoid discussing the slightly different ways in which these words might be used.)
Interests are sort of fungible
Of course, it may still be really hard to explain why you like certain subjects over others. Why you’re really interested in philosophy of language and only kind of interested in metaphysics. But there are some concrete upshots in believing that there’s no “nonspecific and somewhat mysterious thing” in you. These upshots may seem obvious to some, but, in my experience, they’re underemphasized.
First, interests are much more fungible/interchangeable than most people take them to be. I don’t think everyone is just equally interested in all subjects, but I do think most people should update downwards on how important they think it is that they find the subject to study (or that the one even exists). If interests are not determined by a nonspecific and somewhat mysterious thing, but just by a series of “boxes you have to check”, then it’s much more reasonable to think that multiple interests could check all those boxes.
Second, I’ve found that trying to identify some of the reasons why I’m interested in something actually helps me better predict what I’m likely to be interested in. The clearest example of this (for me) is that thinking “X is valuable and knowing more about it can help people” is extremely self-motivating.
Third and finally, I’m under the impression that some people think they haven’t found their “passion” yet, or that they might not have one. I don’t buy this. My best advice here is to pick something which seems reasonably valuable for the world and like you might be good at it, and go deep. Passions, in my experience, are more “developed” than “found.”