This morning, a student came by during office hours and asked if he could discuss a private matter. He told me that he was nearly done with all his courses in engineering school, but, to his disappointment, he didn't feel passionate about any of the subjects he had taken. He asked me what was the secret to finding something one has passion for.
I thought about it a bit, aware of the awful weight of responsibility, the need to give a good answer to this bright young man's question, which clearly came from his heart.
I offered him this thought, that I believe passion comes from "doing things no one else has required you to do". I talked with him about how this impulse is in fact thwarted in classrooms with their many assignments, quizzes, exams and canned projects (yes, even mine.) I encouraged him to tinker and do some projects on his own, engage in independent study.
I also told him to try and be mindful of his own inner-voice, to find out for himself what activities he finds rewarding, and seek ways in his life to do more of that. I told him about my own motivations for seeking an academic life --- my realization that I really, really enjoyed teaching my classmates the night before exams what we should have learned in the weeks prior.
Later in the evening, I was still thinking about the conversation. I was thinking to myself how it is that when you feel passionate about something, work or learning doesn't feel like a chore -- it can be exhilarating, as meaningful, as play -- and how the truest form of learning only takes place when you are fully engaged in and enjoying the experience overall. The crux of it is having a clear sense of autonomy --- that you are choosing to do this, you are doing this because you want to, that you could and would stop doing this if it wasn't worthwhile or interesting.
This article by Psychologist Peter Gray makes nearly the same point, in encouraging us all to let our kids play more.
The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit.The kind of play he is talking about is not merely light-hearted diversion, though it includes that too, but also the kind of intense immersive play that requires one's full concentration, skill, and forces one to constantly build and improve on one's abilities. Plenty of exposure to this kind of play as a child is indeed essential to self-motivation, creativity, and passionate immersion in learning and work as an adult.