I’m a senior, and with this designation comes the dreaded question: “What are your post-grad plans?” Those of us who haven’t signed lucrative return offers shrug our shoulders. The response to that shrug, that indecision in the face of the many opportunities Yale affords us, is often “Well, what’s your passion?” That is my least favorite question.
To me, the passion question doesn’t really make sense. “Passion” comes from the Latin “passio,” meaning suffering, and was historically used to describe the events leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion. In the Oxford English Dictionary, alongside “Strong affection; love” are the definitions “Intense anger; rage” and “Any strong, controlling, or overpowering emotion.” Why is it that we choose the word passion when we are describing activities we enjoy? Personally, I wouldn’t want to experience “strong, controlling, or overpowering emotion” at the office all day.
I think we use the word passion instead of love because it is distinctly singular. The question “What do you love?” could be answered with a list, but “What is your passion?” leaves room for only one response. To me, this is the biggest problem with the passion question: You are only allowed to have one.
In order to answer the passion question, we must omit many of the things we love and name a single, marketable skill. Even if we can manage to distill our many interests into a succinct elevator pitch, answering the passion question forces us to imagine a future where the only thing worth pursuing is this set of commodifiable capabilities. In a survey of 1,100 millennials, researchers at the Boston College Center for Work & Family found that 22.2 percent of men and 19.5 percent of women thought that work should be the primary priority in a person’s life. I’d imagine these numbers are much higher at Yale.
Although there is nothing wrong with prioritizing our careers, taking this attitude too far isn’t healthy. When we prioritize work and deemphasize our relationships, hobbies and needs, our work becomes our identity. Then, when we fail at something related to work, it amounts to an existential crisis — if I’m not good at this, then who am I?
Those who ask the passion question would say that I should become a professional orchestral musician because I love playing the oboe. And maybe I will. But if I consider why I like playing oboe so much — because it gives me a way to communicate, because I like the daily practice, because I love performing — I might realize that I care less about the actual skill of playing the oboe and more about the relationships, both with myself and with others, that being an oboist has allowed me to build. Pursuing these relationships is not necessarily professionally advantageous — it won’t help me win an orchestral audition. But if I become an oboist, I will never allow honing my oboe-playing skills to prevent me from forming those connections.
It is important to have many passions, and not all of them must be professional, or even concrete. When we try to help our friends make decisions, whether they are about their postgraduate plans, their majors or their extracurricular commitments, we should encourage them to think more broadly about what they are good at and what they love. If they are unsure of what to do, we should ask them more than one question. What are you good at? What do you hate? What makes you love what you already do?
The right answers will come with the right questions.
LAURA MICHAEL is a senior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .