The Tyranny of Passion

We’re in the midst of this year’s college admissions cycle and students are busily working on their application essays. Often what trips them up is the instruction from college admissions officers to use the essays to “tell us what you’re passionate about.” As an admissions dean, I delivered this instruction, too – and at that time in my career, before I had experience on the college counseling side of the admissions desk, I had no idea about the pressure this remark could create for students.

My perspective on the dictum “tell us what you’re passionate about” has changed after a dozen years in the trenches with earnest high schoolers laboring industriously to find and define their passions – and with the more utilitarian among them trying to identify passions that they think will appeal to college admissions officers. I now think this dictum creates a “tyranny of passion” which has a significant impact on high school students’ lives.

To understand why this request to “tell us what you’re passionate about” is difficult for teenagers, it’s important to distinguish between liking something and being passionate about something. Likes and dislikes can be casual and fleeting; you might like Brussels sprouts one month but prefer Swiss chard the next – no big deal. But saying you’re passionate about something implies a degree of certainty, commitment, and permanence that is difficult for teenagers to attain. Labeling something as a passion implies that you are mated to it for life – those individuals who are serial monogamists with their passions (or, God help them, actual pluralists) don’t inspire as much positive regard as those who plight their eternal troth to one single passion. Think about those people you know who absolutely LOVELOVELOVE something today, but when you ask about that same something a few weeks later, they’ve completely forgotten it and now LOVELOVELOVE something else. When one passion is continually replaced with another, we begin to think “hyperbole” and doubt the depth and strength of each and any attachment designated as passionate.

The ability to define a passion also requires enough life experience to have developed a basis of comparison. It’s life experience and accrued perspective that enable one make distinctions: to say, for example, that you like soccer but are passionate about cycling. Most teenagers aren’t at a life stage where the instruction to “tell us about your passion” can yield a definitive response. (OK, exceptions can be found – there are genuine prodigies out there who have a singular talent and powerful focus in a particular area, but these students are few and far between.) And since so many students perceive the task of the college application as providing a definitive representation of who you are and where you’re going, they feel caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s fair to say that many teenagers feel the application, and the instruction to “tell us about your passion,” requires of them a level of experience and accomplishment they haven’t lived long enough to attain.

The prevailing idea that one can find one’s passion while still in high school indicates a shift in the cultural zeitgeist. Students applying to college now are expected to be “complete” in ways that they weren’t in earlier years. The narrowing of the time span allotted to being a “work in progress” has shortened, and by the time a student applies to college, s/he is expected to have found a passion, to have defined oneself, and to have racked up a worthy roster of achievements. It seems that the intellectual exploration and personal development previously regarded as central features of the college years are now expected to be finished by the time a student begins the senior year in high school.

Slowly but surely, the time our culture allots to the varied and not-always-goal-oriented pursuits of childhood has been compressed – and we have increasing evidence that compressing or forgoing these pursuits in the teen years has a negative impact on students. The film “Race to Nowhere” and the work of writers like Paul Tough, Madeleine Levine and Alexandra Robbins illustrate this. They have called attention to the ways in which our culture’s current model of success and achievement for teenagers, (an important marker of which is admission to a “good” college) can place overwhelming pressure on students who, in pursuit of that success, burn themselves out while trying to become perfect college applicants.

Is it possible that this focus on success and achievement in high school has contributed to a shift in the traditional developmental timetable of adolescence? I think it is likely that the strain of increased expectations placed on high school students contributes to the phenomenon of “delayed adulthood” discussed in articles by writers like Robin Marantz Henig and Derek Thompson. We seem to be in an interesting “push-me-pull-you” situation: on the one hand, the (real or perceived) demands of the college admission process push students quickly toward adulthood while in high school. On the other hand, we find many 20-something college graduates who then seem to regress, and who delay the traditional milestones of independence and self-definition. It seems plausible that the premature demand for maturity in high school students creates a developmental backlash that manifests as a lag in the progress toward adulthood, popularly known as the “quarter-life crisis.” If so, then the “tyranny of passion” has an unanticipated impact beyond the time frame of the college application process.


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