Curiosity vs Passion

Are there any words that make you cringe when you hear them?  

One of my college friends absolutely, positively could not stand the word “moist” in any context whatsoever… so we had a lot of fun trying to add it to any conversation we could, just to rile her up (and it worked!).  Sure, it was a little immature, but that’s how we were back then. We were in it for the laughs. 

Nowadays, two words – more serious ones in my business – that really send shivers down my spine are “passion project.”  

On the surface, this seemingly innocuous phrase might inspire some big dreams or some exciting aspirations, but when I hear this, I want to scream and run away. Why? Because I believe we should help our kids be passionate about what they are doing, more than pushing them to find their passion.  

These are not at all the same.  Do you know many parents who could easily articulate what they might do with time for a “passion project?”  I didn’t think so.  Yet as adults, many of us (including some college counseling professionals) are guilty of expecting teenagers to know.  And not just know, but then demonstrate them in a tidy package.  

A much more powerful word, one that I am (actually) passionate about, is “curiosity.” Maybe it stems from my lifelong fascination with the silly small monkey and his friend with the big yellow hat, or maybe it’s because I am a “yes, and” person, always asking questions and searching for more connections and paths to follow, or maybe I was a researcher or a librarian in a past life. I really love to explore and I like helping other people (especially teenagers) find that joy!

Comparing and contrasting passion and curiosity is an interesting exercise for me. Curiosity evokes opportunities, openness, and action. Curiosity is defined as “the desire to know.”  Passion is more emotional, it’s “a strong feeling or a strong belief.” I’m not knocking passion per se, but for most teenagers, it’s a bit of a square peg in a round hole. 

When my students worry that their college activity list does not show passion, I ask them: Does it show you were curious?  Did you try something for a few years and then realize perhaps that wasn’t for you?  Did you try something new this past summer that just seemed to fill your bucket?  Is there something you were always curious about but did not know where to learn more about it? Immediately, I can sense a change in their stress level.  

A frequent exchange I have with my students is, “I tried fencing for a few years, but I also really wanted to try out for the play; my mom thinks I should stay with fencing, but do you think I should audition for the play instead? Do you think it will look bad to colleges if I quit fencing junior year?  I heard colleges like to see ‘passion’…” (Of course, you can substitute any two opposing types of activities here for fencing and drama.  This conversation plays out in many ways, but the root is the same.) 

How do you think I answer this question?

Colleges love to see students who are curious and engaged in their communities. Students who lean into their curiosity can open doors to amazing opportunities. Quitting is not quitting if it leads to something that’s a better fit.  Learning, exploring, and gaining knowledge are great things to do in high school.  When we take passion out of the conversation, we can agree that these are truths about growing up.

It’s funny – if you Google “passion project for high school students” you get 210,000 results and for “the importance of passion projects” you get 184,000 – but for “curiosity projects” you get only 84,000.  Why?  I wasn’t sure until I finally Googled “the importance of curiosity projects” and got 33,800,000. I knew I was onto something! 

I would love to delete “passion project” from our vernacular, erase the sentiment of telling kids to show their passion and develop a project to uncover what makes them tick.  How the heck do they know yet?  

Instead, I will continue to encourage my students – and anyone else who will listen – to continue to be curious: to build “projects” around their curiosity.  My own curiosity about understanding the adolescent decision-making process led me to my career as a college admission counselor (after earning a Master’s degree in Social Work)… and this really is my passion!  I can’t wait to see how my students find theirs… when they are ready.

Let’s get started