Skip to content
Share your Impact Story

Is passion misunderstood?

girl with head in hands

The point that is missed in The New York Times article entitled, “Our Push for ‘Passion,’ and Why It Harms Kids”.

Lisa Heffernan made an important point in an NYT article about passion: overzealous parents often take the concept way too far, and the search for a passion becomes a high-pressure quest for the holy grail. The ultimate cost is missed opportunity (the intense quest to pursue a false passion prevents kids from organically discovering a true passion) and an unfair sense of failure for kids who are naturally well rounded and not inspired to focus on one or two things.

While the problems raised in this article are real, the blame is unfairly placed. The true blame, instead of on an important movement for kids like “finding passion,” should be placed on unreasonable parental pressure and the blind pursuit of false interests.

Yes, like the author, our garage is filled with relics from activities gone by. And yes, we do use the notion of finding our kids’ passion to help us guide our decisions. One of the questions we wrestle with every day is “how much is too much?” When is a kid “over-scheduled” and when is he or she just into a lot of cool stuff? I talk to other parents about this constantly, and I find myself feeling protective of our family’s approach. It sometimes reminds me of the old George Carlin routine.  Whenever you’re driving on the freeway, whoever is driving in front of you and slowing you down is an “idiot”, and whoever is zipping past you is a “maniac”. Here it is, for your viewing pleasure:

Personally, as with almost everything, I am quick to rationalize with my kids, to the point where I often don’t know where reality ends and rationalization begins. My son loves all his activities, so I’m sure it’s fine that he races from club baseball practice to a rec basketball game to a jiu-jitsu tournament all on the same day. Sure, his face is red and his eyes are glazed over, and he eats 5 double-cheeseburgers without coming up for breath but hey – he’s a red-blooded American boy, so it’s all good. It’s helping him with time management skills, stress management, and prioritization. He’s also learned to have a focus on the tasks at hand, and also teaches him to do his homework efficiently. Right? My daughter has a similar busy schedule, and must also get her 3 hours of homework done. She likes to go to bed late anyway, so it’s all part of her normal flow.  Right?

I don’t know the answers, but here are the two questions that govern our decision making when it comes to these issues with our kids:  do they love it, and can they handle it? We check in regularly to ask them these questions. If the answers are “yes”, we’re inclined to let it ride. After all, how many things in life do you get to love? I also know what my kids are capable of doing in school, and we won’t compromise on that front, so as long as they are meeting their own and my wife’s and my expectations in school, again, we let it ride. We regularly check with our doctors about sleep – are they getting enough? How do we know? The doctors don’t have precise answers, just a handful of vague questions. Do they seem happy? Vital? Eager? Generally, yes. So we let it ride.

Do our kids know at some level that it would be great to have a passion? Probably. Our older one actively feels that pressure – she wonders if there is a sport out there that she would love even more than volleyball. She wonders if she should spend more time on her drawing and painting.  She gets the way the world looks at these things. But it’s our job as parents to give her perspective, to let her know that it’s OK to wonder those things, but sometimes we can’t know all the answers, and that we just have to use our best judgment as we go.

The search for passion may lead to a single dominant interest area, it may lead to the kind of multi-activity conflict our daughter struggles with, or it may be a continuous exploration with no resolution. These are all OK. What defines any of these outcomes as failures are how we, as parents, respond to them.

In other words, it’s not the search for a “passion” that causes a sense of failure. It may cause some level of stress, but learning to manage stress and be OK with things not always falling neatly into place is OK. The search for passion can be an amazing journey if you let it. As parents, our job is to facilitate this search, but keep it all in perspective. Perspective is at the heart of everything. Life is stressful, setting goals is stressful, and we’re not going to be successful at *everything* we do. Learning that early is OK and in fact, it’s crucial. But it better be learned in a supportive environment with plenty of perspectives. If it is, it may be the most valuable lesson we can teach our kids.

Whether you believe in the “find your passion” narrative or not, Thrively was designed to help parents and kids find fun activities to do in their free time. Try Thrively for free and your kids can take our fun, self-esteem boosting Strength Assessment, or find a camp/class/club near you that would, dare we say, help pursue a passion 🙂

Think it’s important to be well-rounded? Think again.

Well-Lopsidedness: It is a term that has seen increasing use over the past several years to describe what colleges are looking for in their applicants, yet it’s not in the dictionary. So what does well-lopsidedness really mean and how does it play out in a student’s life?

Simply put, well-lopsidedness is doing one thing and doing it well. In days past, it was the well-rounded students, those who had a hand in nearly everything, who were the sought after applicants. These days, in contrast, colleges tend to look for students who’ve explored, who’ve identified what they’re good at, who’ve become deeply involved in that activity, and who’ve excelled.

While theoretically, it’s possible for a student to be able to “do it all,” most students who try this tactic end up overcommitting to the detriment of excelling at one thing. They lose the capacity and the time to dive into the depths of that one thing that makes them come alive—the “lopsided” part of well-lopsided. Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions at MIT said: “While it is true that some students have the bandwidth to do a lot and be successful, it is never the number of classes or activities that was the deciding factor in a college’s decision to admit them. And we should remember that for most students, loading up will simply lead to burnout and decreased performance.”

What does well-lopsidedness look like? Maybe a student discovers that she has a passion for and a talent in photography. She takes every one of the photography courses that her school offers, but that’s not enough for her. As a summer job for two consecutive summers, she works as an assistant to a photographer and continues to hone her craft. Also during a summer break, she devotes several weeks to an intensive photography course that challenges her current level of skill and knowledge, and she continues to develop her portfolio. She decides to create her own small business, and she spends her weekends during the school year taking headshot photos for local professionals and photographing families, and the word about her talent spreads. She enters as many photography contests as she can find, winning several including a national honor. Perhaps she pursues an opportunity to photograph local events for a newspaper. She becomes the founder of her school’s photography club, which takes weekly photo-shoot expeditions to local scenic areas and every other month sponsors photography speakers who have excelled in their field. Her passion is clear, and she has immersed herself in it.

So why do admissions committees look for well-lopsided students? The answer is that unlike a class full of well-rounded students, a group full of well-lopsided students makes an exceptionally interesting, well-rounded class. As adults, we need to encourage students to identify their lopsided features and to pursue it with vigor.


Jenn-Curtis-headshot-color-150x150Jenn Curtis, MSW is the owner and co-founder of FutureWise Consulting, a college counseling, test prep, and academic tutoring business in Orange County, California. As an educational consultant, she works alongside high school students and their families to prepare them for the college admissions process. Jenn also developed and teaches a college and career readiness program for first-generation students. She is the editorial assistant for an academic journal, has edited several books, and works with graduate and doctoral students in developing effective writing skills. With a background in mental health, Jenn’s passion lies in empowering students to become self-advocates, to uncover their strengths, and to find the motivation to reach their potential.

How I became a nerd?

Stewart’s story begins with a passion for math and for building and creating stuff, specifically in a way that didn’t punish his left-handedness! It then moves into the creation of video game giant EA from the very beginning, before there was even a video game industry.  As he says, a true “Revenge of the Nerds” tale…   –Jon Kraft

I knew I was different than most kids at an early age and it was not just because I was left-handed.  Right-handed people don’t realize how right-handed the world is.  Try writing in a 3-ring binder or spiral-bound notebook with those big rings in the way. Or worse, try writing or drawing when your hand follows and smears everything you try to create.

It’s not just because I could not write neatly or draw accurately that my form of creating was to build. I fell in love with tinker toys, Lincoln Logs, and American Bricks. If I was your age today it would be Legos.

What I loved about that form of play was that you could imagine, build, change, and build more and there were never any eraser marks, torn paper, or smudges. You can build without fear of showing your mistakes. You can always make it better and I loved trying to make something perfect.

When I reached the summer before my 4th grade, my parents moved us to a new neighborhood.  If you have ever had to move to a new school you know how scary that can be.  My parents knew this as well and enrolled me in summer school.  At first, I thought this was going to be a boring way to spend the summer when all I wanted to do was play first base on a new little league team.  I did get to select the classes myself and one that sounded interesting was “Fun with Math.”

I’m sure you are wondering how math could be fun. Well, it was not a summer spent filling out worksheets; I spent the summer working on puzzles, discovering interesting things about numbers and with every new thing I learned I found there was even more to learn. I solved puzzles where I had to move matchsticks, fill in number squares, or solve fun word problems. This was the beginning of my love of math.

By the time I made it to high school my excitement about math was in high gear. I took advanced math classes where most of the kids were older than me. I joined the Math Team (seriously) and we competed against other high schools by solving more problems faster. I even competed in a national competition put on by the MAA (the Mathematical Association of America). This test consists of very challenging problems in Algebra, Geometry and even Calculus. A perfect score is 150 points but anything above 25 was impressive. As a sophomore, I got the highest score in my school. I was now officially and nationally recognized as a nerd. We didn’t get letterman jackets so nobody outside of our club knew much about us though. We nerds only got one club picture in the yearbook.

My personal “Revenge of the Nerds” story took many more years but it happened.  I went to college and fell in love with computers.  It was just like Legos except you typed what you wanted to build. I loved it so much that I went to work at IBM right out of college.  Today I would probably work at Google or Microsoft.  It was a serious job but I always stayed late and found some nerds who knew that computers could be fun to play with and not just for serious stuff.  We made games to fly planes or play pinball or create our own Startrek episode where we got to be the captain of the Starship Enterprise. In those days a computer was the size of a VW.

I kept playing with computers until IBM and Apple invented personal computers. This was the point that everything I had done before finally became clear. PC’s would allow a whole new form of fun to be created. My goal in life became creating games that everyone would like not just nerds. I wanted them to be as interesting and exciting as the best movies, tv, and books but have that added dimension of interactivity. All media before the computer you just sit there but with computers, you interact.

Just like I discovered in school that I was not the only person like me, I was fortunate to have met people at the time that shared my view of how important games on a PC could be. We started a company that would push the boundaries of entertainment and art on a computer. We also wanted to recognize that these games were created by talented, driven individuals who were a new type of artist creating a new form of art. After much debate, we decided to call the company Electronic Arts. It became the publisher of popular games like Madden Football, FIFA Soccer, The Sims and many, many other games and today employs almost 10,000 people worldwide. When we began in 1982, the video game business did not exist.  Today it is a $50B industry worldwide.

Today, every day is new and interesting just like it was as a child. I was fortunate to have found something that excited me and I never lost faith in the belief that this excitement would be interesting to others. There were many ups and downs, victories and defeats along the way but being true to my passions kept me on the path to success and happiness. And it turns out I was not as different as I thought.l

Stewart-BonnSteward Bonn joined Electronic Arts in 1983 as the 18th employee. During his 12 years, he produced many of Electronic Arts’ most successful titles including software for music, paint, flight simulation and children’s education. As SVP/GM of EA Studios, he led the world’s largest interactive studio. Since then he has been a Co-Founder or an Advisor to numerous social media and game companies. Stewart earned a BS in EECS from UC Berkeley and received the 1993 Stanford Business School Entrepreneurial Company of the Year award as one of 5 EA executives.



What your kids need to know about pursuing their passion?

A friend posted this on my Facebook page and I burst out laughing. Maybe you’ve seen it, the hilarious satire on titled “Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life”.

It’s one of those “sad because it’s true” pieces, somewhat of a depressing take on how adults tend to prioritize the mind-numbing trudge through “the daily grind” over pursuing dreams and passions that may seem too lofty or daunting.

I can’t stress this enough: Do what you love…in between work commitments, and family commitments, and commitments that tend to pop up and take immediate precedence over doing the thing you love. Because the bottom line is that life is short, and you owe it to yourself to spend the majority of it giving yourself wholly and completely to something you absolutely hate, and 20 minutes here and there doing what you feel you were put on this earth to do.

After chuckling a little bit, it’s just… Sad, right? It doesn’t exactly make me want to drop everything and move to New York to get on Broadway, but I do begin to think about that book I’ve been meaning to write or that mountain I’ve always wanted to climb.

But then I thought about it for a minute, and this is where I disagree with Todd. There’s a fundamental difference between the person he’s making fun of and the person that I am: I already know what my passions are, and I figured them out soon enough to be able to enjoy them throughout my childhood and early adulthood and still enjoy them today. I may not get paid to do them, and it is definitely too late to be the next Picabo Street, but the skills and characteristics I developed by pursuing my passions at a young age have helped me to become a confident adult living a healthy, balanced life. And here’s where he proves my point:

Before you get started, though, you need to find the one interest or activity that truly fulfills you in ways nothing else can.

And the first three sentences of the “article” in general:

I have always been a big proponent of following your heart and doing exactly what you want to do. It sounds so simple, right? But there are people who spend years and decades, trying to find a true sense of purpose for themselves.

So are passions supposed to be our careers, or are passions supposed to help nurture us, guide us toward being better human beings, and enhance our lives through challenge and creative expression?  As I grow older, I’m convinced that at least for me, it’s the latter. For the talented and committed, sure, passions can most certainly be careers. But for people like me (dare I say “regular folk”), the intent of pursuing my passions isn’t to create a career opportunity or to avoid a job I may hate, it’s about growing as a person and enjoying my life.

We shouldn’t send the message to kids that pursuing the things they love is only worth it if they do it forever or be the best at it. Today, I love and enjoy my career that much more because at an early age I learned how to embrace a challenge, explore new things, succeed and fail, train hard, think creatively, and most importantly enjoy the experience.


AdrienneThis post was written by Activity Adrienne.  She’s responsible for Thrively’s activity content and our social media channels.  At one point in her life, she really did want to be the next Picabo Street.  And the next Martina Hingis. And the next Kerri Strug. And the next Brandi Chastain. And the next… Ok, you get it.



How to be unreasonably happy

Glenn’s is the first of many posts in this channel intended to show how discovering and pursuing strengths & passions early in life can drive the development of profound insights and life-defining characteristics.  In Glenn’s story, leadership and independence of thought, all wrapped around chess, dungeons & dragons, and creative back-yard shenanigans, are the things that popped out for me.  –Jon Kraft

For years, my extracurricular activity was David Perteet: speed-chess champion, dungeon master, nutmeg artist.

We became friends when Dave was 14. My twin brother and I were 11. His house, two doors down from ours, was more like a lair, filled with H. P. Lovecraft books, Star Wars figurines, home-made monster masks, videotaped slasher movies.

It was in Dave’s house that my twin brother and I led our paladins and monks through Dungeons & Dragons campaigns with names no one could forget: The Tomb of Horrors, Queen of the Demonweb Pits, Hall of the Fire Giant King, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.


As the dungeon master, Dave described every scene, playing the part of the monsters we faced. Hunched behind propped up maps and monster manuals, he worked a small piece of clay in the lulls, which he would abruptly plop down before us as a perfectly formed lich. Monsters that were sophisticated and derisive at first became pitiable in the end. Others were bafflingly, implacably sadistic. They were all evil so we could be good, and their deaths were deeply satisfying.

When, after many years of play, our characters died, Dave had begun to describe how our corpses were being eaten and picked over for treasure and then he stopped short because we could not lived to see, we felt the first moment of solemnity I can remember. I realized then that death isn’t just painful; it means you don’t get to find out what happens next, who will win the World Series or the next election. Nothing had been so permanent before.

From the safety of college, all this came to seem silly. When I visited Dave in LA he had become a special-effects artist, living in a house filled with like-minded friends. We played badminton and watched a James-Bond movie marathon, but at night we hiked through an abandoned Nazi compound and then went to his garage, which was filled with moldings recovered from the movie “Aliens.” Standing next to one, I barely felt a tickle of fear until he slipped back into his house, turned off the lights, and slammed the door shut.

Some of Dave’s authority was physical. His backyard from our childhood was sloped, with a ribbon of grass that narrowed and widened according to the encroachment of Douglas firs on one side and his deck on the other. In the wet piney gloom of Seattle fall evenings, he played me and my brother in 2-on-1 soccer, passing the ball to himself off the side of the deck. He never lost, but his true goal was to kick the ball through our legs, calling out “Nutmeg” as he did. He laughed when he did this, like one of the monsters we would later vanquish, but we laughed too.

This wasn’t the only way I learned how to lose from Dave, who also introduced me to chess, not as an antique game you played with your dad, but as a tournament sport where a loss is an utterly chanceless two-hour asphyxiation by a superior intellect. I learned the almost physical trade of speed-chess, knocking pieces and banging the timing clocks in a 50-move, five-minute free-for-all.

I became president of the high-school chess team after Dave left for college, inserting my name into the school bulletin as a contact for new players, which opened me to more scorn than I could have imagined in our years with Dave. The team soon collapsed.

We had talked every day, but once Dave was gone then barely spoke again. All the terrors my brother and I had rehearsed in his backyard became real. That year, our mother battled cancer nearly to the death and our doting father, deeply in love with her, almost forgot about us. We got interested in girls and realized they weren’t interested in us. Our older brother got into drugs and then violence, which the local paper decided was front-page news.

But Wes and I both remember our childhood – Dave’s dark, crooked backyard, the dining room filled with papers and greasy popcorn bowls as happy. There’s a huge difference between most of the friends you have who teach you how to fit in and the one friend, it is usually just one who teaches you that you don’t have to fit in.

From Dave, I learned how to be like an adult. I don’t mean that I learned to be an adult: our whole world was intensely pubescent, female-free, imaginary. But I learned from Dave what an adult sounded like, that he has opinions, that he can like what he likes, that he knows that what other people say is sometimes wrong, that he can stand up for himself. Once, while we were throwing a football in the street, a cement mixer ran over my family’s beagle without stopping and Dave who despised that dog ran after the driver, yelling, for half a mile.

This gave me a way to think about being a leader without being the prom king or team captain. It gave me a way to think about a new product or a new company, as just one more expedition to the barrier peaks. It protected long into adulthood the essence of childhood, which is a sense of adventure. And it gave me the confidence to be different, so I could fail again and again without feeling like a failure at all.

When I co-founded a company at 25, it was in another friend’s basement, but it felt exactly like Dave’s basement, a bit scary but also familiar. What is a startup, after all, if not the endless return, company after company, to that awkward larval phase of adolescence when you can’t go back to the way you were and wonder how you’ll go on surrounded by people you see all the time then never see again, feeling half a fraud and half the rawest version of your true self?

Years later, Dave found me on Facebook and then sent me an email. What was I like now? The note I wrote back was cautious, in part because being an adult had somehow tempered everything I said so that it could sound more knowing or wistful. I said I was “reasonably happy.”

“‘Reasonably happy’!?” Dave wrote back. “Life is awesome!  Maybe you need to meet another minotaur to give you some perspective.”



Glenn Kelman is the CEO of Redfin, a technology-powered real estate brokerage. Follow him on Twitter @glennkelman. When Glenn asked Dave for permission to publish this post, Dave wrote, “When my robot body finally fails at age 274, I want this read at my space-funeral.”


(Dungeon Photo credit: David Barnas on Flickr)