5 Research-Backed Techniques to Help Teens Develop Passion

Passion can seem hard to come by.

According to a landmark study by William Damon, the director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, only 20% of people between the ages of 12 and 22 years old have a specific, lasting passion. The majority of kids fall into categories Damon calls “dabblers” or “dreamers.” They may be able to point to interests, hobbies, and a vague sense of direction, but struggle to fit it into a concrete commitment or plan.

One reason that a concrete sense of passion is so hard to come by is the misconception that passions are fixed, predetermined, and uncovered in a fully-formed state. Research from Stanford and Yale-NUS shows that pressuring someone to find a passion rather than cultivate it can actually snuff it out.

Passion isn’t stumbled upon—it’s developed. It requires experimentation, exploration, and investment, all of which come with time and intention.

Below are five actionable and research-backed techniques for developing a passion. Encourage your teens to practice them in order to get unstuck, empowered, and on the path to developing a sturdy sense of passion.

1. Brainstorm and articulate potential passions

The first step toward developing a passion is taking stock of notable interests, skills, values, etc. Ideally, this doesn’t happen internally but out loud. Teens should use the following questions (and a no-bad-ideas-in-brainstorming mindset) to identify decent candidates for a long-term passion:

  • What brings me joy?
  • What activity makes me forget to eat or lose track of time?
  • Who do I look up to?
  • What’s the highlight of my day at school?
  • What values are most important to me?

Putting ideas into words is an act of discovery. You must interrogate and organize a thought in order to articulate it.

When you take the time to explain your interests, you encounter more opportunities to consider: What about the subject or activity is interesting? Why is it important to you?  You also make more connections and reveal faulty logic that went undetected (or unchallenged) in your head. It’s something most of us know intuitively: Talking through an idea helps you make more sense of it.

Beyond writing, saying these brainstorming notes out loud—even if nobody else is in the room—helps you understand it up to three times better.

Teens might find sitting down and plainly stating a few of their interests, skills, values, and wildest dreams a vulnerable activity, but it’s important. While they likely won’t be able to articulate a fully-formed passion, they will walk away from the process with a much clearer understanding of their interests, values, and could-be passions.

2. Share those could-be passions with peers

Like putting passions into words, sharing your interests with peers can make these ideas feel more concrete and motivate you to pursue them.

A fascinating 2020 study out of the University of Rochester reveals how having conversations over social networks help individuals think more creatively. “The intuition being, if you bump up against out-of-the-box ideas, chances are higher that you will be able to combine your own ideas with ideas you didn’t originally think of.”

When teens publicly air their nascent passions—interests, values, curiosities, etc.—they gain new perspectives, new sources of inspiration, and new connections. Again, this process can make teens feel vulnerable, but it’s a fruitful exercise for fleshing out unaddressed thoughts.

Teens who are closer to identifying a concrete passion can also practice goal sharing, which research shows to be an exceptionally motivating practice. By putting a goal in writing and sharing it with others, you are 33% more likely to achieve said goals.

3. Share your interests with adults, too

For many teens, adults are key sources of validation and motivation.

Kendall Bronk, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University and the director of the Adolescent Moral Development Lab, conducts studies related to this topic. She claims that after having a 45-minute discussion about their interests with an adult moderator, teens “significantly increased their reporting of purpose.”

Adults can also play a larger role as mentors and sources of inspiration. The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring says that the most powerful form of mentorship is “more about nurturing a spark than finding a flame.” When teens speak about their interests to adults—parents, teachers, potential mentors—the care and validation nurtures their spark.

Validation is particularly important for teens who don’t fit the typical mold of someone with their particular passion. In a study published in 2018, researchers determined that when women express an interest in STEM, a positive social response—both from adults and peers—boosts their chances of pursuing a career in science far more than it does for men.

4. Hold curiosity conversations

Curiosity conversations are a chance to break out of your comfort zone, spark inspiration, and give shape to an emerging interest.

In a curiosity conversation, you chat with someone you find interesting. Your only agenda is to better understand who they are, what they do, and how they got there.

Curiosity conversations are a longtime practice of Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer. He uses them as research to understand the emotions and motivations behind figures who fascinate him.

For teens, curiosity conversations can help them clarify their path. It’s an opportunity to hold up potential passions to people who walk and talk that lifestyle by asking:

  • What is the day-to-day of a person in the field?
  • What are the building blocks of this type of career?
  • What do they love about their lives, and what do they wish to change?

And if the stars align, the conversation may be the start of a long-term mentorship.

5. Focus on an “ultimate concern,” not a career

Rather than getting stuck on the what of your passion, consider the why: the topics, skills, social issues, and communities that make up an ultimate concern.

According to Angela Duckworth, a psychologist who studies grit and passion, an ultimate concern is “the one [thing] that you’re tenacious about, that you are stubborn about, that you wake up in the morning and go to bed aligned to.” It’s a bedrock, a North Star, a capital-P Passion.

Duckworth’s ultimate concern is “helping children thrive using psychological science.”

  • For Greta Thunberg, it’s holding world leaders accountable to take immediate action on the climate crisis.
  • For Malala Yousafzai, it’s advocating to improve educational access for girls around the world.

Duckworth views everything outside of the ultimate concern—from career choice to college major—to be a lower-order function that (ideally) serves the ultimate concern.

This model correlates with high levels of motivation and performance. A 2014 study revealed that students with prosocial motivations (e.g., motivations rooted outside of their own interests) showed more persistence and deeper learning behaviors.

Based on this research, contemplating a career path early in life may be the wrong approach—even more so when you consider most of the jobs of the future don’t exist yet. Instead, teens are more likely to find a motivating, long-term passion in a larger mission that transcends a job, internship, or college major.

Lather, rinse, and repeat

It may go without saying, but none of these strategies are one and done.

Instead of treating these strategies like a checklist, treat them like a practice. By stepping out of their comfort zones and committing to conversations and introspection, teens will encounter new interests, mentors, and opportunities. In turn, they will make steady progress toward the building of a long-term passion.

For some extra inspiration, check out A Spotlight on 3 of Hello World’s Uniquely Passionate Teens.

If you know of other effective means to help teens discover and develop their passions then I’d love to talk. Please, say hello!