On Finding Your Passion (Within Reason)

Peter Salovey Dean, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
August 26, 2003
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Matriculation Address

Officers of the University, faculty members, entering graduate students, families and friends:  Welcome to the Yale University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

The arrival of this year’s cohort of new graduate students provides an opportunity to reflect, for just a moment, on a history spanning more than a century and a half.  By establishing the first programs offering graduate degrees among American universities in 1847, Yale pioneered graduate education in the United States.  We awarded the first three American Ph.D.s – that was in 1861 – in fields as disparate as Classics, Physics, and Philosophy. Shortly thereafter – in 1876 – Yale bestowed the first doctorate on an African American, Edward Bouchet, someone whose inspiring story you will likely hear more about in the coming years.  Bouchet’s degree was only the sixth doctoral degree in physics granted by a university in the United States.  We welcome you to this grand tradition.

This morning, I wish to speak about an aspect of human psychology that I believe is the key to graduate education.  Some of you may remember the movie, “City Slickers,” in which several middle-aged men, Billy Crystal among them, seeking answers to the concerns that plague individuals at midlife, join up with a group of cowboys to bring in a herd of cattle.  After enduring various trials, Billy Crystal’s character asks the wise old trail-boss, Curly (one of Jack Palance’s memorable performances), how to find satisfaction in life.  Curly replies, it’s just “one thing” and one thing only – the trick, of course, is each of us have to figure out what that one thing is. 

With all due respect to Curly, I argue today that the basis of success in graduate school is, indeed, finding that “one thing.”  Now in principle, there may be more than one thing, but the issue is this:  Graduate School is the time to assess about what do you feel deeply passionate?  Each of us may discover a different “one thing,” but what unites us, what is common to all of the people on this stage, is that each of them has something that they feel motivated, indeed compelled, to do.  And so they have studied it, written about it, talked endlessly about it; and they still eat, sleep, and drink it.  They would likely rather be engaged in it right now than listening to me!  The question: what is “it” for you?

In my first days of graduate school – here at Yale, as you’ve heard – I discovered the writings of the late psychologist Sylvan Tomkins, and one passage in particular left a memorable impression:  “Out of the marriage of reason with affect there issues clarity with passion,” Tomkins wrote. “Reason without affect would be impotent, affect without reason would be blind.”[1]  We need to determine the intellectual domain that excites our passion, and then to pursue it with reason.

In the era when my mother and father enrolled in introductory psychology courses, passion was viewed by most scientists as primitive, animalistic, immature, and disruptive.  Psychology textbooks of the time, defined emotion as, for instance, an “acute disturbance of the individual,”[2] “a disorganized response resulting from a lack of an effective adjustment,”[3] and, my personal favorite, as causing “a complete loss of cerebral control” with “no trace of conscious purpose.”[4]

At long last, though, this cold-hearted view has given way to one suggesting that it is the emotions that arouse, direct, and sustain our activities.[5]  Passion is what organizes our thoughts and motivates our actions.  Without emotion, we don’t know what we should pay attention to, and we have little strength to get up and do what needs to be done.  And this is true intellectually – it is passion that motivates long hours in the laboratory, library, gallery, or studio.  Without passion, that experiment, that dissertation chapter, that careful textual analysis seems an insurmountable task.  In what would have been a bit of a paradox for the stoics, it turns out that when one suffers a brain injury that interrupts the processes that give rise to passion, it is rational decision making that is compromised.[6]

Now, I don’t wish to embarrass her, but last year’s matriculation ceremony faculty address was delivered by a professor here at Yale who revealed to all of us that she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Romance Philology, a course of study that she characterized – and these are her words – as, “self-evidently, a dying field,” and later in her speech as “a field that was not just old-fashioned but basically dead.”  And why, you might be tempted to ask, did our colleague pursue this line of work?  Again, her words, “quite simply, quite romantically, love.”[7]  Passion continues to focus her research and energize her writing. 

Poet William Wordsworth understood the importance of the emotions in intellectual pursuit when he wrote:

“… that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affects gently lead us on, –
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see the life of things.”[8]

For Wordsworth, the emotion he describes is one of joy, and it has a “deep power” to allow him to appreciate central purposes without the burden of having to think about the mundane.  Not a bad description of what one might like to do in graduate school, no?  And so I urge you to spend a little time figuring out – with the help of your professors and, perhaps especially, your classmates – what is it, intellectually, that arouses your passion?  About what, above all else, would you like to be the world’s expert five years from now?  If that seems like a daunting task, the good news is that you have entered an environment in which you have total freedom to make this decision in whatever way you choose, and in which you will discover that there are vast resources to support that choice. 

But, let us return to my graduate school hero, Sylvan Tomkins, whom I quoted earlier.  Remember, Tomkins warned us that passion without reason is blind.  So, how might passion depend on reason?  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”[9] And so perhaps he provides us with a clue about the relation between passion and reason.  Combined, they give us the ability to appreciate, learn from, and embrace contradiction, even when we might prefer closure.  To perceive and tolerate ambiguity is a necessary precondition for advanced reasoning, whether about texts, visual objects, laboratory findings, or observations about the world around us.

This is true in all the disciplines. For the physicists, it may mean knowing that light is both a wave and a particle; for the poets, it may have to do with Touchstone’s understanding in As You Like It that “The truest poetry is the most feigning.”[10] For the philosophers and political scientists, it is – among many paradoxes – that all humans are created equal, but advancement in a democratic society should be based on merit.  It goes on and on:  That “pure” scholarship and “basic” science can be simultaneously “applied” and “practical;” that we are, as Milton acknowledged, “sufficient to have stood, but free to fall.”[11] And at a university, we are particularly sensitive to the premise that the freedom to teach, learn, and, more generally, express one’s point of view must be protected strenuously even while respecting others’ rights to lawful protest. 

In whatever we study, insight derives from the simultaneous consideration of such dualities. It is passion that interests us in such dualities in the first place. But even as we hold conflicting views in mind without what Keats called an “irritable reaching after fact and reason,”[12] our passion must be tempered. Our reason should be reasonable, but it must always be there. 

And so what better place, than a great university such as this one, to find your passion, have it nurtured by the faculty, and experience the satisfaction of discovering a meaningful life.  As you find your passion, you will grow, just as this University has grown.  After all, Yale began in 1701 with two teachers and one student, and 15 years later held a collection of 417 books and enrolled a class of 25 students.  Our libraries now contain 11,000,000 volumes, and there are 11,000 students here, nearly one-fourth of whom are studying in the Graduate School. Your cohort represents about 500 of the most promising scholars of your generation, selected from a pool of 9,068, the largest number of applications ever received by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (by two thousand). You have come here – as the President tabulated – from the farthest corners of the world, each of you with a unique combination of passions, goals, and intellectual styles.

Some years ago, Provost Hockfield, when she was the Dean of the Graduate School, discovered a registry containing the signatures of arriving graduate students from the 19th century.  Now that you are part of this history, later today you will enter your own names in the roster of Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences matriculants.

“Yale,” the late Professor of History, George Pierson, said, “is at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.”[13]  I am so pleased that you chose to bring your passion – tempered by reason – to this inspiring place.  And so, on behalf of all of us – the officers of the University, the deans and directors of the Graduate School, and faculty from across the arts and sciences – I welcome you to New Haven, Connecticut and to Yale University.

[1] Quote from Tomkins, S.S. (1962). Affect, imagery, and consciousness, Volume 1, The positive affects.  New York: Springer, p. 112.

[2] Quote from Young, P.T. (1943).  Emotion in man and animal.  New York:  John Wiley & Sons, p. 263

[3] Schaffer, Gilmer, & Schoen, 1940, p. 505

[4] Quote from Young, P.T. (1936).  Motivation of behavior:  The fundamental determinants of human and animal behavior.    New York:  John Wiley & Sons, pp. 457-458.

[5]This view was championed earlier by Leeper, R.W. (1948).  A motivational theory of emotion to replace “emotion as disorganized response.”  Psychological Review, 55, 5-21.

[6] See, for example, Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ Error. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

[7] Quotes from Professor Maria Menocal, Reflections on Graduate Education.  Speech delivered at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Matriculation Ceremony, August 22, 2002.

[8] From William Wordsworth, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour:  July 13, 1798. 

[9] From Fitzgerald, F.S. (1945).  The Crack-up.  New York:  New Directions Publishing.

[10] From Shakespeare, W. (1598).  As You Like It.  Act 3, Scene 3.

[11] From Milton, J. (1667).  Paradise Lost, Book III, Line 99.

[12] From Keats, J. (1817) in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas on 21 December.

[13] Pierson, G. W. (1952). Yale College: An Educational History 1871-1921.  New Haven: Yale University Press.