For decades we’ve been told to “follow your passion” to “find the career meant for you.” “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Such clichés have become a staple of commencement speeches, such as Steve Jobs’ famed 2005 address at Stanford in which he said: “There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
But what if the evidence showed that this advice will do your career more harm than good?
In his contrarian new book, SO GOOD THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Georgetown University professor Cal Newport reveals that loving what we do is a wise goal, but following your passion is not the way to get there.
As it turns out, there is no “right” pathway out there just waiting for you to find it. Preexisting passions are rare and have little to do with how most people end up loving their work. They can even be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job-hopping.
“Stop trying to figure out what you are passionate about,” argues Newport. Instead, the secret to building a career or business you love is to develop rare and valuable skills that you can then leverage to take control of your livelihood.
In other words, get good–really good–and the passion will follow.
Presenting scientific studies and compelling examples from organic farming to venture capital to screenwriting to computer programming, Newport exposes the truth about how people end up loving what they do. Experience, autonomy, competence, and relatedness each play a much bigger role in motivation and job satisfaction and his roadmap for getting you there consists of four easy rules.
Don’t Follow Your Passion
“Follow your passion” is bad advice. It’s good to want to be passionate about what you do for a living, but there’s no compelling evidence that identifying a preexisting passion, then following it, is a good strategy for accomplishing this goal. Newport says that in telling people that they should “follow your passion,” we are not helping them, we are instead setting them up for failure and confusion when they discover that in the real world, creating a career you love is more complicated.
Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You
Passion follows mastery, not the other way around. In the real world you often observe the opposite strategy at work. People stumble into a particular direction, at first doubting their choice. But as they get better and better at what they do, a sense of passion grows. (And yes, Newport has the research to back up his assertion.)
Turn Down a Promotion
Career capital is the key to creating work you love. Science tells us that the key to loving what you do is to have important traits such as autonomy, competence, creativity, and a sense of impact in your working life. These traits are rare and valuable.
Basic economics tells us that if you want these traits in your career, you must build up rare and valuable skills to offer in return. In other words, until you are very good at something, you shouldn’t expect a very good job.
Think Small, Act Big
Working right trumps finding the right work. The traits that lead people to love their work are unrelated to a specific type of work. You can have autonomy, competency, creativity, and a sense of impact, for example, in any number of jobs. So what really matters is not finding the right job, but instead figuring out how to get so good that you can acquire these traits in whatever job you have.
Entrepreneur Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby, maintains that Newport’s thesis contains “Brilliant counter-intuitive career insights. Powerful new ideas that have already changed the way I think of my own career, and the advice I give others.”
Wired magazine Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly says that “This book changed my mind. It has moved me from ‘find your passion, so that you can be useful’ to ‘be useful so that you can find your passion.’ That is a big flip, but it’s more honest, and that is why I am giving each of my three young adult children a copy of this unorthodox guide.”
And Drive author Dan Pink says that “Cal Newport ably demonstrates how the quest for ‘passion’ can corrode job satisfaction. If all he accomplished with this book was to turn conventional wisdom on its head, that would be interesting enough. But he goes further — offering advice and examples that will help you bypass the disillusionment and get right to work building skills that matter.”
Whether you’re looking to launch a new business, running a small company, or simply looking for a career change, Newport’s message is important and universally relevant: don’t follow your passion, let it follow you in your quest to become “so good they can’t ignore you.”
image credit: your work image from bigstock
Matthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.