Do NOT Follow Your Passion

Do NOT Follow Your PassionFor 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

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Matthew E MayMatthew 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.

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6 Responses to Do NOT Follow Your Passion

  1. Sanchezjb says:

    Passion and competence are a great combination AND each reinforces the other; the “genius of the ‘AND’ vs. the tyranny of the ‘OR” (courtesy of author Jim Collins). Passion drives curiosity and questions. Questions lead to learning. Learning enables competence.

    In this context, passion is about value and commitment; valuing something strong enough that one is committed to learning more about it. Competence without passion results in sedentary skills whose value will diminish over time.

    • Vinicius Spader says:

      I totally agree with you. Trying to be really good in some skills far from your passion (or lets call it interests) is a hardest job.

  2. Michael says:

    This appears to be another example of the “counter-intuitive brilliance” which creative authors use to sell books. For example, “Passion follows mastery, not the other way around” is a completely false statement. As a simple example, when I was a child I attempted to learn a half-dozen different musical instruments. I gave them all up. Then on the 7th try, I discovered percussion/drumming and fell in love. I proceeded to use my passion of the instrument to reach a level of mastery. Without passion, I could never achieve mastery. This also applies to employment and career development.

    The real meaning of the research conducted boils down to the process of how someone can find their passion. We all have different, and often multiple, passions. Developing a skill can certainly enable or unlock a passion, but it is not the only way. Regardless of how you discover a passion, proactively aligning yourself with related activities is a key step. Mastery is only achieved when failure is overcome by the passion to achieve a greater purpose.

  3. Chris Witt says:

    Passion is great, and I love it when I feel it. But it is a feeling. It comes and goes, waxes and wanes, like ever other feeling. I can act/think in certain ways to create or sustain or intensify the feeling (or to kill, end, or dampen it). But it is a feeling. It lets me know that I’m on to something, and I need to pay attention to its presence or absence and to its intensity.

    In my own experience, I haven’t found passion to be a reliable guide to finding my life’s work. Pursuing my passion has led me down — way down — some dead ends. What has worked for me is 1) experimenting with a variety of activities, 2) finding ones that I enjoyed or that sparked my curiosity, 3) investing time and energy into learning them, 4) dropping some of them because they no longer interested me or because I never developed the talent or ability, and 5) mastering a few of them, which gives me a real high and a decent income.

    So, on the whole, I agree that developing rare and valuable skills has helped me create a satisfying career more than trying to follow my passion.

  4. kirsten says:

    I’ve been sharing this same sentiment since 2006 (and getting stoned by women entrepreneurs for it, I might add). Following your bliss is the kiss of death in business.

  5. A says:

    This is a silly notion, As Michael best puts it, this “counter-intuitive brilliance” is ridiculous.

    While I agree with the author that in some instances, it is wrong to follow your “passions” (especially as a young person who does not have enough life experience to recognize his true passion, and who may, while surveying his or her possible passions, is simply be looking for the easiest way out) I must be quick to add that you need to follow what you love in order to do great work.

    In order to find what you love, you must be willing to try different things you might even have the slightest inclination to (While choosing wisely – money must be a factor, but not the driving factor!)

    This is where College is crucial. The first years should be spent taking general courses, and depending on how well you respond to the subject, you will know what career path to choose.

    Notice I said College.

    The first 18 years must be spent molding kids to persevere in the face of adversity. High school must be for parents to push their kids to success, for teachers to recognize the student’s talents, and for the student to see if not clearly, a 60% glimpse of where his talents lie. That way while taking courses during college, he or she is able to see what courses excite and propel the best in them.

    As with all great things, one must push oneself and persevere in the face of adversity, and a career is no different.

    Success does not come easy, and really anyone can achieve success: “Fake it till you make it” was not coined meaninglessly. But for true success, one MUST FIRST be truly passionate about what one does. Mastery does not bring passion. Do you think Steve Jobs was a master in computing when he created Apple? NO. But he believed in his idea in the face of adversity, because he was passionate about it.

    Mastery brings knowledge. Belief brings Passion which then leads to creativity. Wisdom differentiates them all.

    Humans are masters of adaptability. It is easy to find little things to add to one’s job to make one like it. But a man who does great work is one who loves his job and does not look necessarily to “make it more fun” as that implies making it more bearable, but truly, and unconsciously, has fun while doing it.

    The author tells us to “get good–really good–and the passion will follow”, assuming one is the master of time, and assuming one’s future is guaranteed. What a waste of potential getting good at something so you can be “passionate” about it, when you have pre-existing passions that are waiting for you to get really really good at?

    The question that i finally pose to the author, is, when stripped to the bare minimum and the privacy of their hearts, if the author were to ask his subjects, “If you had another chance with unlimited resources, what career path would you choose?” would these “masters” choose their current fields? or would they pick something they were first passionate about?

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