Don’t Follow Your Passion

I recently read an advance copy of Cal Newport’s fascinating (and controversial) new book: So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The main argument being that following your passion is bad career advice.

The first problem is that, for the most part, preexisting passions don’t exist. Cal cites a study which interviewed 500+ university students to discover that, less than 4% identified a passion which had any relation to work.

The second problem is that, even if you have a career interest, following it isn’t more likely to make you happy. Through countless interviews of the career paths of people who truly enjoy their work, the repeated observation is that following a predetermined passion was rarely the first step.

The irony being that following your passion may make it harder to find.

Mastery Instead of Passion

The alternative to the passion hypothesis says that having enjoyable, meaningful work doesn’t come from following a preexisting passion, but from building career capital. In other words, becoming so good that you get to dictate the terms of your own life.

Any economic exchange has two parts: what you want, and the value you have to provide to trade for it. The passion approach focuses ruthlessly on the first part. Cal’s suggestion is that focusing on the latter part of the exchange is a sounder strategy.

I’ve received many emails from prospective lifestyle entrepreneurs who bemoan the difficulties of starting an online business. But at the end of the day, only one thing matters: do people want what you’re selling. If they do, you can make a living from it, if they don’t, it doesn’t matter how much your business jives with your personality profile or prior interests.

Is “Passion” a Red Herring?

Having passionate work is important, neither myself nor Cal would deny that. I love what I do, and loving what you do matters more than a big paycheck or conforming to societal expectations.

But the words we choose can mislead us. When you ask someone to think about what their passions are, they’ll usually focus on the content of the activity: are they interested in biology or literature? Do they love writing or math?

It may be that those things are distracting details from what really allows us to love what we do. Social scientists have known for some time now what results in enjoyable work, and it turns out “passion” isn’t amongst them. Instead, three characteristics come up:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Control
  3. Connectedness

I think these three characteristics explain a lot of my own career enjoyment. When I first decided to start an online business, I had no idea I’d be a writer, much less having rapid learning courses form the basis of my business. I thought I’d be making software.

I do enjoy writing and learning, but I enjoy dozens of things which aren’t the main thrust of my career. But the reason I love my job probably has more to do with the independence I have in my work, the creative control and the fact that I get to see it directly help people.

Many career paths can offer autonomy, control and connectedness. But those career attributes are rare and highly sought after, so to obtain them, you need to offer something equally compelling in return.

Entrepreneurship vs Craftsmanship

Cal’s book dovetails nicely with another book I enjoyed on career success, Ben Casnocha and Reid Hoffman’s The Start-Up of You. The two books rarely contradict, but they offer very different perspectives to examine the thorny problem of having a satisfying and successful working life.

Cal’s book focuses mostly on the details of excellence. How do you get good enough at what you do that you have negotiating leverage to obtain the autonomy, control and connectedness that result in passionate work.

Ben’s book focuses more on navigating the network of people and opportunities that allow you to build those skills. Excellence rarely occurs in a vacuum, and becoming good usually results from gaining career opportunities that allow you to grow your skills and network.

Together, both these books have helped me reflect a lot on my own career. In particular, what I should be doing to grow as an entrepreneur and writer over the next decade.

  • Stanley Lee

    If you’d like, you can participate in the discussion of the book Startup of You on the Linkedin group.

  • Mike

    This is always an interesting topic. I recently read a book called . “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by a Harvard Business School prof that, interestingly enough, does talk about those 3 factors as being very important in your choice of career. But he doesn’t see them as the only factor. Since he’s writing a book and not a blog post he has the space to give a more nuanced answer to how to choose. He discusses the need for 2 paths, one actually is the “passion” type thought experiment of what you like to do, the other a more down-to-earth approach of asking yourself how things are working out.

  • Amit Amin

    It’s great to see that not all self-help bloggers are on the passion bandwagon.

    So Good They Can’t Ignore You has been added to my reading list. Thank you.

  • Joshua Fogus

    The concept that mastery leading to happiness makes sense in this context, but I think there is an important variable left out of this equation: How does one go about becoming a master? More specifically, how do you develop the motivation and maintain the energy required to put toward becoming a master of something? It would seem to me that the easiest and most likely means of becoming a master of something is to have passion. If you love what you are doing you will likely want to keep doing it. The more you practice (as long as its deliberate practice) the better you will become at these pursuits. Thus mastery is developed. If you have no passion it is easy to lose focus and never make it to mastery. A positive affect will also benefit the learning process.

    On a slightly separate note, being a master in your field would not necessarily allow you to dictate the terms of your employment. This being that a person with greater skills will cost more to a company than a novice or less experienced person. Equally, if the field is flooded with people wanting the same position, an expert becomes just as disposable as the next. This strips away the person’s control over their career.

  • TJ

    Hi Scott,

    When I read the title I assumed you were going to fight for why passion IS the key to success! It’s all I’ve ever heard from my college career center. However, I’m not disappointed with the advice offered here. It certainly is a different perspective – I guess I can stop worrying so much about finding work that I enjoy. It almost seems as though, you just keep chugging along until your so good at the job you once hated – that it opens doors to allow you a way to feel satisfied.

    I want to throw this out there – so I am also a male recent college grad blogging about happiness (similar to your site). I am not passionate about my degree choice – education, however I would spend the rest of my life happily working on my blog if I had food and shelter. You were once faced with a similar decision, would you be willing to give me advice?

    I appreciate your work and look forward to reading more of your post!


  • David Zinger

    A fine post Scott:
    I like your line, Many career paths can offer autonomy, control and connectedness. But those career attributes are rare and highly sought after, so to obtain them, you need to offer something equally compelling in return.
    Well said,

  • Scott Young


    Cal covers that extensively in his book. I think having *interest* is important, but if you set the bar that way then most people would be interested in lots of different work and fields. The advice isn’t to work at a job you hate, but avoid the love-at-first-sight concept of passion we’ve been indoctrinated in.


  • Monish

    Interesting post. I had seen Ramit Sethi posting about this too recently.

    I’m a very practical person, but I do think that sometimes people try to discount something in order to sell more books. Passion is important no doubt. You need it to sustain whatever you are doing. See this:

    That being said, its quite common sense that passion alone may not be enough. what you really need is brains + passion. a synergy of your talents and skills you’ve acquired (marketing, sales, understanding of business, leadership skills, discipline, etc..) + your passion (talent, expertise, domain knowledge).

    the brains part is mastering skills SO THAT you can leverage them for monetizing your passion when the day comes when you’re ready.

    I’m not too sure about autonomy, control, and connectedness. but i do know that when you align yourself with what you want and who you are, then happiness naturally follows.

    keep up the good work.

    stay empowered,

  • IronFly

    Monish, common sense is quite uncommon. 😉

  • Pablo

    Very interesting perspective. One little thing to add maybe… we don’t do things because we like the thing, as in.. the car, the money, playing tennis, whatever. If you follow the path to why you like the things you like, it’s because how you feel when you do them. So in the end, your career, even if it doesn’t necessarily match “the content” you had hoped for, it can match the feelings you are looking for underneath. Also to add… passion is a state. You can feel passionate right now, if you behave and move passionately. Your passion therefore may link strongly to how you have linked that state to an activity or thing you do (like a hobby).

    I do however believe in the idea of finding the meaning and path that most naturally and truthfully expresses how you are and want to become.