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.


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