Should You Follow Your Passion?
This Author Says, “Not So Fast.”
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In today’s “Great Resignation” world, someone has likely exhorted you to drop your W-2 job and go out and follow your passion. Sound advice?
Not so fast, says Cal Newport bestselling author and associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. In 2012, while completing his Ph.D. at MIT, he began researching a book entitled “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” which in my opinion is a must-read for the times we’re in. As noted by the author:
“The narratives in this book are bound by a common thread: the importance of ability. The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.”
Newport studied those who had reached success in a chosen endeavor and those who didn’t. His conclusion:
“Success is not just about high salaries but also should reflect a life where you’re able to make choices about your working environment and personal lifestyle.”
In his siren call to the world, he encourages us to explore more realistic and pragmatic approaches to career and work satisfaction. This, he says, involves developing rare, valuable, deep ocean skills that allow you to transcend any form of market competition, whether working in a 9-5 job or opening a business.
Unmasking The Passion Myth
During the ’70s and ’80s, the exhortation towards “pursuing one’s passion” began to emerge around Richard Bolles bestselling book, “What Color is Your Parachute.” The view here was “find your passion first and then your quest for meaningful work will automatically fall in place.”
Boomers championed this mantra and passed it along to their kids. Newport’s findings as discussed in “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, however, run counter to this, as he believes that “the passion hypothesis,” is misleading, incorrect, and even at times dangerous.
It’s here where Newport offers this cautionary thought, namely that
“….passion is rare, and that striving for a job you’re passionate about often leads to unhappiness and dissatisfaction.”
Instead of passion, Newport espouses the pursuit of what he calls “career capital,” which involves the thoughtful expansion of ones skills and expertise.
He notes in his book that career capital is something that one develops over time. Fueled by a commitment to lifetime learning and experimentation, it’s a quest that requires us all in the spirit of lifelong learning, to continually grow and stretch.
In his book, Newport highlights the example of legendary business leader Steve Jobs. As the story goes, in 1997 after a 12-year absence, Jobs returned to Apple, the company he co-founded. At that time, the company was hemorrhaging money nearly to the point of bankruptcy. At one of his staff meetings, Jobs offered this moving statement on the role that passion would play in his quest to re-ignite the brand:
Apple is not about making boxes for people to get their jobs done, although we do that well. Apple is about something more. Its core value is that we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better.
This simple word “passion” would become the ignition switch behind his entrepreneurial success. Then in 2005, in a famous commencement speech he gave at Stanford University, he added:
“You’ve got to find what you love,” Jobs said. “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.”
Back to Newport, he adds that your work and vocational aim should be to acquire rare and valuable skills that align with job market demands.
In his book, he talks about his own early life where he sought out ways to boost his career capital. Newport even created a spreadsheet to capture the hours he invested in doing this work. This, he says, exponentially accelerated his success, knowledge, and skills.
To build career capital, we need to push ourselves, says Newport. This entails stepping into our discomfort in a way that allows us to stretch and build value. As he champions throughout the book:
“Don’t do what you love. Learn to love what you do – by acquiring mastery, autonomy, and relatedness.”
It’s here where he offers a bold proposition: If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (“what can the world offer me?”) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (“what can I offer the world?”). Newport believes that when you have mastered something, you’ll more likely be passionate about it. Newport refers to this as the habit of practicing hard, a mindset where one continually asks themselves, “what value am I bringing to the world.” He elaborates:
“The central idea here is that the difference in strategy that separates average guitar players like me from stars like Tice and Casstevens is not confined to music. This focus on stretching your ability and receiving immediate feedback provides the core of a more universal principle—one that I increasingly came to believe provides the key to successfully acquiring career capital in almost any field.”
In your own pursuit of “good,” have you found that your life has become stagnant and that you are resting in a place of comfort, an “acceptable” level? I’ll be the first to admit having fallen into this trap of late and have committed to disrupting this pattern.
The elixir according to Newport is embracing a concept known as “deliberate practice” where you stretch your efforts beyond what’s comfortable to expand your growth trajectory. A concept coined in the early 1990s by noted thought leader and author Anders Ericsson, it’s used to describe a style of deep study and immersion around your aim and performance.
Legendary basketball player Michael Jordan said it best when he adds:
“I have a never-ending thirst to get better. It’s like a sport, you have to practice and you have to study.”
Tim Grover, author of the book Winning: The Unforgiving Race to Greatness expands upon this in an interview about the Jordan legacy:
Another athlete I greatly admire for his commitment to being elite is NFL quarter Tom Brady. He outlines his quest in the book “The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance.” Word on the street is that Brady is fanatical about his daily routines and disciplines, a model that no doubt has been key to his greatness as an athlete and human being.
Back to Newport, he adds:
“When deciding whether to pursue an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on.”
As comedian Steve Martin once quipped leading to the title of Newport’s book:
"Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You."