Don't Follow Your Passion: Advice from Cal Newport

Do you want a job you love? If so, Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University argues that you don’t follow your passion.

Last spring I came across Newport’s Study Hacks Blog  in which he writes posts “exploring how people reach elite levels in knowledge work careers.” His older writing provides advice for students including How to Be a High School Superstar, How to Become a Straight-A Student and How to Win at College. In particular, I was drawn to his posts filed under “Rethinking Passion” which led me to read his book: So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion the Quest for Work You Love. The idea for this book came from Newport’s obsession with answering the question, “Why do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal?”   

Growing up and throughout college one piece of advice I’ve heard over and over again is, “follow your passion.”  While I've always hoped to have a job I am passionate about, actually finding that job has seemed daunting. I would only say I’m truly passionate about a select number of activities and matching those to a job has always perplexed and frustrated me. Newport’s book touched upon a lot of my concerns. Throughout the book he works to explain why the advice to follow your passion is flawed and then tries to answer what one should do instead of following this type of advice.

Below are a few of the key points from the book, but I urge you to go check out the book over Thanksgiving or Winter Break.

Have a craftsman mindset, not a passion mindset.

With a craftsman mindset, you focus on what you can offer the world, while with the passion mindset one focuses on what the world can offer you. Newport states, "...there is something liberating about the craftsman mindset: It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is 'just right,' and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great careeer, it argues; you need to earn it- and the process won't be easy."

What’s wrong with the passion mindset?

When you only focus on what your work offers you, you become very aware of what you don’t like about your work. Newport argues that this can lead to chronic unhappiness and frustration in entry-level positions

The questions that drive the passion mindset such as “Who am I?” and “What do I truly love” are pretty much impossible to “confirm.” Questions you may ask yourself on the job such as “Is this who I really am?” and “Do I love this?” usually can not be answered by a simple yes or no.

Most any work you do can become the foundation for a compelling career. There are three traits that disqualify a job from being considered with a craftsman mindset.

The specifics of the job often do not matter, but instead there are specific traits that cause people to love their work. These traits must be earned through focusing on gaining career capital and becoming so good they can't ignore you. This capital can allow you to leverage the traits you desire in your life. Exceptions to these jobs can include work that will not present you with opportunities to gain rare and valuable skills, a job that you believe is useless or even bad for the world and a job that requires you to work with people you dislike. 

Below are a few videos that further summarize the points made in Newport's book. The first is from Newport's speech at the World Domination Summit in 2012 and the second is a short animation made by one of Newport's readers.

'follow your passion is wrong': Cal Newport speaks at World Domination Summit 2012

"What should I do with my 20s?" Stop-motion Animation

This concept may be hard to grasp, but if you take five or ten minutes to think about the activities you’ve ever been passionate about, you’ll likely find a few examples of what Newport discusses.

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Images: 1,2

Sources: 1, 2 (So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love), 3, 4