Is It Folly to Follow Your Passion?

Steve Jobs didn't follow his passion at Apple, says Cal Newport, a writer and assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. Jobs didn't sit down in advance and say he wanted to create technology that was going to change the world. Instead, he sort of stumbled into Apple and then quickly cultivated that passion once he was there, Newport says.

That idea—that you don’t follow passion, but rather cultivate it through new skills—applies to most of us, he says. When Newport advanced that thesis in a Fast Company excerpt from his book, "So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love" (Business Plus, 2012), he was blindsided by the barrage of negative feedback.

"People were interpreting it as ‘Steve Jobs wasn't passionate,’ when obviously that isn't true," Newport told BusinessNewsDaily.

Newport's point is that passion is not something that you follow; it's something you cultivate by acquiring rare and valuable skills. The sense of competency and autonomy, mastery, impact and connection that comes from exercising these skills is what engenders a passion for what you do. In other words, first you do the work, and then you harvest the passion, Newport said he believes.

"There's not a lot of evidence that most people have a passion that pre-exists their work," he said.

The advice to follow your passion assumes that the passion is already present; you identify it, and then you match it to your work and you're happy, Newport said.

"And we just don't have a lot of evidence that this is true for most people," he said. "Working right trumps finding the right work."

Passions are rare

Passions are rare and have little to do with why most people love their work, he said. If you drill down to find what really engages people about the work they love, you’ll find that it rarely matches something that interested them before their career started.

"It's more complicated than that," Newport said. "What you unearth are feelings like autonomy, mastery, impact and connection. These are more complex traits than 'I was wired to do this, and now I'm doing it. And so I'm happy.'"

"Follow your passion" is a flawed cliché and bad career advice, Newport said. The secret to building a career you love is instead to develop rare and valuable skills that you can then leverage to take control of your livelihood, he said. Get good, and the passion will follow.

Newport traces the lineage of "follow your passion" back to two foundational works of the career self-help tidal surge in the late 1980s, Joseph Campbell's "Follow Your Bliss" and Richard Bolles' "What Color Is Your Parachute?"

"Follow your passion may have been the love child of those two streams of thought," Newport said. "Bolles' book was one of the first career books to ask you to actually sit down and figure out what you really wanted to do and come up with a plan to do it."

Competency and mastery

"We know if you do something well, you get a feeling of competency and mastery, which is very satisfying," he said. "But it also gives you leverage over your career. When you're valuable, you have some control over the direction your career goes, which means you can move it away from things you don't like toward projects you enjoy."

Skills trump passion every time, Newport said. As you build up skills, you acquire what he calls "career capital." But you don't build up that capital just by being very good. You also have to be very strategic about how you invest that capital.

"That's where self-reflection is important," he said. "You have to figure out what you want to do with your career. The more valuable the skill, the more leverage you can get out of it."

The title of Newport's book comes from the advice comedian Steve Martin once gave to aspiring entertainers: "Be so good they can't ignore you."

But Newport doesn't believe in natural or innate skills. He's of the school of thought that almost every skill, particularly in knowledge work that requires complex skills, comes from training.

"I don't want to get caught up in the notion that you have an innate talent waiting to be discovered," he said. "I think that can be as dangerous as looking for an innate passion."

Developing skills is hard work

Developing skills is hard work, so you need to select a small number of them and work on them persistently, Newport said.

"You have to start out at the entry level. And that's not fun every day. There's this period, especially at the beginning, when you're building up your skills, and every day you're not a master of the universe. There are so many people in my generation that basically never get past that stage. They say, 'I'm three months in, and I have to do some work that's not fun. This must not be my passion. Maybe I should open a wine shop.'"

If you've heard all along that there's one thing out there that you were meant to do and you have to discover that passion to be happy, any actual job will pale in comparison to the dream, Newport said. And then you’re going to be anxious and unhappy.

"It's kind of ironic," Newport said. "Telling someone to follow their passion can make them much less likely to be passionate about their work."

Career capital

"The career capital analogy is very useful there," he said. "It says that, regardless of whether you're employed or self-employed, the equation is simple—you build up your career capital by getting good at things that are rare and valuable. And then you cash in that capital to make your work life better and better."

Newport is quick to point out that there is a vast difference between working hard — “I'm there first, and I'm the last to leave” — and skill development.

"The difference between systematically developing a skill and Type-A behavior — ‘I'm here all day’ — is very real," he said. "They're unrelated issues. Being at the office 10 hours a day is not necessarily going to grow your rare and valuable skills."

Passion is not the enemy

Passion is not the enemy for Newport. What he takes issue with is the conventional wisdom about the path to achieving it.

"Following your passion is a specific strategy for achieving your goals," he said. "It's not the same thing as the goal of wanting to be passionate about your work. The distinction is often overlooked."

In many respects, Newport said, passion is the return on investment you get from acquiring and nurturing rare and valuable skills. It's payback for competency.

"Passion is the epiphenomenon of a working life well-lived," he said.

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