Don’t “Follow Your Passion”

Says Cal Newport, Georgetown professor and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Follow your passion. Pursue your dreams. Do what you love.

You’ve likely heard this career advice — or something like it — at multiple points in your life. It’s thrown at students, people starting or switching careers, and everyone fed up with the daily grind of their office job.

In fact, this mantra is so prevalent that it has become something of a holy grail for career bliss.

If you could just start your own business…

If you could just get out of the cubicle farm…

If you could finally write that novel or become a full-time musician…

Then you’d finally be happy with your job. After all, as the saying goes, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

That’s terrible advice.

Georgetown University professor Cal Newport argues against following your passion in his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. The idea that finding a career path that intersects with what you’re passionate about is the key to fulfilling work is misleading and sets us up for disappointment, writes Newport.

The passion hypothesis has several flaws, including:

  • Most people don’t have a passion that easily supports a career choice: One survey of Canadian university students revealed that the vast majority (84%) were able to identify passions. But 96% of the areas identified were sports- and arts-related (like dance, hockey, skiing, reading, and swimming). Only 4% of the passions students named had a clear connection to a viable career path.
  • The things we care about change over time: Following your dreams at 18 years old is sure to look different than at 40. There’s nothing intrinsic in our genes or personalities that determines what we should be doing for a living.
  • Hobbies and personal passions don’t always translate to fulfilling careers: Just because you enjoy doing something in your free time doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the same joy out of it when you’re doing it day in and day out.

As Newport puts it,

“Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.”

So if the pursuit of self-fulfillment isn’t the secret to job satisfaction, what is?

In a talk that Newport delivered at Google, he argues that it’s not so much the type of work that contributes to occupational satisfaction, but rather the lifestyle it offers — qualities like flexibility, autonomy, influence, and creativity.

“Once you recognize that these traits have little to do with following a pre-existing passion, and can be cultivated in many different fields,” Newport says, “you can safely abandon the myth that there’s a single right job waiting out there for you.”

And what gives you the leverage to choose a job that offers the kind of qualities you’re looking for?

Career Capital

These are the “rare and valuable skills” and experiences that make you an appealing candidate to employers. Building up your career capital frees you to choose a job with the lifestyle traits that give you the most satisfaction.

The next logical question: How can we build career capital?

  1. Don’t let your skills plateau: Pursue skills that add value in your job (or in the field you want to move into). Don’t become complacent: constant growth and improvement is the only way you’ll stand out from your peers and build career capital.
  2. Embrace deliberate practice: Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson coined the term “deliberate practice” to characterize the type of learning that the most successful and talented people (whom researchers term “expert performers”) engage in to improve their skills and stretch the limits of their abilities.
  3. Develop a craftsman mindset: This ties back into the idea of developing rare and valuable skills. If you want to get value out of a job, you have to put value in. This requires the hard and sometimes tedious work of learning and improving — which, granted, sounds a lot less glamorous than chasing your dreams. Newport explains the benefits this way:
“If you’re not focusing on becoming so good they can’t ignore you, you’re going to be left behind. This clarity is refreshing. It tells you to stop worrying about what your job offers you, and instead worry about what you’re offering the world. This mindset — which I call the craftsman mindset — allows you to sidestep the anxious questions generated by the passion hypothesis — ‘Who am I?,’ ‘What do I truly love?’ — and instead put your head down and focus on becoming valuable.”

Our take

Cal Newport’s focus on skills development and deliberate practice resonates with us pretty strongly! As we’ve always said, we want to work with the best performers in the world. Check out our breakdown of Dr. Ericsson’s research (as presented in his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise) with practical advice on how to use deliberate practice to meet your own professional and personal goals:

As for job satisfaction coming from traits like flexibility and autonomy? You couldn’t possibly get more flexible or autonomous than our distributed model. We empower you to control your schedule, your location, your work-life balance, and your projects. Sound interesting? Visit our job board to see our open positions.