Stop chasing your passion!

August 15, 2022#Career Advancement
Author image.

Philippe Vaillancourt, Senior Consultant

In a commencement address Steve Jobs gave to a Stanford graduating class, he said:

You’ve got to find what you love… The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.

The speech was later uploaded to YouTube, where it went viral. The comments on the video homed in on the importance of loving your work, with viewers summarizing their reactions in similar ways:

The most valuable lesson is to find your purpose, follow your passions… Life is too short to be doing what you think you have to do.

Follow your passions - life is for the living.

It’s passion for your work that counts.

“Don’t Settle,” Amen.

In his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love,” Cal Newport argues that this is actually pretty bad advice. He calls this thinking the “Passion Hypothesis” and defines it in the following way:

The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.

As the title of his book suggests, Cal proposes that it be mastery of one’s work that is most likely to lead to passion and occupational happiness. In his book, Cal endeavours to answer a simple question: “How do people end up loving what they do?” He summarizes his research through four rules.

Rule 1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

With this rule Cal questions the validity of the passion hypothesis. Through his research, and numerous interviews, he realized that “compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.” Cal walks us through some interesting conclusions:

  1. Career passions are rare
  2. Passion takes time
  3. Passion is a side effect of mastery

He cites the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) - which he says “is the best understanding science currently has for why some pursuits get our engines running while others leave us cold” - as evidence that seeking passion first is not the best way to find work you love.

SDT tells us that motivation, in the workplace or elsewhere, requires that you fulfill three basic psychological needs:

  • Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important
  • Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do
  • Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people

Notice how the notion of “matching work to pre-existing passion” is nowhere to be found in that list. Cal concludes that “working right trumps finding the right work.”

To impress upon the reader the need to leave behind the passion hypothesis, Cal also makes the case that not only is the passion hypothesis wrong, it is dangerous, that it can make you less happy. Using the passion hypothesis as a career strategy, according to Cal, can lead to a career riddled with confusion and angst. He makes this case by citing some examples of people who have tried chasing their passion first, with less than stellar results.

With Rule #1, we’re left with the understanding that “there is little evidence that most people have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered, and believing that there’s a magical right job lurking out there can often lead to chronic unhappiness and confusion when the reality of the working world fails to match this dream.”

Rule 2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Or, the Importance of Skill)

The natural follow-up question to Rule #1 is If “follow your passion” is bad advice, what should you do instead? That is what Rule #2 is all about. Here Cal makes the case that the traits that define great work are rare and valuable. If you want work that has these traits in your life, you need to offer something of equal value in return; rare and valuable skills. He calls these rare and valuable skills career capital and argues that to end up with work that you love, you first need to acquire a large amount of this capital.

The book then goes on to explain the process by which you might acquire said capital. Cal argues that one must adopt what he calls the craftsman mindset, where you focus intensely on what value you’re offering the world. When you think about it, this is the opposite of the passion mindset, which pushes you to be concerned with what value the world is offering you.

Cal cautions that even with the right mindset, becoming “so good they can’t ignore you” is no mean feat. To help in achieving this goal, he introduces the concept of deliberate practice. He describes it as a way to work where you purposefully extend your abilities beyond your comfort zone and then receive merciless feedback on your performance. Cal shows that this is a very common way of doing things amongst musicians, athletes and chess players but that it isn’t common with knowledge workers. This is great news if you’re a knowledge worker. If you can incorporate this practice into your work, you can leap past your competition in your accumulation of career capital.

Rule 3: Turn Down a Promotion (Or, the Importance of Control)

Having introduced the concept of career capital theory in Rule #2, the book now explores the question of how to invest this capital. Here Cal argues that gaining control over what you work on and how you do that work is extremely important. He sees this element as so ubiquitous in the existence of folks who love what they do that he gives it a name: the dream-job elixir.

The book warns us about two traps that often entangle people who are seeking this elixir. The first control tap conveys that it can be detrimental to attempt to accrue more control without sufficient capital to back it up.

The second control tap conveys that when you finally have enough capital to back up your efforts to gain more control, you’re still not free from difficulty. This capital makes you a valuable asset to your employer. Enough so that they will likely endeavour to keep you on a more traditional path. They understand that gaining more control is to your benefit, but not to their bottom line.

Cal interviewed Derek Sivers, a successful entrepreneur who has lived a life dedicated to control. When asked for advice for sifting through potential control-boosting pursuits while avoiding control traps, he responds with a simple rule: “Do what people are willing to pay for.” This rule isn’t about making money. Instead, it’s about using money as a “neutral indicator of value” - a way of figuring out if you have enough career capital to succeed with a pursuit. Cal calls this the law of financial viability and concludes that it’s a vital tool for navigating your acquisition of control. This law applies whether you’re thinking of embarking on an entrepreneurial venture or of taking on a new role at an established company. Unless people are willing to pay you, it’s not an idea you’re ready to go after.

Rule 4: Think Small, Act Big (Or the Importance of Mission)

The central theme of this book is simple: To end up with work that you love, you have to first accumulate career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then spend this capital on the type of features that define engaging careers. Mission, according to the author, is one of those features.

Cal explains, in the first chapter of this rule, that you can’t take shortcuts and just dive straight into a great mission without first achieving mastery in your field. He argues that the best ideas for missions are located in the adjacent possible - the region just beyond your field’s cutting edge.

To come in contact with these ideas, you have to first get to that cutting edge, which in turn requires expertise. You’re heading for failure if you try to come up with a mission when you’re a n00b in your field and don’t have any career capital.

So you’ve found yourself a mission, now what? Well, you have to launch projects to make it succeed. Call identifies two strategies to help with this. The first one consists of making little bets that generate concrete feedback then use that feedback to help figure out the way forward.

The second strategy is called the law of remarkability. This law says that for a project to transform a mission into a success, it should be remarkable in two ways:

  1. It must literally compel people to remark about it.
  2. It must be launched in a venue conducive to such remarking.


The book concludes with Cal’s own experience in applying the rules contained in this book to his own life and career and conveys the author’s hope that this book will help you find the right path in your own career.

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