Why Following Your Passion is Bad Career Advice

Don't follow your passion

In a previous post I focused on an Art of Charm podcast featuring Cal Newport’s discussion of Deep Work. I found his take on the huge advantage of those who learn how to productively create valuable end products useful and thought-provoking.

Similarly, I think his take on career management is not only powerful but perhaps, for some of you, bordering on heresy. Specifically he makes these points:

  • Although he agrees that ending up with a career that you are passionate about is a great goal, you shouldn’t start by trying to figure out “what you’re passionate about;”
  • He argues that this advice assumes there is some predefined work passion lurking within each of us that we need to divine; he disagrees with this “predestination” approach because it generates both enormous and unnecessary stress as well as takes the focus away from a more actionable and effective strategy;
  • Based on the reverse engineering of people who have successful careers that they find fulfilling, he observed that common and core to these people was the development of a “rare and valuable: expert skill;
  • This talent, valued by an organization, invests you with greater leverage — control — over your career, allowing you to define and refine your work;
  • This control, as well as the positive feedback from your talent, plus the satisfaction of increasing mastery of a valued and (by definition) hard to replicate skill also provides ever-increasing satisfaction;
  • It is the cumulative effect of having a rare and valuable skill that is valued within the context of a job where you have a high degree of control and choices that engenders positive feelings about one’s work — a sense of passion and satisfaction.

He also discusses why so many people say “you should follow your passion” when they hand out career advice. In essence all people, including successful people, find it very hard to engage in objective self-reflection as to the pathway of their success; the phrase “follow your passion” has become an easy piece of advice that has the advantage of sounding plausible.

I would add that although building a rare and valuable skill (a craft) requires an ability to work doggedly through an unglamorous and often painful learning curve as we “pay our dues” to hone our expertise (analogous to the often tedious practice a world-class athlete must endure), the truly successful people find ways to find this process of practice and learning itself rewarding and enjoyable. So there is, in a sense, a kind of “passion” there, but it is an ability to stay focused on the hard work of honing a rare and valuable skill. It is this that that then leads ultimately to a career that one is passionate about.

Here are some excerpts from the podcast:

The Basic Idea

Segment 1 – The Idea

Tips and Tactics

Segment 2 – Tips

How to Approach Your Job

Segment 3 – How to Approach Your Job

Craft as the Foundation

Segment 4 – Craft as the Foundation

The Wrap-up

Segment 5 – Wrap-up

The Art of Charm summarizes his approach as follows:

In search of when “follow your passion” became such commonplace advice, Cal found it not in the playbooks of the ancients, but on the cusp of the most recent millennium — which is why so many millennials take it as gospel. It’s all they’ve ever heard. But what would someone on the cusp of an older millennium have to say about it?

“Let’s go back and talk to Aristotle,” proposes Cal. “He would say to you, ‘No, that’s crazy. That’s not at all what you need to be doing! You need to flourish. And to flourish, you have to find skills and really hone them and develop them and really push your potential as a human to do all the things that humans can do — and it’s going to be really hard work, but you’ll have this sense of flourishing.’”

Cal says this means developing skills that make you rare and valuable. As you get better at these skills, you earn leverage over your work life that you can use to push your career toward things that resonate and away from things that don’t. Over time, that career becomes a source of passion for you. Trying to find an answer to the question of how we develop these skills really quickly so we can transform our lives sooner rather than later was the basis for Cal’s most recent book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

“If you can give something your full attention without distraction,” says Cal, “give it really intense attention, two things happen. One, you just produce things that are much better than if you’re working in a distracted state. Two, that’s exactly the state that pushes your abilities and makes you better. It’s like doing pull-ups for your mind.”

When trying to decide what skills you should develop that will make you more rare and valuable in the workplace, Cal suggests setting your sights on a higher level person in your organization (or a field you’d like to know more about) who does something that appeals to you. Strike up a conversation and try to understand what they did differently from their peers to rise to where they are today. What made them stand out?

Try discovering their path rather than asking for an evaluation of how they ended up there — because a lot of them will unironically say they followed their passion! Cal says sifting through a conversation like this is akin to investigative reporting, because you’re trying to coax details from subjects that might not even be aware of their own process and decode the information that’s actually important.

Another way we might recalibrate our expectations of meaningful work is to consider adopting a craftsman mindset over a passion mindset. “This is actually a big part of my writing,” says Cal, “is trying to reclaim this term craftsmanship for the digital age. Because I think it applies just as well to someone doing high-level knowledge work as it does to our clichéd example of a woodworker in a barn somewhere up in the forests of Michigan. Because what is craftsmanship at its core? It’s actually trying to take and hone a skill and apply it as well as you can to produce the best possible thing that you can.”

When you follow the passion mindset, you’re constantly asking what the job offers you — which then causes you to focus on the things you don’t like about the job.

When you follow the craftsman mindset, you’re constantly considering the value you’re producing not just for yourself, but the world. You’re concerned with how well you’re pulling it off, and you start to focus on having pride in your work and honing your skills to become even better at your craft.

“It’s at the core of my philosophy that if you shift from the passion mindset to the craftsman mindset, your work gets much more meaningful, you get much more anxious about your career and your job, and your skills really start to skyrocket.”

Ask not what your job can do for you; ask what you can do for your job. You might be surprised to discover the dividends that will make their way back to you.


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