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Is Following Your Passion a Bad Idea?

sogoodtheycantignore-coverSo Good They Can’t Ignore You is a book I’ve been ignoring for a long time.

Published in 2012, the book’s author Cal Newport—author of How to Become a Straight-A Student, How to Be a High School Superstar, How to Win at College—struck me as suspiciously straight-laced and unquestioning of traditional education. A brief examination of his personal story revealed an extremely high-achieving, productivity-obsessed Ivy League graduate who seemed to have played by all the rules, profited handsomely, and now peddled the idea that “following your passion is dangerous advice” (the central theme of his book). This felt like a book I could indeed ignore. It’s also possible that I wanted to avoid confronting criticism of my own 2012 book, Better Than College, which promoted the “follow your passion” philosophy.

But over the years I also noticed that Cal writes an insightful blog and seems like a genuinely good person. He’s received endorsements from many authors who I admire and have endorsed my own work: Daniel Pink, Derek Sivers, Seth Godin, and Ben Casnocha. And, I had to admit, the “don’t follow your passion” thesis compelled me by the sheer virtue of its contrarianism. Having just finished leading 11 teenagers around New Zealand’s South Island for 6 weeks and feeling reflective about my own career, I bought the Kindle edition and read it in 2 days.

Here’s the deal: Newport’s book makes valid points that will help recent graduates and mid-career professionals think about their next big moves. But its central thesis—that following your passion is a bad idea—is dangerously oversimplified. The real message in this book is: when you follow your passions, make well-informed decisions instead of impulsive ones.

Newport begins with the story of a young man named Thomas who, having obtained degrees in philosophy, theology, and religion, travels the world and becomes increasingly passionate about Zen Buddhism. He throws himself into this pursuit by joining a monastery in upstate New York where he lives ascetically and struggles to solve Zen koans. But after solving an especially tricky koan, Thomas realizes that “the undiluted peace and happiness that had populated his daydreams” hadn’t materialized. On this, Newport comments:

Thomas had followed his passion to the Zen Mountain Monastery, believing, as many do, that the key to happiness is identifying your true calling and then chasing after it with all the courage you can muster. But as Thomas experienced that late Sunday afternoon in the oak forest, this belief is frighteningly naïve. Fulfilling his dream to become a full-time Zen practitioner did not magically make his life wonderful.

After reading it twice, I still don’t understand why Newport chose this tale to open his book. Is he arguing that “following your passion” always works out—that there aren’t dead-ends or unforeseen realizations along life’s path?

In the end of the book we learn that Thomas leaves the monastery and returns to the lowly data entry job that he hated just a few years ago. But now:

…he approached his working life with a new awareness. His experience at the monastery had freed him from the escapist thoughts of fantasy jobs that had once dominated his mind. He was able instead to focus on the tasks he was given and on accomplishing them well. He was free from the constant, draining comparisons he used to make between his current work and some magical future occupation waiting to be discovered.

Thomas excels at his new career, receiving multiple promotions and becoming a computer systems manager for some giant company.

I’m sorry, but I don’t see where Thomas went wrong here. He developed an informed passion for Buddhism over many years, gave the “big time” a shot, and it didn’t work out. He then transitioned to a more traditional career where he likely excelled due to the mental training he received at the monastery and the generally rigorous way he followed his interest in eastern religion. As an opening salvo against following one’s passion, I think it’s an incredibly weak example.

Okay, we can’t spend all our time on the Introduction. Newport’s book does have a lot of good advice to offer, mixed in with the dubious.

In chapter one, Newport defines his enemy, the Passion Hypothesis:

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

He correctly identifies that this hypothesis is a sort of secular religion in America. We—at least, we who come from generally liberal households with high levels of education, as I suspect Newport did—are told from a young age to do what we love and the money will follow and that happiness means following your passion. I completely agree.

Now Newport begins his attack, arguing that following your passion might just be terrible advice. He cites the story of Steve Jobs, who many revere as a guru of passion-seeking, thanks to his wildly popular 2005 Stanford commencement speech. Jobs wasn’t actually passionate about technology and entrepreneurship, Newport argues, but rather a spiritual seeker who “[dabbled] in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash” and only started Apple because he was in the right place at the right time and connected to the right people (most notably Steve Wozniak). Newport concludes:

If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, we would probably find him today as one of the Los Altos Zen Center’s most popular teachers.

Really? Isn’t it possible that the “work he loved” was exactly what Jobs ended up doing—and that’s why he did it? Newport seems to assume that any idealistic interest (in eastern religion, for example) that doesn’t lead to marketable job skills is some sort of dangerous distraction. But I think an equal argument can be made—and Newport later makes it himself—that such interests, passions, and side-projects are exactly what lead us to unique and meaningful career opportunities. Newport fails to cite the famous story of Jobs’ inspiration for developing Apple’s font faces, which came from the calligraphy class he audited after dropping out of Reed College. More pure an example of following your passion cannot be found, and this directly led to a key competitive feature in the future Apple computer. Again, Newport’s chosen story doesn’t seem to back up his thesis, and sometimes it actively opposes it.

In chapter two, Newport argues that compelling careers have complex origins that don’t neatly follow a “just go follow your passion” storyline, which is generally useful advice for any highly optimistic young person. He then summarizes some relevant findings in social science research, telling us that:

  • Most young people say they have passions, but they’re often related to sports, dance, reading, and other not-highly-marketable interests. (Is this surprising?)
  • “…the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.”
  • To feel self-motivated at work you need three things: 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), and Relatedness (the feeling of connection to other people).

The third finding is that of Self-Determination Theory—the same research that Daniel Pink masterfully summarized in his book Drive—and its  “Competence” feature neatly encompasses the second research finding: people who are good at their work enjoy it more. This is all good stuff to be aware of as a career-seeker.

Newport points out that “passion” doesn’t appear in any of this research, and therefore “working right [i.e. finding a job that offers autonomy, competence, and relatedness] trumps finding the right work.” I agree, but I don’t buy Newport’s implicit argument that following your interests will necessarily lead you away from such quality work. He seems to think that following one’s passion is a childish act undertaken by those naively seeking instant career happiness. Why does he make such a sweeping assumption? The clues come in the next chapter.

Chapter three neatly summarizes the history of the “follow your passion” meme, which was birthed at the same time as the cultural revolution of the late 60’s (unsurprisingly) and nicely correlates with the success of Richard Bolles’ famous career book What Color Is Your Parachute? Newport’s analysis of this book’s significance is illuminating:

Parachute, in other words, helped introduce the baby boom generation to this passion-centric take on career, a lesson they have now passed down to their children, the echo boom generation, which has since raised the bar on passion obsession. This young generation has “high expectations for work,” explains psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, an expert on the mindset of the modern postgrad. “They expect work to be not just a job but an adventure[,]… a venue for self-development and self-expression[,]… and something that provides a satisfying fit with their assessment of their talents.”

Let’s pause here for a moment and ask: What the hell is wrong with this? Isn’t this a wonderful thing? As our cultures and economies have developed, more people have been given the chance to do work that’s meaningful to them, instead of just spending another day in the coal mines. Isn’t this something to be celebrated?

Newport isn’t sure. He argues:

The more I studied the issue, the more I noticed that the passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.

Okay, job-hopping: maybe a bad thing, maybe not. I’m sure glad that I job-hopped relentlessly as a recent graduate, stumbling toward my current career path. And as Newport argues just a few chapters later, it’s important to “make small bets” (i.e. do small experiments) with your career in order to find a good fit. To job-hop is to make a small bet.

Crippling self-doubt: is this really only the province of people who follow their passions? What about the crippling self-doubt of those who remain on a unsatisfying career track because they’re too terrified to try something new and different? Might this doubt just be a byproduct of any life in any modern, free society that offers a limitless number of possible careers?

I think I know what you’re getting at, Cal. If you always live life with a “grass is greener on the other side” attitude, you’re going to suffer. And if you imagine that some mythical “better job” will suddenly make you happy (or make “work” not feel like “work”), then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But these attitudes aren’t remedied the pursuit of interests and passions, they’re remedied by studying philosophy (especially eastern philosophy), surrounding yourself with good role models, and simply getting older and gaining life experience. It’s unfair to paint the entire idea of “follow your passion” in such a negative light. As a simplistic prescription, yes, it might be dangerous advice; but the opposite advice might be even more dangerous. Better, I believe, to keep the “follow your passion” meme and temper it with realistic assessments of the time, effort, and luck required to create such a life. (And perhaps that’s exactly the point of this book.)

The really good stuff in Newport’s book starts in chapter four, where he starts offering positive advice for how to find and build a satisfying career. He begins by defining the Craftsman Mindset:

[The Craftsman Mindset] 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 career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.

This is the beginning of Newport’s focus on the importance of building rare and valuable career skills: skills that make you “so good they can’t ignore you,” in the words of actor and comedian Steve Martin. (The “they” in that sentence means employers and clients.) I completely agree with this part of Newport’s argument, and it meshes with my own career experiences.

I’m also a fan of Newport’s distinction between focusing on what you can offer the world (the Craftsman Mindset) and focusing on what the world can offer you (the ill-named Passion Mindset). In Better Than College I noted this distinction as the difference between Self-Directed Learning 1.0—in which you focus on learning stuff simply because it interests you—and Self-Directed Learning 2.0—in which you learn stuff and then use it to offer value to other people (as I’m doing by writing this book review, for example). “Focusing on what you can offer the world” is the essential message behind work, entrepreneurship, and adulthood in general. Newport doesn’t help his case by pigeonholing passion-followers into the opposite camp, essentially deeming them to be childish and naive. Again, why can’t these two worlds co-exist? It’s not one or the other. You can follow your passion and focus on what you can offer the world.

Chapter five offers perhaps the most concrete advice for job-seekers: his three traits that define great work.

  1. Creativity: getting the chance to do novel work and push established boundaries.
  2. Impact: feeling like you’re positively influencing a large number of people.
  3. Control: being in charge of the time, location, and method of your work.

When people talk about having great jobs, meaningful work, or a satisfying work-life balance, these traits are probably what they’re describing. Through the rest of the book Newport does a good job of illustrating the value of pursuing these traits, and accurately argues that the only way you get such an awesome job is by having equally awesome skills (which he calls “career capital”) to offer in return—skills that you gain by adopting the Craftsman Mindset.

Napoleon Dynamite said it all with fewer words:

Newport takes a break to cherry-pick another unhelpful story of passion-seeking: that of Lisa Feuer, a 38-year-old woman working unhappily in advertising who quit her job, took a 200-hour yoga instructor course, and then opened a yoga practice focused on young children and pregnant women which folded at the same time as the 2009 recession—at which point Feuer apparently ended up going on food stamps. Jesus, Newport, get off it! This is not a good example! Feuer may have impulsively entered a crowded marketplace with a minimum of training, and perhaps that was her downfall. Or perhaps she embraced the Craftsman Mindset and her business model was sound, and the recession just took the wind out of its sails. Instead of making this anecdote representative of everyone who follows their passions, use it to point out that jumping into something risky (like starting a business) with lots of optimism but little training is a dicey proposition. Or sometimes forces outside our control can sink best-laid plans. Counsel preparation and moderation; don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What about people in truly dumb, bad, or meaningless jobs? Should they forsake day-to-day workplace satisfaction in order to build “career capital?” Luckily, Newport lands on the right side of the fence on this question. His three disqualifiers for applying the Craftsman Mindset include:

  1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
  3. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

Drawing an illustration from his own life, Newport explains that when he was a computer scientist at MIT, he turned down many offers from Wall Street headhunters who wanted to hire him because such banking jobs triggered the second disqualifier. Now, wouldn’t we call this a “values mismatch?” Might we even conclude that Newport wasn’t passionate about banking or its effects on the world? Ever cautious to not contradict his own theory, Newport notes:

…these disqualifying traits still have nothing to do with whether a job is the right fit for some innate passion.

Hmm. This begs the question, what exactly is an “innate passion?” We never get a concrete definition in the book. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole. I like Newport’s three disqualifiers, and they serve as a valuable litmus test for anyone asking herself, “Should I get the hell out of this job, even if I’m making a lot of money?”

In chapter six, Newport shares the full stories of a 31-year-old television writer and 29-year-old venture capitalist who he believes exemplify the Craftsman Mindset. The stories are inspiring illustrations of how a few young guys climbed highly competitive career ladders. But at this point in the book, something else started stealing my attention: the realization that virtually all of Newport’s case studies are high-achieving Ivy League graduates that seem to come from very comfortable backgrounds (you start to get this feeling when the someone “spends his summers with his family on an island in Maine”). Newport seems to fit this profile, too.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with writing for a specific audience, and I realize that as an author of a book like this, you’re writing first and foremost for yourself (and people like you). In my own books about alternative education, I’ve made the assumption that families have certain middle-class resources at their disposal. But I felt that in Newport’s book in particular, there was an elephant in the room, namely: “this book only pertains to you if you’re an Ivy League graduate with great family resources at your disposal.” No one outside this demographic was mentioned in the book.

Chapter seven is dedicated to explaining deliberate practice, an important psychology finding about which I’ve written in two of my books. Newport shines here. (Search his blog for more good writing on deliberate practice.) In essence: to build real skills and “career capital,” you have to work your butt off. Most people don’t like working their butts off. So if you can master deliberate practice, you’ll build mad skills and quickly separate yourself from the pack. This is all good and true.

Chapters eight through eleven dwell on the Control factor that we encountered back in the three traits that define great work. Newport reviews why having control over the time and place of your work is important (I’m a believer!) and examines the potential “traps” of pursuing such control:

  1. Jumping into a high-control situation (e.g. starting a business) without enough real skills or experience
  2. Dealing with resistance from employers who want to keep you around when you do develop valuable skills/experience
  3. Making sure that people will actually pay for your service/business before you start it.

Strangely absent from this chapter is a discussion of the virtues and drawbacks of self-employment. Most of those who pursue Control do so by starting their own businesses, but Newport doesn’t explicitly name self-employment as a way to achieve Control. Much of the book is couched in the language of “jobs” and employer/employee, but some of its best case studies feature self-employed people. Strange.

Chapter twelve argues in favor of having a mission: “a unifying focus for your career.” I agree. But doesn’t this sound suspiciously like having a “passion” that guides your career? Pay no heed. Newport argues you can’t really figure out a mission until you’ve accumulated a bunch of career capital. Which is another way of saying that experience helps us make informed decisions and better understand a domain. Yup, got it. Again, this advice doesn’t conflict with the “follow your passion” model; it simply adds a disclaimer: “follow your passion, but not just one that lives in your head. Pay attention to the real world around you.”

Chapter thirteen talks more about mission, and Newport makes a really good point:

If you want to identify a mission for your working life. . . you must first get to the cutting edge—the only place where these missions become visible.

Choosing a good mission (or passion) is difficult if you don’t know what’s already been done. Here Newport argues for building domain knowledge (e.g. in my case, learning the ins and outs of the world of alternative education) before deciding where to make your mark. This is solid advice, and it’s especially relevant to aspiring entrepreneurs. We cannot magically will ourselves into understanding what other people (or “the world”) needs; we must work, learn, and meet people to gain that understanding, and that takes time. Along the way, you might as well do the best work possible and gain rare and valuable skills which will open doors for you. That’s my distillation of these chapters.

Chapter fourteen introduces the concept of making “little bets”, i.e. doing lots of mini-experiments in your career that might lead to bigger opportunities. This is essentially the design process applied to one’s career. Instead of choosing some big, pie-in-the-sky goal for your career (i.e. making a “big bet”), go explore different possibilities, develop side projects, get feedback on them, and expect that most will fail. Good advice.

Chapter fifteen is about marketing, and it can be boiled down into one sentence: Do interesting stuff, because other people like you more when you’re interesting. Yup. This didn’t require a “law of remarkability.” (The book has enough self-proclaimed “laws” and “rules” already.)

So Good They Can’t Ignore You concludes with Newport’s own story of achieving an assistant professorship at Georgetown University. He relates stories from his childhood that paint a picture of a precocious youth—he and his friend started a web design company in the late 90’s that landed contracts between $5,000-$10,000—and his incredible personal drive during college at Dartmouth, where he got perfect grades, published student-advice guides, and was hounded by calls from a literary agent. His is a story of a genuinely, almost freakishly hard worker, and someone with a very analytical and austere mindset. I’d put money on his Myers-Briggs type being INTJ. I don’t get the sense that Cal Newport has much sympathy for romantics or idealists.

This book will most benefit those much like Newport: organized, serious, intellectual, and ambitious young people who find themselves bound for the Ivy Leagues and traditional, high-achieving and highly paid careers. And even for those who don’t fit this mold, Newport’s book offers valuable insights, perhaps most importantly his invocation to look before you leap into a “dream job” that you imagine will make you happy—patience and diligent work might be what you need more than idealistic courage. Newport properly reminds you to be prepared to suck up lame responsibilities in entry-level jobs and to build real skills and “career capital” before striking out on your own. But do you need give up on following your passions in the process? No way. Newport’s book failed to convince me of its central thesis. Don’t give up your passions. Instead, read this book to temper your idealism with basic, common-sense career-building strategies.