Don’t Follow Your Passion; Here is What You Should Do Instead

I have written in bits and pieces, on this blog, about not being married to an idea. Even outside of this blog, I’m sure you’ve heard it before: don’t follow your passion. I am here to reiterate that advice or to provide additional nuance to buttress that point.  

It is not that following your passion is bad per se. It’s that any idea that is so romanticized is bound to fail. Even when you achieve the biggest dream, goal, plan, ambition, you would realize you are still the same person, with the same worries and anxieties. And that is a feeling that destroys people. Following your passion is not a specific salve to bring you happiness for the rest of your life. Your happiness, I am sorry to announce, is not unlocked by some true calling or purpose. Your life is not going to be magically wonderful when you finally achieve the uncrackable dream. I am sorry to let you know. The path to happiness is  broad and filled with bumps that you get better at navigating the further on the journey you go. 

In Cal Newport’s book, “So Good They Good Can’t Ignore You”, (and we are no stranger to him on this blog. See here and here) he explains how on the quest to find out what to do with his own life after getting his Ph.D. (and with slim chances of getting an academic position), he sought out to answer the question “how do people end up loving what they do”?

Finding and/or following your passion is a flawed process. The idea that you have to match your job to a pre-existing passion is nonsensical. And I know we’ve all listened to the popular Steve Job’s Stanford’s commencement speech. Let’s pause and acknowledge the fact that the man’s work ethic and style of working is not quite what we want to emulate; “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.” This sentiment aligns with the general idea that before you can be happy, you must first find what you’re passionate about and THEN find a job that matches that passion. Newport calls this the passion hypothesis. 

If we examine Jobs’ life the way Newport does, then it becomes clear that either Jobs was lying or he was deliberately misleading us. He was never really passionate about technology and/or entrepreneurship per se. He really just stumbled on it. He was, “something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash”. That doesn’t look like someone who first searched for his passion. If he followed his own advice and only pursued work he loved, then he would be at a Zen center teaching yoga or something. Apple was not born out of passion; it was a lucy break or as Newport describes, a “small time scheme that unexpectedly took off”. 

Passion is rare, uncertain, vague. The reality is that a lot of career journeys are messy, unclear, and confusing. If there is anything to take from Jobs’ Stanford speech, it’s that you can’t connect the dots looking forward. It’s only looking backwards that most of it makes sense. You are never going to be sure. Most people aren’t. It also takes sooo much time to get good at anything. 

Professor of organizational behavior, Amy Wrzesniewski, at Yale explored the distinction between a job, a career, and a calling. By her definition, a job is a way to pay bills; a career is a path toward increasingly better work; and a calling is work that is an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity. She found that the type of work alone does not necessarily predict how much people enjoy it. Instead, the strongest predictor of seeing your work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job. Following this logic, the most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position but those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do

Even the scientific explanation for motivation, a framework called self-determination theory (SDT) tells us that to get motivation at work or elsewhere for that matter you need 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 (connection to other people). You know what scientists didn’t find? “Matching work to pre-existing passion”.

This is fantastic news. Because let’s face it: people rarely have any relevant passion that makes a useful contribution to the society. Don’t let anyone convince you that there is a fantastical, magical “right” job for you and that you will immediately recognize this is work you were meant to do. This trope by itself is not the danger; what makes it dangerous and destructive is when people never get this certainty and then lose every sense of self. 

There is a caveat. There always is. There are a few people for whom the “follow your passion” thing works. Right out of the womb, some people always knew they would be doctors. Professional athletes too, sometimes, fall into this camp. But that it works for a few people doesn’t mean it is universal. 

So, if following your passion is ridiculous advice, what should you do? Cal Newport offers suggestions which can be summed up to:

Be so good they can’t ignore you

This can be frustrating advice when you’ve done all you can and no one cares. Newport challenges us to stop focusing on those little details and instead dare to become better. For instance, focus on the hours you spend dedicated to the work. That incremental progress from that angle can be really helpful. One example Newport cited was a guitarist who was happy simply “spending hours every day, week after week, in a barely furnished monastic room, exhausting himself in pursuit of a new flat-picking technique, all because he thinks it will add something important to the tune he is writing.” Newport also realized that the dedication to the output explained the guitarist’s modesty. To Jordan (the guitarist) arrogance just didn’t make sense. Ignore the noise and just focus on becoming incredibly good that they can’t ignore you. If you want a career you love (and by the way, you don’t have to LOVE your job/career), you need this craftsman mindset. This mindset, Newport argues, focuses on what you can offer the world. Whereas the passion mindset focuses on what the world can offer you. Forget about whether your job is your passion and instead focus on becoming really really good at it. Approach your work like a performer. One might say, as I too thought, that it may be a little easier to do this for something you’re already passionate about. Newport argues this is a fallacy cos if you spend time with enough performers, you would realize that they are all insecure and also never really sure it’s their true calling too.

Traits that make a great job (such as creativity, impact, control) are rare and valuable so you need to build rare and valuable skills to get such jobs. The great thing about the craftsmanship mentality is that you don’t have to stress about finding your calling. Any work can be your calling. And it’s true that some jobs are better suited for applying this craftsmanship mindset. If a job doesn’t allow you to develop relevant skills that are rare and valuable or if the job requires you to focus on something YOU think is useless or heck, bad for the world or the job requires that you work with people you don’t like, then absolutely it's not possible to apply the craftsmanship mentality. Because you would not even be able to stick long enough to accomplish the goal. And yet these things have nothing to do with passion or not. 

Focus on capabilities over “calling”. Even if we looked at it from the Biblical perspective. I don’t remember anywhere it says that Jesus’s passion was carpentry. God has not bestowed us with any one calling or singular purpose beyond bringing glory to God. But how else would Instagram Christian influencers and pastors make money if they don’t peddle some secret to finding you special calling?

It's the age-old hard work. Focus on stretching yourself, on getting constructive feedback, on becoming exceptional. But know that even with this, there is a little bit of luck. 

If I’m not convincing you, even science hasn’t found evidence of natural ability in explaining experts’ successes. It is more about deliberate practice, which predicts excellence. Deliberate practice is what makes experts look effortless and natural. I once heard that Stephen Curry does an insane amount of daily practice, with a huge component being him just repeatedly throwing balls. That would drive even me crazy. 

Unlike basketball and say chess, or a musical instrument, most of us find ourselves in fields that lack clear structure and training curriculums or philosophy. So, you have to be deliberate in incorporating it into your work life.  Deliberate practice will be uncomfortable and almost physically painful. If you are not uncomfortable, then you are probably stuck at an “acceptable level”.  

The kind of career capital you get from deliberate practice and being exceptional at your job is how you get things like control and autonomy at work. Control is about the key ingredient in the dream job elixir. It is one of the most important qualities to have a more meaningful, happier, and successful life. Yet, if you pursue this control without having career capital to offer, you will quickly find it’s not sustainable. 

This is why in the meantime,  you probably will need to just do what you can get paid for or what people are willing to pay you for. If you are deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, Newport says, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. Before you quit your job and jump on that “adventure”, at least get some tangible evidence that you could get paid for it in form of a salary, an investment, a loan. Because beyond just making money, it’s a way to test how much career capital you have. 

I loved learning about Pardi Sabeti and how she loves to have fun despite being a serious and accomplished scientist.  She has refused the cynicism that traps so many academics and deliberately builds an engaging life that includes hobbies  like playing volleyball, being a part of a band.

Ultimately, it does seem like Newport was arguing that mission/passion/calling and similar can be found. You just need to first lay the foundation and put in the work or if you “build career capital first” or “first get to the cutting edge”.  He calls it a desirable trait but concedes to how fickle they are.  I disagree. 

I think all your life, you can have a job that is just a job, with which you can afford all the other things you want. I am being a little hypocritical here since I myself don’t think of my job as just a job.  Yet, I think you can become a master at your job and still not have a mission within that space. In any case, we both agree that first trying to figure out your passion is a fool’s errand but having a passion for your work is completely okay. 

Even when the so-called passion is missing, the one thing you have some control over is the ability or capacity to master your work. 

Sometimes, so many things interest us or may seem compelling to us. It is okay to take your time to figure it out. It’s okay to start small and take numerous small steps rather than starting with one big idea or planning out a project in advance. When former venture capitalist, Peter Sims, studied a variety of successful innovators like Chris Rock, Steve Rock, and successful companies like Amazon, Pixar, the commonality across board was that they used little bets and the critical information from lots of little failures and small wins to arrive at extraordinary outcomes.  So you just work right instead of idealizing some job somewhere in the ether. You don’t need to have some ideal, most perfect job to find happiness. 

It sounds so appealing and enticing to quit all you know and go do some specialized thing. No, focus on getting better at what you do. Master rare and valuable skills, and when you get the career capital such skills generate, leverage it. Do that instead.

I had planned to write this during graduation season but life happened man. Hopefully, it's not too late for our graduating class to learn this. Every time I'm asked to talk to students about my career and how they can figure out theirs, I say some variation of don't try to figure it all out at once. It is because it is true: you can't ever figure it all out at once. Take it one step at a time and trust (in God and yourself or whatever you believe) that it will be okay.



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