Why 'Follow Your Passion' Is The Worst Career Advice

follow passionBy Cal Newport

Do you want to love what you do for a living? Follow your passion! This advice dominates our current thinking on careers and happiness. It also happens to be dead wrong.

I don't disagree with the goal of feeling passionate about your work, but based on the years I've spent researching and writing on this topic, I do disagree with the strategy of identifying a passion in advance.

For one thing, there's little evidence that most people have pre-existing passions that can be transformed into a career. For another, decades of studies on workplace motivation and satisfaction point toward the importance of more general traits like autonomy and a feeling of competence -- traits that can be cultivated in many different jobs. In other words, there's no perfect position waiting for you to discover. Instead of daydreaming about what else is out there, turn your attention toward getting the most out of what you have now. Aim to cultivate passion, not follow it.

Here are three strategies that will help.


Strategy No. 1: Focus on what you offer your job, not what your job offers you.

In studying the issue of workplace satisfaction, one observation came up time and again: The more valuable you are to your organization, the more satisfaction you'll get out of your job. There are two explanations for this rule. First, as generations of craftsman can attest, a feeling of competence is exceptionally rewarding. Second, the more value you offer, the more freedom you gain over what you do and how you do it. This autonomy is also a source of great satisfaction. The implication is that when you're new to a job, you should never ask, "Do I love this?" Because you're new, you're not yet very valuable, which means you're not yet feeling the competence and autonomy that leads to passion.

Instead, the right question to ask is, "How do I get better?" Focusing on what you offer your job, not what your job offers you, provides the shortest path to a compelling career.

More: 9 Great Second Careers That Don't Require Four-Year Degrees


Strategy No. 2: Leverage your value.

Becoming valuable to your organization, as argued above, can bring you a satisfying feeling of competence and autonomy. But those who end up with most exceptional career paths don't stop at simply becoming good. Once they've established real value, they use it as leverage to move closer to their dream lifestyle. If you crave simplicity, for example, you might leverage your value to relocate somewhere idyllic, working remotely at a high hourly rate only a few days out of the week. On the other hand, if you crave action and power, you might leverage your value to take control of a new entrepreneurial unit within your organization, keeping you in the center of something exciting.

This strategy sounds simple, but it's easy to get wrong. Many try to jump into a dream lifestyle before they have real value to back it up, leading to failure. Moving to a cabin in Maine to write books, for example, might sound great, but if you haven't actually put in the years required to become a good writer, it's not a sustainable plan. On the other hand, many others never step up and leverage their value once they've earned it. Be patient in building skills, but then recognize and exploit your value once earned.


Strategy No. 3: Seek flexibility, not specificity.

The advantage of this career philosophy is that it frees you from the obligation to find your one true calling, as there are many different jobs that can be transformed into a source of passion. It doesn't necessarily hold, however, that all jobs are made equal.

A general rule of thumb that works well when choosing between positions, or deciding whether to leave a current position, is to prioritize flexibility. Ask yourself the following: "Will this job offer me interesting options if I start to become really good at what I do?" The more you answer in the positive, the better the position. Don't obsess over the specifics of what you'd be doing -- as this will change as your career progresses and you gain more leverage -- instead set yourself up in an environment that will be most easily crafted as you develop your ability.


Cal Newport is the author of So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (Business Plus). He is currently on the faculty at Georgetown University and writes the popular advice blog, Study Hacks. For more on Cal, please visit his website.




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39 Comments

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Zeina Issa

A piece of advice you often hear when it comes to being successful is to do what you love. So, how do you find your passion? Here are some pointers from the team at Bayt.com: http://goo.gl/1kYab0

February 18 2014 at 8:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Vested100

I've been in this industry for seven YEARS, gotten raises, became the "go-to" person for various assignments. I've paid out of my own pocket for extra training and seminars, traveled, the whole deal....and the only thing I have to show for it is seething resentment. I guess you could argue that my passion has been cultivated...a passionate hatred for my work! Yes, I know what I'm doing, and yes, I'm good at it. But the hatred for my occupation has grown even stronger. The customers compliment me; the boss compliments me....and I still hate what I do!!

Leverage what? Aside from the boss, I'm the only employee here! This advice would only hold for a large & flexible company.

The only saving grace was: "Ask yourself the following: "Will this job offer me interesting options if I start to become really good at what I do?"". The answer is a resounding HELL NO! At least by knowing this, I can stop fantasizing about killing my customers in the parking lot.

Maybe 'Follow Your Passion' isn't always the best advice, but 'Follow Your Misery and Hope That One Day it Pays Off' certainly isn't any better!

February 14 2014 at 5:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
David M Harrington

The author of this article is wrong, follow your passion! We can debate if the word passion is defined as a set of skills, proclivity, or God given gifts. Humans are more than what this article processes. Please look to work at what you love.

March 15 2013 at 6:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
surfxsmith

I just want to play the guitar.

March 05 2013 at 3:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Flyte

"Talent" is a dime a dozen. So if you truly do wish to follow your passion it takes ultimate sacrifice. Not half-assing it hoping money finds you. I'm a musician and filmmaker. I'm not rich and famous but I make enough money to pay my bills, take care of my wife and baby and live happily. I'm still striving to get bigger and bigger in this entertainment industry and I dropped out of high school to do it. I knew what I wanted at a young age and never gave up. I highly encourage anyone with an artistic passion who thinks they would be miserable with a boring day job to at least go all out and try. Don't compete against the next...hone your craft and LEARN how to move up the latter. Step By Step.

March 05 2013 at 1:39 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Flyte

What a ridiculous article. Clearly the writer has no idea what "passion" is. I can't tell you how many people I've met who are considered the "greatest ever" at whatever day job they have yet happen to want to blow up the building because they hate it so much. What you offer your job is a typical American answer toward everything in life. It's how you train slaves of society. American Cattle. Economy 1st. You 2nd. That should be the title of this lame article.

March 05 2013 at 1:32 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
jordan0204

its no worse than "go to college if you want to get a good job"

March 04 2013 at 11:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jordan0204

The saying should be "Follow your passion, but be ready to live your occupation, work harder than anybody else and be very creative in how you make money at it"

March 04 2013 at 11:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joe453

I couldn't agree less! This philosophy is looking at things from a position of weakness. It starts from the belief that you have to seek to fit in to what positions are already out there. This is not what an entrepeneur would do, nor should you.! Yes it is probably true that most people do not have the drive, courage or confidence to stick with something they truly love or desire. But I do unquestionably believe that if I want something badly enough, and refuse to settle for "no", then I will achieve that which I desire. It is the attitude which separates winners from losers. And it is the reason that the majority of wealth in this world is controlled by so few. They are the ones who did not settle for what society suggested!

March 04 2013 at 10:43 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
RiverBoatQueen

Every person has their hobbies and one should not confuse work with a hobby. I wanted to be an artist, but my folks forbade it. They said be a nurse, so I became an RN and I love that sort of work, but I'd rather draw and paint, but there's no money in art.
So, my parents were right. Do something that is highly in demand, like Nursing and then on the side, pursue your art. There's not a dime in art. Don't waste your time getting a degree in Fine Arts or Graphic Arts. I have friends who's kids majored in Graphic Arts. Its a joke! They work at McDonald's or Big 5 and that's all that they're ever going to hope for.

March 04 2013 at 9:49 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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