Don’t Follow Your Passion

On a recent trip to the West Coast, I finished an interesting read entitled “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport.

Cal is an interesting character – a recent MIT PhD graduate, he is an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Computer Science. On the side for years, he’s been a prolific blogger writing about study hacksand ways to increase productivity.

He became well known as he wrote a series of articles for NY Times and CNN on the Passion Fallacy & Why You Shouldn’t Follow Your Passion.

In his book, Cal interviews a number of successful individuals as well as popular career advice literature and provides a pretty interest framework.

Here are 10 of my favorite nuggets from the book:

1) The core idea of this book is simple: To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers. Mission is one of those traits

2) Have a Craftsman mindset – the craftsman mindset, a focus on what value you’re producing in your job, vs the passion mindset, a focus on what value your job offers you.

3) Don’t obsess over discovering your true calling. Instead, master rare and valuable skills. Once you build up the career capital that these skills generate, invest it wisely. Use it to acquire control over what you do and how you do it, and to identify and act on a life-changing mission

5) Focus on deliberate practice – Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands…. Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate,” as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.

6) This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of “good.” If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”

7) A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough—it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge—the only place where these missions become visible.

8) Successful individuals behave differently – Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance,” he writes, “they make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction

9) There is, however, a problem lurking here: When you look past the feel-good slogans and go deeper into the details of how passionate people like Steve Jobs really got started, or ask scientists about what actually predicts workplace happiness, the issue becomes much more complicated. You begin to find threads of nuance that, once pulled, unravel the tight certainty of the passion hypothesis, eventually leading to an unsettling recognition: “Follow your passion” might just be terrible advice.

10) Don’t follow your passion; rather, let it follow you in your quest to become, in the words of my favorite Steve Martin quote, “so good that they can’t ignore you.

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Dannielle Blumenthal

This is a very good example of someone making money off of intentionally controversial hype.

The author takes a nugget of truth and blows it up into advice that could seriously harm people.

The nugget of truth is that employers reward skill not passion. Passion in fact can get in the way of career success. Why? Because it blinds your judgment when you get emotional about the work.

The harmful part is that YOU cannot go to work without some form of motivation. Lots of things are motivating — subsistence, engagement, meaning, control and empowerment (see Penelope Trunk’s excellent blog post here).

Work about which you feel passionate is also motivating.

I get the impression that the majority of the people reading GovLoop are relatively young – e.g. Gen Y.

When I was young, I studied what I was passionate about – writing – and I have never, ever been sorry about that. I went to a college where I could create my own courses, shape my own major and eventually got a scholarship to study sociology, which is endlessly fascinating to me and turned into marketing.

My advice to young people is:


There is enough time to be practical later on – the marketplace will reward you for the things you are good at. But don’t start out cynical and trying to “work it” just to make a buck. You will be miserable.

Kim Truong

Thanks for sharing these nuggets. Some of these points remind of me a recent post on Doomstang, of which I don’t necessarily agree, but found a few useful sound bites. The current discourse paired with today’s employment landscape indicate that the semantics of the phrase “follow your passion” needs to be reformulated to relay a more proactive message to folks to actively find their passion and create opportunities to propel it. A positive attitude always helps as well!

Kerry Ann O'Connor

I disagree with Dannielle that this is just someone being intentionally provocative just to make money.

I heard Cal speak at the World Domination Summit in Portland last July (in case you’re wondering, you dominate the world by living a remarkable life). After a lot of hype about following your passion (I have a blog called “Renewable Enthusiasm – how to find, follow, live, and sustain your passion”), I welcomed Cal’s point of view. I welcomed his provocation. We need someone challenging conventional wisdom. Always. His point of view is based on research. His point is that the path to the passionate life is much more complex than all the commencement speeches and TED Talks can possibly suggest in under 20 minutes. That’s not a dangerous message, it’s an important one. A complementary book to read along these lines is Seth Godin’s The Dip, but that’s another thread of conversation.

Cal found that researchers had a hard time finding evidence of people following a pre-existing passion. They looked for what they called a “calling” and “non-calling” group, and the predictive factor of their happiness and feeling that they were passionate was years of experience. The longer the person had the position, the more they saw it as a calling.

It makes sense when you compare it to Daniel Pink’s research that we’re most motivated by intrinsic motivators – autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Years of experience get you mastery. In the act of mastery, you often find that flow state. Keeping after that flow state, chasing that sense of mastery, always learning and practicing, are qualities of the passionate.

If you want to see my mind map of the World Domination Summit talk (Cal’s talk is the second branch), click here: http://www.mindomo.com/view?m=46fc3c150015499982b3a9bde02a7b70 (The first day that includes talks by Brene Brown, is here: http://www.mindomo.com/view?m=bcbacc0c1e164d4b84f80c6fe8d4bc19)

My problem with Cal’s assessment, “So Good That They Can’t Ignore You,” is that in government, they absolutely CAN ignore you. Our HR system is so complex and barnacled. Mobility is challenging. We don’t do talent management. Many folks can’t leverage their talent into getting the kinds of traits in their life that are important to them. How many people in government have the kind of mobility to develop a talent that’s not already prescribed in a manual or training curriculum, and then have the mobility to leverage their talent to get alternate work schedule, telwork, or job share arrangements? How many people have the flexibility to say like one of the examples in his book “I build this software for you, how about if I DON’T get promoted, but rather work half time on that software and the other half time not working to pursue my own lifestyle?”

Yeah, that just doesn’t really happen unless you work for a contracting company, many of whom do much better talent management that the government itself.

So as a government employee, I don’t know that Cal’s advice applies. I think to work in government, and to be ambitious, and to stick with it for the long haul, you just have to be passionate. Full stop. It has to be a calling.

Amanda Parker

I know that for me personally I have spent a great deal of energy working towards something I’m passionate about. Or, more accurately, stressing over my potential diminished career success because I am maybe NOT following my passion. For many reasons, I’ve been slightly disappointed with the results of trying to follow my passion.

I like this idea because it underscores something we have some control over in a tough job market–deeply developing valuable skills.This can be done through volunteer activities, continuing education, blogging…Even in a job that isn’t in line with your passion, you can standout by taking on tasks that develop you professionally in areas that may be a gap for your office/industry. You can’t always control who is/isn’t hiring, but that doesn’t need to dictate what work you do and how you develop yourself professionally.

Thanks for sharing! I think being “so good they can’t ignore you” is going to be my professional mantra for the foreseeable future! 🙂

Dannielle Blumenthal

The research itself may be methodologically sound but we don’t live in Harvard or Cal Tech. We live on Planet Earth. And if you didn’t hear the TED talk it’s easy to get a distorted message.

Which by the way a book publisher will happily send forth, because hype and anti-conventional-wisdom messages sell books.

Everyone here basically is saying the same thing, aren’t we…we are passionate about something but maybe the job does not reward that. Or maybe we can’t get a job doing what we are passionate about. Or perhaps that passion even gets in the way.

And so what do we do, because we need to pursue something meaningful in life whether paid or not.

I am all for challenging the conventional wisdom. But at a time when young people are amassing credentials beyond belief and seeing so little in the way of reward and opportunity it seems important to encourage that spark as much as possible.

Samantha McFarland

This reminds me of my adult work life. I started out raising kids working whatever jobs I could find. I didn’t actually get my degree until just before 40 and then started my government career. Over the years, I worked several jobs that I didn’t really want to – but had to. Bills have to be paid. However, no matter what I did, I found the positive in it and worked to do my best at whatever it was.

I remember when I got a job as an assistant manager at a women’s clothing store. I am/was a tomboy. Everyone who knew me couldn’t believe I was going to survive there. But not only did I survive, I thrived. When I moved away, my coworkers didn’t want me to leave and I had many customers who were still asking about me a year later.

The idea is to make the best of every situation. So, you may not like where you work or who you work with. While looking for other positions, go into work with a smile. If you struggle to get along with certain people, challenge yourself to do what you can to change that connection. If you are bored with what you do, dig deeper to find the connection of what you do with the rest of your agency or another big picture.

I have learned a lot over my work life that completely applies to where I am now. And frankly, I am still striving to do my best regardless of those around me – and striving to learn everything I can about the work I do and the agency I work for.

I suppose one could say that the passion is within each day and not the overall job. However, I could say that this is not my dream job – but it is one that I do everything I can to love what I do and be proud of my work at the end of the day. I think more people should stop focusing on some “other” job and start creating happiness where they are.

Mark Forman

@Kerry Ann,

I have been in situations within government as you described and I would suggest a couple of thoughts. First, in government, the need for special expertise and passion is only important if you are working in an organization that needs and wants your expertise. I’ve been in agencies that need the expertise, but don’t want it and I have those organizations to be led by leaders that don’t create a high performance culture. If what you are doing is not valued by your leadership…get out of that organization and move to one that needs what you offer…guarantee that’s out there and I’d follow Ken Blanchard’s advice as if someone moved your cheese, even if that’s not what’s happened. Second, government needs and change are often cyclical. Those who have a record of exellence can move rapidly up the ladder when the need is strongest, but there are windows of need that open every 2-5 years. Building the knowledge and reputation for excellence is important even when your skills are not in demand.

Kerry Ann O'Connor

Thanks, @Mark. You missed an option, too. Be as persistant, diplomatic, and tenacious as all heck, and always look for the win, win, win.

There are also times when you have to question whether or not one has clearly demonstrated a rare and valuable talent. Perhaps there’s talent, but the value hasn’t been fully delivered yet. The problem with the lack of talent management is that plenty of people with talent get called to other sectors and don’t stay in government.

Another bit of thought on Dannielle’s comment about this being “a time when young people are amassing credentials beyond belief and seeing so little in the way of reward and opportunity” – there are a number of root causes to this problem, too. It’s a complex, wicked problem. As a society, we’re amassing a record amount of student debt, all the while having a problem finding jobs. There are plenty of critiques about our education system (See Seth Godin’s sythesizing missive on this topic, although there are plenty of more scholarly write-ups out there): http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/04/the-coming-meltdown-in-higher-education-as-seen-by-a-marketer.html)

In Godin’s particularly sharp-barbed words, “Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem. A lot of these ills are the result of uniform accreditation programs that have pushed high-cost, low-reward policies on institutions and rewarded schools that churn out young wanna-be professors instead of experiences that turn out leaders and problem-solvers.”

From my perspective as a GenXer, everytime the world suffered a major shift, higher educators didn’t know what to do. How do you teach International Affairs right after the Wall fell? They didn’t know. How do you teach what’s going to happen to the Soviet Union? We had to figure out the “new world order.” How do we teach consular work after 9/11? I don’t know – you’re going to have to go into the field and pay attention as the rules and regs change. How do we implement open innovation in government? I don’t know – there aren’t any classes or accreditations for that. We have to figure it out.

In government, I still see a focus on accreditation for PMP, when design thinking, agile software development, and lean startup methods are offering more and more value for keeping up with the changing times – especially government’s cyclical and changing needs. But there’s no accreditation for those things. So education and accreditation aren’t always the answer and experience can increasingly fill the gaps. But the hiring authorities have to recognize the need as well. Last time I hired someone three years ago, the “list the software you use” question still included “Netscape” as an option. I somehow doubt these forms have evolved to ask for translating lean start-up methods to government, but they should.

The passion we need to follow is that for problem-solving and providing value in our particular fields. That requires discernment as to what the real problem is, what the real value is, and figuring out how to provide it. I think that’s why I like “find something rare and valuable and go do that.” It’s just at first, we don’t always recognize value when we see it.

Mark Forman


that is so thoughtful and well written! If you haven’t done so, please consider blogging it or developing it a little more as a speech or article….very important thoughts and many gov execs should be especially mindful of the last paragraph. also, the questions that you raise about public policy and public admin schools has been a hot topic on on some of the global egov on-line groups…also very important for educators and thought leaders.