Why “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice
Cal Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, has some wise career advice for young people:
“Growing up, we were told by guidance counselors, career advice books, the news media and others to ‘follow our passion.’ This advice assumes that we all have a pre-existing passion waiting to be discovered. If we have the courage to discover this calling and to match it to our livelihood, the thinking goes, we’ll end up happy. If we lack this courage, we’ll end up bored and unfulfilled — or, worse, in law school.
To a small group of people, this advice makes sense, because they have a clear passion. Maybe they’ve always wanted to be doctors, writers, musicians and so on, and can’t imagine being anything else.
But this philosophy puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us — and demands long deliberation. If we’re not careful, it tells us, we may end up missing our true calling. And even after we make a choice, we’re still not free from its effects. Every time our work becomes hard, we are pushed toward an existential crisis, centered on what for many is an obnoxiously unanswerable question: ‘Is this what I’m really meant to be doing?’ This constant doubt generates anxiety and chronic job-hopping.
As I considered my options during my senior year of college, I knew all about this Cult of Passion and its demands. But I chose to ignore it. The alternative career philosophy that drove me is based on this simple premise: The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job’s specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world. Decades of research on workplace motivation back this up. (Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’ offers a nice summary of this literature.)
These traits can be found in many jobs, but they have to be earned. Building valuable skills is hard and takes time. For someone in a new position, the right question is not, ‘What is this job offering me?” but, instead, “What am I offering this job?’”
Newport chose to go to graduate school at MIT, and early on it was rough going: “Had I subscribed to the ‘follow our passion’ orthodoxy, I probably would have left during those first years, worried that I didn’t feel love for my work every day. But I knew that my sense of fulfillment would grow over time, as I became better at my job. So I worked hard, and, as my competence grew, so did my engagement.
Today, I’m a computer science professor at Georgetown University, and I love my job. The most important lesson I can draw from my experience is that this love has nothing to do with figuring out at an early age that I was meant to be a professor. There’s nothing special about my choosing this particular path. What mattered is what I did once I made my choice.
To other young people who constantly wonder if the grass might be greener on the other side of the occupational fence, I offer this advice: Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.” Read more here.
I think Newport is absolutely correct in saying that the more you put into your work in terms of dedication, commitment and hard work, the more you get out of it in terms of rewards and satisfaction. I would point out, however, that many jobs don’t offer “a sense of autonomy” (being a professor is one of the most autonomous jobs around), and that many workplaces make it difficult to “feel that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world.” I hope Newport realizes how very lucky he is, and how far we still have to go in making sure that every worker has access to the advantages he enjoys.