So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

by Cal Newport
So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

by Cal Newport


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In an unorthodox approach, Georgetown University professor Cal Newport debunks the long-held belief that "follow your passion" is good advice, and sets out on a quest to discover the reality of how people end up loving their careers.

Not only are pre-existing passions rare and have little to do with how most people end up loving their work, but a focus on passion over skill can be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job hopping. Spending time with organic farmers, venture capitalists, screenwriters, freelance computer programmers, and others who admitted to deriving great satisfaction from their work, Newport uncovers the strategies they used and the pitfalls they avoided in developing their compelling careers.

Cal reveals that matching your job to a pre-existing passion does not matter. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.

With a title taken from the comedian Steve Martin, who once said his advice for aspiring entertainers was to "be so good they can't ignore you," Cal Newport's clearly written manifesto is mandatory reading for anyone fretting about what to do with their life, or frustrated by their current job situation and eager to find a fresh new way to take control of their livelihood. He provides an evidence-based blueprint for creating work you love, and will change the way you think about careers, happiness, and the crafting of a remarkable life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781455509126
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 09/18/2012
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 72,494
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 5.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Cal Newport, Ph.D., lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a writer and an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He also runs the popular website Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success. Deep Work is his fifth book.

Read an Excerpt

So Good They Can't Ignore You

Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love
By Cal Newport

Business Plus

Copyright © 2012 Cal Newport
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781455509126

Rule #1

Don’t Follow Your Passion

Chapter One

The “Passion” of Steve Jobs

In which I question the validity of the passion hypothesis, which says that the key to occupational happiness is to match your job to a pre-existing passion.

The Passion Hypothesis

In June 2005, Steve Jobs took the podium at Stanford Stadium to give the commencement speech to Stanford’s graduating class. Wearing jeans and sandals under his formal robe, Jobs addressed a crowd of 23,000 with a short speech that drew lessons from his life. About a third of the way into the address, Jobs offered the following advice:

You’ve got to find what you love…. [T]he 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.

When he finished, he received a standing ovation.

Though Jobs’s address contained several different lessons, his emphasis on doing what you love was the clear standout. In the official press release describing the event, for example, Stanford’s news service reported that Jobs “urged graduates to pursue their dreams.”

Soon after, an unofficial video of the address was posted on YouTube, where it went viral, gathering over 3.5 million views. When Stanford posted an official video, it gathered an additional 3 million views. The comments on these clips homed in on the importance of loving your work, with viewers summarizing their reactions in similar ways:

“The most valuable lesson is to find your purpose, follow your passions…. Life is too short to be doing what you think you have to do.”

“Follow your passions—life is for the living.”

“Passion is the engine to living your life.”

“[It’s] passion for your work that counts.”

“ ‘Don’t Settle.’ Amen.”

In other words, many of the millions of people who viewed this speech were excited to see Steve Jobs—a guru of iconoclastic thinking—put his stamp of approval on an immensely appealing piece of popular career advice, which I call the passion hypothesis:

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.

This hypothesis is one of modern American society’s most well-worn themes. Those of us lucky enough to have some choice in what we do with our lives are bombarded with this message, starting at an early age. We are told to lionize those with the courage to follow their passion, and pity the conformist drones who cling to the safe path.

If you doubt the ubiquity of this message, spend a few minutes browsing the career-advice shelf the next time you visit a bookstore. Once you look past the technical manuals on résumé writing and job-interview etiquette, it’s hard to find a book that doesn’t promote the passion hypothesis. These books have titles like Career Match: Connecting Who You Are with What You’ll Love to Do, and Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type, and they promise that you’re just a few personality tests away from finding your dream job. Recently, a new, more aggressive strain of the passion hypothesis has been spreading—a strain that despairs that traditional “cubicle jobs,” by their very nature, are bad, and that passion requires that you strike out on your own. This is where you find titles like Escape from Cubicle Nation, which, as one review described it, “teaches the tricks behind finding what makes you purr.”

These books, as well as the thousands of full-time bloggers, professional counselors, and self-proclaimed gurus who orbit these same core issues of workplace happiness, all peddle the same lesson: to be happy, you must follow your passion. As one prominent career counselor told me, “do what you love, and the money will follow” has become the de facto motto of the career-advice field.

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.

It was around the time I was transitioning from graduate school that I started to pull on these threads, eventually leading to my complete rejection of the passion hypothesis and kicking off my quest to find out what really matters for creating work you love. Rule #1 is dedicated to laying out my argument against passion, as this insight—that “follow your passion” is bad advice—provides the foundation for everything that follows. Perhaps the best place to start is where we began, with the real story of Steve Jobs and the founding of Apple Computer.

Do What Steve Jobs Did, Not What He Said

If you had met a young Steve Jobs in the years leading up to his founding of Apple Computer, you wouldn’t have pegged him as someone who was passionate about starting a technology company. Jobs had attended Reed College, a prestigious liberal arts enclave in Oregon, where he grew his hair long and took to walking barefoot. Unlike other technology visionaries of his era, Jobs wasn’t particularly interested in either business or electronics as a student. He instead studied Western history and dance, and dabbled in Eastern mysticism.

Jobs dropped out of college after his first year, but remained on campus for a while, sleeping on floors and scrounging free meals at the local Hare Krishna temple. His non-conformity made him a campus celebrity—a “freak” in the terminology of the times. As Jeffrey S. Young notes in his exhaustively researched 1988 biography, Steve Jobs: The Journey Is the Reward, Jobs eventually grew tired of being a pauper and, during the early 1970s, returned home to California, where he moved back in with his parents and talked himself into a night-shift job at Atari. (The company had caught his attention with an ad in the San Jose Mercury News that read, “Have fun and make money.”) During this period, Jobs split his time between Atari and the All-One Farm, a country commune located north of San Francisco. At one point, he left his job at Atari for several months to make a mendicants’ spiritual journey through India, and on returning home he began to train seriously at the nearby Los Altos Zen Center.

In 1974, after Jobs’s return from India, a local engineer and entrepreneur named Alex Kamradt started a computer time-sharing company dubbed Call-in Computer. Kamradt approached Steve Wozniak to design a terminal device he could sell to clients to use for accessing his central computer. Unlike Jobs, Wozniak was a true electronics whiz who was obsessed with technology and had studied it formally at college. On the flip side, however, Wozniak couldn’t stomach business, so he allowed Jobs, a longtime friend, to handle the details of the arrangement. All was going well until the fall of 1975, when Jobs left for the season to spend time at the All-One commune. Unfortunately, he failed to tell Kamradt he was leaving. When he returned, he had been replaced.

I tell this story because these are hardly the actions of someone passionate about technology and entrepreneurship, yet this was less than a year before Jobs started Apple Computer. In other words, in the months leading up to the start of his visionary company, Steve Jobs was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.

It was with this mindset that later that same year, Jobs stumbled into his big break. He noticed that the local “wireheads” were excited by the introduction of model-kit computers that enthusiasts could assemble at home. (He wasn’t alone in noticing the potential of this excitement. When an ambitious young Harvard student saw the first kit computer grace the cover of Popular Electronics magazine, he formed a company to develop a version of the BASIC programming language for the new machine, eventually dropping out of school to grow the business. He called the new firm Microsoft.)

Jobs pitched Wozniak the idea of designing one of these kit computer circuit boards so they could sell them to local hobbyists. The initial plan was to make the boards for $25 apiece and sell them for $50. Jobs wanted to sell one hundred, total, which, after removing the costs of printing the boards, and a $1,500 fee for the initial board design, would leave them with a nice $1,000 profit. Neither Wozniak nor Jobs left their regular jobs: This was strictly a low-risk venture meant for their free time.

From this point, however, the story quickly veers into legend. Steve arrived barefoot at the Byte Shop, Paul Terrell’s pioneering Mountain View computer store, and offered Terrell the circuit boards for sale. Terrell didn’t want to sell plain boards, but said he would buy fully assembled computers. He would pay $500 for each, and wanted fifty as soon as they could be delivered. Jobs jumped at the opportunity to make an even larger amount of money and began scrounging together start-up capital. It was in this unexpected windfall that Apple Computer was born. As Young emphasizes, “Their plans were circumspect and small-time. They weren’t dreaming of taking over the world.”

The Messy Lessons of Jobs

I shared the details of Steve Jobs’s story, because when it comes to finding fulfilling work, the details matter. 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. But he didn’t follow this simple advice. Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break—a “small-time” scheme that unexpectedly took off.

I don’t doubt that Jobs eventually grew passionate about his work: If you’ve watched one of his famous keynote addresses, you’ve seen a man who obviously loved what he did. But so what? All that tells us is that it’s good to enjoy what you do. This advice, though true, borders on the tautological and doesn’t help us with the pressing question that we actually care about: How do we find work that we’ll eventually love? Like Jobs, should we resist settling into one rigid career and instead try lots of small schemes, waiting for one to take off? Does it matter what general field we explore? How do we know when to stick with a project or when to move on? In other words, Jobs’s story generates more questions than it answers. Perhaps the only thing it does make clear is that, at least for Jobs, “follow your passion” was not particularly useful advice.

Chapter Two

Passion Is Rare

In which I argue that the more you seek examples of the passion hypothesis, the more you recognize its rarity.

The Roadtrip Nation Revelation

It turns out that Jobs’s complicated path to fulfilling work is common among interesting people with interesting careers. In 2001, a group of four friends, all recently graduated from college, set out on a cross-country road trip to interview people who “[lived] lives centered around what was meaningful to them.” The friends sought advice for shaping their own careers into something fulfilling. They filmed a documentary about their trip, which was then expanded into a series on PBS. They eventually launched a nonprofit called Roadtrip Nation, with the goal of helping other young people replicate their journey. What makes Roadtrip Nation relevant is that it maintains an extensive video library of the interviews conducted for the project. There’s perhaps no better single resource for diving into the reality of how people end up with compelling careers.

When you spend time with this archive, which is available for free online, you soon notice that the messy nature of Steve Jobs’s path is more the rule than the exception. In an interview with the public radio host Ira Glass, for example, a group of three undergraduates press him for wisdom on how to “figure out what you want” and “know what you’ll be good at.”

“In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream,” Glass tells them. “But I don’t believe that. Things happen in stages.”

Glass emphasizes that it takes time to get good at anything, recounting the many years it took him to master radio to the point where he had interesting options. “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase,” he says.

Noticing the stricken faces of his interviewers, who were perhaps hoping to hear something more uplifting than work is hard, so suck it up, Glass continues: “I feel like your problem is that you’re trying to judge all things in the abstract before you do them. That’s your tragic mistake.”

Other interviews in the archive promote this same idea that it’s hard to predict in advance what you’ll eventually grow to love. The astrobiologist Andrew Steele, for example, exclaims, “No, I had no idea what I was going to do. I object to systems that say you should decide now what you’re going to do.” One of the students asks Steele if he had started his PhD program “hoping you’d one day change the world.”

“No,” Steele responds, “I just wanted options.”

Al Merrick, the founder of Channel Island Surfboards, tells a similar tale of stumbling into passion over time. “People are in a rush to start their lives, and it’s sad,” he tells his interviewers. “I didn’t go out with the idea of making a big empire,” he explains. “I set goals for myself at being the best I could be at what[ever] I did.”

In another clip, William Morris, a renowned glass blower based in Stanwood, Washington, brings a group of students to his workshop set in a converted barn surrounded by lush, Pacific Northwest forest. “I have a ton of different interests, and I don’t have focus,” one of the students complains. Morris looks at her: “You’ll never be sure. You don’t want to be sure.”

These interviews emphasize an important point: Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

This observation may come as a surprise for those of us who have long basked in the glow of the passion hypothesis. It wouldn’t, however, surprise the many scientists who have studied questions of workplace satisfaction using rigorous peer-reviewed research. They’ve been discovering similar conclusions for decades, but to date, not many people in the career-advice field have paid them serious attention. It’s to these overlooked research efforts that I turn your attention next.

The Science of Passion

Why do some people enjoy their work while so many other people don’t? Here’s the CliffsNotes summary of the social science research in this area: There are many complex reasons for workplace satisfaction, but the reductive notion of matching your job to a pre-existing passion is not among them.

To give you a better sense of the realities uncovered by this research, here are three of the more interesting conclusions I’ve encountered:

Conclusion #1: Career Passions Are Rare

In 2002, a research team led by the Canadian psychologist Robert J. Vallerand administered an extensive questionnaire to a group of 539 Canadian university students. The questionnaire’s prompts were designed to answer two important questions: Do these students have passions? And if so, what are they?

At the core of the passion hypothesis is the assumption that we all have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered. This experiment puts that assumption to the test. Here’s what it found: 84 percent of the students surveyed were identified as having a passion. This sounds like good news for supporters of the passion hypothesis—that is, until you dive deeper into the details of these pursuits. Here are the top five identified passions: dance, hockey (these were Canadian students, mind you), skiing, reading, and swimming. Though dear to the hearts of the students, these passions don’t have much to offer when it comes to choosing a job. In fact, less than 4 percent of the total identified passions had any relation to work or education, with the remaining 96 percent describing hobby-style interests such as sports and art.

Take a moment to absorb this result, as it deals a strong blow to the passion hypothesis. How can we follow our passions if we don’t have any relevant passions to follow? At least for these Canadian college students, the vast majority will need a different strategy for choosing their career.

Conclusion #2: Passion Takes Time

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, has made a career studying how people think about their work. Her breakthrough paper, published in the Journal of Research in Personality while she was still a graduate student, explores the distinction between a job, a career, and a calling. A job, in Wrzesniewski’s formulation, is a way to pay the bills, a career is a path toward increasingly better work, and a calling is work that’s an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity.

Wrzesniewski surveyed employees from a variety of occupations, from doctors to computer programmers to clerical workers, and found that most people strongly identify their work with one of these three categories. A possible explanation for these different classifications is that some occupations are better than others. The passion hypothesis, for example, predicts that occupations that match common passions, such as being a doctor or a teacher, should have a high proportion of people who experience the work as a true calling, while less flashy occupations—the type that no one daydreams about—should have almost no one experiencing the work as a calling. To test this explanation, Wrzesniewski looked at a group of employees who all had the same position and nearly identical work responsibilities: college administrative assistants. She found, to her admitted surprise, that these employees were roughly evenly split between seeing their position as a job, a career, or a calling. In other words, it seems that the type of work alone does not necessarily predict how much people enjoy it.

Supporters of the passion hypothesis, however, might reply that a position like a college administrative assistant will attract a wide variety of employees. Some might arrive at the position because they have a passion for higher education and will therefore love the work, while others might stumble into the job for other reasons, perhaps because it’s stable and has good benefits, and therefore will have a less exalted experience.

But Wrzesniewski wasn’t done. She surveyed the assistants to figure out why they saw their work so differently, and discovered that the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job. In other words, the more experience an assistant had, the more likely she was to love her work.

This result deals another blow to the passion hypothesis. In Wrzesniewski’s research, 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. On reflection, this makes sense. If you have many years’ experience, then you’ve had time to get better at what you do and develop a feeling of efficacy. It also gives you time to develop strong relationships with your coworkers and to see many examples of your work benefiting others. What’s important here, however, is that this explanation, though reasonable, contradicts the passion hypothesis, which instead emphasizes the immediate happiness that comes from matching your job to a true passion.

Conclusion #3: Passion Is a Side Effect of Mastery

Not long into his popular TED talk, titled “On the Surprising Science of Motivation,” author Daniel Pink, discussing his book Drive, tells the audience that he spent the last couple of years studying the science of human motivation. “I’m telling you, it’s not even close,” he says. “If you look at the science, there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” When Pink talks about “what science knows,” he’s referring, for the most part, to a forty-year-old theoretical framework known as Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which is arguably the best understanding science currently has for why some pursuits get our engines running while others leave us cold.

SDT tells us that motivation, in the workplace or elsewhere, requires that you fulfill three basic psychological needs—factors described as the “nutriments” required to feel intrinsically motivated for your work:

  • 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: the feeling of connection to other people

The last need is the least surprising: If you feel close to people at work, you’re going to enjoy work more. It’s the first two needs that prove more interesting. It’s clear, for example, that autonomy and competence are related. In most jobs, as you become better at what you do, not only do you get the sense of accomplishment that comes from being good, but you’re typically also rewarded with more control over your responsibilities. These results help explain Amy Wrzesniewski’s findings: Perhaps one reason that more experienced assistants enjoyed their work was because it takes time to build the competence and autonomy that generates this enjoyment.

Of equal interest is what this list of basic psychological needs does not include. Notice, scientists did not find “matching work to pre-existing passions” as being important for motivation. The traits they did find, by contrast, are more general and are agnostic to the specific type of work in question. Competence and autonomy, for example, are achievable by most people in a wide variety of jobs—assuming they’re willing to put in the hard work required for mastery. This message is not as inspiring as “follow your passion and you’ll immediately be happy,” but it certainly has a ring of truth. In other words, working right trumps finding the right work.

Chapter Three

Passion Is Dangerous

In which I argue that subscribing to the passion hypothesis can make you less happy.


Excerpted from So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport Copyright © 2012 by Cal Newport. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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