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“Follow Your Passion” is bad advice. Do this instead…

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I’m on a crusade to end these nonsensical ideas that sound logical, but actually make no sense whatsoever:

And my new favorite one…

“I need to find my passion!”

Would you please kill me right now? The “find your passion” idea is the kind of insipid, meaningless argument most frequently made by B-level speakers and middle managers who have nothing specific to offer. It’s just like “Keep a budget!” — an idea that sounds logical, but has no evidence to back it up. It simply doesn’t work.

In fact, passion is so deeply embedded in our culture that it’s one of our deepest invisible scripts. But if you’re honest with yourself…how has it worked out for you? You claim you need to find your passion…but has that worked for the last 6 months? Year? 5 years?

It’s as if we’re just waiting for our passion to fall from the sky…THEN we’ll know what to do with our lives! Of if we make yet another list of what we love…suddenly, we’ll know what job we want! Where we want to live! And what our purpose for life is.

Here’s my take:

People love the “passion” idea because it allows us to wait for a mythical day where we find this elusive passion…and then ride off into the sunset on a white pony.

I prefer a different approach: Becoming world-class at something, then letting the passion follow.

So when I heard my friend Cal Newport had independently come to the same conclusion…and in fact, he was writing an entire BOOK on this idea…I knew I wanted to hear his take on it.

Cal, who recently graduated with a PhD from MIT, has unconventional takes on so much of the typical “expert advice” that you read.

Also, he is unintentionally hilarious. When he came to hang out in NYC recently, I took him to this place that only models work at. When we sat down, I said, “Notice anything?” He looked around, confused. I pointed at some of the staff, saying, “Look at them. What do you notice?” He stared back at me with vacant eyes. After I explained how EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THE STAFF WERE MODELS, he just looked at me. “Dude, I’m married. When I walked in here, I was noticing how nice the curtains are.”

HAHA.

Cal’s last guest post was one of the most popular on this site: Time management: How an MIT postdoc writes 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers — and finishes by 5:30pm.

And today, to celebrate his new book, he’s written a terrific unconventional piece on how passion is overrated…and the importance of becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

Take it away, Cal.

*     *     *

Here’s something that confuses me. One of the most important factors in creating a satisfying life is developing a career you enjoy. And yet, our national conversation on this complicated issue is laughably simple. We are, it seems, forced to bow down at the altar of an annoying little phrase:

“Follow your passion.”

This slogan presents an absurdly reductionist explanation for how people end up loving what they do for a living:

But even though this advice is simplistic, I can tell you from experience that people do not appreciate any dissent. Consider, for example, a piece I recently wrote for CNN with the pithy title: “Why ‘Follow Your Passion’ is Bad Advice

This piece quickly generated 100 comments with a clear theme: People hated the title. (Perhaps the first sign of trouble was the accompanying photo of what appears to be a child-eating serial-killer clown.)

Here are two examples of the reaction I generated:

After reading this article, I realized that I should probably keep my job working on an assembly line sorting light bulb filaments…thanks for the advice, Cal!!

If all…people did as Cal Newport writes, we wouldn’t have Windows, Apple, Titanic and Avatar, and all programming would still be done with machine assembly language. Our society has a love affair with this reductionist notion that we all have One True Calling, twined in our DNA, waiting to be discovered. Questioning this premise, as demonstrated by the reaction to my CNN piece, is interpreted as a sign that you’re giving up altogether on the goal of enjoying life:  follow your passion or end up on an assembly line!

I find this conformity ridiculous — the equivalent of a world where the only acceptable personal finance advice was: “a penny saved is a penny earned” (a recurring nightmare of Ramit).

Reality is more complicated. I recently spent a year researching and writing a book that rethinks common career advice. I studied people who love what they do for a living. I didn’t ask them for catch phrases. Instead, I dove deep into the details of their stories to find out exactly how they built passion for their careers.

Here’s what I found: few people have pre-existing passions that can be transformed into a career. Furthermore, there’s little evidence that matching a job to an existing interest is an important source of satisfaction (other things matter more).

I fully embrace the goal of feeling passion for your work. My research, however, shows that achieving this goal is more complicated than simply identifying your calling and going after it. Put another way, if you line up 10 people who are passionate about their jobs, 9 out of this 10 will likely tell you that they never could have predicted where they are today. The path toward passion is simply more complicated than a simple slogan like “follow your passion” allows.

So I’m fighting back.

Below is a more nuanced alternative to this catch-phrase — a systematic approach based on observation and evidence:


Let’s walk through these steps…

Step 1: Identify a Target Lifestyle (not a Target Job)

The first step of this process is identifying some general lifestyle traits that resonate with you. Some people seek extreme time affluence and autonomy in their schedule. Others want power, energy, and respect.

In my new book on this topic, for example, I tell the story of two women who ended up loving their work, but pursued quite different target lifestyles. The first case study, Lulu, valued time affluence. She turned down multiple promotions during her career so that she could strike out on her own as a highly-valued freelancer, taking months off between contracts to travel (she has family in Asia) and pick up new skills (she earned her pilot license, among other pursuits, during these breaks).

The other case study, Pardis, valued impact. Her career as a hard-charging young Harvard professor is intense, but it allows her to tackle a world-changing problem (she’s using sophisticated algorithms to help cure some of the world’s deadliest diseases).

Regardless of what traits resonate with you, the key word here is “general.” You’re not identifying a job or even an industry. Instead, you’re identifying a lifestyle. Notice that many, many different fields should be able to lead you to this target lifestyle (an idea I elaborate here and here).

Step 2: Find a Supporting Job (from Among Many Such Jobs)

The next step is to find a position that can lead you to your target lifestyle under the condition that — and this is the important part — you first become absurdly valuable.

This is a place where many people get tripped up. The traits that define these types of target lifestyles are rare and valuable. If you don’t have rare and valuable skills to offer in return for these traits, you’re not going to get them in your own life (an idea I introduce here and elaborate in chapter 2 of my new book).

This is a key theme I encountered time and again in my research. In my book, for example, I tell the story of a young woman who dropped out of college to pursue her dream of starting a non-profit that would change people’s lives. It’s a noble sentiment, but she didn’t have any specific valuable skills relevant to this problem. Without valuable skills, no one will give you money. With no money, no non-profit. When I met her, she was struggling to make ends meet.

This young woman had the equation backward: you have to become really good at something valuable before you can obtain your target lifestyle. If I had met her a year earlier, I would have advised her to choose a job where she could hone skills that might be relevant to successfully running an organization of the type she had in mind.

Here’s what’s important here: Lots of jobs can probably lead you to your target lifestyle, assuming you satisfy the value condition. In fact, your current job might very well qualify. On the other hand,  lots of jobs probably won’t get you where you need to be, so, you can’t just choose something blindly (as a tax consultant I know recently discovered).

The key point here is to lower your threshold. You are certainly not looking for your “one true passion.” There will be many jobs that can provide the foundation for getting your target lifestyle, so don’t overthink this decision.

Step 3: Cultivate a Rare and Valuable Skill

Now that you’ve identified your target lifestyle and have a position that can get you there, it’s up to you to earn it. As I just emphasized above, the linchpin in your quest for a compelling career is becoming excellent. I’m not talking about show up on time and do what you’re told in a timely fashion performance, but instead I’m talking about your employer will do whatever it takes to keep you performance.

This goal is easy to understand to but hard to accomplish. Most people who claim they want to be excellent end up instead replying to e-mails and reading online marketing blogs. Stars, by contrast, identify a small number of specific skills that are demonstrably valuable to their field, and then set out training these skills like an athlete or musician.

His training often embraces the principles of deliberate practice and is not necessarily all that fun (as I elaborate here and here and in great detail in the book).

At a high-level, this type of systematic skill development requires three steps:

Identify the specific skill you’re developing and a metric that tells you clearly how good you currently are with respect to this skill. As a professor, for example, I focus on my ability to produce theoretical breakthroughs. My metric is number of publication in highly-competitive peer-reviewed venues.

Stretch yourself. A key factor for this style of practice is that you push yourself beyond where you’re comfortable. You’re not looking for a flow state. You’re instead looking for the intense concentration of tackling something slightly beyond your current skills level (a key distinction). Returning to my professor example, I often force myself to dive into a result or technique that I don’t yet understand and that uses mathematics I haven’t yet mastered. This can be really frustrating, and I can only do it for an hour or two at a time. But during these hours, my skills take immense leaps.

Seek (harsh) feedback. The final stage of this style of practice requires that you pinpoint exactly where you’re weak so you can focus your future stretching where it’s most productive. As a professor, I take the negative reviews of my work seriously (recall, everything I do is submitted to intense peer review). I also like to look to the papers that end up doing better than my own and then try to figure out why. If I publish at a conference and another paper wins best paper, I study that paper to find out why it was better. I want a crystal clear understanding of exactly what needs to be improved, and to what point, in order for me to get to a next level.

Step 4: Leverage your Value

Once you’ve built up rare and valuable skills you need to then use them as leverage to gain the traits you originally identified in your target lifestyle.

There’s a lot of chatter about “courage” surrounding discussions of building a more remarkable life: this is where that courage matters. Your target lifestyle is valuable for you but not necessarily valuable for the rest of the world. Therefore, no one is going to make it easy for you to make that transition. This is where you might end up, for example, in a hard negotiation with a boss who wants you to cash in your skills for more money (and more hours) whereas you want to leverage it to work from a cabin.

If you don’t recognize the potential difficulty of this step, you’re in danger of ending up a very valuable workaholic; respected but miserable. This is where it helps to have the clear the picture of your target lifestyle from Step 1. At every major decision point in your career, ask if brings you closer or farther from getting to your target lifestyle.

Returning to my example of Lulu, the freedom-loving database developer introduced above, there were times in her career where it made sense to take on more responsibility. She started in QA testing. Her first move was to automate much of the testing for the company, which earned her a promotion to help roll out this system. This was a good promotion because it helped her build her first reservoir of valuable skills. A few years later, however, she was given the opportunity to move into a management position. She turned down this promotion because it didn’t develop any skills that were relevant to being to work as a successful freelancer.

Conclusion

Feeling passion for your work is a great goal, but identifying a passion in advance, and then matching it to a job, is not a consistently replicable way of achieving this goal. The better strategy is to work backward from a target lifestyle, pick a supporting job, cultivate a skill, then leverage your value. If you study people who really do love their careers, you’ll find that most used some variation of this strategy as the foundation for their happiness.

“Follow your passion” is a nice slogan, but we need more than slogans: we need systems, supported by evidence, that actually work. It’s time to start talking about career development like adults. If we don’t, the clown might get us.

Cal Newport is a writer and an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. His new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, takes a contrarian look at popular career advice. He also runs the blog Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success.

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51 Comments on "“Follow Your Passion” is bad advice. Do this instead…"

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CL
CL
4 years 11 days ago

Cal’s post and book remind me of this Mark Cuban blog post: http://blogmaverick.com/2012/03/18/dont-follow-your-passion-follow-your-effort/

It’s true that once you’re really good at something, you can have the freedom of choice. I know that time affluence is very important to me, especially since I want to have great relationships with my family and friends.

Michael
4 years 11 days ago

Your advice is priceless. I can’t thank you enough Ramit!

Monish Subherwal
4 years 11 days ago
Hi Raman, I am throwing an event in November called The Empowerment Conference: “How to Escape the Rat Race and Live Your Passion!” with NetIP (Network of Indian Professionals in Los Angeles). You’d be an ideal speaker for the event, but unfortunately we dont have a budget for speakers. But its the right audience for you (or at least for this topic). Target is 100+ people: http://www.TheEmpowermentSchool.com/conference2012 I agree its important to focus on lifestyle first. I’d rather people not have a dream job…and rather escape the 9 to 5 to create a dream business from their passion (and learn… Read more »
Monish Subherwal
4 years 11 days ago

would help if I got your name right? 😀 Ramit. sorry about that. haha

Laurie
Laurie
4 years 11 days ago

Didn’t you kind of miss the point of this article with your suggested title?

Adam Glinglin
Adam Glinglin
4 years 2 days ago

Talk about fail whale.

Paul
Paul
4 years 11 days ago

Ramen,

I am hosting dinner tonight. Noodle dishes. RSVP?

David
David
4 years 11 days ago

glorious

Cory
Cory
4 years 11 days ago

Hilarious…

Jessica
Jessica
4 years 11 days ago

“Our society has a love affair with this reductionist notion that we all have One True Calling, twined in our DNA, waiting to be discovered. Questioning this premise, as demonstrated by the reaction to my CNN piece, is interpreted as a sign that you’re giving up altogether on the goal of enjoying life: follow your passion or end up on an assembly line!”

This is formatted as part of the second quoted comment, but I think it’s intended to be part of the main body of the article.

Joe Cassandra
4 years 11 days ago

Getting feedback is one of the most under-rated “skills” out there. If you’re not willing to get ripped apart to become better because of your ego, you’ve already failed (not to mention people think your a douche!)

cheers Ramit

Dave
Dave
4 years 11 days ago
I’m glad to see that someone else thinks the follow your passion is nonsense too. I’ve had many different passions over my life, and over time they fade. Which is inherently not a problem. I used to love tinkering w/ computers, which lead to a side gig of computer repair. But I was never going to “get rich” doing that. And I don’t get as much passion from that any more. So what happens then, if you follow your passion. Be stuck in a job doing that until I decided to chase something else? And then it’s often starting over… Read more »
Cal Newport
4 years 10 days ago

You hit the nail on your head about the dangers of starting over again and again. I tell a story in my book of a marketing executive who follows her “passion” into a yoga certification course. The problem, of course, is that 40 hours of training puts you at the bottom of the food chain. Within a year, she was on food stamps.

What we call “passion” is often just an “interest” or “optimistic fairy tale.” Compelling, engaging, long-lasting careers requires way more than a simple match to something that happens to catch your attention that year!

Lisa M.
Lisa M.
6 days 11 hours ago

Passion and interest are definitely not the same thing. I can speak from my personal experience that passion does not fade over time.

R.C.
R.C.
4 years 11 days ago
I agree in principle with Ramit’s points, but I question that a large number of people think to themselves “I need to go follow my passion!”, and use that as their driving force for choosing careers. I know a few people who are “all about being passionate”, but it’s certainly in the minority. I think most people don’t consider their careers in that way, and instead try to make decisions weighing various factors, including passion, skill, stability, etc. Perhaps the best iteration of this discussion would be one that analyzed the extent to what most people use “passion” when making… Read more »
Cal Newport
4 years 10 days ago

The damage of “follow your passion” is more insidious. Most people don’t actually apply this advice. But it does nibble at the edge of their attention, causing them to imagine that what they’re doing for a living is sub-standard, and that there is a true calling waiting out there for them discover. This is the problem. It causes unhappiness and anxiety. It also distracts them from the long but fulfilling work of transforming their current job into something they love.

Gabs
Gabs
4 years 11 days ago
Great article, Ramit, and very timely for me, too! My son is in his first year of college but feels he should be doing something else. As a father I’m inclined to follow conventional wisdom (which appears is not) and advise him to “follow his passion”. After reading this article it dawned to me how I came about my own transformation from being an employee to currently an entrepreneur, and realized just how wrong and unfair that advise would have been for him. Thanks for the heads up, it’s nice that that you take the time and effort to give… Read more »
Cory Huff
4 years 11 days ago

I saw Cal give this speech at the World Domination Summit this year in Portland. It was one of the least popular speeches (at least among my group of friends), probably because it was perceived as a downer among all of the speeches about being authentic and ‘daring greatly.’

I loved WDS, but I thought Cal’s speech was needed to bring all the ra-ra back down to earth. If you want to make an impact, you have to become good at something….which leads to becoming good at something else…and so on.

Cal Newport
4 years 10 days ago

The most common thing people said to me at WDS was, “I liked the talk, but no one else will.”

The cult of passion is like a strong-armed mafioso: lot’s people question it, but are afraid to speak up.

Crystal
Crystal
1 month 28 days ago
This reminds me of an article I recently read about the realities of YouTube stars and actors/artists in general: “Get rich or die vlogging: The sad economics of Internet fame” (Link: http://goo.gl/H8zSgE) — “Not a hint of this psychic stress has ended up on my channel. There’s a huge amount of emotional labor inherent in being an online personality—I have to seem carefree and flawless and always surrounded by friends. I can get “real,” but I can’t bum anyone out. A picture of me out to brunch in Los Feliz will get more likes than a video of me searching… Read more »
W at Off-Road Finance
4 years 11 days ago

Good advice – if you target the lifestyle rather than the job, then your plan has some hope of being realistic. All the people I know who followed passions in low paying fields like fine art work at jobs outside their passion and live with their parents. And I seriously doubt they’re happy about it.

Develop several rare and valuable skills, and you’ll always be in demand.

Raul Felix
4 years 11 days ago

Ramit,
Get rid of the Share, Tweet, E-Mail links on the left sidebar. It seriously blocks me from being able to read the article. I can read it a small section at a time. And it doesn’t go away automatically. If you have to put it, but it on the right side.

Jane
Jane
4 years 11 days ago

Great post! Will definitely check out Cal’s book.

Nate Nead
4 years 11 days ago

Love the idea of developing skills as a way to build passion. Perfect description and I completely agree. Most have it backwards.

Michel Dion
Michel Dion
4 years 10 days ago

One of the best I have read for a long time!!!!!!

Patrick
4 years 10 days ago

Ingenious, so simple and obvious, hopefully one day it will be the dominant method and vague phrases like “follow your passion” can be put to bed once and for all.

Holly Wolf
Holly Wolf
4 years 10 days ago
I agree loving what you do is important. But get a job and then start to figure out what you want to do. I can give you a list of people who are unemployed waiting for their dream job, the right job, something that inspires them, some place where they can make a difference. Get a job–and then it maybe easier to figure it out. At least then you’l lbe able to identify what you don’t want. Most successful people will tell tales of jobs they had that they hated and they’ll be happy to share what they LEARNED from… Read more »
Martin
4 years 10 days ago

I loved this line:

“Most people who claim they want to be excellent end up instead replying to e-mails and reading online marketing blogs.”

It’s a humbling reminder that reading marketing blogs, doesn’t make you a great marketer. Honing your craft does.

elizabeth
4 years 10 days ago

great post. i think one reason people like “follow your passion” is that it seems easy. what you’ve laid out here takes thought, discipline, and hard work.

Agota
Agota
4 years 10 days ago
I agree that the “follow your passion” thing misleads a lot of people. I will share three things that I noticed from my personal observations and my personal experience with it so far. 1. People often expect that they need to find that ONE true passion, turn it into a job or a business, and stick to that career path for the rest of their lives. That’s a lot of pressure, so inevitably this leads to analysis paralysis and a chronic unhappiness. I think it’s much wiser to accept that our interests are passing, but pursuing those passing interests is… Read more »
Justin
Justin
4 years 6 days ago

TL;DR

Agota
Agota
4 years 10 days ago

Note:

“I like my current freelance work, but it’s not like I have an orgasm every time I write something, and I doubt that if I’d be doing something else that I like even more I’d have an orgasm every time when I do that.”

Doing something that I like even more means doing work that I’m more passionate about.

Just a note for all you people whose minds are as dirty as mine 😀

Susan
Susan
4 years 9 days ago
I can verify this approach works and works well. When my daughter and I escaped my abusive first husband, I: 1) determined how much money I wanted to make to raise my child and live a lifestyle with which I’d be comfortable 2) looked at which career paths would make that much money in the coming years (using predictive data from numerous sources and talking to people in various fields identified). 3) determined software development would be the next big thing. 4) went back to college (already had a BA) and picked up enough courses to get into the field… Read more »
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[…] “Follow Your Passion” is bad advice. Do this instead… […]

L
L
4 years 9 days ago

This advice is SO TRUE! Passion is overrated. Money and decent lifestyle are not.

BB
BB
4 years 8 days ago
There’s another detail here that I don’t think anyone has mentioned; spending time working at mastery of something is a clear way to figure out what you’re passionate about. Getting out into the world and trying stuff out is a far better (and quicker) way of figuring out your passion than endless introspection. If you can find something you’re willing to work on for ten years and become amazing at, chances are you’ve found something that’s intrinsically pleasurable for you. There’s also a beauty to working hard and doing a good job at whatever one is doing, whether it’s washing… Read more »
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[…] Follow your dreams, follow your passion, it will make you happy, right?  I Will Teach You to Be Rich says “Follow Your Passion is bad advice. Do this instead.” […]

Lisa-Marie Cabrelli
4 years 6 days ago
I read this post a few days ago and then came across this post and loved it: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/09/solving_gen_ys_passion_problem.html – I was headed back on over here to tell you about how this post was such a great companion piece, only to find out that Cal Newport has already posted. I agree with you both 100% and can imagine why this view is unpopular with those who like the “rah-rah”. I got some serious schtick from other attendees at a Seth Godin workshop for publicly admitting that I wasn’t passionate about one of the products that I was developing. You know… Read more »
Sunil @ The CPA Profession
4 years 4 days ago

can’t agree more with this article. you can be passionate about eating pizza, but I doubt anyone would pay. you are right in that picking from a list of available professions that you can get passionate about. I think passion can be created. I certainly did for the CPA profession.

do I have other greater passions in life? sure do, but none of those would pay more than what I am earn as a CPA.

James Petzke @ This Is Common Cents
I totally agree with this article. I have yet to find me true “passion” in life, but that isn’t stopping me from developing skills that have lots of earning potential. I absolutely hate web programming, but I still keep the skills I have at it sharp so I can make money from it. And while I enjoy writing and blogging much more, they have yet provide me with the same kind of money. I love public speaking more than anything, and my dream is to be a professional speaker, but first I’m focusing on becoming an expert at something, that… Read more »
Greg
4 years 2 days ago

I absolutely agree and find the concept of following your passion incredibly vague. It is almost like a back door to avoiding success. Targeting a lifestyle and going for something that supports it makes more sense. Daring to do something different and rare makes you stand and become more valuable. Your approach makes a lot more sense.

trackback

[…] a career or job, which I can’t say I disagree with. Cal Newport is a huge proponent of this: designing a path by identifying your desired lifestyle then supporting that with a suitable job. And here’s Gen Y Girl’s […]

Brent Hale
3 years 11 months ago
Oh man, what an awesome post. Us humans love to have excuses for why we aren’t successful. So, naturally we fall victim to this ‘find your passion’ thing, because it gives us an excuse for our mediocre life. We think, “Oh yeah! That’s why my life sucks… I haven’t found my passion!” This discovery, of course, only leads to these people switching their passions every year or so. As soon as they meet failure, their passion ‘coincidentally’ changes. I can personally attest to the woes of this line of thinking… I spent the majority of my first trip to college… Read more »
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[…] “ ‘Follow Your Passion’ is bad advice. Do this instead…” instructs a third. […]

yeoreum.net
11 months 2 days ago

Although they don’t appear to rate the greenness” or aroma of products, they do rate a wide variety of item types, including shower cleaners (@esimo), carpet stain eliminators, and fabric softeners.

Karya
Karya
7 months 10 days ago
I don’t think this comment will show but: I strongly disagree. In my country everyone screw their passion to make a living. And here I am saying “I’ll be an artist even if it means I’ll starve” First of all i have one life and I won’t spend it on something which won’t make me as happy as I am when I am covered with paint and surrounded with my drawings. I’m am skilled and intelligent enough to be an engineer or a doctor and maybe I can make money but I can’t dare to imagine myself anywhere but a… Read more »
Yen
Yen
1 month 17 days ago

Please be back on this thread once you joined the workforce. I am not saying that you won’t earn an income from being an artist. This is not to discourage you as well. You are still young and I would expect you to somehow change your views about this topic.

Rencontre en ligne
5 months 25 days ago

Hi colleagues, how is everything, and what you want to say
concedning this article, in my view its genuinely awesome in support of me.

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