Don’t Follow Your Passion! (Pt.II)

Well, I finished Cal Newport’s book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You: How Skills Trump Passion in the Search for Work You Love’ «I wrote about previously.

My verdict?

Possibly a life-changing book. The upshot is that if you want to do work (paid work) that you love, and this is of special interest to those who will be in salaried employment: you need to be very good at what you’ll be doing in that work.

Cal says that the biggest thing that people seem to want in their jobs is a good degree of  autonomy and control. They may think that they want more money, but studies have shown that really, it’s autonomy and control. This seems pretty reasonable to me. We like to be in control of our own lives, right? But if you want that, you need to be able to give the employer or show the employer something in return that merits that. Basically, if you are damned good at what you do—I mean really good—and have lots of experience, then the employer is more likely to grant you more autonomy and control.

What often happens is that we vaguely dream about that wonderful occupation that’s inline with what we believe are our existing passions—while we’re in the jobs that we don’t really enjoy—and we kid ourselves that because we have that passion, we can make it a success. We’ll already have that drive. Because: if you love what you do, you’ll be great at it—right?

Of course the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but what Cal says usually happens is that when people make the big break away from that horrible advertising job to run a Yoga retreat business (because they find their advertising job horrible and unfulfilling, and they love doing Yoga) they start their business even though they often don’t really have much in the way of skills and experience in the Yoga Teaching Business—or whatever—to make it a success. They just love Yoga.

Cal suggests that it might be better to either:

  • Get great at doing something you already do in advertising so that you can exercise more control and autonomy—and enjoy your job more,
  • Or put in the serious long-term work that’s actually required to get good at teaching Yoga and running that as a business—in your spare time—until you’re ready to make the leap.

More interesting still, is that if you stay in advertising and get brilliant at what you do, you could possibly break away to start your own business or work for someone doing something more interesting which is closely related to what you did in your advertising career. Which brings me to…

The ‘Adjacent Possible’

Cal says that if you get really great at what you do in a particular field, what happens is that you get closer to the cutting edge of that field. And when you get there, interesting possibilities reveal themselves. You start to notice adjacent occupations or business concepts that you probably wouldn’t have spotted if you you were at the entry level of your profession. If you’ve put in the work at weekends at your Yoga passion for long enough you might spot an opportunity that is related to Yoga—and the work you’re currently very good at. You’ll more likely have the knowledge and experience and insight to put those 2 things together into something new. Or, you might just see new emerging developments in your field that interest you—and that you can bring something to because of your knowledge and experience and insight that you’ve built up. And isn’t it great to be able to bring twice the amount of experience and skills to a new venture?

The Passion will Follow

But the thing that really surprised me is that the idea that if you get great at doing something that you never imagined you’d work in long-term, you can get passionate about it. Cal cites Steve Jobs, who’d never intended to set up a great computing firm. He and his friend just intended to make a couple of thousand bucks from a processor (or something), but the business took off. He kind of fell into it. As he got better at what he did, his confidence and interest in it increased and he became more and more passionate about it. It turns into this cyclical thing of the effort and success feeding the passion feeding the effort and success, and on and on.

But there was no pre-existing passion in Jobs for computing.


The second half of Cal’s book is less like a feel-good inspirational self-help book, and starts to tell you what actual work you need to do. Because after all, it’s not just a case of visualising that lovely dream occupation and reciting affirmations to yourself in front of the mirror.  I have to admit that my energy for it faltered a little as this reality kicked in, but it’s really made me think a lot differently about the ‘Follow Your Passion’ mindset, about how getting that job that you love has to be paid for by putting the work into your skills and knowledge.

Sitting around year after year only dreaming about what could be, while de-skilling in your current job which you’re not interested in isn’t going to help you. You’ll fall behind, feel more and more disappointed with your life and what might have been. And if you try switch to your dream job you may also be very disappointed with the reality of it, or get a shock when you discover it doesn’t quite live up to the imaginary version that you’ve been nursing.

The funny thing is, after I read this, my friend Naoise told me about Ken Robinson’s book ‘The Element’ which—very ironically—is about finding or rediscoving your passion ‘changes everything’. He urges us to think about the work we do that makes us feel as if we’re in our element. That’s the situation where we feel contented as we work, and time speeds up and we barely notice its passage, and we experience ‘flow’, and feel confident and self-assured. He says that if we can find the sweet spot or spots where that type of work that we love, overlaps with the things that we’re good at—we’ll be onto something wonderful!

So It’ll be interesting to see how Ken’s book squares with Cal’s one. I’m sure there will be some caveats in Ken’s book to show that finding your passion won’t automatically make everything just fall into place effortlessly by itself—like magic!

One comment

  1. Pingback: Don’t follow your passion. Be great at what you do instead. | John I. White's Creative Blog

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