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Why "follow your passion" is flawed career advice.

Last weekend, I joined 999 other bloggers, entrepreneurs, global travelers, philanthropists and dreamers from all over the world at Chris Guillebeau's annual World Domination Summit here in Portland. (Yes, that Chris Guillebeau - same one that recently launched my current favorite professional book, The $100 Startup.)

I could write for 10 hours on all of the amazing people I met, heard and saw (including Brene Brown, Chris Brogan, Scott Harrison of Charity: Water and my pal Jenny Blake).

But one speaker stuck out rather unexpectedly for me: The dude who stood up and matter-of-factly announced that the ever-popular (and almost always believed without question) phrase "follow your passion" was fine and dandy, however ...

It's completely faulty advice.

In fact, not only do we not have scientific evidence to prove that following one's passion actually works, there's plenty of evidence to the contrary.

What the...?

Who was this cat?

The speaker was Cal Newport, a computer scientist from Georgetown with a soon-to-launch book that explores why some people lead successful, enjoyable, meaningful lives, while so many others do not ("So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love")

Through extensive research, Cal discovered that the path to a more passionate life is often far more complex than "follow your passion." And then he studied the patterns of people who love their work.

The conclusions he came to through the research? You are much more likely to lead a successful, enjoyable and meaningful life if you recognize that what you do for your work is much less important that you think it is. Instead, Cal says the formula is this:

  1. Get good at something that is rare and valuable.
  2. Once good at something rare and valuable, use this as access to gain access to the things that truly matter to you (e.g. flexibility, autonomy, creativity, freedom, etc.)

In other words, if something interests you and seems like it could, ultimately, give you access to the traits you value? You can use this as your platform to build a remarkable life.

Cal did caution, however, that people often encounter a potential snag as they progress to the point at which they can leverage their rare and valuable skills -- pushback.

"Once you're valuable, that's exactly when you'll get the pressure (presumably, from your employer, family, etc.) to stay the course on your current path," he explained. "That's something everyone needs to watch for as they work toward a remarkable life."

So the moral of the story, according to Cal Newport:

You don't have to figure out in advance what your passion is and then make it happen. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have a goal of being passionate about your work.

I'm dying to know -- how do you feel about "follow your passion" as career/life advice? Did you follow your passion and find fulfillment and success? Wanna weigh in? Please leave a comment below.

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Reader Comments (9)

I love this post, Jenny! Thank you! While I certainly don't know the answer to "follow your passion and you'll be happy" or what that looks like for everyone, I do know that as an entrepreneur, no matter how many times I stray away from my passion or pick up a "real job" to make ends meet for however long, I always, ALWAYS return to my own business doing some variation of what I love. Authenticity and freedom are everything to me. Did you hear similar stories throughout your weekend at WDS?

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLacy Kirkland

Jenny, I am glad you are talking about this and I am curious to hear others' views as well. I would say it depends on the person and the situation. There are some things I absolutely love, such as promoting the benefits of Toastmasters, but if I were being paid for it and evaluated on it I am not so sure I would find it nearly as enjoyable. On the other hand, I have found it difficult to work in a job where I didn't have a passion for the mission of the company.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan O'Donnell

@lacey - MANY such stories at #WDS. The majority of people who attend that event seem to really value freedom and authenticity. @morgan - I think what Cal discovered is that it's just not necessary to pinpoint the "What is my true passion and how can I make a living from it?" That, I believe, trips a lot of people up. Moreso, you should consider "What traits do I value (e.g. freedom and authenticity), and what types of work would likely lend to my having those things."

In essence - the job that affords you access to the traits you care about matters more than the TOPIC or angle of the job. I tend to agree with this. I'd just never really heard someone map it out like this. It was really fascinating.

July 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterJenny

I think Morgan's comment is right on. I've worked for a company where I was extremely passionate about the product and the mission, and then I worked for a company where I was not so passionate about the product, and the mission, while intriguing, didn't end up being as exciting (rewarding/challenging) as I had originally hoped. I can tell you that I thrived much more at the first company than I did at the second. Good post, and I'll look forward to the comment thread.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTitus

Good advice, parallels the advice from my current obsession http://Just-Start.com/

I first heard this message at the Colorado Restaurant Association annual convention.

The first speaker was a consultant who said, "follow your passion. If you aren't passionate about what you are doing now, quit and do something else."

The second speaker was an old German who was a very successful restaurant owner who said, "I have to disagree with the previous speaker. I've found that success in life doesn't come from doing what you love, but rather success comes from learning to love what you have to do."

July 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn S Wren

There's some great food-for-thought in this topic. @John, I'm not sure I agree with the latter speaker entirely (the "what you have to do" part implies one is trapped with their lot in life, and I definitely don't subscribe to that viewpoint), but I do feel that more professionals could benefit from considering how they might create career fulfillment in their existing positions.

Most people experiencing dissatisfaction in their current jobs seem to assume that the only answer is to leave said job and move along. When, if they're valuable and depended upon, they could quite possibly negotiate a more agreeable situation for themselves in that current position

July 15, 2012 | Registered CommenterJenny

I really love the topic. I never thought I would end up in the career that I am in , and it certainly wasn’t on my dream job list ( NFL Player, Oceanographer or Musician) that said I feel more passionate about my career than ever and I think that’s because I am able to use the skills I love the most and I’m good at. My attitude has always been all in or all out, it’s not that I’ve never quit a job or taken one I didn’t like, but when I was successful it was when I showed enough passion and enthusiasm to quickly maneuver into other areas that fueled me and allowed me to flex the skills I enjoyed the most, which is when I feel most passionate and engaged.

One of my favorite authors on the topic of Talent is John C. Maxwell in his book “Talent Is Never Enough” there is some amazing content that explores the topic of passion. Some of my favorite quotes really summarizing the impact I believe exist when discussing passion, talent and your workforce.

“Talent doesn’t carry people to the top –– it’s passion. Passion is more important than a plan. Passion creates fire; it provides fuel.” -John C. Maxwell

“Passion is the key to success. Whenever anything fires people’s souls, impossibilities vanish. Philosopher poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Every great and commanding movement in the annals of the world is
due to the triumph of enthusiasm.” - John C. Maxwell

Thanks for the thought provoking read and awesome comments.

Work Happy

July 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Boyle

Doing things we love, make us happy and more creative in everything we do. Passion will lead us to top and make us popular on the field we choose.

July 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLynne

This post and subsequent discussion is still lingering in my mind. Here is another article in a similar vein. http://www.good.is/post/why-schools-should-help-students-find-their-passion/

I guess one of my questions is how do we balance the need to have at least some passion for what we do against what the media or society says is needed? For example we keep hearing that liberal arts degrees are a waste and that there are limited jobs for people with those degrees. As a hypothetical example if I have a student that is passionate about philosophy, but is being encouraged by his wife to do an MBA for job security, I wonder how best to help him.

I'd love to hear what others think.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan O'Donnell

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