Study Hacks Blog Posts from September, 2012 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Zipcar CEO’s Dangerous Advice on Passion

September 24th, 2012 · 18 comments

Problematic Passion

The Wall Street Journal’s At Work blog recently featured an interview with Zipcar CEO, Scott Griffith. The title worried me: Zipcar CEO: “If You Don’t Have Passion for Your Job, Quit.”

Sure enough, in the interview, Griffith recalls that he had an interest in technology and transportation as early as junior high school. He then generalizes widely:

[W]e all kind of know what our passions are pretty early in life, and if you can figure out a way to align your avocation with your vocation, the sky’s the limit for your career and your happiness.

This, of course, is the standard thinking on career satisfaction. As readers of my new book know, it’s also dangerous advice. To reiterate: most young people do not have a clear passion. In fact, it’s unclear what “passion” really means at this stage. Is it a hobby? An obsession? A vague interest?

Griffith is well-intentioned. And to be fair, he also precedes the above with the caveat, “it may not be that clear to everybody.” But ultimately he’s still reinforcing a dangerous trope: that we’re all hard-wired for a specific profession.

As I’ve argued, this belief leads young people to anxiety and disillusionment when the reality of work doesn’t match their dream job ideal. For most, passion must be cultivated over time, as part of a more general process of building skills and then leveraging these skills to control our career.

Put another way: passion is a great goal, but unless you’re exceptionally lucky, it requires more than just a little day dreaming in the back of a junior high classroom.


At around 6:00 pm this evening, I drew the winners for my one-on-one conversation contest. They have been notified by e-mail. Thank you everyone who entered. I wish I could speak to each of you individually, but with well over 150 book purchases submitted, I would have been glued to the phone for the foreseeable future!

In other book news, you might enjoy this excerpt from SO GOOD which ruffled some feathers over at Fast Company. Turns out people really like Steve Jobs. Who knew?

(Photo by crschmidt)

My New Book and a Chance to Speak with Me One-On-One

September 18th, 2012 · 63 comments

The cake my wife surprised me with to celebrate the release of my new book.

 The Education of a Writer

I wrote my first book when I was 21. At the time, I thought it would be an interesting, one-time challenge. But it didn’t take long before a more ambitious goal emerged. I decided that I wanted to one day write a  big deal hardcover idea book, in the style of the non-fiction authors I admired, such as Steven Johnson and Bill McKibben.

It took me two more books, a stellar agent, and a decade of training, but today I finally fulfilled that goal. My first hardcover idea book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is now available. It will be on the New Arrival table at Barnes & Noble stores across the country and available in all relevant online stores and digital formats.

This is an exciting day for me and one that never would have happened without you, my readers here at Study Hacks, who have helped me hone my arguments and my craft. So I humbly thank you.

(And if you’re looking for a way to show your appreciation for Study Hacks, buying a copy of this book is a great way to demonstrate your support!)

This brings me to today’s post. I have two goals in the sections below: (1) to tell you a little bit more about the book; and (2) to tell you how you can win a chance to speak with me one-on-one about any topic of your choosing.

Onwards to the details…

“Follow Your Passion” is Bad Advice. Here’s What Works Instead…

In the fall of 2010, I set out to answer a simple question: “Why do some people love what they do, while so many others do not?”

This quest took me across the country. I met with organic farmers, venture capitalists, computer programers, college professors, med school residents, and globe-trotting tech entrepreneurs, among many others, all in an effort to understand how people cultivate compelling careers.

My new book chronicles this quest and what I discovered.

In more detail, the book is divided into the following four “rules,” each cataloging a different discovery:

  1. Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion. Here I make my argument that “follow your passion” is bad advice. You’ve heard me talk about this on Study Hacks, but in this chapter, I lay out my full-throated, comprehensive, detailed argument against this common advice.
  2. Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Here I detail the philosophy that works better than following your passion. This philosophy, which I call career capital theory, says that you first build up rare and valuable skills and then use these skills as leverage to shape you career into something you love. During this chapter I spend time with a professional guitar player, television writer, and venture capitalist, among others, in my quest to understand how people get really good at what they do. You’ll also encounter a detailed discussion of deliberate practice and how to apply it in your working life.
  3. Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion. Here I argue that control is one of the most important things you can bargain for with your rare and valuable skills. I discuss the difficulties people face in trying to move toward more autonomy in their working lives and describe strategies that can help you sidestep these pitfalls. During this chapter, I spend time with a hotshot database developer, an entrepreneurial medical resident, an Ivy League-trained organic farmer, and Derek Sivers, among others, in my attempts to decode control.
  4. Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big. In this final rule, I explore how people end up with career-defining missions — often a source of great passion. I argue that you need rare and valuable skills before you can identify a powerful mission. I then spend time with a star Harvard professor, a television host, and a Ruby on Rails guru, all in an effort to identify best practices for cultivating this trait.

I conclude the book by talking about how I apply these ideas in my own career. You’ll hear about my academic job search process and the types of systems I have in place to help push me toward more and more passion in my work.

If you’re serious about loving what you for a living, and are tired of people reducing this complex goal to a simple slogan (“do what you love! the money will follow”), then this book is perfect for you. (If you’re on the fence, check out the endorsements from folks like Seth Godin, Reid Hoffman, Dan Pink, Kevin Kelly, and Derek Sivers, or the growing number of unsolicited 5-star reviews).

Purchase details: You can buy the hardcover at most book stores and online at Amazon, B&, 800-CEO-READ, and IndieBound. The book is also available in Kindle , Nook, and audio formats.

Talk One-On-One With Me

To help motivate you to buy the book during this crucial first week I’m offer a promotion in which I’m giving away 30 minute, one-on-one phone calls with myself, to talk about any topic of your choosing.

Here are the details…

I am holding three separate random drawings: one for people who preordered the book; one for people who buy the book this week; and one for people who buy five or more copies of the book. (Not very many people buy in bulk, so if you do, you’ll probably have a good chance of being drawn).

To apply, simply forward your receipt to with the subject line [contest: preorder], [contest: 1 copy], or [contest: 5 copies], depending on which contest you’re entering. (It’s important that you use this exact wording and capitalization or your entry might be missed by my filters.)

I will use to draw winners from each category next Monday. The number of winners I draw will depend on how many entries I receive.

If you win, I’ll notify you by e-mail, and we’ll set up a time to chat on the phone.


Update: 1:40 PM…

My friend Tammy Strobel’s new book, You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap), was released today as well. I devoured a review copy of this title and found it exceptionally stimulating. Tammy, who lives in a tiny house in rural California, will challenge your thinking on what defines a good life.

Here’s some more press on SO GOOD:

Steve Jobs’s Complicated Views on Passion

September 14th, 2012 · 23 comments

Jobs Parses Passion

At a recent media panel, Walter Isaacson remembered the following conversation with the late Steve Jobs:

I remember talking exactly a year ago right now to Steve Jobs, who was very ill…He said, “Yeah, we’re always talking about following your passion. But we’re all part of the flow of history… you’ve got to put something back into the flow of history that’s going to help your community…[so] people will say, this person didn’t just have a passion, he cared about making something that other people could benefit from.”

Isaacson also shared his own views on the passion hypothesis:

Every baby boom generation person who has to give a college commencement talk uses the phrase “follow your passion.” But that’s why no one has written a book calling us the greatest generation. The important point is to not just follow your passion but something larger than yourself. It ain’t just about you and your damn passion.

The specific advice given above is interesting. But to me, what’s even more interesting is the general point that building a meaningful working life is damn complicated. “Follow your passion” is a nice slogan, but as Jobs and Isaacson emphasize, there’s a lot more involved in building a career you’re proud of.

Put another way, “follow your passion” is like the kiddie’s pool of life advice. It’s time to take off the floaties and dive into the deep end.

If only there was a book about how to do this…

I Want to Give You a Free Copy of My New Book

September 10th, 2012 · 25 comments

My new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, will be published in eight days! If you haven’t already pre-ordered the book, sit tight: next week I’ll do the official announcement, which will include some exciting giveaways for people who buy a copy then.

In the meantime, two pieces of pre-pub business…

If You Pre-Ordered the Book, Please Consider Leaving an Amazon Review

This is me in favor asking mode: If you pre-ordered the book from Amazon, and received your copy early, please consider leaving an honest review. I want the people who consider the book during the publication week to encounter some social proof that I’m not a crank.

If you do leave a review, please e-mail me at interesting [at] with the subject line “[Review]” so that I can thank you personally. Feel free to include in your e-mail any questions or comments you had about the book.

I look forward to hearing from you!

If You Have a Platform, I Have a Free Book for You

My publisher has given me a limited number of electronic copies of the book to give away. If you have an online platform (e.g., a blog, a big twitter following) that you think might be interested in my ideas, I want to give you one of these free copies. In exchange, I will ask that you share your honest thoughts about the book with your audience on (or near) the 9/18 publication date.

If you’re interested send me an e-mail at interesting [at] with the subject line “[Platform].” Please include a link to your platform and audience size, just in case I end up with more requests than books!

Solutions Beyond the Screen: The Adventure Work Method for Producing Creative Insights

September 5th, 2012 · 26 comments

Fog marching down the Berkeley hills (photo by Ianan).

Battling the Beast

A couple weeks ago, I made a brief visit to Berkeley, California, for a wedding. My wife, Julie, had to take a conference call the first morning after we arrived, so I decided to get some work done myself. I didn’t bring a computer, so “work” couldn’t mean e-mail replying (the standard instinct in this situation).

Instead, I decided to log some hard focus hours on what I like to call The Beast: a particularly vexing theory problem that my collaborators and I have been battling for many months.

I got some coffee and headed toward the Berkeley campus on foot. It was early, and the fog was just starting its march down the Berkeley hills (as shown above).

I eventually wandered into a eucalyptus grove:

(Photo by letjoysize)

Once there, I sipped my coffee and thought.

Our existing strategy for The Beast included a complicated algorithm which none of us looked forward to analyzing. Deploying a trick I learned while a grad student, I avoided needing to understand why the complicated algorithm worked by instead turning my attention to understanding why simpler strategies failed (I’m surprised by how often the study of things that break lead to simple things that don’t).

After only an hour, which included a strategic fill-up at the Free Speech Cafe, I had an idea for a more concise (and easier to analyze) algorithm that seemed to work.

Read more »