Study Hacks Blog

On Passion and Its Discontents

June 30th, 2018 · 52 comments

An Earlier Book

New readers of this blog might not know that back in 2012 I published a book about career satisfaction. It was titled So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

The book draws from interviews and relevant scientific research to answer a simple but important question: How do people end up passionate about what they do for a living?

Early in the book I make a provocative claim: the popular advice that you should “follow your passion” is counterproductive in the sense that it will likely reduce the probability that you end up loving your work.

I detail two reasons why “follow your passion” is bad advice:

  • The first reason is that most people don’t have a clear pre-defined passion to follow. This is especially true if you consider young people who are just setting out on their own for the first time. The advice to “follow your passion” is frustratingly meaningless if, like many people, you don’t have a passion to follow.
  • The second reason is that we don’t have much evidence that matching your job to a pre-existing interest makes you more likely to find that work satisfying. The properties we know lead people to enjoy their work — such as autonomy, mastery, and relationships — have little to do with whether or not the work matches an established inclination.

What works better? Put in the hard work to master something rare and valuable, then deploy this leverage to steer your working life in directions that resonate.

(This is what I call career capital theory. For more on these ideas, c.f., my New York Times op-ed, my CNN article, my talks at Google, 99u, and WDS, or my Art of Manliness podcast interview.)

The reason I’m dredging up this topic is that several people I know recently pointed me toward new research that supports some of my conclusions.

The paper is titled “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?” It’s written by Paul O’Keefe, Carol Dweck (of growth mindset fame) and Gregory Walton. It’s set to appear in the journal Psychological Science.

The Stanford press release announcing the article is titled, “Instead of ‘finding your passion,’ try developing it.” As the release elaborates:

“While ‘find your passion’ is well-intended advice, it might not be good advice.

A new study by Stanford psychologists examines the hidden implications of the advice to ‘find your passion.’
Mantras like ‘find your passion’ carry hidden implications…they imply that once an interest resonates, pursuing it will be easy. But, the research found that when people encounter inevitable challenges, that mindset makes it more likely people will surrender their newfound interest.

And the idea that passions are found fully formed implies that the number of interests a person has is limited. That can cause people to narrow their focus and neglect other areas.”

When So Good was first released, I was somewhat alone in my anti-passion advocacy. It’s nice to welcome some new prominent voices to my side of this issue.

52 thoughts on “On Passion and Its Discontents

  1. Anuj says:

    Well, if you happen to be born India (this generation has BOUGHT this myth of passion badly!) uptill early 2000’s, and you talked about ‘passion’, you would likely to be admitted to a mental hospital with much sorrow would follow from your own family. It was all about working hard (especially in STEM fields), irrespective of anything. I think, the same goes with China.
    Because India was made very poor during imperialism, there were not many opportunities after independence up to the start of 21st century and the ONLY way to survive and thrive was to study your butt off. Still, it holds true to get admission into any decent institution. However, in the last 10 years, this ‘passion’ formula has been selling like hotcakes. Why? Because it’s EASY! Why to resist entertaining yourself and study boring Calculus when you can entertain yourself by following your passion! I guess, Darwin’s law will continue to prevail irrespective of passion or technology. The best will survive.

    1. bunkum says:

      Which carries with it the implicit assumption that non-STEM fields are *easy*. They’re not, actually, and it takes a lot of hard work to become very good at a field like journalism/writing/photography (just as an example). No one should be doing *any* career choice because it’s easy, and having parental permission to move into unconventional career choices is totally separate from any judgement about their inherent “difficulty”, whatever that means.

      1. You didn’t mention a bunch of fields that people think are easy that take time and effort to learn and be good at. The ones often forgotten are mechanics, plumbers, contractors and more that are people who work with their hands, but it takes a lot of brain to learn and be good at. We need these people too. Everyone can’t work in STEM or IT jobs.

  2. Michal says:

    But still, how people can pull through in learning something while task at hand might be not interesting for them in the first place? Maybe passion is just not a good word? Instead we should say “find your interests and put in the hard work”. I love everything about music, but improving my skills in it is far from pleasant – it takes a lot of deliberate practice. I’m still doing it because of… passion, interest?

    1. Donna says:

      I recommend re-reading the second bullet “The properties we know lead people to enjoy their work — such as autonomy, mastery, and relationships — have little to do with whether or not the work matches an established inclination.”

      1. Gerry says:

        Yes I agree because it makes sense logically. But it’s easier said than done. How about people who have say ADHD. They keep on losing interest after 3-6 months of doing something. Should they just suck it up and master a skill they’re not interested anymore anyway? Yes mastery leads people to enjoy their work (as Cal says in his book). But doesnt enjoyment and interest also an important component for one to master a skill? Im not trying to debate. Just trying to understand this (myself). Thanks!

  3. Great post Cal, and thanks for the reminder. I’ve been developing similar thinking around the notion of identity. I would much rather define who I am at the end of my life, based on the decisions I made and skills I developed, rather than accepting an identity at the beginning of my life and being forced to live the rest of it accordingly.

    1. jaymie says:

      How can you say passion is not a productive work? What about therapists, doctors, artists without these some STEM fields would be in jeopardy. I have a friend who is a passionate robotic surgeon. Without his research and skill and desire, some STEM jobs would not be where they are today!

      1. farok says:

        The thing is that very few people have the required thought processes ingrained from an early age which all help them chase their passion to fruition. That is they have the right amount of everything. Only a few will hit all the right points to become successful. You need to develop a passion by doing stuff that rare and valuable. Stuff that does not become more and more stressful in the long run. This is why I consider Cal’s advice to be universal in every intricacy of daily people’s life.

  4. Nagarajan. P says:

    1.passion is a by product of recreation not a product in itself and primary energy to be directed in a productive work.

  5. BG says:

    Ain’t this plagiarism? These idiots write a paper about YOUR original argument that was presented in your book (which was published 6 years ago) and they don’t even mention your work? Wow, cutting-edge research! What a joke!

    1. hnx says:

      Could easily be a coincidence. It’s a very relevant problem nowadays to “find your passion” and I think the hate here is unnecessary. To call them idiots is rather distasteful. Even if you’re a hard-core fan of Cal Newport’s work.

      1. BG says:

        I admit that phrasing was unnecessary. I actually tried to edit my original comment immediately after I posted it but I could not find a way to change it. If I could, I would rephrase and use ‘geniuses’ instead.

    2. EA says:

      They can use his argument, do their own research and publish it. It’s not plagiarism, and if Cal is talking about this I guess he’s happy and proud!

    3. Baptiste says:

      It’s odd that Cal is not cited, but it’s even odder that their bibliography consists of only two papers!

    4. Andrew says:

      Newport 2013 = Stanford 2018

      1. EA says:

        Newport 2013 > Stanford 2018 🙂

  6. MH says:

    What do you do when you’ve come to dislike what you’ve chosen to pursue, and can’t seem to even keep up with those around you in the same field (let alone master)?

    1. Yevgeniya says:

      Are you sure its a whole field and not just one job?

      You can make a lateral career move: Same position but different industry (secretary at a law firm transitioned to secretary in a church)or a different position in the same industry (an administrator at college transitioned to a professor at college) .

      1. MH says:

        It’s been a couple of jobs, though I am currently attempting one of your suggestions (different position in the same industry).

        1. RMP says:

          & right here is why this anti-passion study / article is incorrect – you are being told to pursue a job rather than develop your true personal interests (the ones you were born with – everyone has multiple, that’s the secret) with a lot of hard work which is why you keep moving jobs. You are far less likely to give up if you do something you love.

          What most people lack, is the courage to pursue their wildest dreams.

          You can’t keep up with those around you because your hearts not truly in it while somebody that you work with might have all the passion in the world for it and wants to develop that interest far into the future; something you should be trying to do for yourself rather than being told to just find some job of value and dive in. Eventually you will give up there as well till you’ve reached a point in your life where you’ve wasted a significant portion of it and got nothing accomplished.

          And you wonder why so many people are depressed these days. Seriously.

    2. EA says:

      You try to absorb as much as possible. Even if you are 100% sure that you will change field, there is always something to learn and a skill to acquire (even soft skills) that will be useful in the future.

    3. King arthur says:

      Read on things like deep work and deliberate practice. Those thing can help master things faster and at a higher quiality.

      1. Baptiste says:

        Deep work and deliberate practice require you to be interested in what you’re working on, at least a little. MH said he didn’t like his current job, so I don’t think that would work for him/her.

  7. runbei says:

    Worked for me. Looking back at age 76, I see that when young I spent years following “passions” that led nowhere. It was only with the help of an extraordinarily patient spiritual teacher that I found what I truly enjoyed doing, and even then, not until my mid-sixties. I reckon the best advice I could give those starting out would be to focus on what you’re best at, and get very, very good at it while developing an awareness that expansive attitudes of service bring the deepest happiness.

  8. Sean Alexander says:

    Earl Nightingale once classified people into two groups: 1. River people, and 2. Goal people. He postulated that some lucky few of us discover early in our lives a river of interest into which they can cast themselves and their aspirations. Their river of interest will carry them along through a mostly productive and happy life.

    The rest of us are goal people and must continually set new, challenging goals that drive us through to completion of the goals, and then the setting of new goals to challenge us.

    Knowing which type you are, and acting in accordance with that type, will help enhance your journey through life.

  9. Carl says:

    An important metric to look for is, “What can you endure?”

    There are many tasks that are pleasant in less than full time doses. They can be fun hobbies but horrible careers. In my case, I enjoy playing music. But practicing over an hour a day is grueling. I have no business becoming a musician.

    I got my degree in physics, because I am interested in it, but my career is mostly computer programming, as it is considerably less strenuous. If I could do it on my own terms, I’d go back to physics. Computer programming, on the other hand, I can do based on what the customer wants.

  10. Bill Brokaw says:

    It all depends on what your passion is. Not necessarily a career. Maybe it’s something else, like hunting or boating or traveling. You focus on all the tasks of your life, some good, some grueling, so that you can follow your passion and experience periods of deep satisfaction.

  11. Shelly says:

    Stop searching for your passion. You have to look for what you love doing. Because it’s only then you become passionate. Passion does not always lead. Let passion finds you.

    1. Karen says:

      “Let passion find you” I like that!

  12. Margaret L says:

    I was once asked by an Episcopal “father,” “What is your passion?” And I thought, I love Jesus, but I wouldn’t call loving Jesus my “passion” that doesn’t sound right!!! And I like to write, but I’m not exactly the next J.K. Rowling… So he said, “What do you love? What do you like to do?” And I thought, got it! Cross Stitch! (laughing inside…)…. But it seemed to him to be rather lacking in depth …. which was fine with me! I still like all of the above,

  13. Jen Lytle says:

    Why is passion often linked to work? I was raised to choose where you would like to live. Once there find the work that will support you. Your passions are all around you, family, place, community and work. In my mind work is meant to support you passions. And yes it can also be one if you choose to let it be.

    1. Baptiste says:

      I think the reason so many people seek passion in the workplace is because most people spent the major part of their day at work. In the US, I think the average work week is about 46 hours. In Europe it’s near 40.

      Another reason I can think of is that since working at least a few dozens hours is necessary, it’s better to become good at what you do for a living than at something else, since you have all that extra time to practice.

      But I agree with you. It’s perfectly possible to focus on passions outside the workplace. In that case, I suppose you would work part-time?

  14. Dave says:

    The first reason makes sense. The second reason is skirting the topic. A passion is not something you have an ‘inclination’ for. It is something you MUST do to be fulfilled. The fulfillment derives not from “autonomy”, “mastery”, or “relationships” (all things you could get by doing virtually anything), but from the act of doing the activity itself.

    Thus, not everyone has a passion for something, but those who do would be wise to attempt to monetize it as a career.

  15. Karen Nece says:

    I knew what I wanted to from very young (Space planner/Landscape Architect). I feel it very sad when young people have no idea what they want to do when they “grow up”. When I ask my daughter’s 20-something friends “When you close your eyes what do you see yourself doing?” Most of the time they have no idea. My daughter’s always wanted to be in nature and work with animals. She’s a junior at UCDavis in Environmental Conservation. This summer she’e at the Bodega Marine Lab and living in Bodega Bay in a house she found herself and it’s the first time she’s lived alone. I think if you have a passion it is easier to teach your children the same concept.

  16. Sue says:

    Great post, quite Buddhist: like what and who and where you are, instead of the endless American quest for success, or pushing for your chosen career. After a lifetime of work in several jobs, including a licensed profession, in my experience, it’s more about how you do the job, than which job, that fulfills your passion. I liked working with all kinds of people, solving problems that had been previously missed and also doing policy work, training and staff development. So those could happen in several fields. My passion seems to be practicing solid ethics, even in this post-ethics world of ours–and making sure the system I work in still serves the individual in need.

  17. kaavah says:

    Dear Cal
    my question is how do you find that thing that you work hard in it?

  18. Mo B says:

    Cal ~ Sending you a note of huge gratitude for your book. I was introduced to it by Steve Chandler two years ago and loved the framing of mastery (versus passion). Since then, I’ve shared it with most of my clients who, especially the 20 somethings, are so relieved to find a concept that explains their path through their world when everyone else seems to be talking about ‘vision’ and ‘what you want to do in 5 years’. So …. thank you, thank you for bringing this important work into the world – for myself and so many others!!

  19. Dave Dayanan says:

    Passion and Emotion does go together and sometimes refer on to oneself. The common sense is sometimes overpowered by it. Open mindedness for others is much more better than this since it is really not about yourself it is about those who needs your help. Cal I believe you are that person.

  20. Al says:

    Carl should be given due credits. He gave us this concepts and ideas long before the Stanford psychologists did. Not doing so feels unfair.

  21. divya says:

    Even Steve jobs and Mark Zuckerberg do copy the ideas and they are very successful

  22. Dawn says:

    The article was recently reported in Inside Higher Ed:
    Of course, when I saw the title of the post, I thought of you before thinking of the new report out. I’ve been an admirer of your work for some time, Cal, and I’ve given out copies of your books to the high school students I’ve tutored. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and discoveries!

  23. Dan Dickson says:

    I think we need some specific mantras that are more clear about these topics. Maybe one could be: “For hard things (like science and math) you probably won’t know if you will find it satisfying in the long term until you have gained proficiency – which may take a long while.”

    Okay – that is a long-winded mantra………..Cal could figure out a better one I’m sure.

  24. Rob says:

    Hi Cal,

    This is an extremely late comment, but I thought this might be the best place to say thank you. I read So Good They Can’t Ignore you in 2013, having barely scraped through a law degree with no ambitions (or ability) to use it and meandering through a series of jobs with little direction. Having read your book I realised my skills lay in technology and software (areas I had already invested my time in) and after six years in the tech industry I’m now a Software Engineering Manager at one of the largest supermarkets in the UK. To use the cliché, it is the one book I can genuinely describe as “life-changing”.

    Thank you so much for your work.

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