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.)

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The Nuanced Road to Passion: A Career Case Study

August 24th, 2014 · 41 comments


The Insult of Simplicity

There are many reasons why I don’t like the advice to “follow your passion.”

One reason I haven’t mentioned much recently is that I find its premise insultingly simplistic.

It would be nice if we were all born with a clear preexisting passion.

It would also be nice if simply matching your job to a topic you liked was all it took to generate a meaningful career.

But reality is more nuanced (as we should expect, given the rareness and desirability of the goal being pursued here).

In an effort to be more positive than negative, however, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief case study that sketches a more realistic image of how people end up with work that matters.

This case study comes from a reader whom I’ll call Peter…

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The Student Passion Problem

March 2nd, 2014 · 47 comments


The Double Degree

A reader recently pointed me to the following question, posted on Stack Exchange:

I am studying a combined bachelor of engineering (electrical) and bachelor of mathematics; I just started this year and will graduate in 2018. The reason why I am doing double degrees and not a single degree is because I love both electrical engineering and mathematics and I could not ignore any of them. So with this in mind, I am thinking of doing two PHDs when I graduate (one in electrical engineering and one in mathematics). Is this a good path or I should concentrate on only one of them?

The responses in the comment thread for this question are fantastic, but in this post I want to add an additional thought to the conversation.

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37 Signal’s Formula for a Satisfying Career (Hint: It’s Not Passion)

December 29th, 2013 · 9 comments


Rethinking the Laborious Slog

Supporters of the passion hypothesis assume that the key to enjoying your career is choosing the right type of work.

I’ve been arguing that there are many other (and often way more important) factors that help determine whether you end up loving your career.

What you do for a living, in other words, is just a small piece in the satisfaction puzzle.

A recent Fast Company article by 37 Signal’s David Hansson (promoting his new co-authored book, REMOTE), provides a nice case study for my philosophy. Here’s Hansson:

“[T]he problem isn’t actually the work itself. It’s the fight against the hostile environment surrounding the work that’s the laborious slog…The fact is that most people like to work. Really work, that is. Engage their brain and their talents in the creation of value.”

As the article then elaborates, the “hostile environment” causing people to be unhappy with their jobs includes factors such as long commutes, requirements to live near the company offices (even if you otherwise dislike the location), and hyper-distracting office cultures.

If you can minimize these environmental negatives (i.e., by promoting remote work agreements), Hansson notes, you can significantly increase peoples’ happiness.

As career advice, “follow flexible work arrangements” sounds less sexy than “follow your passion,” but Hansson reminds us that career satisfaction is not a particularly sexy pursuit, but is instead the outcome of many careful decisions about many subtle factors.

(Photo by The Other Dan)

How Dirty Jobs Disrupt the Idea that Pre-Existing Passion Matters

December 2nd, 2013 · 34 comments


Wisdom from Dirty Jobs

I wrote an article for the Huffington Post’s most recent installment of its TED Weekends series. The theme for this week was “A Lesson From Some of the World’s Dirtiest Jobs,” and the motivating TED talk was by Mike Rowe, former host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs program. Many of you sent me a link to Rowe’s talk when it was first released, mainly due to the following phrase he quips about halfway through:

Follow your passion…what could possibly be wrong with that? Probably the worst advice I ever got.

His contrarian streaks seems to have struck a nerve. His talk has been viewed over 1.3 million times.

In my article, I try to explain what made Rowe’s talk so disruptive. You can read the full text at the Huffington Post, but I want to summarize here the take-away message, as I think it’s important:

In his talk, Rowe points out that many of the happiest people in the country have jobs that no one would ever identify as a pre-existing passion. He cited a sheep herder, a pig farmer (“smells like hell, but God bless him, he’s making a great living”), and a guy who makes flower pots out of cow dung, as examples of unexpected professional contentment. These observations are powerful for a simple reason: They separate career satisfaction from the specifics of the work.

We’ve heard the passion hypothesis so many times that it’s easy to accept as fact that matching the right job to a pre-existing interest is the primary source of occupational happiness. But Mike Rowe’s focus on the satisfaction found in the trades, in jobs for which no kid ever thinks, “that’s what I want to do when I grow up!”, have dealt a devastating blow to this belief.

If you’re twenty-three, in your first job out of college, not yet that good at what you do and starting to wonder if maybe this isn’t your true calling, or if you’re nineteen, and thinking about switching your college major because you don’t love every minute of every class, and worry that a “true passion” should always feel inspiring: I suggest taking an hour or two to watch some episodes of Rowe’s show.

“Roadkill picker-uppers whistle while they work,” he said at one point during his talk. “I swear to God — I did it with them.”

It only takes a few examples like the above before you begin to realize that career satisfaction is about something deeper than simply picking the right job.

An Animated Argument Against Passion

June 17th, 2013 · 20 comments


A reader recently sent me the following note:

I was a believer in “finding your passion” until I read your book.  It has freed me from the frustration and impatience bred from the continuous quest to “find the perfect job.”

Enlightened, I made an animation to share the idea with my friends.

This animated short is embedded above. I thought those of you who read SO GOOD would enjoy it.

How Can Two People Feel Completely Different About the Same Job? — Career Drift and the Danger of Pre-Existing Passion

March 3rd, 2013 · 32 comments


The Emersonian Doctoral Candidate

I’m flying down to Duke on Tuesday to speak with their graduate students. Preparing for the event inspired me to reflect on my own student experience. In doing so, an Emerson quote came to mind:

“To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven”

Emerson does a good job of capturing the reality of a research-oriented graduate education. Even though students enter such programs — especially at top schools — strikingly homogenous, in terms of their educational backgrounds and achievements, after a few years, the group tends to radically bifurcate.

Some students love the experience and thrive. They dread the possibility that they might have to one day leave academia and take a “normal job.” To them, graduate school is Emerson’s heaven.

Other students hate the experience and wilt. They complain about their advisors, and their peers, and the school, and their busyness. They can’t wait to return to a “normal job.” To them, graduate school is Emerson’s hell.

I began to notice this split about halfway though my time at MIT. I loved graduate school, so I was mildly surprised, at first, to encounter cynical students secretly plotting to abandon ship after earning their masters degree, or to stumble into dark blogs with titles such as, appropriately enough, Dissertation Hell (” a place to rant…about the tortures of writing a dissertation”).

Why do such similar students end up with such different experiences?

Because I happened to be a professional advice writer at the same that I was a student, I studied the issue. I think the answers I found are important to our broader discussion because this Emersonian division is common in many professions, and understanding its cause helps us better understand the complicated task of building a compelling career and the pitfalls to avoid.

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Do You Need Passion to Succeed as an Entrepreneur? Pam Slim’s Advice for Starting Your Own Business

February 3rd, 2013 · 12 comments


Start-Up Passion

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I argue that “follow your passion” is bad advice.

But what about for entrepreneurs?

I’m asked this question often. It seems logical that the only way to power through the difficulties of starting a new business is to be driven by passion, so people want to know if this path is an exception to my post-passion philosophy.

This is an important question and I want to provide an evidence-based answer. With this in mind, I turned to Pamela Slim, author of Escape from Cubicle Nation, and one of the country’s top thinkers on making the jump to entrepreneurship. I met Pam last summer and was impressed by the sophistication of her thinking on this topic, so I asked if I could interview her and then share her thoughts with you. She graciously agreed.

Here are the highlights from our conversation (my conclusion follows)…

“In terms of starting a business, the first step for many people — particularly those in traditional corporate environments — is to tune into what topics interest you, where your natural strengths are, what lights you up.”

“For many people, however, there is no one thing — we are wired to have many different interests and passions.”

“You have to choose something of interest that is also going to have an economic engine behind it.”

“Take one idea. Find a simple business model. Then test it using the fewest resources possible (time, energy, money), but in a way that gives you a good sense of whether the idea is viable. This is especially important if you are testing an idea while still holding a traditional job.”

“If you put a number of different models through this test, you can determine if you enjoy doing it, and if the market really finds it to be valuable. You need both.”

“I suggest having a clear decision criteria.”

“A word of warning about this process: something I’ve seen people struggle with is this idea that there’s a perfect job or business out there for you. Then, when you start something, and it’s not everything it’s cracked up to be, you worry, when you should instead be committing to building the skills necessary.”

“If you are always attempting to understanding yourself better, identifying environments that support your best work, then commit yourself to do your best work, it will lead to more happiness.”

My Conclusion

When it comes to entrepreneurship, Pam knows her stuff, so I was happy to see that our thinking aligns in so many places. The idea that most caught my attention is the difference between passion and a true calling.

Pam notes that it’s important to feel strongly about a business model/idea/lifestyle before pursuing it. In fact, she frequently uses the word “passion” to describe this feeling.

But she also makes it clear that there’s a difference between this strong feeling and a sense that a particular path is the one and only path for you. It’s this latter thinking that so often leads to worry and disappointment when reality proves less than euphoric. She notes that you might have many different interests, and this fine — choose one. And even if you love the idea you’re pursuing with a singular intensity, you still need to commit to clear and objective testing of the market. Without an “economic engine”, all the passion in the world cannot guarantee you long term reward and engagement.