Don’t Follow Your Passion

By Jacqueline Wong

We all know the phrase “follow your passion” as the default career advice of our generation. It has been preached so often that it even seems canonized into American culture. And no wonder too, because combining your passion and your occupation sounds like the perfect way to lead a personally fulfilling and rewarding life, right? But how does this advice actually hold up? Curious about this mantra’s popularity, Phi Beta Kappa member Cal Newport tested its efficacy by investigating people who were successful and felt passionate about their careers. The result: “follow your passion” is actually not good advice.

Currently an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, Newport is interested in “[decoding] underlying patterns of success,” and analyzes how people end up having passionate and fulfilling careers (Study Hacks). While promoting his latest book So Good They Can’t Ignore you at the 2013 99u Conference, he explained how “follow your passion” is problematic because (a.) it presupposes you already have a preexisting passion, and (b.) it presupposes that matching your career with your passion will lead to a satisfying and rewarding career. In doing so, this advice creates inflated workplace expectations that can actually be harmful, leading to insecurity, anxiety, and dissatisfaction.

So for the people that Newport interviewed who are satisfied and successful in their field, how did they get to where they are? From his talk at the 99u Conference, and an interview he gave for “The Minimalists,” Newport explained that the key to being successful is getting really good at a “rare and valuable skill,” and “honing your ability, and then leveraging your value, once good, to shape your working life toward the type of lifestyle that resonates with you,” respectively. Yet, the common counter argument that Newport faces is that in order to develop a skill, you must already have a passion for that skill, and thus, Newport’s advice is no different than “follow your passion.” However, Newport finds another common pattern that occurred throughout successful people’s lives. Rather than starting with a passion, the people he studied had an initial positive encounter with a skill. This led them to continually practice and get better at it than others. This momentum carried them forward, and he points out that “as they got better, their interest and passion grew along with their skill.”  

Newport also suggests methods to help people develop a skill, stressing the importance of “deep work” or “focusing persistently and without distraction at a cognitively demanding and valuable task.” What makes focusing difficult is that our brains are programmed to conserve energy, and deep work requires an intense amount. Yet, Newport asserts that forcing your mind to focus is essential in order to develop a skill. He outlines steps to achieve deep work, such as time management, having a clear goal or an assignment to finish, and having the determination to complete it. Through studying successful people, Newport found that “you cannot expect a really good working life until you’re really good at something.” He therefore concludes that the more skill you have, the more leverage you can offer, and the more control you can have over your career and lifestyle.  

By studying why some people end up loving what they do while others do not, the ultimate message that Newport tries to convey is that “what you end up doing does not really matter. The specifics of the work is not what’s most important.” Rather, it is more about general lifestyle traits, like autonomy, how much impact you make, how much free time your job allows you, etc. Therefore, people do not necessarily have a true calling.  As long as the general lifestyle traits are met, people would be happy with their job no matter what they were doing. Along with pervading a more realistic approach to workplace satisfaction, these findings are interesting and encouraging because they show that everyone is capable of achieving these feats. Newport ultimately gives proof and hope that being successful is attainable for everyone. 

Jacqueline Wong is a junior at the University of California Riverside majoring in English. The University of California Riverside is home to the Iota of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.