On the Link Between Careers and Passion

13 November 2012 · 12 comments

“The path to a passionate life is often way more complex than the simple advice ‘follow your passion’ would suggest.” — Cal Newport

As one of my tasks for World Domination Summit, I recently rewatched recordings of every main-stage speaker. Though all of the speakers were great, Cal Newport’s talk has been most on my mind over the past couple of weeks.

Cal Newport is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He’s the author or several books, including the recent So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. He also writes a blog called Study Hacks, where he explores best practices for work and learning. (In his words, he’s attempting to decode “patterns of success”.)

At World Domination Summit, Cal explored the age-old wisdom to “follow your passion” when choosing a career. You’ve been told you should follow your passion, to do what you love and the money will follow. But how sound is this advice? He argues that it’s astonishingly wrong: It’s not age-old wisdom; in fact, it’s a recent idea, and one that does more harm than good.

Here’s his complete talk:

For a quick highlight from Cal’s talk, watch from 7:56 to 14:43, where he describes how Steve Jobs did not follow his passion when building Apple Computer into a world-wide brand.

As a young man, Jobs was passionate about philosophy and eastern mysticism — not electronics. Building computers was just a way to make some quick cash. But eventually, this scheme morphed into something more. And eventually, Jobs did become passionate about computers. He didn’t start out that way, though, and he certainly wasn’t following his passion when he started Apple.

In much the same way, I fell into writing about personal finance.

Money was never a passion of mine. Even today, I don’t really care about the stock market or budgeting or how to find the best savings account. I care about writing. I like to tell stories. Somehow I fell into a career of writing about money, of telling stories about personal finance. For some reason, I’m good at this, and I’ve been able to make a career out of it. But it’s not my passion.

I’m not ready to argue that you shouldn’t follow your passion. I still think that’s good advice for many people. But I think Cal Newport is on to something when he says that happiness and fulfillment are much more complex than adhering to a simple maxim. In reality, if you choose to excel what you do, the passion will often follow.

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