Is "Follow Your Passion" Bad Career Advice?

Blue Sage Sunday Book Review:

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

by Cal Newton

He’s not your typical career advice guru. 

As he begins So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newton is in the process of completing his Ph.D in computer science at MIT. Facing a dismal job market in academia, Newton finds himself pondering the question “How do people end up loving what they do?” What’s the secret to finding a career you love?  It’s a good question.

As a career specialist, I spend my days talking to people who are asking that question. “How do I find my dream job - and a career I love?”  Popular culture tells each of us that the perfect job is out there- the one job we were meant for that will bring us happiness and fulfillment. All we have to do is follow our passion, right?

Newton starts researching these questions and soon realizes that

“the conventional wisdom on career success - follow your passion - is seriously flawed. It not only fails to describe how most people actually end up with compelling careers, but for many people it can actually make things worse: leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst when… one’s reality inevitably falls short of the dream.”

And so Newton creates Rule #1. Don’t Follow Your Passion.

Newton cites rigorous research studies of workplace satisfaction which found that “following your passion” rarely leads to career happiness.  Career passions are rare. This fits with my own experience as a career professional. Most of us identify our passions as music, sports, art, reading, gardening, video games or other hobbies. While often fascinating and a lot of fun, these pursuits don’t have much to offer when it comes to finding a career - unless you have the talent, drive and just plain luck to become a professional athlete or artist. 

Finding your passion may be downright dangerous.”

Newton even argues that the idea of “finding your passion” may be downright dangerous. “The passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem is when they fail to find this certainty, self doubt and job hopping often follow.”

So, if following your passion doesn’t work, what do you do instead?

Follow rules 2- 4. 

Rule number 2. Be so good they can’t ignore you. (Otherwise known as the importance of skill.)

_Be so good, they can't ignore you_.png

The line actually comes from actor and comic Steve Martin during an interview with Charlie Rose. Rose asks Martin for advice for aspiring performers. “Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’… but I always say, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

It’s what Newport calls the “craftsman mindset.” He notes that the “craftsman mindset is crucial for building a career you love.”  

Newton writes

“there’s something liberating about the craftsman mindset: It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good.  No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it - and the process won’t be easy.”

It’s about deliberate practice - intensive work  - to get really good at your job. In essence, passion is a side effect of mastery. 

Newport argues that this craftsman mindset - getting really good at your job - gives you career capital. You move into a more senior place in your career where you now have the opportunity to be creative and to have control over more of your career and life. You also have the ability to make a difference - another factor in career satisfaction. Entry level jobs often do not have those things. You have to work to get there.

That leads to rules 3 and 4.

Rule #3. Turn Down a Promotion (Or the importance of control)


Rule #4. Think Small. Act Big (Or, the importance of mission)

Once you have acquired enough career capital, you can negotiate for more personal and professional control.  Newport notes that gaining control over what you do and how you do it is incredibly important. The trait shows up so often in the lives of people who love what they do he calls it the “dream-job elixir.” But Newton is very clear that to gain this control, you have to have valuable skills that people are willing to pay for, what he calls the law of financial viability.  He’s pretty big on rules and laws.

Newton also theorizes that once we have obtained enough career capital, we can focus on our mission.

To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions. It provides an answer to the question, What should I do with my life? Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a specific goal - and this in turn maximizes your impact on the world - a crucial factor in loving what you do.

Conventional wisdom is turned upside down. Instead of finding our passion and mission first and then looking for work, Newton advises us to become a craftsman at our profession, master and refine our skills and then the gifts of control and mission will be ours to choose and savor.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You is chock full of detailed career profiles of well-known (think Steve Jobs) individuals as well as teachable stories of the not so famous who found careers they loved and/or learned hard lessons in jobs that were not so lovable. 

It’s a different answer to the question How do I find a career I love?

Newton concludes:

Working right trumps finding the right work - it’s a simple idea but it’s also incredibly subversive as it overturns decades of folk career advice all focused on the mystical value of passion. It wrenches us away from our daydreams of an overnight transformation into instant job bliss and provides instead a more sober way toward fulfillment.

It’s a good read. The writing is lively and clean and offers thought provoking twists on the usual career passion advice. So Good They Can’t Ignore You needs to be on the required reading list for career coaches, counselors and business mentors everywhere, as well as in the hands of anyone asking the question “How do I find a career I love?”

Anita Flowers is a Board Certified career and life coach at Blue Sage Career Strategies. A little different than most life coaches, Anita’s background in clinical psychology and years of experience as a counselor gives her a rich understanding of human development and family dynamics. Her work history includes 13 years working with an international business company and 12 years doing individual and family counseling as well as career counseling. This blend of counseling and business experience gives Anita a unique perspective on the world of work and life. Anita works with people literally all over the world to help them discover a life and career they love.   Contact Anita here to get started on your new career and life!