“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.

12 Replies to “On the Link Between Careers and Passion”

  1. PawPrint says:

    What is your passion? I guess I’m curious because I’m almost 60 and still haven’t discovered a “passion.” Can one go through life and not have a passion? I know that’s not the topic here, but it’s one that’s on my mind. Given the advice that following your passion may not be the best way to go, I guess not having a passion was a good thing when I was working. Now, not so much.

    Was in PDX for a few days last week. I wanted to collect on that Voodoo donut and coffee you offered a couple years ago (I have a good memory about such things), but I was with several friends. One of these days.

  2. What I liked about Cal’s talk was how he gave credit to education, knowledge, and experience first and said THEN follow your passion; when you have some substance to back it up. It really struck a chord with me as I have just quit my day job to pursue other passions. I don’t, however, embark on this lark as a young, inexperienced, 20 yr old but as an educated, knowledgable, experienced 45 year old who brings all of that with me into my new ventures. Yes, my new path is much different than my past but there is much to be brought forward that will ensure my continued success. I thought it was very brave of Cal to get up on that stage amongst so many other ‘follow your passion’ speakers and say ‘wait a minute…maybe thing about this some more’.

  3. I loved Cal’s book, and thought his advice was spot on: get good, really good, at something, then see what happens.

  4. I’ll watch a bit later today. I’ll have to agree with the main idea though. It’s good to become passionate about what you do. I was making good salary as an engineer, but it became so tedious that I quit. Now I’m writing and it’s going well. We’ll see if this work out. I’m open to other opportunities too. 🙂

  5. Martin says:

    I’ve been reading the work of Cal for a while now and I really enjoy the research that he has conducted. He’s just not a fan of the catchphrase “follow your passions” because it’s so empty. It doesn’t mean anything.

    I feel that most throw this advice out because it’s easy and gets you motivated for a few minutes. That’s also why I really enjoyed the “$100 Startup” book because it digs deep into tactics and what works/what doesn’t work.

  6. April says:

    Loved So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I found myself nodding in agreement when he talked about the traits of jobs that make people happy, like a sense of autonomy.

    The problems with “follow your passion” advice are that, one, you may not know what your passion is, so you spend years stuck in a miserable job with zero autonomy, etc. because you’re still trying to find a passion. Two, your passion might not be profitable. I love to read about food and cook homemade meals. No one is gonna pay me to do that, and I don’t want to be a chef. And three, if you turn a passion into a job, you could wind up sucking the joy out of it.

    Cal’s book gives you an actual blueprint for finding a job or career that makes you happy, rather than the pie-in-the-sky advice that’s so popular today.

  7. Interesting perspective, JD. I admire your ability to inject practicality into the “leap and the net will appear” philosophy.

  8. Taryn says:

    I was going to say what April said above….I’m not sure I would want to risk ruining my passion by making it a daily must-do. My passion is dogs, photography, and dog agility training/competitions. All of that could be combined into a business (lots of people have already!), but I think I’d rather have my more predictable web developer job(with its health insurance, esop, and 401k) for income that funds my passion…..Also, I’m not much of a risk taker so pursuing a passion would be scary!

  9. Jonathan says:

    Well, you’re definitely a good writer, and in my opinion that’s what made you special in the world of personal finance, so in a way it was really your passion that made you successful.

  10. Hilary says:

    As others have alluded to, I do think it depends a lot on your appetite for risk and for the downsides of working for someone else. I know folks that are not passionate at all about their day job, although they are good at them, but it gives them a steady income and they would rather try to squeeze in what they are passionate about on evenings/weekends rather than try to make a living with film/poetry/cooking etc. Others are more entrepreneurial, and they would be miserable dealing with corporate politics, so the higher income just wouldn’t be worth it.

  11. rubin pham says:

    “follow your passion” is the biggest BS, and the the 2nd biggest brainwash in modern day america.

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