Monday, December 3, 2012

Don't follow your passion

Cal Newport argues in his book, So Good They Can't Ignore You, that "follow your passion" might just be terrible advice. This is a much needed challenge to the typical North American "you can do whatever you put your mind to" philosophy. While Newport's tone is not at all pessimistic, it's hard not to be reminded of this comic:

No one in their right mind (at least in North America) would tell a kid that they can't be what they want to be. This optimism can be healthy and can encourage innovation, but can also trivialize the amount of hard work required to build any kind of great career. Great careers are rare and in order to have one, one must have skills that are equally rare and valuable. These skills take many years to develop.

Newport studies people who are passionate about what they're doing, to find out how they got there. For one, these people took little steps (as opposed to big ones) to get to where they are. They focused on gaining valuable skills at each step, and when their abilities outgrew their current job, they took the next logical step.

These people did not identify a passion and follow it. Newport believes that focusing on passion is harmful. He believes it convinces people that there is a magic "right" job waiting for them somewhere, and the moment they find it they'll recognize it. In reality, this kind of certainty is rare, and questions like "Is this who I really am?" and "Do I love this?" rarely reduce to a clear yes-or-no response.

Among the many suggestions he makes, one that stood out was to try different projects, each one not taking more than a couple of months, and see how you and the world feel about them. This feels like the start of a "lean career" movement: try a lot of different projects, see what works and what doesn't, and iterate. He also suggest that perhaps it's not so much about what you do, but about how you do it and the attitude you take. I certainly know people who seem to enjoy everything they do, and do it all with an intensity that makes you think that this is their life passion.

So Good They Can't Ignore You is a book with some refreshing ideas: ones that finally put more emphasis on skills and hard work, and less on passion and dreams.

PS: Sivers has a great set of notes for this book that covers the main points (and is also more concise than the book itself).

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