“Follow your passion” is not helpful advice

When I was in school my dream job was not to one day run a university visitors center and be a campus tour guru. It’s not exactly an obvious dream career. My first career dream when I was a kid was to be an astronaut. (I came of age when NASA was the coolest thing in the world, and we were sending men to the moon.) Then later I imagined I would be a politician or a TV news guy.

I stumbled into a job in higher education a few years after graduating from college after a stint working on Capitol Hill. I thought I would stick around in my university job just until I figured out what I really wanted to do. Twenty-one years later, I’m still here. And I’m passionate about my work. It’s not because I lucked into work that is a perfect “fit” for my passions. I do care about education, and I really like being on a campus and working with college students every day. But I wouldn’t be here if the twenty-something version of myself had insisted on discovering some innate passion that I was born to follow.

So many people struggle to answer that question: “What is my passion?” We’ve all been told to do “what you love” and “follow your passion”, but how do we figure out what that is? The pursuit of this perfect career-passion match ends up paralyzing and frustrating more than it results in blissful job nirvana.

Earlier this year I read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Newport makes a compelling case that “follow your passion” is not particularly helpful advice. After looking closely at those who had found genuine career satisfaction, he realized that it wasn’t because they followed some inborn passion. Instead, career passion seems to come from getting really good at something and sticking with it. Passion follows excellence.

In a recent post on his blog, Newport offers this advice on choosing a career:

Pick something that you wouldn’t mind investing years in mastering. If you already have some skills, then it might make sense (though is by no means necessary) to start there, as you already have a head start on mastery, but you should still expect years of deliberate improvement before deep passion can blossom for your work.

The key thing, in other words, is to direct expectations away from match theory — which says passion depends primarily on making the right job choice — and toward career capital theory — which says passion will grow along with your skill.

This has been true for me. I chose work that seemed like fun, then I invested years in getting good at it. Passion for it bloomed naturally as I kept getting better and more knowledgable and more valuable to my employer. My continuing pursuit of excellence and the increased autonomy that comes with it have created genuine job satisfaction.

It’s not so much what you do as how well you do it. Certainly, pick a path that seems interesting or fun or meaningful, a career where you could see yourself spending a decade or so. Then throw yourself into mastering your work. Don’t wait till you find your passion. Just focus on being awesome at whatever path you choose, and passion and joy will find you.

So Good They Can't Ignore You

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