Why do people who pursue their passions sometimes end up unhappy? What should we do instead to end up loving what we do? Cal Newport explores why following our passion can actually be lousy advice.
He details four general rules to follow in his fascinating book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You :
Rule #1- Do Not Follow Your Passion
From a young age, the previous generations have incessantly echoed, “follow your passion and you’ll find happiness”. Cal Newport argues that following your passion is not sound advice. He elaborates that “not only is the cliché flawed—preexisting passions are rare and have little to do with how most people end up loving their work—but it can also be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job hopping.”
First, let’s determine what people truly want out of a career – i.e. happiness. According to the Self-Determination Theory, three traits emerge: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. 
- Newport suggests a similar trio: creativity, impact, and control.
- Creativity: Having the opportunity to be engaged with novel work
- Impact: Feeling like your work positively influences many people
- Control: Having the ability to choose how, when, and where the work gets completed
Does anyone truly know their passion while in high school? Heck, many people in their 20s or 30s don’t even know! Instead, he suggests to master a skill that’s rare and valuable, and then cash in what he calls “career capital” to gain a job with traits that are fulfilling. Because everyone wants a job that is fulfilling, these jobs are rare and valuable themselves.
He uses Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, as an example. Had Steve Jobs followed his passion, he would have been a leader of a commune or a Buddhist monk! What he ended up doing was seizing an opportunity and getting good at his role at Apple through continuous involvement and deep work, at which point he fell in love with his job.
Rule #2 – Be so Good They Can’t Ignore You
He shares his ideas that taking time to hone and master a skill will increase our earning potential, and also increase our life satisfaction. He further elaborates by brilliantly breaking down how it’s important to time the move correctly through “little bets” to validate the risk and rewards before diving in head first. Deep, yet small side projects, interests, and passions can manifest into a fulfilling career.
Newport champions what he calls the “craftsman mindset” where 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.” I absolutely love this mindset. Taking pride in the work that is produced and pursuing perfection and mastery, albeit virtually impossible to attain, in my opinion, will yield much more satisfaction.
We can’t ignore the law of Economics. If we offer a skill that is not rare and valuable, a skill that takes only days, weeks, or months to develop, then what’s stopping people from offering the same service, flooding the market? In business, having a unique and valuable skill is equivalent to having a “moat” or having a high barrier to entry. Arbitrage in any form in today’s inter-connected and instantaneous world is much harder to capitalize on.
After accruing valuable skills, what can happen?
Rule #3 – Avoid Control Traps
With enough of what he calls “career capital” or the accumulation of valuable skills and experience, we will arrive at a crossroad. He suggests that as we try and increase our control (autonomy), we need to avoid common control traps:
- Rushing into a high-control situation (i.e. starting a business) without accruing enough real world skills or experience
- Dealing with employers as they attempt to retain employees with valuable skills/experience
- Ensuring people are willing and able to pay for these services through little bets before jumping in head first
Starting a business is not the only way he claims we can gain control, though. His claim is that as we gain career capital, we can then leverage the capital to negotiate for more desirable traits we desire through promotions or a new gig.
He touches on the difference between having enough career capital and not enough career capital will feel the same. By throwing feelers out, we can help mitigate this risk.
Rule #4 – Think Small, Act Big
To find a successful mission, we must first develop career capital. Once we immerse ourselves within that subculture and familiarize ourselves with the ins and outs, we can isolate what opportunities are available. Once we figure out what piques our interest, we can work to become industry leaders within that discipline. He calls this area “just beyond the cutting edge in your field”. Once we’ve emerged as leaders within the subculture, we can test the financial viability of a business or service via little bets before jumping in head-first. By crafting and completing these small projects that coincide with the overall mission, we can receive vital feedback to further polish skills within that discipline. Failure should be expected, and embraced as an opportunity to learn. Thankfully we did not put all of our eggs in one basket.
Here is a talk at Google where we can hear straight from the horse’s mouth.
Newport explains the importance of deliberate practice, specifically being comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s a concept drawn from Anders Ericsson’s book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. He uses an analogy of playing music, where a great musician would play a song slowly, then speed it up until it’s just outside of the player’s comfort zone. Eventually, what was once hard becomes easy. However, becoming good at playing the piece required intense concentration, right outside of the player’s comfort zone. Weight training, and incremental increases by adding 2.5 lbs on each side can be also be used as an analogy. We’re told that showing up is enough. If we want to be ordinary, show up; to be extraordinary, strain yourself mentally and physically by actively engaging in deliberate practice.
We should adopt a craftsman mindset, buckle down and get extremely good at one of fields we have a mild interest in. As we get better and better at that skill through deliberate practice and continuous feedback, our passion will develop. Because this deep level of knowledge is rare and valuable, we can then leverage this “career capital” to attain a career with the main three attributes found in jobs that people love: creativity, impact, and control. Through little bets, we can then dip our toes in the water to test our projects for financial viability without putting all of our eggs in one basket. Because you’ve become “so damn good” at what you do, no one will be able to deny requests for more creativity, impact or control over your work!
In my humble opinion- buyer beware. Anecdotal Evidence != Statistical Evidence. He cherry picks a few stories that help his case, such as an ex-marketing executive turned yoga instructor opening up a yoga business that failed after taking a few weeks of yoga instructor classes. As mentioned previously, the barrier to entry was too low in the industry, she did not build enough career capital up, and little bets were not used to test financial viability. However, he does do a great job assimilating his stories into what he’s trying to convey. Furthermore, to answer the original question regarding why people fail when they pursue their passion- even the most prepared person can fail. Statistically speaking, it’s just less likely if a pool of career capital has been built up compared to a non-proven green thumb. It could very well be possible that someone with absolutely no career capital can find success in every metric!
It’s blatant that his methodical and analytical background as a computer scientist and MIT PhD graduate was not developed overnight. Who he is today is the culmination of decades of deliberate practice on extremely mentally fatiguing activities. Should we not follow our passions? No, I believe the point of So Good They Can’t Ignore You was to illuminate the risks of following our passions if not fully thought out. Statistically speaking, some who do follow their passion will succeed and vice versa. However, accruing career capital, immersing oneself in a subculture, and testing the financial viability through little bets can help reduce the probability of failure. As in investing, personal appetites will dictate decisions. No one is necessarily wrong. It all boils down to personal preference. However, what we may be passionate about today may change tomorrow and Newport suggests that we pursue careers with the aforementioned three traits in addition to a career built merely on passion.
 Newport, Cal. So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Follow Your Passion Is Bad Advice and the Surprising .. Grand Central Pub, 2012.
 Broeck, Anja, et al. “Capturing Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness at Work: Construction and Initial Validation of the Work-Related Basic Need Satisfaction Scale.”Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, vol. 83, no. 4, 2010, pp. 981–1002., doi:10.1348/096317909×481382.