The passion debate

Passion-HuntingCal Newport did a TED talk a while ago stating that ‘follow your passion’ is bad career advice. It’s old news now but I only recently watched the video (click here to see it) and it’s definitely got me thinking.

I’d never have argued with anyone that following passion isn’t a good thing, yet at the same time I don’t feel like it’s advice I’ve been following too religiously. In the past I’ve talked about interests vs passions, and what I mean there is that I have many many passing interests that don’t last long at all, and I think it’s important to begin with some kind of lasting interest (which yes, I guess you could choose to define as a passion, but it’s all semantics really isn’t it).

Cal argues that as long as you choose something that’s interesting to you and looks like it will give you interesting options, that’s all you need for a remarkable life. He claims that excelling at rare and valuable skills in a specific area will lead to passion.. no wait, will lead to leverage so you can get the important things you’re looking for in life.

Now I get what Cal’s saying. You don’t have to start from some one true passion that you’ll have for the rest of your life. But I do think you need to start from somewhere solid.

enthusiasmIt seems like Cal’s talking about working hard at something to get to the point at which you can then incorporate your key values into what you’re doing. This seems a little back to front to me. Obviously this could be one way of making career decisions, but I don’t know that it’s guaranteed to work out – isn’t another way to start with your core values, rather than end with them?

In the video, Cal gives us an example of a writer who got really good at writing and ended up loving his work because he could later match it to his core values. Except who’s to say this man’s passion wasn’t always writing?! There was obviously more than a passing interest for him to edit the student paper and be compelled to get a job in journalism.¬†And you need a certain level of skill and natural ability to be able to excel in any given area.

Despite all of this, I do believe that ‘pick something and work hard’ is great advice for an indecisive idealist like me. I’d just add a little more detail to the choosing stage to make the whole process a little easier – there’s nothing wrong with finding more meaning and tasks matching your values along the way to expertise.

I’d love to hear your views on Cal Newport’s ‘Passion Trap’ – what do you think is the best way to choose a career path to follow, and should we aim for specificity and expertise over all else?

4 comments on “The passion debate

  1. I’ve been reading Newport’s “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” over the past couple of weeks to wrap my brain around his idea. Like you, I see a good deal of merit in moving away from the notion of us each having “one passion” – as if there’s some true love out there we’re all searching for. That’s ridiculous, to put it mildly. But I also agree that the initial search can’t be completely random. I strongly question his use of data to support his argument (I need to write a post about that at some point!), but I’m glad he got the conversation started.

    When it comes down to it, I do think semantics is the biggest culprit underlying our confusion about what we’re all searching for. You hit the nail on the head with that statement!

    • I agree that some of his examples are questionable, especially Steve Jobs. I don’t think you can discuss the issue of passion without speaking to someone firsthand about what initially drove them to do their work. Look forward to reading a future post from you on the subject!

  2. Kind of a chicken and egg issue, in some ways! Call it hindsight bias if you want, but I think there are people out there who tell themselves they are passionate about something simply because they’ve invested a lot of time and effort into it! What’s easier – convincing yourself that you are passionate about something that you’re not sure you are, or admitting to yourself that you’ve been doing something you don’t care about for years? Research on cognitive dissonance tells us that it’s much easier to change beliefs than it is to change behaviours.

    In my own case, I developed a “passion” for career counselling over time, after following certain clues in my life that led to smaller decisions that added up to a position doing career counselling. If you had asked me in 2009 though if I was passionate about career counselling, I would have given you a flat out no. I had other directions in mind, but I was open to a new possibility.

    At some point you have to ask, if you’re passionate about something, where did that start? Unless you have zero self-awareness, it didn’t just come out of nowhere. It came from some choice or series of choices you made, or actions you took, which – upon reflection after the fact – may lead you to believe that there was some kind of meaningful pattern or at least something that those things say about you.

    In the end, it’s how we choose to tell the story of those experiences – because there are always multiple ways to make sense of or interpret them.

    • Interesting thoughts. Surely people can’t just talk themselves into feeling passionate about something though – there has to be some part of what they do that they genuinely care about.

      You say you wouldn’t have said you were passionate about career counselling in 2009, but would you maybe have described your ‘passion’ as working closely with people to help them develop (or something along those lines)? In which case career counselling is just one of many jobs that would match your overall goal or passion..?

      I agree that in the end it is all down to interpretation. I’d say it’s more about working out some overall purpose or general area of passion rather than searching for any one specific passion and job to match.

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