I’ve been thinking recently about the dictum “Follow Your Passion”, and I’ve written a few blog posts that call for doing so, and ignoring advice on being pragmatic and realistic about your goals. That it’s more dangerous to listen to the voices of others than to listen to your own voice.
But something about that sentiment seemed a little incomplete, and I looked around for some counter advice. Were there people who had good arguments against the famous dictum? So I stumbled upon a blog that led me to a video of Cal Newport doing just that. I listened carefully to what he was saying, and here’s what I think.
First of all, the title of the talk is “Follow Your Passion is bad advice.” A smart way to market his idea. Certainly grabbed my attention.
That’s not really an honest representation of what he was saying. What he’s really saying is ‘Only following your passion is bad advice, you also need to have skill.”
His idea, after several years of studying the work of academics who have analyzed how successful people develop careers that they love, is that they rarely start with their passion in mind.
What happens is that some kind of fortunate event happens at some point in their past. It might have been a pleasant encounter with their music teacher, or a compliment they got from someone they respected when working on the craft they loved.
As a result of that positive emotion, they became a little more inclined to invest more energy into that craft. That, in turn, allowed them to become more competent. Because they became more competent, they developed a little more love, and the cycle continues.
Until finally, they get to a point where they are capable of deep work. This is particularly true of knowledge work, where in order to get better, you need to experience some degree of cognitive strain. In other words, it’s possible to engage in deep work without experiencing cognitive strain, and that would result in suboptimal results over the long run.
He cites the example of Steve Jobs and is visibly annoyed at how so many people seemed to get hung up on one particular idea from his speech. This part.
“You’ve got to find what you love… if you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs
And then he states Newport’s law, half-jokingly: “Telling a young person to follow their passion reduces the chances that they will end up passionate.”
Okay, yes, he has a point. The “follow your passion” idea is too simplistic. Without the commitment, without time blocking, the deep work, the long hours, the pain, the plan, it’s unlikely someone would maintain a passion for anything because they would never develop a sufficient level of competency.
Let’s say I loved basketball, and so if I followed the “follow your passion” catchphrase, I would decide to become a professional basketball player. But, if I’m 15 years old and haven’t put in thousands of hours, and blood and sweat and tears, I’m going to get discouraged when I realize that my 13-year-old friends are twice as good as I am and will probably quit soon after. Well, that’s not good.
But if I dropped out of school to do that? Tragic… Just tragic.
So telling me to “follow my passion” when I’m 15 is setting me up for a depressive episode. I’m not good enough yet (maybe).
It’s best to wait until I’m a little older, and more competent, and have more control over my skills, and understand the details of the sport better, and what’s required, realistically to succeed, and then tell me to listen to my heart.
Fair enough. But a couple of points on that. It’s kind of like a horse and carriage thing, and while he addresses this counter-argument in his speech, I don’t think he does a good job of refuting it.
In order to develop skill at your craft, you need to have a passion for it. Very few people become good at something they don’t like, very very few people become great at something they don’t love.
Telling someone to follow their passion with no holds barred might be bad advice. But telling someone to not follow their passion at all is worse advice, and that’s usually what people hear – for the sake of pragmaticism.
Often, people stop doing what they are passionate about for some external goal they think they care about.
Their skills atrophy as a result. Since they are no longer competent, they are unlikely to rekindle that passion in the future. And if they aren’t hard-headed, single-minded, self-reliant, and downright arrogant, they wouldn’t continue to work on their craft regardless of what anyone thinks.
So what should we be telling young people?
Don’t quit your day job, but develop a plan to work on your skills consistently on the side. One day, after enough practice, you’ll get good enough to build the career you want while leveraging those skills, instead of taking a gamble from day one that might devastate you for the rest of your life.
I’ll add another idea. I think another thing that happens is that the younger you are, the less you understand yourself, the less you know what you truly care about. You might have a bunch of interests. It isn’t until you experience adulthood until you realize where you’re most competent, consistent, and content.
You’ll also realize what you hate. And that’s something that Newport didn’t touch upon. When you sample different kinds of pursuits, you get a feeling for what you most dread, and where you feel weakest and least likely to perform well. That’s a major insight that makes the gulf between what you love and what you don’t love far greater and makes it easier for you to then figure out how you’re going to build something doing what you love.
Link to Newport’s speech: