Popular culture teaches that finding your passion is a major ingredient for career success. When Marsha Sinetar published her 1989 book Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow, she probably had no idea of the millions who’d come to see her book title as solid career advice. What if that advice is wrong?
It is not hard to find people Psychologist Robert Vallerand conducted a study of Canadian college students with the aim of learning if they were passionate about work or education. His startling findings were that “less than 4 percent of the total identified passions had any relation to work or education, with the remaining 96 percent describing hobby-style interests such as sports and art.”
Are these passionless individuals just unlucky? Did the passion muse pass them over? Do they need to take more career guidance tests or attend “find your passion” workshops?
To be sure, “find your passion” workshops have plenty of potential customers. According to a 2016 Conference Board survey, only about 50% of those employed are satisfied with their jobs. A Gallup survey finds that over 50% of employees are not engaged with their work and an additional 17% are “actively disengaged.”
From my experience delivering leadership workshops, I know many people are certain their work environment is the source of their dissatisfaction. Many point to obsolete hierarchical management styles as the problem. But what if their own mistaken ideas about success, passion, and job satisfaction are the real problem?
First, be good at something
During a 2007 interview with Charlie Rose, comedian Steve Martin was asked to elaborate on career advice he once gave on how to be successful. At the time, Martin stated the obvious: “You have to be undeniably good at something.”
The obvious answer, Martin reflected, is not what many want to hear. Martin explained, “What they want to hear is, here’s how you get an agent. Here’s how you write a script. Here’s how you do this. But I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”
Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport used Martin’s advice as the title of his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You — a book that debunks the passion hypothesis.
Newport believes that having a craftsman mindset, rather than a passion mindset, is the way to a fulfilling career. Instead of waiting for passion to strike, Newport’s research finds that people get passionate about work as they become good at work. “Passion,” explains Newport, is a “side effect of mastery.”
Success comes by offering great value
Newport advises, “If you want a great job, you need something of great value to offer in return.” By itself, your passion is not of great value. Every career path is littered with passionate but unsuccessful people.
“Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world,” writes Newport, “the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.” Newport emphasizes the need to offer value to the world.
For entry-level positions, the passion mindset leads to chronic unhappiness and a feeling that something is missing. Newport explains:
First, when you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness. This is especially true for entry-level positions, which, by definition, are not going to be filled with challenging projects and autonomy — these come later. When you enter the working world with the passion mindset, the annoying tasks you’re assigned or the frustrations of corporate bureaucracy can become too much to handle.
Second, and more serious, the deep questions driving the passion mindset — “Who am I?” and “What do I truly love?” — are essentially impossible to confirm. “Is this who I really am?” and “Do I love this?” rarely reduce to clear yes-or-no responses. In other words, the passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused.
For those who want to whine about their unfulfilling job or career, it is probably best to avoid Newport’s book. Newport offers tough love. The craftsman mindset “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
Newport writes, “No one owes you a great career…you need to earn it — and the process won’t be easy.”
When individuals examine their careers through a passion mindset, they often make statements that begin with, “If I had the courage, I would quit my job and do…” Newport believes they are missing the point: “Great work doesn’t just require great courage, but also skills of great (and real) value.” In other words, if you leave a job prematurely, before developing your career capital, you will likely fail.
In an interview, Ira Glass, the famed creator of the longtime radio series This American Life, cautioned, “In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream. But I don’t believe that. Things happen in stages.”
Mastery takes hard work and time. Glass didn’t just fall into his great job. He offers this advice: “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase.”
Newport believes that the craftsman approach to work leads to the accumulation of “career capital.” You obtain career capital by developing “a collection of hard-won, rare, and valuable skills.” You can then exchange your capital for a “fantastic job.”
In short, with a craftsman mindset, you can earn a great job. If you are blinded by a passion mindset, you may never begin the journey.