Cal Newport shows us how to cultivate meaningful and successful working lives while debunking the “follow your passion” advice that lesser professors peddle to the masses.
The Cheat Sheet:
- Why is “follow your passion” bad advice — and what are some better alternatives?
- The traits that make work great are rare and valuable — so you need rare and valuable skills (career capital) in the workplace.
- How does cognitive residue significantly reduce our cognitive capacity (and how can we lessen its impact in our modern world of countless distractions)?
- Understand the difference between a craftsman mindset and a passion mindset — and which will serve you better.
- Working right trumps finding the right work.
- And so much more…
Whether we’re employed for ourselves or for others, we strive for a livelihood that occupies our working hours in a fulfilling way. But there’s a lot of noise out there that can stall this quest indefinitely, like all the so-called experts who dole out simplistic — but ultimately ineffective — advice like “follow your passion.”
In episode 482 of The Art of Charm we talk to Cal Newport, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Here, he debunks this “follow your passion” malarky and gives us a practical strategy for building a working life we love.
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More About This Show
How do people end up doing what they love for a living? When Cal Newport was at a career crossroads and trying to answer this question for himself, he found enough material on the deep dive to fill the pages of his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.
In trying to answer what started as a very simple question, the first thing he noticed was no shortage of people dishing out the advice that he should just follow his passion. And as ubiquitous as this well-meaning prescription for happiness is, he found it to be ultimately meaningless.
The problem isn’t so much in the sentiment, but in the idea that we all have predestined passions that chart the course of what we’re “meant” to do for a living. As a strategy, “follow your passion” supposes that a little soul-searching introspection will magically clear the path and point us toward the perfect career.
But what happens to those of us who can’t easily identify a passion to follow — particularly younger people pondering college majors or just entering the workforce for the first time? Or what if we are passionate about something, but it just doesn’t match well with a career that would actually make us happy? This might prompt a lifetime of dissatisfaction with career options that we don’t see as aligning with our passion, or even long stretches of unemployment because we refuse to settle for something that doesn’t fit in with what we think of as that passion.
“This is what’s so dangerous about this advice,” says Cal. “is that it really plants this seed in people’s minds that you are wired to do something. And when you find it, you’ll know it right away. And when you plant that idea, it creates…huge uncertainty, huge anxiety, this constant concern that ‘maybe this is not the one thing I’m meant to do.'”
It also gets us to unrealistically — and unfairly — compare ourselves to others who seem to have figured out their own passions early in life. If they succeeded at an age that’s conspicuously younger than we happen to be, what are we doing wrong? Maybe we should start by examining what passion actually is, and understand that it’s not always intrinsic, but something that develops over time.
“It’s not something that people started with in advance at this very high level,” says Cal. “It’s as they went down their particular career paths, as they got better, as they made smart choices with how to direct their career, their passion for the work actually grew. Now when you finally talk to them 10 years later and they love their work, they might say somewhat flippantly, ‘Yeah, you should follow your passion.’ What they really mean is ‘I’m now passionate about what I do, and you should have that same goal.’ But that’s really different from the idea that you should start with that passion in the beginning.”
In search of when “follow your passion” became such commonplace advice, Cal found it not in the playbooks of the ancients, but on the cusp of the most recent millennium — which is why so many millennials take it as gospel. It’s all they’ve ever heard. But what would someone on the cusp of an older millennium have to say about it?
“Let’s go back and talk to Aristotle,” proposes Cal. “He would say to you, ‘No, that’s crazy. That’s not at all what you need to be doing! You need to flourish. And to flourish, you have to find skills and really hone them and develop them and really push your potential as a human to do all the things that humans can do — and it’s going to be really hard work, but you’ll have this sense of flourishing.'”
Cal says this means developing skills that make you rare and valuable. As you get better at these skills, you earn leverage over your work life that you can use to push your career toward things that resonate and away from things that don’t. Over time, that career becomes a source of passion for you. Trying to find an answer to the question of how we develop these skills really quickly so we can transform our lives sooner rather than later was the basis for Cal’s most recent book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
“If you can give something your full attention without distraction,” says Cal, “give it really intense attention, two things happen. One, you just produce things that are much better than if you’re working in a distracted state. Two, that’s exactly the state that pushes your abilities and makes you better. It’s like doing pull-ups for your mind.”
But the problem is, with constant distractions like smartphones and email permeating our everyday lives, giving anything a semblance of undivided attention is all the more difficult. Cal tells us these distractions — even the ones we perceive as being momentarily negligible — reduces our capacity to do our best work by clouding our brains with cognitive residue. “So if you’re working in a state of frequent distraction and diversion,” says Cal, “you’re working at a definitive impairment.”
Cal will be the first to tell us breaking out of the patterns conducive to cognitive residue isn’t an easy task. It’s a commitment. But if you want to lead a passionate life, it’s worth your while. “It is going to involve some mental training in improving your ability to focus,” says Cal, “but it’s also going to probably involve quite a bit of aggressive culling of these sources of distraction and attention media that’s in your life. You’re going to have to actually simplify what has access to your time and attention if you want to get serious about a deeper lifestyle.”
When trying to decide what skills you should develop that will make you more rare and valuable in the workplace, Cal suggests setting your sights on a higher level person in your organization (or a field you’d like to know more about) who does something that appeals to you. Strike up a conversation and try to understand what they did differently from their peers to rise to where they are today. What made them stand out?
Try discovering their path rather than asking for an evaluation of how they ended up there — because a lot of them will unironically say they followed their passion! Cal says sifting through a conversation like this is akin to investigative reporting, because you’re trying to coax details from subjects that might not even be aware of their own process and decode the information that’s actually important.
Another way we might recalibrate our expectations of meaningful work is to consider adopting a craftsman mindset over a passion mindset. “This is actually a big part of my writing,” says Cal, “is trying to reclaim this term craftsmanship for the digital age. Because I think it applies just as well to someone doing high-level knowledge work as it does to our cliched example of a woodworker in a barn somewhere up in the forests of Michigan. Because what is craftsmanship at its core? It’s actually trying to take and hone a skill and apply it as well as you can to produce the best possible thing that you can.”
When you follow the passion mindset, you’re constantly asking what the job offers you — which then causes you to focus on the things you don’t like about the job.
When you follow the craftsman mindset, you’re constantly considering the value you’re producing not just for yourself, but the world. You’re concerned with how well you’re pulling it off, and you start to focus on having pride in your work and honing your skills to become even better at your craft.
“It’s at the core of my philosophy that if you shift from the passion mindset to the craftsman mindset, your work gets much more meaningful, you get much more anxious about your career and your job, and your skills really start to skyrocket.”
(It’s a bit like the fixed mindset vs. the growth mindset as we discussed with Dr. Carol Dweck back in episode 445.)
Ask not what your job can do for you; ask what you can do for your job. You might be surprised to discover the dividends that will make their way back to you.
Cal gives the example of an entry-level quality assurance tester who got tired of the repetitive nature of her job. Rather than settling into a passion mindset and giving up on the job as being a poor fit for her ambitions, she instead approached the situation with a craftsman mindset. She learned how to code scripts and create a software process that more efficiently completed the tedious part of her workflow and simultaneously increased her career capital. Then, she was able to turn around and invest this career capital for a better position at her company, leveraged with some other perks that made the job more attractive to her.
To identify the skills you might master for a better foot forward in your career, Cal leaves us with these three practical exercises to try right now:
- If you could choose one skill in your industry to magically master overnight, which skill would bring you the most value? You should always have an answer to this question — even if it illustrates how difficult your path ahead may be, and how far outside of your comfort zone you’re going to have to step to get there.
- What are you doing to improve at the key skill from the above exercise? You should have training regimes just like a professional athlete, musician, or chess player for your most important skills. “Find metrics,” says Cal. “Measure things. Give yourself training exercises. See if they move the needle on those metrics. Which ones move the needle the most? Let’s keep that one and throw out the other ones.”
- Identify someone in your general field whose life resonates with you. Try to deconstruct what skill/accomplishment assets allowed him or her to gain that life. “What you want is the beat-by-beat timeline,” says Cal. “Once you have [this] and you really understand their path, you can…identify the big leaps that made the difference.”
Cal offers these thoughts in closing: “We’ve heard our whole lives that if you follow your passion, that’s all that matters. What I’m arguing, instead, is that passion is something that follows you; on your path, you become really good at things that are valuable. If you focus on what’s important and really focus on doing those things better, then [you] use these skills as leverage to keep shaping [your] job. It’s not a sexy process, but it’s one that very consistently helps people build these types of working lives that really resonate with them. They’re a real source of passion.”
THANKS, CAL NEWPORT!
If you enjoyed this session with Cal Newport, let us know (he doesn’t use social media, as you might remember) by clicking on the link below and sending us a quick shout out on Twitter:
Resources from this episode:
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
- Other books by Cal Newport
- Cal Newport’s website
- Cal Newport at Twitter
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