“Follow your passion” is not good advice, according to author/academic Cal Newport, yet this simple phrase has become the go-to career advice given to those trying to figure out what to do with their life. In ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You love,’ Newport lays out a solid plan for achieving real satisfaction from and passion for the work that you do.
Don’t follow your passion.
US citizens aren’t as happy as they were just 30 years. This decreasing happiness has been attributed to the many changes that have taken place in society over the last few decades–among them, an increase in the number of hours worked and the decrease in the number of social ties each person has–but Newport attributes much of this loss of happiness to another reason: too many people taking the pat advice to follow their passion and then finding themselves disappointed in the result.
While following your passion to a career you love is achievable, following your passion, in and of itself, is not what leads to success in your chosen career. In order to be successful in your career you have to actually be good at what you do, so good that people are willing to pay you for what you do because they appreciate your efforts and skills. In other words, success requires you to put forth deliberate effort at practicing your skills until you reach such a point as to become exceptional. Once you become good at what you do, you will not only begin to acquire greater enjoyment from your work but employers will also become more willing to increase your pay and grant you greater freedom in how you accomplish your job.
This brings us to Newport’s second rule for finding work which brings you fulfillment…Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
Why Skills Trump Passion.
One of the basic laws of supply and demand dictates that if supply decreases and demand remains unchanged (or, alternatively, if demand increases and supply remains unchanged) a shortage occurs which leads to a higher equilibrium price. Translated into non-economist speak and made applicable to your career search: When you become good at what you do–so good that you are considered one of the best, or even just considered to be better than most–a premium is placed on your skill set and employers become unable to ignore you. When you become ‘so good they can’t ignore you’–a phrase Newport heard spoken by actor/comedian Steve Martin in an interview–then you have acquired career capital (i.e., extensive experience and expertise) which can then be used to purchase more freedom in your work domain.
Career capital not only purchases career freedom–i.e., greater autonomy to pursue your particular interests–but also respect and deference from your superiors and underlings. This career capital in turn leads to greater feelings of satisfaction from the work you do.
Bottom line: Satisfaction comes from getting good at what you do, not from bouncing around from job to job in search of one elusive dream job.
Newport is not saying that you should keep working at a job you hate. And he is not saying that if you have known all of your life what you wanted to do with your career then you should abandon that goal in lieu of keeping the first job you ever get. What Newport is saying is that very few of us have a dream job–or, that one true job that remains the only job you can be happy with–and that instead there are many jobs which could make us happy, if we would only choose to acquire career capital.
As an example of what constitutes a lack of career capital, Newport writes about a woman who quit her job in favor of taking a short course on yoga and becoming a yoga instructor. When a downturn in the economy hit this woman ended up on food stamps as her business shrank dramatically. What did this woman do wrong? A short course on yoga does not make one an expert, and thus during the downtown yoga enthusiasts spent their money with yoga instructors who had years of experience and ties to the yoga community rather than a women who was new to the field and thus nowhere near being an expert. This outcome was to be expected. This business-exec-come-yoga-instructor lacked career capital in her new field. A better choice would have been for her to remain in her chosen field but to seek out different positions or try tangentially related jobs before throwing away her career capital so that she could follow her passion.
Blindly following your passion often leads to jumping before looking. Instead of flinging yourself over a cliff and hoping that your perfect job awaits you at the bottom, a better option would be to pursue your passion part-time, building up career capital in this new field along the way, and eventually using your stored up capital to support you when you finally decide to change careers.
“So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” debunks the myth that following your passion is good career advice. Newport then explains a better way to find work that you love, a way that is less likely to leave you in need of food stamps during the next economic downturn
Jamila Akil is a Senior Editor at Beyond Black and White. Follow her on Twitter @jamilaakil