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The Career Tip to Follow Your Passion: Is It Bunk?

The author of a new book says the trendy strategy is not only unwise, it could be frustrating and unproductive

posted by Richard Eisenberg, October 8, 2012 More by this author

So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport

Richard Eisenberg is the senior Web editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Assistant Managing Editor for the site. Follow him on Twitter @richeis315.


So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport
Career coaches often say that if you’re looking for a job or want to change careers you should “follow your passion.” In fact, Next Avenue’s work and volunteering blogger Nancy Collamer recently wrote a piece telling you how to do it. But could the whole notion of following your passion be bunk?
 
Yup, according to Cal Newport, the author of the new, buzzy book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. (The title comes from advice Steve Martin gives to aspiring entertainers.)
 
Become a Craftsman at Work
 
He maintains that pre-existing passions are rare. Trying to determine your passion and follow it, Newport says, can be dangerous and lead to chronic job-hopping. You’d be much better off, he believes, improving and stretching your “rare and valuable” skills to become a “craftsman.” That will make you a stronger job candidate and help you have a successful career.
 
(MORE: How to Discover Your Career ‘Passion’)
 
I have to admit I was a little disturbed to see Newport throwing cold water on the “follow your passion” idea. After all, many people in their 50s or 60s are working in fields they never loved, maybe even never liked, and are eager to make a switch for personal satisfaction. Others have lost jobs that didn't enthuse them and now hope to find work aligned with a particular interest or passion.
 
Since Newport’s book is aimed primarily at young people starting out in their careers, I called him to hear his argument for midlifers. And I confess I reluctantly came away a believer.
 
Career Advice for Midlifers

“If you’re 50 or 60, you have built up very valuable skills,” said Newport, who is in his early ‘30s and an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "Don’t discount them.”
 
When you’re plotting your next career move, “work backwards from your skills,” Newport said. “Ask yourself: What skills do I have and how rare and valuable are they? The intersection of your rare skills and what interests you is what should start your job hunt, not introspection about what you’re ‘meant to do.’”
 
Introspection Is Overrated
 
Introspection is highly overrated, Newport maintains. “There’s no one, true calling that you're meant to follow, one passion entwined in your DNA that you’ll discover if you’re introspective enough,” he said. (If you’re interested in other job-seeking goofs, I recommend the new Forbes article by Jacquelyn Smith, “13 Big Mistakes Job Seekers Make and How to Avoid Them.”)
 
Newport says it’s important to “deliberately stretch yourself past your comfort zone” at your job, since this will make you more valuable. “I’m an academic and my advisers in their 50s and 60s are constantly tackling complicated fields like abstract mathematics and systematically stretching themselves. They’re able to do things way better than I am.”
 
Hobby vs. Career
 
If you’ve made a hobby of, say, photography, it’s not wise to expect success turning that into a second career, Newport says. Unless, that is, you’re really good at it — back to the craftsman idea. 
 
“Yes, if you’re excellent at photography and that’s a valuable skill, it can be a foundation for a career you’ll love," he said. "But for most people, it’s ‘Yeah, I’m pretty good at it, but my deep skills rely on the career I’ve had for the past few decades.”
 
Avoiding a Layoff
 
I noted that being a craftsman won’t matter if your employer needs to lay off workers and decides that shedding your high 50-something salary will translate into tidy savings for the company.
 
(MORE: What’s Holding You Back From a Big Career Move?)
 
“Yes, in general, people who are more senior cost more and are in more danger of being laid off,” Newport says. “But if you’re indispensable, you’ll be unlikely to get laid off or you’ll have a clear value to the marketplace when you start looking for a job.”
 
Passion and Encore Careers
 
And what about launching an encore career to follow your passion to serve others?
 
“An encore career is a great idea,” Newport says. “But you’re much more likely to be successful if you approach it from the skillset mindset. The more rare, valuable and relevant your skill is, the more impact you’ll have in your encore career and the more satisfying it’s going to be.”
 
In other words, don’t randomly pick a nonprofit so you can do the type of work it happens to need at the moment. Instead, find a place that can truly benefit from the skills you’re best at.
 
Finding Your ‘One True Love’
 
I asked Collamer what she makes of Newport’s view and learned that she actually thought it had merit, to a point.
 
“I agree that few people have one driving passion, so finding your ‘one true love’ can create needless anxiety and frustration,” she says. “That’s also true for the myth that we only have one soul mate.”
 
But, Collamer adds, “that does not mean introspection is time wasted.” She favors a kind of passion-meets-craftsman strategy, which makes sense to me. “Think about what you enjoy, do well, and find meaningful — and then look for work that lines up with those interests and skills.”
 
Skillfully said.