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Why 'follow your passion' is bad advice

By Cal Newport, Special to CNN
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Wed August 29, 2012
Following your passion isn't always the best career move.
Following your passion isn't always the best career move.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 'Follow your passion' is common advice, but it's flawed, says Cal Newport
  • He says people who end up loving their work rarely have definite pre-existing passions
  • Don't seek the perfect job, seek to get more positive traits in the job you already have
  • Don't set out to discover passion, set out to develop it, says Newport

Editor's note: Cal Newport is the author of "So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love." He is on the faculty at Georgetown University. He writes the popular advice blog Study Hacks and has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Do you want to love what you do for a living? Follow your passion. This piece of advice provides the foundation for modern thinking on career satisfaction. And this is a problem.

I've spent the past several years researching and writing about the different strategies we use to pursue happiness in our work. It became clear early in this process that the suggestion to "follow your passion" was flawed.

The first strike against this advice is the lack of scientific evidence. Motivation and satisfaction in the workplace is a major research topic, as happy employees are better employees.

Cal Newport
Cal Newport

It's difficult, however, to find studies that argue the importance of matching a work environment to a pre-existing passion. Most studies instead point to the importance of more general traits, like autonomy or a sense of competence (see, for example, the voluminous research literature on Self-Determination Theory for more on such findings).

These traits are agnostic to the specific type of work performed, contradicting the idea that you must find the exact right job to be happy.

See also: Is happiness the secret of success?

The second strike against this advice comes from the anecdotal evidence. If you study the career paths of people who end up loving their work, you'll find that clearly identified pre-existing passions are rare.

Some people do figure out early on what they want to do with their life, but most follow much more complicated paths on which passion emerges slowly over time.

Just because "follow your passion" is bad advice, however, doesn't mean that you should abandon the goal of feeling passionate about your work. This reality instead emphasizes that the strategies that work are more complicated. Below are three ideas that came up often in my study of how people actually end up loving what they do.

See also: Is workplace boredom 'the new stress?'

Passion is earned

Different people are looking for different things in their work, but in general, if you study people with compelling careers, they enjoy some combination of the following traits: autonomy, respect, competence, creativity, and/or a sense of impact. In other words, if you want to feel passionate about your livelihood, don't seek the perfect job, instead seek to get more of these traits in the job you already have.

I've watched too many of my peers fall into anxiety and chronic job-hopping due to this flawed advice
Cal Newport, author

The problem, of course, is that these traits are rare and valuable. Just because you really want a job that allows you to autonomously tackle respected creative projects doesn't mean that someone will hand it to you.

These rare and valuable traits require that you have rare and valuable skills to offer in return, and building these skills requires time and deliberate effort. If you're unfulfilled in your current position, therefore, start by asking how you can become more valuable.

Passion is elusive

Many people develop the rare and valuable skills that can lead to passion, but still end up unhappy in their work. The problem is that the traits that might lead you to love your work are more likely to be useful to you than your organization.

As you become increasingly valuable, for example, your boss might push you toward traditional promotions that come with more pay and more responsibility -- as this is what is most useful to your company -- whereas you might find more passion by leveraging your value to gain autonomy in your schedule or project selection. Getting good, in other words, is not enough by itself. You have to use your ability wisely.

This pattern is common in the stories of people who end up loving their work: after they develop rare and valuable skills they then use these skills as leverage to take control of their career path, often veering far off the standard trajectory. This act of leverage requires courage, but can return great rewards.

See also: Work skills for the 'conceptual age'

Work is hard. Not every day is fun. Building the skills that ultimately lead to a compelling career can take years of effort
Cal Newport, author

Passion is dangerous

Some argue that "follow your passion" is harmless advice. If it can help even a small number of people realize that they don't have to settle, what's the problem?

I disagree. I've watched too many of my peers fall into anxiety and chronic job-hopping due to this flawed advice. The issue is expectations. If you believe that we all have a pre-existing passion, and that matching this to a job will lead to instant workplace bliss, then reality will always pale in comparison.

Work is hard. Not every day is fun. Building the skills that ultimately lead to a compelling career can take years of effort. If you're seeking a dream job, you'll end up disappointed, again and again.

Don't set out to discover passion. Instead, set out to develop it. This path might be longer and more complicated than what most upbeat career guides might preach, but it's a path much more likely to lead you somewhere worth going.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cal Newport.

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