Dec 19, 2014 1 Min Read

LDR-PDF-download-110x110Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love


“WHY do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal?” Author Cal Newport realised that the advice to “follow your passion” might not be as helpful as most people think in the context of creating the work you love.

Newport was a postdoctoral associate at MIT, and was on his way to becoming a professor – the natural progression path, and professorship is a job for life. It was then that he started his obsession of figuring out what makes people love their jobs.

Since there was a recession, plus Newport’s research specialty was not particularly popular at that time, an academic job was not so feasible. He was forced to start thinking about what he would want with his life, and this brought him to the question: “How do people end up loving what they do?”

RULE #1:


The Passion of Steve Jobs
The Passion Hypothesis: The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this pre-existing passion.

It is a well-worn theme, the de facto motto of the career-advice field. However, if you were to study how passionate were people like Steve Jobs were when they began, or ask scientists what really determines workplace happiness, it becomes more complex than that. You might realise that “follow your passion” might just be bad advice.

Do What Steve Jobs Did
Less than a year before Steve Jobs started Apple, he was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment at the All-One commune/Los Altos Zen Center and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.

With this mindset, Jobs stumbled upon his big break. He noticed that the local “wireheads” were excited by the introduction of model-kit computers that enthusiasts could assemble at home.

So to electronics whiz Steve Wozniak, he pitched the idea of designing these kit computer circuit boards to sell to local hobbyists. He visited Paul Terrell’s computer store Byte Shop, offering the circuit boards for sale.

It was then that Terrell demanded fully assembled computers, which led to the birth of Apple. Jeffrey S. Young, author of Steve Jobs’ biography noted: “Their plans were circumspect and small-time. They weren’t dreaming big.”

The Messy Lessons of Jobs

So we see that Apple did not result from passion, but from luck – a little plan that flourished, albeit unpredictably. Of course, the Jobs we knew unarguably became passionate about his work. So, how do we find the work that we will grow to love?

Passion is Rare

The Roadtrip Nation Revelation
Roadtrip Nation, is a non-profit started by graduate students, that interviews people who live meaningful lives and keeps an impressive video archive of the interviews.

They once asked public radio host, Ira Glass, the way to figure out what you want and know what you will be good at. Glass responded by saying that he does not believe in the ‘follow your dream’ idea. For him, realistic things happen in stages.

“To get good at something, it takes time,” he said. Just as it took many years for him to even have interesting options laid out. He thinks that the toughest phase is when you force yourself to work and force the skills to come.

Andrew Steel the astrobiologist also expressed his disapproval of systems that propose that one should decide in advance what they were going to do. He only ended up as an astrobiologist because he first wanted options.
Al Merrick, founder of Channel Island Surfboards, thinks it is depressing that everyone is in such a hurry to start their “lives”. He himself did not set out to make a big empire before this. Instead he began by being the best he could be at whatever he did.

These interviews tell us that compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

The Science of Passion

The CliffsNotes summary on social science research tells us why some people enjoy their work and some don’t. Workplace satisfaction has factors that originate from a variety of sources, but matching your job to a pre-existing passion is not one of them.

Three conclusions from the research are:

#1: Career Passions Are Rare
Canadian research has shown that 84% of 539 students surveyed were identified as having a passion. However, upon closer scrutiny, the top five identified passions were dance, hockey, skiing, reading, and swimming – obviously not passions that can be turned into real jobs.

In fact, less than 4% of the identified passions had any relation to work or education, with 96% describing hobby-style interests. The question is this, how can we follow our passions if we don’t have any relevant passions to follow?

#2: Passion Takes Time
Amy Wrzesniewski explains the distinctions between a job, a career and a calling:

Job: A way to pay the bills.
Career: A path towards increasingly better work.
Calling: An important part of your life and a vital part of your identity.

A survey found that most people identify their work with one of these three categories.

The passion hypothesis predicts that occupations that match common passions (a doctor or a teacher), should have a high proportion of people who experience the work as a true calling, while less flashy occupations should have almost no one experiencing them as a calling.

To test this explanation, Wrzesniewski surveyed a group of college administrative assistants (similar position). To her surprise, she found that these employees were pretty evenly split between perceiving their position as a job, a career, or a calling. In other words, the type of work alone does not predict how much people enjoy it.

When figuring out why they saw their work so differently, Wrzesniewski discovered that the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job. It was thus concluded, that with more experience comes more love for one’s job.

The experienced workers were happier because they stayed on long enough to become competent in what they did – they developed a feeling of efficacy, grew closer to their coworkers, and had seen instances of their work benefiting others.

#3: Passion Is a

Side Effect of Mastery

The Self-Determination Theory tells us that we will feel motivated to work once we possess these traits:
Autonomy: The feeling that you have control.
Competence: The feeling that you are good at what you do.
Relatedness: The feeling of connection to other people.

The last point is self-explanatory. The closer you are to your coworkers, the more you will enjoy the work. However, autonomy and competence are only attainable if you put in the hard work required for mastery, which takes time. This explains why the experienced assistants enjoyed their work more.

Passion is Dangerous

The Birth of the Passion Hypothesis
Newport realised that the passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere out there, there is a magical right job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they will immediately recognise that it was the work they were fated to do.

Of course, when they fail to find it, which is highly likely, bad things such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt follows. There are statistics to prove that there has been a consistent downward trend in job satisfaction levels over the past two decades since the passion hypothesis was popularised.

Twenty-something Scott thought he had matched his job with his passion for politics, yet he eventually did not find the job as fulfilling as he had thought it would be. While desiring to explore other options, he faced a problem of not even knowing what interested him anymore.

This shows the harm the passion hypothesis can pose. Not only is it not a mere statement of innocent optimism, it is also the basis for a future career filled with worry and uncertainty.

Beyond Passion

Rolling Stone film critic, Peter Travers, is an exceptional case that substantiated the passion hypothesis. He used to bring notebooks into the movies to record his thoughts. Similarly, a pre-existing passion for a profession is evident for many famous athletes. Nevertheless, this does not validate the passion hypothesis for the majority of people.

If “follow your passion” is bad advice, what should you do instead? To find out more, do grab a copy of So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport.

Koh Earn Soo and his team take the best books and summarise them into shorter, readable content in the hope of inspiring people to read more and learn more. To read the rest of this summary and summaries of other bestsellers, subscribe to

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Hyma is a Special Education Teacher who is passionate about making an impact on the lives of children through education. Her hopes is to save the world, one child at a time. She was previously part of the Editorial team at

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