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Are Passions Serendipitously Discovered or Painstakingly Constructed?

November 24th, 2009 · 89 comments

Note (11/24/09): I’m leaving this afternoon for a Thanksgiving road trip. I’ll be slow to moderate comments and answer e-mail for the next week. I’m up to Nov. 10 in my reader e-mail queue. If you sent me an e-mail after that date, you haven’t been forgotten, and I’ll get to you as soon as I can.

Problems with PassionQuiet Study

My friend Scott Young recently published a blog post with an intriguing title: “What if you have more than one passion?” He reports that several readers admitted that they have “a hard time focusing” because they have “too many passions.”

My readers report their own problems with passion. Here are some excerpts from recent e-mails:

  • “I’m currently feeling great antipathy for physics…I’ve found myself questioning my passion for the subject. “
  • “My only true passion is biology, but it’s a damn big field in which I have no focus other than my general spiritual love for green things.”
  • “Yes, this particular major isn’t my passion. However, my studies are funded by my disciplinarian father…”

My point here is that “passion” seems to be a common source of problems. For some, they have too many passions and don’t know where to focus their energies. For others, it’s the lack of a passion, or maybe a belief that their particular passion won’t bring them somewhere worth going.

In this short post, I want to share a new way of looking at this troublesome concept…

What is Passion

Common to most peoples’ thoughts about passion are the following three foundational beliefs:

  1. To feel passionate about something is to be engaged and fulfilled by working on it, and to feel a desire to return to it whenever possible.
  2. In the course of your regular life you will develop passions for various pursuits.
  3. You will live a much happier life if you can align your studies as a student or career as a graduate with one of your passions.

Here’s the hypothesis I’ve been developing recently: (1) and (3) are true, but (2) is false. And it’s this common misperception that allows “passion” to wreak so much havoc.

Redefining Passion

Based on my own anecdotal experiences working with students and young graduates, I would offer the following alternative definition of passion and where it comes from:

Passion: The feeling that arises from have mastered a skill that earns you recognition and rewards.

Belief (2) from above posits that passions exist a priori of any serious engagement with a pursuit; they’re some mysterious Platonic form waiting for you to discover. This is a dangerous fiction.

My alternative definition claims instead that passion is the feeling generated by mastery. It doesn’t exist outside of serious hard work.

When Scott’s readers say “I have too many passions,” what they really mean is “I have lots of superficial interests.” When my readers complain that their major is not their passion, what they really mean to say is “I don’t have a level of mastery in this field that is earning me recognition.”

I submit that this concept is liberating. It frees you from obsession over whether you are doing the “right” thing with your life. A mastery-centric view of passion says that aligning your life with passions is a good thing, but almost any superficial interest can be transformed into a passion with hard work, so there’s no reason to sweat choices such as an academic major or you first post-college career.

Your real focus should be on the long road of becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

Here are a couple short case studies to highlight the concept in practice...

Short Case Study #1: The Disillusioned Pre-Med

The most common student e-mails I receive are from pre-meds who are struggling through tough organic chemistry courses, are not having fun with it, and are worrying that perhaps becoming a doctor is not “their true passion.”

The mastery-centric approach to passion has a simple solution to this issue: focus your effort on mastering the art of being a pre-med student. Clear your schedule of junk so you have abundant time to become an A* student in the topic. Become obsessive about the effectiveness of your technical study habits.

The feeling of “passion” you seek will be generated once you start kicking ass in your courses in a way that outpaces your peers and earns you the respect of the professors. Until then, of course you’re not going to feel warm and fuzzy — at this early point in your student career, becoming a doctor is just a superficial interest. You have to build a recognized skill to transform it into something more.

Short Case Study #2: The Bored Programmer

Let’s tackle a non-academic example. Imagine a young man working in web development firm. His days are spent hacking CSS and doing some mild javascript programming. The pay is fine and the projects are interesting enough, but a feeling of dread is starting to tinge his daily commute.

“I’m not passionate about this,” our fictional programmer thinks. “Do I really want to spend the rest of my life doing the first random job I stumbled into, even if I don’t love it?”

The traditional view of passion recommends that this programmer immediately summon the courage to quit his job and find something that fits his passion. (Tim Ferriss tells the canonical story of this form: an overworked LA lawyer who dropped everything to open a surf shop in Brazil.)

The mastery-centric view, however, denies that such a priori passions exist. There’s probably no new job that would immediately grant him the feeling of passion he seeks. That can only come from mastery.

Assuming that the programmer doesn’t hate his job and the people he works with, he should instead consider generating a passion for his work by finding something he can master.

For example, over the next couple of years, he might put in serious time to become a Ruby on Rails expert — allowing his company to branch off into more complicated projects, and earning him more respect, pay, and flexibility in the process. Gaining this mastery could transform his view of his job as something he tolerates to something he loves. And it will accomplish this feat with more certainty than a sudden move to Brazil.

A Hypothesis Develops

I present these ideas with the caveat of hypothesis. I’ve recently begun an extensive effort to dive into the research literature surronding these issues. (I encountered some relevant studies when researching my upcoming book and vowed to return.) Expect to here more on these topics as I continue my exploration.

89 thoughts on “Are Passions Serendipitously Discovered or Painstakingly Constructed?

  1. juanmah says:

    This is a reflexion to those pre-med like me, who doesn’t have fun with the current research stuff.

    A time before, I had a lot of passions, because I master the stuff I used to do, and I liked it very much. The studies were one of this passions (not the most loved, but I got confortable enough).

    Today I see backwards that I mastered the previous stuff as an amateur level, and that was then more than enough for me. Now I’m an expert in my field, but after 3 years researching I still doesn’t master it. This have frustrated me all the time, because I knew what is to master something, and there is a hard correlation between master and like the word you do.

    My message is the more I learn less frustrating the stuff is, and more proud I am. This process is slow, but it could be done. Courage!

  2. BrianR says:

    It is true that it is better to do anything rather than sitting around fretting over what to do and do nothing.

    However, when it comes to passion, I think mastering something isn’t necessarily the same as passion. This aligns with a result-oriented approach to life indeed. However, the journey is as important as the destination.

    To me, this equation is missing one crucial variable: fun. I know, this can be misinterpreted as “floating from one fun thing to the next”; however, I’m referring to the dedicated excitement that comes from following ones passion.

    A person if disciplined enough can master just about anything. But a person will only feel excited about that process if they have passion.

  3. Very interesting conjecture. One can’t develop a passion for reading w/o first learning to read. One must reach a certain level of proficiency before a thing may become his passion.

  4. Eric says:

    This is one of the best posts you’ve written since I started following your blog, and it comes at a time when I feel the same way as the readers you reference. Like your examples, I question why I chose this major. No more is the initial excitement I had when I first entered college. Alas, this doubt and the feel that I have lost my drive has bred procrastination because I no longer see any point in plodding on. But your post has brought these feelings into a new light; I will reconsider and increase my efforts to succeed. Your hypothesis makes logical sense, and I sincerely hope it withstands the rigor of continued experimentation. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more on this topic.

    By the way, you spelled “hear” wrong in the last sentence of your post.

  5. John Farrell says:

    I love it when people say all they have is anecdotal evidence and then make huge broad brush stokes about people and their inner feeling and nature.

    When Scott’s readers say “I have too many passions,” what they really mean is “I have lots of superficial interests.” When my readers complain that their major is not their passion, what they really mean to say is “I don’t have a level of mastery in this field that is earning me recognition.”

    This post does make a good point though but have anecdotally experienced the opposite. Bowlers who will never score a 300, pool players who have unsteady hands, graphic designers who can’t design, photographers who can’t focus.

    Where do these people belong in your theory?

  6. Suzyn says:

    I’m thrilled that you’re tackling this topic and I can’t wait to see what your research turns up.

    I’m interested in your description of “surface interest.” Do you have any advice for how to choose from a variety of surface interests? Do I write a list (which would be insanely eclectic), take it to the wall, and throw a dart?

    I’m also interested in how your definition of passion holds up over the course of a career. I’m thinking of a friend who had a PhD from MIT at 23 and went on to become a research fellow at an outrageously-funded company with complete discretion over his research activities… and quit to become a spiritual seeker. He had mastery, recognition, and rewards, but it wasn’t enough. He told me that he’d originally chosen his scientific field “to prove that he could do it,” (he could) but it was never his passion. Freaked me out for the next 20 years.

  7. George says:

    This is amazing. I just recently came to your blog after reading your guest post on Ramit’s blog. I read several of your canonical posts that you listed and thought you had a brilliant way of looking at things. When I was a kid, I was a math whiz. I dominated everyone else in math growing up. Granted, I was the big fish in a small pond. As I grew older, I “lost my passion” for math and went on to do other things. However, I recognize the feeling of mastery. It feels wonderful to completely own something and be respected by peers, teachers, elders.

    This post is finally the answer that me and my girlfriend have been looking for. In our mid-twenties we have been trying to figure out what our passions in life are. I have read a ton of the typical “lawyer quits high paying job to open surf shop” stories and they have never felt quite right. Here you hit on the answer. Change doesn’t fix anything for you (moving from one city to another for example). It’s developing mastery that results in a passion for a subject. When you are an expert that is respected for your knowledge, that’s when you feel good about what you’re doing.

    This post is pure genius. I feel absolutely certain your hypothesis is correct.

  8. Dougal says:

    A paradigm-shift long overdue. You’re on fire Cal.

  9. student says:

    ^^ Very True. This post is outstanding, and that’s saying a lot considering the high quality of thought and writing that goes into this blog.

  10. Will says:

    Close, but to my ear you just missed the mark.
    Is there no such thing as passion without recognition? I don’t think the two necessarily have anything to do with each other. Indeed, it is quite possible to be a recognized expert in a field you have come to view with scant tolerance or even contempt. That doesn’t mean you’re not on to something here; only that what you’re talking about isn’t strictly passion. I’m just not sure what the word is, or if there is one.
    If you ask me (did you? Maybe not.), the points to be made about passion here are:
    1. You don’t always know it when you see it. The reading example is a good one here: many passionate readers cursed the names of Dick and Jane when they were first picking up the skill.
    2. If you have (or have had) more than one, it’s probably not a passion. If you think you had a passion for poetry as a freshman, then a passion for environmental studies as a sophomore, before settling on a passion for studio art as a junior, what you’re talking about isn’t passion. It’s an interest. Maybe a strong one, maybe even an enduring one, but you’re fooling yourself if you think it’s a passion.

    Neither of those rules out a very simple fact: it’s quite possible to still have a passion for something, to make it your life’s work, and to still thoroughly suck at it. It’s unfortunate, but it is possible.

  11. Steven says:

    I think perhaps an addendum might be in order: “The feeling that arises from have mastered a skill _that you enjoy_ that earns you recognition and rewards.”

    Consider the case of someone who has developed complete mastery over a skill, but it is a skill that he absolutely hates. I know of people who have developed what can only be termed mastery over, say, a particular form of welding, and who are very resentful of that fact. But their mastery certainly does bring them recognition and rewards. Is it fair to call that their ‘passion’?

  12. Naomi says:

    I’ve been musing on this myself for a while. I’m about to start post-grad and keep being told that ‘passion’ is the key. I’m interested in my subject, but I felt (possibly based on earlier study hacks posts) that passion will come once I know more about my topic. I don’t have the depth of knowledge now to have passion.

  13. Scott Young says:

    Cal,

    Great points. I used the word “passion” in my article because it is used more often, but “interests” is probably a lot more accurate.

    I completely agree with your mastery-centric viewpoint. I’ve written before that I believe any new skill has a frustration barrier, where the *negative* feedback of poor skill result in a bad experience. That’s the exact opposite of the passion-through-mastery feeling.

    I’ve also written fairly similar ideas to your point in another article here: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2007/07/29/what-do-you-want-to-do-with-your-life/

    However, my article emphasizes more the passion grows with skill, rather than the necessity of skill.

    Perhaps we can agree there are no a priori passions (by your definition), but I would argue that there are a priori interests. So, in that way, an acorn requires patience and time to become an oak, but a pebble will never become anything.

    Great discussion!
    -Scott

  14. Rashad says:

    You are referring to one of the so-called psychological laws of interest.

    “In order to develop interest in a subject, exert activity
    toward it. We see the force of this law when we observe a man in the process of developing an interest in
    golf. At the start he may have no interest in it whatever; he may even deride it. Yielding to the importunities
    of his friends, however, he takes his stick in hand and samples the game. Then he begins to relent; admits that
    perhaps there may be something interesting about the game after all. As he practises with greater frequency he
    begins to develop a warmer and still warmer interest until finally he thinks of little else; neglecting social and
    professional obligations and boring his friends ad nauseum with recitals of golfing incidents. The methods by
    which the new-fledged golfer develops an interest in golf will apply with equal effectiveness in the case of a
    student. In trying to become interested in Mediaeval History, keep actively engaged in it. Read book after
    book dealing with the subject. Apply it to your studies in Political Economy, English, and American History.
    Choose sub-topics in Mediaeval History as the subjects for themes in English composition courses. Try to
    help some other student in the class. Take part in class discussions and talk informally with the instructor
    outside of the classroom. Use your ingenuity to devise methods of keeping active toward the subject.
    Presently you will discover that the subject no longer appears cold and forbidding; but that it glows warm
    with virility; that it has become interesting[…]We have shown in this chapter the fallacy of the assumption that a student cannot become genuinely interested in a subject which at first seems uninteresting.”

    HOW TO USE YOUR MIND, Ch. IX; Harry Kitson, Ph.D, 1921.

    He goes on to discuss the difference between the quality of study of the interested versus the uninterested student.

  15. Elizabeth says:

    Can you point us to some of the literature you’ve been reading about this? The idea strikes me as very plausible, and I’d love to read more.

  16. Maureen says:

    Interesting post and one that it appear you’ve placed a lot of thought into.
    I don’t agree with your definition of passion as:

    “The feeling that arises from have mastered a skill that earns you recognition and rewards”

    Instead, I propose the active tense of mastering a skill involves passion as, for me anyways, once I master a skill, I become bored and look for new challenges.

    So if you say passion is the process of skill mastery instead passion of having already mastered the skill, I would agree.

  17. Valla says:

    Hi Cal,

    I’m a recent reader who got hooked initially from your productivity and work/life-philosophy posts (with which I am currently experimenting to create an analogous version for myself). Thank you for your thought-provoking and well-thought out articles!

    Regarding this post, I feel like your alternative definition is a bit too narrow, especially in that it specifically depends on “recognition and rewards,” i.e. external stimuli. I agree that these things can certainly help bolster one’s self-esteem and thereby help sustain protracted devotion to a pursuit (and the opposite can ruin productivity, even with a true passion. Early Rachmaninoff is a good example). However, my feeling is that devotion and persistence to a pursuit and a passion for the same pursuit are correlated but not fully coupled. The former is more directly tied in to emotional fortitude and mental persistence, both of which can be applied to situations for which one is not passionate. The latter, passion, is more personal than something that can be easily influenced by external stimuli, such as praise or invective, so thereby it can cyclically contribute to emotional fortitude, etc, which will cyclically help develop a passion (see end of the next paragraph).

    Of course, this all depends on the definition of the word, but again I think yours unfairly removes the very personal nature that has long been associated with passion. For example, you’ve thoroughly discussed Steve Martin’s method, but I think he must be passionate for comedy and good humor regardless of the recognition he receives, otherwise he wouldn’t have begun down that road in the first place. I do think that passion becomes stronger with mastery not so much due to praise but rather because you, personally, gain a deeper understanding and intimacy with the thing you were already intrigued/passionate about in the first place, which does in turn help to validate your passion and end-results to yourself; however, plenty of artists lived their lives without much acclaim only to have been “discovered” by the public post-humously or much later in life than when they began — including the scifi writer you mentioned who wrote 10 (!) novels/novellas that failed to publish but who had the passion for her work to support the emotional fortitude and persistence necessary to continue. Also, this bit about intimacy and understanding is somewhat analogous to Feynman’s discussion of the appreciation of the beauty of a flower by a scientist vs by a layman.

    Whew, so, I tried to cram a lot in there while being concise, but it still ended up being very long, and there is still plenty more to write :-\ I am probably erring a bit too much on the side of separating the development of passion from positive external stimuli in this post, but I do it just to make the point, and incite discussion :-)

  18. jason says:

    Hi all,

    I guess that I agree with a decent amount of what has been said. However, my fundamental problem with the very definition proposed in this blog is that it has little to nothing to do with what one values in her/himself, but instead aligns the value of one’s actions with societal standards…

    “Passion: The feeling that arises from hav[ing] mastered a skill that earns you recognition and rewards.”

    Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems in this quote that what is perceived as ‘valid’ and ‘worth pursuing’ in life are still things that society deems as valuable. It is society that is providing “recognition and rewards.”

    This, if your point is to reconstruct words and philosophies so as to minimize and reduce stress, is out of line with what we are trying to accomplish. I feel as if it would keep anxieties at the same levels as opposed to alleviate anything because the sense of worth is still dependent on outsiders’ perspectives of what we are doing.

    In stead, I feel that for anything to be a passion, it not only has to include a sense of ‘mastery’, much as you have stated, but must also contain within it a sense of personal and individual pride. There are many things in this world worth pursuing, but not all are rewarded and recognized by society just as society recognizes and rewards many thing that I feel (just my opinion) are not wort recognition or rewards…

    Conversely many people pursue things that one would have a hard time as seeing as a passion; examples of this could include: physical addictions (drugs, alcohol, sex, violence), hedonism and narcissism, alienation and denial of other people’s rights. So in the end there is still a societal influence, but that should not be the only thing by which we measure our passions.

  19. Peter vd R says:

    Great post and indeed a very ‘workable’ definition of passion. It resonates with my own experiences (I was the bored programmer) and friends telling me that they don’t care about passions: they just like to take an issue on and “make it better”. I’m always surprised by how much seemingly boring topics are actually really interesting when you sweat on them.

    My own approach of dealing with the paralyzing effect of ‘passion’ is to recognize that one does not have a passion for an activity, but for a (very) broad field instead. Although I’m uncertain whether my passions are more on entrepreneurship in general, project management, teaching, sales, programming or designing, I do know that I would much rather work in an Internet environment than for instance in a music store. My passion therefore concerns “the Internet”, while my actual work is quite dependent on the project at hand.

  20. M. says:

    Great post. The point about needing to work to create passion is very interesting.

    I don’t think your assertion about the nonexistence of a priori passions is entirely accurate. What makes someone interested in a subject in the first place? What makes someone good at a subject? You could answer “hard work” to the second question, and it’s not a bad answer, but it’s also not sufficient. Passion happens when natural aptitude combines with hard work.

    The oft-quoted 10,000 hours rule underscores this: although the need to invest 10,000 hours to become a master indicates that hard work is key, you have to ask what makes someone willing to invest the 10,000 hours in the first place. It’s not just determination. After all, was Bill Gates equally likely to be a novelist or a theoretical mathematician? What makes someone willing to put in the hard work in the first place? They have to love what they are doing, since it’s unlikely that they would put in that number of hours for just about anything.

  21. catsgomeep says:

    hey cal!

    Thank you for such a timely post – reading it gave a final peace of mind. I’ve just switched majors from an arts major in English Language to Computer Science, and everyone gives me the “ARE YOU SURE??” because they’ve always known me as an arts student, and also because they all say that I’ll be competing with super geeks who have been programming since high school x___x

    So I’ve been wondering if I made such a wise decision after all… But I think I have good reasons for my switch, and I shouldn’t be afraid to do badly in my new major because I will work very very hard at mastering it! :D

    Cheers!

  22. Franz says:

    I agree with a lot of what you have written. However, you can be passionate about certain things while you are not particularly good at them. Like: reading a blog or jogging etc. It helps if you have that sort of passion when you start doing or learning something. So I agree that passion can come from mastery but mastery is not a prerequisite for passion.

  23. Study Hacks says:

    Greetings from Philadelphia…

    this equation is missing one crucial variable: fun. I know, this can be misinterpreted as “floating from one fun thing to the next”; however, I’m referring to the dedicated excitement that comes from following ones passion.

    Fair enough. This was one of the main critiques of the stoics as well. This is something for me to keep in mind as I keep looking into this issue…

    But your post has brought these feelings into a new light; I will reconsider and increase my efforts to succeed

    Music to my ears…

    This post does make a good point though but have anecdotally experienced the opposite. Bowlers who will never score a 300, pool players who have unsteady hands, graphic designers who can’t design, photographers who can’t focus.

    In some fields, mastery can be quite difficult. It requires deliberate practice, which is painful and difficult and most people don’t do it, prefering just to spend time.

    Do I write a list (which would be insanely eclectic), take it to the wall, and throw a dart?

    I’m exploring the idea that throwing a dart might be as good as any other method for narrowing down interests.

    You don’t always know it when you see it.

    This is certaintly the prevailing view: that passions exists and have to be discovered, sometimes painstakingly.

    Consider the case of someone who has developed complete mastery over a skill, but it is a skill that he absolutely hates

    This is an important adendum. My advice to students here on Study Hacks has always been to focus on your motivation more than an assessment of “enjoyment.” That is, if you feel like pursuing something was your own idea (intrinsicially motivated) you’re probably fine. If it was forced on you (extrinisically motivated) there could be trouble.

  24. Study Hacks says:

    Perhaps we can agree there are no a priori passions (by your definition), but I would argue that there are a priori interests. So, in that way, an acorn requires patience and time to become an oak, but a pebble will never become anything.

    A highly recommend reading Scott’s fascinating take on these issues.

    Can you point us to some of the literature you’ve been reading about this? The idea strikes me as very plausible, and I’d love to read more.

    I will. As my research wiki grows I’ll be sharing more research-centric posts.

    For example, you’ve thoroughly discussed Steve Martin’s method, but I think he must be passionate for comedy and good humor regardless of the recognition he receives, otherwise he wouldn’t have begun down that road in the first place.

    I agree that I’m probably missing some personal nuances with my simplified form. But I think if you follow someone like Martin, you see initial success reinforce interest, which allows more hard work for bigger successes; i.e., instead of a deep well of a priori interest.

    Okay, that’s all I have time for now…

  25. Valla says:

    Just a quick response…

    I agree that I’m probably missing some personal nuances with my simplified form. But I think if you follow someone like Martin, you see initial success reinforce interest, which allows more hard work for bigger successes; i.e., instead of a deep well of a priori interest.

    I made the same point about success reinforcing interest and perseverance, and I do think that it is important on some level. But then there is still the example of your science fiction writer (I can’t recall her name at the moment) who wrote and failed to publish 10 times, but still kept at it. Granted, she probably improved each time and got more positive feedback, which would be encouraging, but at the same time the denial of publication cannot be encouraging.

  26. Rodrigo says:

    I have not read all the comments, so I may repeat sth.

    I think the approach Cal gave to passion is too mechanical. Passion, as love, can’t be planned. Somehow we plan our lives according to our education, our beliefs, etc. One little question that I ask my friends when I talk about that is: “what would you do if you were free to choose? What do you do espontaneously, without effort, with pleasure?”. I think that between two options, we should choose something that fits in our lives without effort. It doesn’t mean that such profession would be always easy, but we could always find more meaning in it.

    Passion is not about a inner force, but about meaning. We can’t force ourselves to do something only because “passion” could be found there with effort. If we think like that we are exchanging a platonic view with a perspective that passion could be found everywhere. It’s as elusive as the idea that passion is a thing we are born with.

  27. Weasel says:

    I am having a very hard time with your take on the so called common belief #2. Exactly what part of “develop” do you think is compatible with “a priori”?

    Also, re the bored programmer, if the “projects are interesting enough” then he wouldn’t be bored.

    As to your definition, I’m skeptical. People can be obsesed with something for decades and suck at it. Likewise people can be incredibly skilled at, or experts in, something, and yet completely bored with it.

    I think passion can only be recognized for what it is with a bit of hindsight. Like momentary infatuation, a brief intense intrest can feel like a passion, only time will show if it truly is, and therein lies the problem. If one is to set aside other things in order to pursue some degree of mastery there’s the fear that one’s wrong, that it won’t turn out to be a passion. And many fields are so large as to require complete dedication to achieve any sort of mastery, something which should be kept in mind when choosing a career path. If you want to really be good at certain jobs, they must become your entire world, just keeping current can require all of your free time, and leave you nothing left for any of those other “superficial interests”.

    There’s an aspect of your idea that I does align with something I believe, and that is that almost anything can be interesting if presented in the right context and approached in the right way. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say anything can be turned into a passion with effort.

  28. DR R K Jain says:

    this post and the readers’ comments are grt..as it shows a lot of activities on this topic. The mastery-centric view of Passion is logically fit and appealing. however, it calls for further study and deep understanding to be able to conclude whether it is the ‘passion’ that leads you to ‘mastery’ or it is the ‘mastery’ that creates ‘passion’.

  29. Irene Suwarno says:

    I completely agree that true passion should be generated by finding something we can master. For me, a true passion (and not superficial passion) is painstakingly constructed.
    Thank you for a nice article!

  30. Anon says:

    This is definitely true for me. I’ve never really felt strongly enough about anything to call myself ‘passionate’ about it, but what I really enjoy is what I’m good at therefore will gain recognition for. I hate my subject when I feel like I’m failing but feel like I don’t want to do anything else the second I get a good mark on an essay or exam.

  31. Yeahyeahyeah says:

    Hi Cal,

    As usual, great posting. Very thought provoking. Before my comments, an aside:

    I’m 46 years old and what you might call a scholar/pratitioner (i.e., full time professional in an accelerated Ph.D. Program) I found your blog about 2 months ago and it’s been a major game changer for me. I’ve since ordered both your books and those are helping as well. The demands of balancing a full time doctoral load with full-time work demands are brutal and while many of your suggestions a great, some are more applicable than others. I’m wondering how many of readers share these unique challenges and if you’ll ever address them in some manner.

    Onto the post: While I find your approach to passion intriguing, like some others, I thought it a bit too narrow. In essence you seem to be saying that passion is a socially-mediated phenomenon that is initiated when esteem needs are fed by external validation. It’s a compelling premise, but I would then need some help filling in a couple gaps:

    *You seem to imply that emotional validation is only possible AFTER one is given approval or sanctioning by the general consensus or governing bodies of a particular field. This would mean that passion is far less likely in those cases when the values or tenets of a field are challenged. This would imply that those who affirm a field are more passionate than those who challenge it (i.e., innovators). However, don’t we generally see that innovators (Bill Gates, Bob Dylan, Vincent VanGogh–people often initially met with great disapproval) are far more “passionate” than those who affirm established values?

    *I’m also interested if your research has led you to the work of quantum physicist David Bohm? He was a colleague of Einstein’s who was also a groundbreaking theorist in the areas of creativity and innovation. (His book On Creativity is a must-read.)Bohm had an extremely ambitious take on what compelled individuals to pursue particular areas of interest.

    Now, comments may take things a little too far afield and, frankly, sometimes we just need to put our darn focus on one thing and stick to it! As we see, this topic is a monster with many tentacles… :-)

    yyy

  32. Yeahyeahyeah says:

    Oops…

    Now, comments may take things a little too far afield

    I mean to say MY comments. I’m finding everyone else’s very enlightening! :-))

    yyy

  33. Dave says:

    The feeling of “passion” you seek will be generated once you start kicking ass in your courses in a way that outpaces your peers and earns you the respect of the professors. Until then, of course you’re not going to feel warm and fuzzy

    I have to disagree with this entirely. Your sensation of passion requires that someone is in the top %5 (maybe even higher) of his or her class/field. How does someone go about doing that? You answer will most likely be, “employ the techniques from one of my awesome books!” Well what happens when everyone reads your book? Relatively, that person’s grades will most likely have not improved since everyone else is working more effectively. The fuzzy feeling you described seems to be one foot in front of an academic treadmill.

    Enjoying that warm fuzzy feeling when you’re better than someone else is elitist and only works for 50% of people (those 50% of people who are better than average).

    There is nothing wrong in enjoying your successes but it shouldn’t come from the relative failures of others.

    I’d like to hear anyone’s opinions on what I just said.

  34. sameer says:

    At last some different view on following your passion. But my problems are still not completely resolved. The following may also be interesting for readers : Barbara Sher’s ‘What Do I Do When I Want To Do Everything’.

  35. Dottywine says:

    lol, I think I am one of the student e-mails you quoted. XD (I email you with my school email).

    If I understand correctly, you’re saying you can generate passion for anything by being good at it? I disagree with that. There are loads of instances where people are good at something (sometimes the best) and do not actually give a crap for it. And there are loads of people who continuously find themselves going back to a particular thing, even though they are not good at it.

    I don’t quite understand your philosophy on this.

    I have a job that I don’t hate and I don’t LOVE (I tutor with an after-school group). Its one of those jobs that I don’t care much to think about it outside of work, but once I go to work and get in the groove, I am smiling and I enjoy making an impact on the children and I like them. I have been working hard to get better at explaining algebra and teaching algebra to the students. I don’t know if I am the ‘master’… but I am much better than when I first began. Being better at it has made me like my job a bit more, but I am still excited to graduate so I can get a different job.

    But I am developing a plan for the after-school group to start teaching SAT and this contribution is making me more passionate about my job because I am including something I am passionate about already into it.

  36. JH says:

    Restate premise no. 2. As is it written, it doesn’t indicate the passions are Platonic forms. Instead saying that “In the course of your regular life you will develop passions for various pursuits” means that passions are entirely a posteriori.

  37. K says:

    I think that ‘passion’ is a delusion- or at least the word is. When you realise or begin to feel that you are skilled at something beyond your peers, you’ll feel cocky, in other words, passion. Mastery, therefore helps you achieve this illusion, and sustain it. It is important to know that it is only a feeling so (singers for example) who’ve achieved different levels of skill may both feel ‘truly passionate’.

    And, choosing something to become passionate about kind of takes the point away.

  38. gary says:

    good post
    you really have to be good at something to enjoy it sometimes, such as you conciously know you are producing good results and continously improving, not lost and dumbfounded half the time. stretching the skills a bit higher would lead to the “so good they cant ignore you” scenario, which i find highly desirable

  39. Ben says:

    While I agree that having a priori “passion” for something doesn’t quite make sense, there does seem to be something missing from this description of the common sense idea of having a passion for something. I think mastery is very important, and contributes immensely to the sense that a particular activity is rewarding, but it’s very possible to become, say, a master plumber who is totally dissatisfied and bored with one’s craft. I think the anecdotes of someone switching careers after achieving a lot of recognition and reward are a testament to this. I think one part is a sense that a particular activity is dissonant with our identity. For example, I could be a master plumber, but maybe this doesn’t mesh well with my own sense of being an intellectual, and therefore I constantly feel like being an beginning philosophy student is a better fit than being a master plumber. I think another part is a sense of relevance or exigency to one’s activities. For example, I could be very good at tennis, but feel like tennis isn’t a very a meaningful or important activity, and so I turn to something that feels more relevant, despite the lack of mastery.

  40. Megan says:

    I fully agree with your defination of passion, but as I see it, what consitues a “reward” or “recognition” can include both internal and external feedback. For example, a painter may be externally rewarded by critics and the public, however he can also “earn” internal rewards by expressing a particular feeling, painting a certain object meaningful to him, or learning/improving a technique, reguardless of the outside critiques of his work. I think some people can be considered excellent at their work and still find it miserable because the rewards they are seeking are internal rewards, and likewise with individuals who might be considered terible by society, but because they have accumulated their own type of rewards not based upon outside opinion, they are perfectly happy. I guess what I am trying to say is that I feel that passions definately start out as only superficial interests and develop thru hard work and rewards, but that rewards can be both externally and internally defined and given.

  41. Karl says:

    I’ve thought about the subject a lot over the years. Having been in med school for the last few months has pressed me to re-evaluate all the effort I’m putting in. I have to say that I agree with much of what Cal is trying to say.

    There are some questions that I would be interesting in finding out, but are probably impossible.

    First question, what would I do if I was the only person on the earth? What if I didn’t have to worry about providing for myself and was the only person?

    Second question, what would I do with my free time if I had millions of dollars?

    Third question, would I enjoy what I do if I was in the bottom 10% doing it?

    Just some deep thought questions that I ponder from time to time…

  42. Cara says:

    I’m not sure if mastery will create passion in something, especially if you have no innate interest or talent in it. I’ve tried for over 20 years to make myself like engineering. My parents kept telling me that I’ll eventually like it once I get good at it. Well, I’ve even gotten extremely good at my job because I hate failure more than I hate engineering. But that’s not stopping me from trying to find a way to get out of this field. I figure that if I still hate it after all this time and after getting recognition and awards, I’m never going to like it, let alone develop a passion for it.

  43. Study Hacks says:

    One little question that I ask my friends when I talk about that is: “what would you do if you were free to choose?

    I argue that most people would not have a good answer to that question. They would turn, instead, to what researchers call “casual interests” — things that give short-term pleasure — which are not sustainable as a central pursuit of life.

    I am having a very hard time with your take on the so called common belief #2. Exactly what part of “develop” do you think is compatible with “a priori”?

    What I mean by that belief is the idea that without any special effort on your part, you will find that you have identifiable passions in your life.

    However, don’t we generally see that innovators (Bill Gates, Bob Dylan, Vincent VanGogh–people often initially met with great disapproval) are far more “passionate” than those who affirm established values?

    Your examples support my premise. Gates wasn’t met with disapproval? He was at the very forefront of a technology revolution, and he knew it, and this was quickly validated by the fact that businesses paid him money for his initial product (a version of BASIC for the Altair), even though he was 19. Dylan is similar. He tried lots of different types of music, but when he began crafting his own style of folk, he received immediate and overwhelming positive feedback (he got solo shows, then his first record deal at an incredibly young age.)

    Your sensation of passion requires that someone is in the top %5 (maybe even higher) of his or her class/field.

    Not true. I gave an example of one way — out of an uncountable number of different options — passion could be generated. To generalize that specific example to be the only path to passion is ridiculous.

    If I understand correctly, you’re saying you can generate passion for anything by being good at it?

    You’re confusing sufficiency with necessity. I’m saying that when you find someone how is passionate about something, they have likely become really good at it. The inverse, however, does not necessarily hold. (That is, being good at something does not necessarily make you passionate.)

    I think mastery is very important, and contributes immensely to the sense that a particular activity is rewarding, but it’s very possible to become, say, a master plumber who is totally dissatisfied and bored with one’s craft.

    See my above note about confusing sufficiency with necessity.

    but as I see it, what consitues a “reward” or “recognition” can include both internal and external feedback.

    I agree.

    First question, what would I do if I was the only person on the earth? What if I didn’t have to worry about providing for myself and was the only person?

    The problem with this type of question is that it assumes that there some ideal pursuit exists out there already and is identifiable to you. I’m arguing that for most people that’s not the case. Just by asking “what do I *really* want to do” you’re not necessarily going to uncover a real answer.

    I’m not sure if mastery will create passion in something

    see: sufficiency versus necessity.

  44. As a student graduating in two weeks I’m really struggle with my passion. My strategy currently is to do some internships and figure what I like and what I don’t like. As well as what I’m good at naturally. I know what I’m good at in school but work is a different ball game.

    One thing I do notice in school is this: the students that get good grades enjoy theor major/class far more than the students that do poorly. For example I’ve gotten an A in all of my economics courses and I really like my major or at least don’t hate it. But this quarter I’m taking a econ course where I’m not going to get an A and I find myself liking economics altogether less and less. The reason why I am doing poorer than usual is because I don’t read the text book and have put little effort in. So based on my experience I think your hypothesis has a lot of credibility and should be pursued thurther.

    Great stuff love the bloh

  45. Study Hacks says:

    One thing I do notice in school is this: the students that get good grades enjoy theor major/class far more than the students that do poorly.

    I’ve noticed the same, There’s this weird mythology among American college students that getting good grades and intellectually mastering material are two separate endeavors. My experience is that the most engaged students get the best grades and tend to like the classes the most.

  46. Erin says:

    I’m glad you posted this. I’m currently getting my PhD and often find myself wondering if I would have been happier in a different field. The truth is that I like what I do, but it’s hard. That hardness makes it less enjoyable. I think that dispelling the myth that everyone has some single “calling” in life that’s waiting to be discovered is very valuable.

  47. shelby says:

    I think passion stems from the will to master a skill more than the feeling inspired by mastery. also, can one completely master a skill. To me there’s always room for improvement and refinement of skills.

  48. Niels Bom says:

    Quick language question: The feeling that arises from have mastered a skill that earns you recognition and rewards.

    Shouldn’t the ‘have’ be a ‘having’?

  49. Franz says:

    I strongly recommend Sir Ken Robinson’s book: The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. He interviewed many very successful people/celebrities and found that many of them experienced a feeling of belonging when they first came in contact with what would become their future passion. That is somewhat contrary to your thoughts. Strongly recommend his TED talk on creativity: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

  50. Study Hacks says:

    He interviewed many very successful people/celebrities and found that many of them experienced a feeling of belonging when they first came in contact with what would become their future passion. That is somewhat contrary to your thoughts.

    I’ll definitely check that out. Certainly lots of successful people look back and identify a collision with their passion as a key moment. I suspect, however, that most of this is revisionism. If something grows to become an important part of your life and helps define your values, it’s hard to look back and remember a time when it wasn’t so important.

  51. Ashwani says:

    This was great post, but i’ve a question.
    I’ve a problem of retention, i.e. i can understand things well but i can’t retain them in my head for long, and as a s/w professional i’m bound to read a lot, and do different things, which i’m able to do when given, but i’m unable to apply them later or have confidence in telling as to how it was done cos i’ve forgotten how i did it or even why i did it.
    So how do i get passionate about something, by getting a mastery over the subject which by its nature is not constant and changes at least every 2 years.. and with my retention power which always fails me.

  52. Ashok says:

    How will passion progress with age(I am 39yrs old) ? Will we have the same passion as we go through the creative (and beautiful) uncertanities life brings to us. If we stop getting recognition or having fun, does that mean it is no longer passionate pursue. Say, I set goals for the next 7 years(Seth Godin’s post) – how do I realize my goals are what will bring me passion over this period. Finally, do we really need to “generate” it – why not stay in the moment and achieve the same bliss that passion provides.

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  55. Priya says:

    Thanks for this post, Cal. I was struggling and feeling deflated (I was having a really hard time with one chapter and I suddenly got scared that the decision I made to pursue a career I really want was all wrong) until I stumbled upon this. It re-energized me just because you articulated this so well. I really appreciate it.

  56. Juan Camilo says:

    Great article however I can’t connect it to my own personal case. If developing a passion for something comes after mastering this particular something then I’d have at least one passion. I’ve been struggling since high school graduation to find my passion. That passion that would make me want to keep working at it no matter what, and this for me, changes the definition of a passion. It’s like love at first sight, It tickles your stomach and all of a sudden problems become challenges. I’ve been gifted with several talents, perhaps the most important one is the ability to learn and learn fast. So at that time (9 years ago), after several attempts to find my true passion I thought perhaps life will lay it on my way, that I should just do things, and give the things I find interesting a try. To make a long story short I have made oil paint expositions, I began studying industrial engineering but then transfered to mechatronical engineering, I pushed myself to try new things in electronics, mechanics, art and programming. I have been called to work at advertising and graphic design agencies due to the quality of my work and creativity. Right now I have been hired by a multinational company to design and develop web based applications because, in their own words “we haven’t been able to find people with your talent and habilities”. So far this story sounds great! I’ve been successful in most of the things I’ve tried and perhaps mastered a few. The problem is, mastering them or not I still feel without a passion, without purpose, and the answer to everything always seems to be “yeah, so?”. Imagine that… “you won the lottery!…yeah, so?” or perhaps “you won the award for best web designer in america!… yeah, so?”
    any insight will be greatly appreciated. Thanks Cal for such a great site!

  57. xombie says:

    I disagree. Having just defended my PhD today, and with a ‘respectable’ number of publications, I feel no sense of achievement (personally in terms of growth or intellectual challenge). Indeed, this was an exercise that I would have done with ‘passion’ in high school (although, I have great hopes to learn new stuff- and applied math-in my postdoc job at a national lab now). To be honest, I am extremely passionate about Chess, which seems to provide much more dopamine than writing Fortran code, and it has been ruining my professional life, but I seem to have escaped the worst.

    I think if your computer programmer doesn’t like what he does, he should die or leave the job. Nothing beats the disengagement in seeing people doing stuff that seems unimportant or useless, spending week after week meeting your boss who treats you like garbage. It’ll only lead to depression, and life is not worth living that way.

    But thank you so much for your site. I wish you would post more articles on doing research though, as a grad student. Could definitely use some of it :).

  58. fahad says:

    finally a paradigm shift that could counter all the self help crap out there.

    Around 200 or 300 years ago, most of the creative (passionate) accomplishments were carried out by people who were hobbyists. A dull day job was followed by a creative and interesting hobby.

    We need to treat work as work and spend less time on it while being productive. To get the daily dopamine kick do something creative and exciting after work on a daily basis.

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  60. Sri says:

    Here’s something interesting about passion — When people look at the very best performers in any field who do remarkable things, then they talk about their “passion for ….. “. The word passion is never used while describing non-performers or the mediocre. Does that ring a bell?

    That means that the first thing is about becoming so good they can’t ignore you and then making a success story out of it without screwing up the rest of your life in the process. Passion is actually a word that refers to doing everything that it takes to achieve and maintain excellence.

  61. Darren says:

    I just stumbled onto your new book in a shop, but I have to say that I frankly consider your core argument to be completely wrong, and expressed in a very unconvincing manner that does not anticipate obvious criticisms (which other people in this thread have already pointed out, without any convincing response from you).

    I’m 43, I used to be a programmer, and now I’m an economist. I changed careers because I didn’t (and still don’t) care how computers work, even after years of getting a degree and working as a programmer, but I care a great deal about the intersection of economics, philosophy, and public policy. It is obvious that that landscape is where I want to be working and thinking for the rest of my life, and whether I “master” it or not is irrelevant to me. My current work duties contribute towards my understanding of the questions that I’ve realized I HAVE TO dedicate my life to considering, and therefore my job is an enormous improvement over anything I could be doing in software. I’ve never regretted for one second my decision to leave software (a field that demands constant maintenance of skills, in spite of your imaginary database programmer Laura who apparently needn’t worry about her preferred DBMS going obsolete), even though my decision to go back to school mid career had enormous opportunity costs. Believe me, I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to master professional skills that I had no interest in, long enough to know that’s not the path to happiness. Have you had that same experience? No offence, but I don’t see anything in your background that suggests you are in a position to be writing books on this topic. Everyone loves a contrarian, I suppose.

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  63. David says:

    I am glad that I stumbled onto this, because I feel it rings very true with everything that I am dealing with right now. I just recently got of the Navy and I have been trying to find what major or what passion I have that I want to pursue. I feel if I make the wrong choice, that I will be doomed to live an unhappy life.

    “What do you like doing?” People ask and all I can respond with is, I’m not sure, I just know that there are some things I do that I put a whole hearted energy to, and I can’t stop. After reading this, it became more apparent that it wasn’t that I had a passion for it, but rather I mastered these projects and then gained an immense amount of recognition for it. If it wasn’t for those awards, I would never have continued pursuing knowledge or making things in my job better. It was never something I sought out to do, more so just something that I really put time and energy into it, and was far above my peers as a result.

    This has of course lead me to read more of this blog, but also to recognize that maybe the passion comes after mastery of whatever it is I decide to study.

  64. Jonathan says:

    Dr. Newport, you make a good point on the tendency of many people to prefer what is initially interesting over what requires commitment. Although mastery of a certain skill can only come by commitment, I believe understanding which fields of endeavor one has a natural ability for is a good starting point in order to commit to a field which gives one the best return on his or her effort. For example, engineering programs are academically rigorous so engineers do not graduate by accident; yet it is reasonable to argue that the natural mathematical ability of engineers is greater than average person’s mathematical ability. Taking this into account, how does one narrow down a field or work or study that would produce efficient results for his or her efforts?

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