Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

It’s Not About You: David Brooks’ Contrarian Advice for College Graduates

June 1st, 2011 · 32 comments

Debunking the Passion Hypothesis

For the past couple years I’ve been advancing a controversial argument: “follow your passion” is bad advice.

I’m not against feeling passionate about your work — in fact, I think this is a fantastic goal. But from my experience studying this issue, passion is not something that you discover and then match a job to; it is, instead, something that grows over time along with your skills.

In other words, working right trumps finding the right work.

Over the weekend, I received support for my contrarian philosophy from an esteemed source. In his most recent column for The New York Times, David Brooks laid out an argument that will sound familiar to Study Hack readers.

“If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days,” writes Brooks, “you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself.”

“But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.”

As Brooks elaborates:”College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to.

“It’s excellence…that we admire most”

Brooks argues that you shouldn’t place yourself — your passions, your non-conformity — at the center of your universe. What matters to the world is what you do not what you want — and things worth doing are often “arduous and miserable.”

I love to see smart people like Brooks engage the sacred cows of American career advice. The more we question tropes like “follow your passion,” the more equipped we’ll become to squeeze the most out of life.

Beyond Passion

The timing of Brooks’ column was fortuitous.

Over the path few months, as part of a secret writing project (to be revealed this summer), I’ve been traveling around New England, meeting interesting people who love their lives. My goal was to find answers to a crucial question: if “follow your passion” is bad advice (as David Brooks and I both argue), what works instead?

Among other adventures, I’ve spent the day with Ivy League-educated farmers, interrogated an entrepreneur who gave away his millions to charity, had coffee with an elite medical resident who was the first in the history of his program to take time off to pursue other interests, toured the lab of a thirty-something Harvard biologist curing some of the world’s deadliest diseases, and met an academic archaeologist who stars in his own TV show.

What I’m trying to say here is that if you agree with Brooks and my thoughts on passion, and you’re interested in the follow-up question of how people really build remarkable lives, stay tuned.

I’m just getting started…

(Photo by gurdonark)

32 thoughts on “It’s Not About You: David Brooks’ Contrarian Advice for College Graduates

  1. MB says:

    Awesome!!! I can’t wait to read more. You are not only super smart but a really talented writer!

  2. Aaron says:

    Cal Newport: A man on a mission. Hold on to your hats, conventional wisdom.

  3. R says:

    Thanks for the great post!
    Correction above: “fortoitous” -> “fortuitous”

  4. R says:

    Also, good luck at Georgetown. I was there for a year last year completing a graduate degree and I had a blast.

  5. Canetas says:

    Great post, never had fought in that way. I think some really small ammount of people are lucky enough to have a passion that endeup being a way to make money, to the majority its exactly like you just described here.

  6. Ashish says:

    Just watch out for survivor bias in your interviews.

    In my view, a lot of successful people (I count you among them) were lucky enough to stumble onto their passion early in their lives. It’s like Google employees all thinking they are the cat’s meow. **You have no idea how lucky and unusual you are**.

    At the age of 42, I am reinventing my career, and I’ve never been happier. But corporate America is full of people like the old me, enduring their daily existence, living for the weekend. I could never have been a star as a programmer, or a management consultant. But I’m already succeeding at my new “job,” which I considered only after an aptitude test. And I love it.

    Passion matters. Talent and aptitude matter. Until you’ve spent years toiling at something you couldn’t stand and didn’t do very well (I won’t speculate what that might be), you’re not in a position to argue otherwise.

  7. Chris A says:

    This is a very interesting argument. Something I was thinking about while I was reading through your posts: assuming that a person believes in your theory–that is, by aligning your skills with what you do passion will follow—the question of which career path to take still remains. A person may still find it hard to decide which career path to begin with—which one to stick to. We all have skills in different things but how do we decide which one to hone?

  8. Tom says:

    The central business of life is to be or not to be, and that of adulthood is not necessarily finding serious things to tie yourself down to (be that as it may), but rather to discover your talents and who you are and why that is so. Every one should have a raison d’être to guide them on their life’s journey, preferably earlier rather than later, and better late than never. In order to find one’s raison d’être, one simple needs to challenge one’s self, i.e. the assumptions upon which you believe it to be based. If you don’t believe in yourself, then why should anyone else?

    With that in mind, following one’s passion works as well as any other pundit’s chestnut of wisdom. What works for anyone is only achieved by experimenting to discover what does not work and then not repeating one’s mistakes of the past. Thus, anyone can know their self, and consequently, of what they are made.

    We are all on the journey of our life, not necessarily any one destination in particular, but wherever our choices lead us to be at any one point in time.

    Along the way, we need to build skills in order to survive, feed, shelter and nourish ourselves (mind, body and spirit) and those whom come to depend upon us.

    A more practical approach might be to try something radical like designing your life, and then do what is necessary to make it happen. No one wants to be tied down to nor limited by their own previous choices, unless the choices are working out for them, and even then why limit yourself?

    The art of living is in the choosing! The key to understanding this is to know that at any one point in time – we can always choose differently if the present is not working out for us, and then make progress in our lives. Why leave our lives to chance, especially to the advice of pundits? We must be responsible for our own lives and the decisions upon which to live it?

    The need to be self-sufficient can be a powerful motivator as can the time we have left to accomplish it – no matter the mistakes of our past to get there!

  9. Study Hacks says:
    Passion matters. Talent and aptitude matter. Until you’ve spent years toiling at something you couldn’t stand and didn’t do very well (I won’t speculate what that might be), you’re not in a position to argue otherwise.

    I don’t buy the argument that you cannot comment on an effect without having directly experienced it. Researching other people’s experiences — not having them yourself — is the foundation of all journalistic reporting, not to mention quite a few different academic fields as well, from anthropology to social psychology.

    But your point on survivor bias is well-taken. It pops up in all sorts of unexpected ways when you start talking about career advice. I’m trying to be good about it.

    assuming that a person believes in your theory–that is, by aligning your skills with what you do passion will follow—the question of which career path to take still remains.

    I should be careful here: that’s not my theory. Many people don’t have a clearly defined “skill” waiting to be matched to a career.

    Skills are developed through deliberate practice (or what I sometimes call hard focus). In other words, what work you do really isn’t all the important because you can build skills in just about anything.

    If you happen to already have a skill, because, for example, your major in college forced you into the required hard focus, then that’s a good place to start as you’ll save some time in building a skill from scratch. But there’s nothing magical here.

    Step 1. Take any career that seems reasonably interesting to you and get good.

    Step 2. Figure out how to invest the “career capital” generated by your skills in a way that best matches your vision of a life well-lived.

  10. Study Hacks says:
    The central business of life is to be or not to be, and that of adulthood is not necessarily finding serious things to tie yourself down to (be that as it may), but rather to discover your talents and who you are and why that is so.

    Maybe. But also, maybe not. A growing volume of science, for example, is indicating that people aren’t born with pre-packaged talents waiting to be discovered. Also, the notion of figuring out “who you are” is squishy — something that’s more likely to be shaped by what you do and how you do it then it is to be discovered, immutable and pure, deep down in your soul.

    I’m trying to avoid simply spouting “chestnuts of wisdom” in my writing on this topic. I’m trying instead to study real people and their lives and understand better what’s really happening.

  11. Ashish says:

    Without meaning to be argumentative (really!), I submit that “how to choose your life’s work?” is more akin to “how to raise your kids?” than to “what’s the best studying strategy?” or even “did Lance dope?”.

    It’s a much more emotional decision whose impact you cannot fully grasp until you’ve spent a decade or two doing it wrong. (The fortunate among you will never do it wrong – and you may not realize that you are indeed “fortunate” rather than just “good.”)

    You mention David Brooks. One thesis of his new _The Social Animal_ is that we are emotional creatures first, and not the coldly rational machines that we (particularly the smartest and best educated and most “successful”) like to imagine ourselves.

    In case it’s not clear above, child-rearing advice from those who have never had a child doesn’t carry much weight with parents in the trenches.

    I’ll let it go here.

  12. Frank T. says:

    I have a problem with both camps.

    I mean, yes, on the other hand following your passion is an argument that seems to consist of breaking free of convention and shaping your own world.

    On the other hand, yes, passion is often an excuse to be lazy, not doing things necessary and not getting ahead.

    I can’t agree with both camps. I think you need both, passion for the line of work and passion for hard work.

    I mean, I have studied as a psychologist with the plan on becoming a great executive coach. That is my passion. And I do pursue this dream with utmost passion. On the other hand to become this I believe I must be a great psychologist. And this is what actually comes with way more hard work,more focus, more boring statistics, methodical questions and lots of focused reading and understanding of experimental design. A bit of epistomology, the discussion on quantiative versus qualitative methods in social sciences and I will most likely kill anyone’s head.

    But I had passion to begin with. My choice started with passion and the passion grew through hard work and understanding. I am working myself up being a systemic consultant, learning the ropes through hard work. I am doing a lot of training, evaluation to get better and sometimes it is fun, sometimes it is arduous and miserable.

    I don’t think any camp is right here. You have to be a trooper to get good at whatever you want to do. if you want to be the best, you need to focus hard, as Cal has often said.

    But without a small spark of passion, none of this will come.

    In Germany, you start focusing on your main degree of study already at Undergraduate levels so you have to develop your field of interest early. I have never regret chosing my field, because it developed as a field of interest and passion. And only through this I was able to to grind through sometimes unbelievably boring topics.

    Shades of grey are what will ever be right. It is unlikely that either the “follow your passion and forget everything else” or the “hard work makes you passionate” are clearly right. This is no black and white issue.

  13. Rafi says:

    Just a quick note – while Brooks wrote all that up in his column the other day, he actually said it last week on Sunday (5/22) at Brandeis University’s commencement. The video and transcript are here: http://www.brandeis.edu/commencement/2011/video/brooksaddress.html

    I find the commencement speech better than the article, but maybe that’s because he added more jokes.

  14. Pam says:

    Look forward to hearing more about the “secret writing project”!

  15. Gallop58 says:

    Re: Survivor Bias
    Local radio had an author advocating the “follow your passion” angle and it was littered with cherry picked examples. I was sitting in my car begging the interviewer to call her out on giving career advice using Lady Gaga and a software nerd as extrapolation examples. It made me want to Gag-a.
    Correlation is not causation….

  16. gurdonark says:

    I liked this post. I think it’s tempting to put up some absolute agreement or refutation. Such an approach, though, misses the point a bit. I take your point less to argue person-by-person with people ‘following their passion’ than to challenge the easy assumption that ‘right work’ means ‘work at what feels good’. Yet my own understanding of right work is that humble, even “unappealing” work can be worthy of attention and a way to earn one’s self-respect. In our consumer society, even careers and the spiritual nourishment of work become commodities–and we have enough commodities.
    It’s all a prism, though–surely a kid with talent with little awareness of opportunities can use the “dare to dream” mantra, but for some kids “dare to dream” is a cipher for “if you don’t get a cool job you imagine, keep banging your head at not getting it, ignoring what might work for you”.

    in this 2011 world, education and work pose special challenges–and easy sloganeering, on either side,
    fails to highlight what it means to find satisfaction in one’s work.

    p.s., thanks for using my photo

  17. “passion is… something that grows over time along with your skills.”
    I can see this in my own life, most obviously in relation to my guitar playing. The better I get, the more fun it is, and the more I want to do it. The same is true with writing.

  18. Rob says:

    Cal,

    I find your writing good (thank you) but I’m also frustrated at the same time.

    1.
    You say “follow your passion” is bad advice. It’s good that you’re saying that and repeating it.

    2.
    You give great criteria for judging if a given career will likely allow you to be happier than otherwise.

    3.
    We can build the skills to do pretty much anything through enough (read: lots) of the right kind of focus and practice (if you believe that our current understanding on building skill/myelin is correct and that talent is really just skill). So we can set aside some kind of pre-destined or God-given vocation.

    4.
    That leaves us with a lot of good stuff to work with so far. Still, none of this addresses how to find viable vocations in the first place.

    5.
    You seem to be framing the discussion as “follow your passion” vs “working right”. That’s sort of like framing a discussion as “you should believe in Santa Claus” vs. “the aerodynamic principles of flight”. They aren’t really against each other. They address two different parts of the vocation equation (watch out Eminem). Just because “follow your passion” is wrong doesn’t mean “working right” is the solution (although I think you’re spot-on in the area that “working right” addresses). It is just part of the bigger formula.

    6.
    It seems to me that all the sweating to knock passion off its pedestal overshadows the more subtle things that are still necessary to this whole process:

    – Curiosity/Interest
    – Suitability

    Aren’t these the things that allow you to find viable vocations in the first place?

    Where do they come into play and how come they haven’t been treated as first-class citizens like “follow your passion” and “working right” have?

    7.
    There is plenty I both like and dislike about Brooks’ column. Too much to write about here though and I don’t want to detract from my points above.

  19. jay says:

    @Rob:

    2. I would like to see more from Cal that uses stuff like decision theory / game theory etc.

    3. Agree. However it goes back to the old fallacy of “he who dies with the most toys wins”. Take the form and add in ‘knowledge’. The value of breadth or depth of knowledge (especially scholastic) is debatable on success.

    4. Research. Use the scientific method on the career. Base your data on the lifestyle you want. Universal job criteria: Resources(financial etc), time, flexibility, social standing.

    5. It seems to me that Cal was trying to make success a universal concept. Something along the lines of a mathematical function. The variables can be unique however every problem is more or less structured the same. Studies have shown that humans have a hard time making choices based on information provided. This is especially true if you alter their emotional state while asking them to make choices. Not 100% of the time but Passions = emotions = cognitive bias and failures of logic. If someone were able to have {(developed)Passion + critical thinking + critical application of thought + luck } = success

  20. Jake says:

    If you have not seen Mike Rowe (best know for his TV show Dirty Jobs) give a speech at a TED talks series you should. It is great and highlights the point of this blog post. He states “the worst advice I have ever gotten is to follow your passion”, and it is very funny. Here is the link if you want to check it out.

  21. jo says:

    im an electrical engineer,but i grill steaks for a living,,hows that for passion..

  22. This is my first time reading your blog but I find it worth reading. The thing I love the most is that you interact with people’s comments so hopefully I’ll have a good comment one day that you can comment on.

  23. Wendy says:

    Everyone seems to have some valid points.

    The truth is that you really just have to a focus and be diligent towards whatever it may be. Invest in yourself by learning something about your field everyday, taking workshops, or furthering your education by attending graduate school. Stay current in your field and notice when the tides are changing.

    It is essential to plan out your career and set goals regularly. As long as you do that, you will find yourself in the right place decades later.

    Focus on being the best you can be in your field. If you really apply yourself, then you are bound to see some results sooner or later.

  24. Study Hacks says:
    I take your point less to argue person-by-person with people ‘following their passion’ than to challenge the easy assumption that ‘right work’ means ‘work at what feels good’. Yet my own understanding of right work is that humble, even “unappealing” work can be worthy of attention and a way to earn one’s self-respect. In our consumer society, even careers and the spiritual nourishment of work become commodities–and we have enough commodities.

    This is a good way of putting things. I wrote something once — though never published — about the similarities between passion culture and consumer culture. The idea that you can identify a passion then go acquire the matching job that will make you happy is similar, to me, to the idea that buying the latest iPhone is all what stands between you and happiness.

    That’s not to saying buying an iPhone (or following a passion, if present) is always bad, it’s instead to shine a spotlight on the underlying message and question the fervor with which most of us accept it.

    You seem to be framing the discussion as “follow your passion” vs “working right”. That’s sort of like framing a discussion as “you should believe in Santa Claus” vs. “the aerodynamic principles of flight”. They aren’t really against each other.

    I would agree with your metaphor only if people’s belief in Santa Claus were preventing them from developing airplanes. In other words, of course the reality of people’s paths are complicated and may involve feelings that some will describe as “passion.” But it’s also true that the fantasy of finding a perfect match is actually preventing many people from creating fulfilling careers. That’s why I adopt a rip the band-aid off approach of saying: You probably don’t have a pre-existing passion. What next?

    People don’t need much help with dealing with feelings of interest and attraction in work. Where they need help is figuring out what to do in their absence.

    He states “the worst advice I have ever gotten is to follow your passion”, and it is very funny.

    I’ve seen the speech. He’s very funny, but then you get to the end and struggle to figure out what exactly he was talking about.

  25. Mark Y. says:

    This is not a good insight at all as its too extreme. It’s not a black or white argument and shouldn’t be framed as such. Its not about following your dreams 100% at any cost or about building passion around your skills over time… Its all about being aware of your many passions AND your various innate capabilities (lets call them ‘strengths’) and coupling the two. One does not have to precede the other. Let that be crystal clear. So this whole article is moot.

    One needs passion to drive through tough times and moments requiring arduous effort. It certainly makes things a lot easier when you love what you are doing and what you are doing is hard work. One also must identify their innate strengths to accelerate their chances of success, and to pick a ‘game’ that is suited to them… In other words, get a sense of the type of work that comes more naturally to you with less effort. Align that work with something you are passionate about… E.g. Something that you see a higher level purpose for that you strongly believe in.

    Don’t prescribe to extreme philosophies taunted by “passion-ists” or “skill-ists,” and be more nuanced in your understanding of how things work… Align passion with skills as best as you can and you will be on the path. Good luck!

  26. Dan Martin says:

    The great take away of this school of thought is that even when you are interested in a field, there are going to be times that you have to just buckle down and do what is necessary to accomplish the goal.

    As a criminal defense attorney, I struggle with some tasks while I thoroughly enjoy other tasks that are necessary to advocate for people. If I followed my passion, and only did the stuff that I enjoy, I would not be very effective.

    On the other hand if I went into civil practice (extremely boring) and I simply stuck with it and obtained the skills to be successful, I would be mediocre at best. My heart is not into fighting over dollars for greedy people.

  27. This was the perfect article to read. I have been thinking a lot about this “follow your passion” spiel and kept concluding it makes no sense. Looking forward to the follow-up answer. Great post!

  28. Sri says:

    There are too many immature ideas of passion and love out there that are more like how a small child thinks reality works. Reality isn’t anywhere close to a “dream romance”. A mature person knows how things work out in reality. You can really tell only how good you are by doing things outside your comfort zone and then bringing them within it, before moving out of it to the next challenges that are there.

    It fundamentally boils down to one’s deep seated beliefs. When one really feels at the bottom that something is useless to them, they aren’t going to feel anything positive about what that. When deep down they can find the connection to what is valuable to them, then what they do is meaningful.

    For full involvement, the body, the mind, the heart and the spirit have to be engaged. That only comes when a)You are healthy b)Your mind is in good condition and isn’t burned out due to over stress and lack of recovery c) When your heart gets what it needs using whatever you do (e.g. We work for our family, which is actually where our heart is) and d) Spiritually (i.e. Our belief systems – they define what we value and what we don’t. We are drawn to what syncs with them and what doesn’t).

  29. Evan says:

    First thing is first: I agree. In almost any subject I tried before becoming an undergraduate, I had to become really good before I began to really enjoy what I was doing. I really began to love math during my first calculus course, because I was finally utilizing all the random algebra and trig methods I had studied over the years in a way which was very practical.

    I was going to go to school for CS, because I had already developed some skills in code during the high-school years. However, your post made me realize that I should go for what I’m the most interested in, because my passion for a subject has almost always increased in direct proportion with my skills in a subject.

    Thanks Cal.

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