It’s Not About You: David Brooks’ Contrarian Advice for College GraduatesJune 1st, 2011 · 34 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.
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)