Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Following Passion is Different than Cultivating Passion

August 29th, 2012 · 39 comments

My article from CNN.com, featuring what is arguably the creepiest photo ever associated with a discussion of career advice.

Concerning Comments

Earlier today, CNN.com published an article I wrote. It summarizes the main idea from my new book: “follow your passion” is bad advice.

What interests me are the comments on the CNN website. Here’s a sample quote:

Following you passion should be a given. What’s the point of life if you’re a robot on a factory line…

As Study Hacks readers will notice, this commenter completely misunderstood my point. He thought I was arguing that you shouldn’t aim for a career that you feel passionate about. This couldn’t be more distant from the truth. I think passion is great. But it’s not something that you “follow” (which implies you can identify it in advance). It’s instead something you have to purposefully cultivate over time.

The key observation here is that the majority of the 60+ comments on the website made a similar mistake. I think this tells us something important about the American cultural conversation surrounding career satisfaction. The reason “follow your passion” has such a hold on our thinking is that many mistakenly equate this strategy with the generic and near-tautological statement that it’s good to love your job.

Of course it’s good to love your job. But “following” your passion suggests something more specific — a strategy that’s not supported by the evidence.

My challenge here is clear: To successfully spread this idea to a larger audience I need to be careful to separate the goal of developing passion from the flawed strategy of following it. (If you want to help me in this challenge, consider retweeting the CNN article with a more accurate description; e.g., “Don’t follow passion, cultivate it“).

39 thoughts on “Following Passion is Different than Cultivating Passion

  1. Following your passion suggest, accurately, that you’re always a big behind the curve. Developing passion is something that can be done every day – and taught to children. I’m a webmaster for a remarkable school that does just that: Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA. Granted, there’s a highly favorable teacher-student ration, and it allows the teachers to get to know the students individually: their strengths, weaknesses – and find out what motivates them. Result: 40 years of successful, happy kids. The research supports that pursing external goals (money, fame) reduces the quality, quantity, and creativity of work. BTW, the LWS site is http://www.livingwisdomschool.org.

  2. Mylene says:

    I wonder if this tendency to see passions as pre-existing and fixed is related to the tendency to see talent as pre-existing and fixed? I’m thinking of what Carol Dweck calls the fixed mindset, and I’d be curious to know your thoughts.

  3. Kevin Wood says:

    Cal,
    I agree that the readers misunderstood what you were intending to say. It’s not the individual’s fault. It is the fault of the author. You need to modify your message in a way that prevents misinterpretation.

  4. Julio says:

    Hey Cal, do you teach in this book the techniques you can use to craft your skills, or do you only argue the main idea? I’d be more interested in buying it if it teaches me the first.

  5. Braydon says:

    Seemed most of those comments missed the basic idea that you “Don’t set out to discover passion. Instead, set out to develop it”

    Perhaps the emotional response to the word “passion” is far to ingrained for most to ever understand your core observation.

    Maybe the solution is simple as redefining that dreaded question “what’s your passion? Have you found your passion?” into something that is more inherently flexible such as “what is your field of focus? What do you find engaging about the field?”

  6. Lance says:

    โ€œJust think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize half of them are even stupider!โ€ -George Carlin

    Reading the CNN comments reminded me of how simpleminded the vocal majority tend to be.

    I also think there’s a disconnect with the demographic who read this article and those who read this blog. For the 40- to 50-year-olds, late in their unfulfilling careers, to read these words can only be disheartening. For the 20-somethings who have a chance to cultivate their passion, this can only be enlightening advice.

    I hope you didn’t take the insults personally.

  7. anon says:

    first of all, congrats!

    yet, if the majority of the commenters get it wrong, maybe your article has room for improvement? ๐Ÿ˜‰ maybe the typical CNN.com reader is quite different from your typical blog reader?

  8. Hanad Ahmed says:

    The problem is that they’re missing the point.

    Your arguing that following a predisposed ‘matching game’ of work & passion isn’t a smart strategy. On the other hand, developing a rare skill which than could be leveraged towards creating a fulfilling life is smart.

    Most of them think your advice is to be settle and be unhappy.

  9. ano says:

    If the majority of readers get it wrong, then chances are that your communication isn’t clear enough.

    Then again, it’s possible that the majority of commenters aren’t readers at all. The internet is full of “write-only people” (phrase from stevey), who leave comments everywhere without reading the original article (forget about other comments).

  10. ano says:

    Actually let’s look at the top-rated comment: Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or John Backus clowning around, or James Cameron quitting his job to study film: how could you make your article clearer to explicitly say what you think about such cases?

  11. Dipto says:

    Cal, it’s okay that they’re missing the point. At least the article will get a lot of attention and people will recognize you. Maybe you can mention Study Hacks somewhere in your future articles so that they will understand what you truly stand for.

  12. Nitin says:

    Wow. I just realized that I’m guilty of misunderstanding you, too.

    For several months, I followed this blog reading it half seriously, with a smirk on my face, thinking, “He doesn’t want to follow passion, huh? Where does he think he gets the energy to write all of this? Inertia of movement?”

    โ€œDonโ€™t follow passion, cultivate itโ€œ That’s actually pretty valid, Sir.

    For all it’s worth, I offer my apologies to you, and my thanks to that misguided comment for inadvertently clarifying things for me.

  13. YM says:

    It might help to edit your first paragraph or two to make it clear that your point about cultivating passion clearer. As it is, the first two paras sound wholly negative in character, so it’s easy to see how time-starved readers might have thought that you didn’t have any positive account to offer.

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

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

  14. Kevin says:

    Some of the commenters (e.g., Tendofreak) misunderstood your article so completely that they thought you *were* advocating “following passion.”

    Another commenter or two indicated that you could have written a clearer article. This may be true. Unfortunately your thesis is so unusual that it might not even be possible to convey the message without *linking to some of your other articles,* where certain key issues are elaborated on. (By the way—most readers on CNN are unlikely to Google “self-determination theory” on your advice!!)

    It appears CNN’s policy is that you’re only allowed to link to other articles on CNN.com. I only skimmed the articles you linked to, but it’s unfortunate they couldn’t all be from the same voice. Reading an article on your blog is generally made easier by the fact that you provide so many cross-references for “background” as a convenience to new readers who haven’t caught up to speed.

    The links CNN and other news sites like to put between random paragraphs (“See also: Is happiness the secret of success?”) are obnoxious too! It’s almost like an invitation to break concentration and not finish the article. It’s the opposite of the SH philosophy.

    That was a tough article Cal! I hope some of the CNN readers “get it.” ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Congrats on the article Cal!

    I think the underlying takeaway people should have from your article is that we need to treat all of life as an experiment.

    Whether it’s choosing a career, finding the right place to live, or working on our personal productivity, what we thought we wanted may be quite different from what we actually need and what makes us truly happy.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  16. You can’t teach passion, you have to hire passion. ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Cory says:

    Perhaps a better catch phrase would be “Don’t follow your passion, pursue it.”

  18. Rob S. says:

    The way I read your collected writing on this topic, you seem to be saying, “Forget about passion. As long as you pick work with the right opportunities, build your career the right way, and cash in your career equity for the right external rewards, you will be happy—no matter what the actual work you are doing is.” What about interest in doing the actual day-to-day work?

  19. I like the phrasing,

    “Don’t follow your passion. Make your passion follow you!”

  20. Eddie Schodowski says:

    The CNN article’s comments shows an enormous amount of stupidity.
    Sigh.

  21. Tony says:

    A professor of mine in undergrad always insisted on writing out her quotes for reporters to use in stories. If she relied on them to quote her correctly, they’d always misquote her, or leave out important context, or miss the point, often all three. However, she said that writing out the quotes for them didn’t help either.

  22. Chinwuba says:

    Challenge Accepted!

  23. Katie says:

    Cal, congrats on writing for CNN! I’m so happy to see your message getting out to the somewhat more general public! Well, they didn’t all get it, oh well. You still have to lead with the attention-grabbing word “passion” since your message’s importance is in relation to the tired/cliched message you are supplanting. And I think a lot of people have been reached by your work, so I’m glad to see you expanding your base! ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. Adam Ramshaw says:

    While you should always strive to make your communications ever more clear, the main problem here is that those commenting don’t bother to actually read and understand your position.

    They see a few key phrases, assume their standard response, (passion good) and fire back without bothering to coherently consider what you’ve written.

    You can lead a horse to water.

  25. yora says:

    There are people who identify their passion in advance, well before they choose their profession. And they follow it. And they cultivate it. And they are successful. This is not wrong. Yet there are people who cant/dont want to/dont for other reasons decide on their profession and kind of go with the flow. They still become successful. Because they work hard but efficiently, they fine tune all details. These people are successful at any job, whether they are passionate about it or not.
    As for the article in CNN, there is difference in audience. That being said, one cant blame the audience for everything, as there are other variables in the equation that need to be addressed (make the point more clear, just like you did in this blog, provide more links or references etc). Congrats to you!

  26. yora says:

    Posted my 2c on the CNN webpage. Lets see what they think once they start visiting this blog…

  27. Study Hacks says:

    Thank you everyone for the tweets and encouraging words.

    The fact that the CNN commenters are fighting back against the article, as some of your pointed out, is a good thing. Polarization (even if based in misunderstanding) helps draw attention (Tim Ferriss has a thing about this).

    In other words, from a marketing standpoint, I’m happy with the piece and it’s reaction. But I also think, from an anthropological perspective, it’s fascinating to observe the responses, as it captures something interesting about how we ingrain the notion of passion.

    @Mylene: Your connection to Dweck is intriguing. I hadn’t thought of that, but should have…

  28. Mylene says:

    If a person believes that passion is a given, then your advice to “grow” some new passion will seem like nonsense. They may actually not be able to hear you, no matter how clear you are. It makes me wonder where our ideas about passion come from in the first place, and what it would take for people to question those assumptions.

  29. Amy C says:

    You should have started the article off with a good example, like Steve Martin. It starts off slow and needed to have a big bang at the beginning to rope them in.

  30. Alex says:

    My friend posted this on facebook, and I was like, whoa! Cal is writing for CNN now! Good for him! ๐Ÿ™‚

    By the way, I’m still indebted to you for the help you gave me when I was transferring schools to get into Penn. Thanks so much. All the best!

  31. Zachariah says:

    I wonder if there could be a connection with this and personality. I love learning and am optimistic, so it is easy for me to love what I do.

    Maybe simply a difference in optimism could influence one’s perspective of their current job and their need of finding a passion to find them happy.

  32. traims says:

    Are you planning to release a Kindle version of the book? I really liked having Kindle versions for How to Win at College and How to Become a Straight-A student. I think I even read the first book completely using just my mobile phone, in short breaks between the lectures or while travelling.

  33. Econ Student says:

    Cal, part of your problem might have to do with your use of the phrase “follow your passion,” which is loaded and means many things to many people.

    This reminds me of an economic professor’s comment about avoiding the use of the term “Peak Oil” in an interview he did. I quote (from http://www.econbrowser.com/archives/2012/08/qa_on_oil_price.html):

    “As soon as you utter the expression “peak oil”, there is a class of people who dismiss everything else you have to say. They do so because the expression in their minds connotes (mistakenly, you could reasonably argue) a set of straw man beliefs. … If one wants to communicate with others, as is most certainly my goal, it is important not to use expressions that mean something different to the listener than it might mean to the speaker. … This is the reason, not cowardice, that I personally prefer not to use the expression ‘peak oil’, but instead to lay out from scratch exactly the doctrine I am seeking to have others evaluate fairly and with an open mind.”

  34. Luca says:

    Cal,
    i really get what you mean and I totally agree; unfortunately you can’t pretend that a society so addicted to the “easy way” method for everything will suddenly embrace your theory, like all these people with weight problems from tomorrow will say :” yes, finally I get it ! I have to join a gim and carefully control my daily calories intake, instead of buying the new AB crunch for only $ 49.99 and continue to watch TV eating Cheetos! Yeah, thank you Cal!” I mean your theory is based on reality, that’s why it will never sound appealing to most of the people.

  35. Jason Lee says:

    You are right, Cal, that’s your biggest challenge. When you say “don’t follow your passion”, many will misunderstand and think why the hell we don’t do the job we like? And then some will lose interest in finishing the rest of your article.
    Without carefully tapping into what you are really saying, they will not get the points.
    Btw, I’m from Malaysia. I’m in my 20s and I always ask questions like you did, eg. If we believe we are strong, why it is not possible that we make ourselves like our course and gradually develop interest in it? I have seen some anyway. (In Malaysia, many of us don’t get to choose the course we want). I may sound like a total hypocrite as I got the course I want but I was similarly confused whether it is the right choice or not to pursue for it’s degree.
    I am a firm believer of “success is not always because of passion at first”, but you explain my thoughts better in words!

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