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In Choosing a Job: Don’t Ask “What Are You Good At?”, Ask Instead “What Are You Willing to Get Good At?”

April 10th, 2013 · 44 comments

I recently received the following note from a career counselor:

I regularly counsel students on their career paths and I was having a hard time giving a student guidance today without referencing passion.  ‘What are you good at?”’ I asked instead, and she replied that she didn’t know.  She doesn’t know because she hasn’t tried enough things.

I like that this counselor is thinking critically about passion. I didn’t, however, agree with her alternative suggestion.

Asking “what are you good at?”, in my opinion, can be essentially the same as asking, “what is your passion?”

In both cases, you’re placing the source of career satisfaction in matching your job to an intrinsic trait.

And this is dangerous.

As readers of SO GOOD know, career satisfaction almost always follows: (a) building up a rare and valuable skill; then (b) using this skill as leverage to take control of your working life.

If you lead a student believe that making the right job choice is what matters for career happiness (whether you’re choosing based on “passion” or identifying “what you’re good at”), you’re setting them up for confusion when they don’t feel immediate and continuous love for their work.

My advice to a student in the above situation is the following:

Pick something that you wouldn’t mind investing years in mastering. If you already have some skills, then it might make sense (though is by no means necessary) to start there, as you already have a head start on mastery, but you should still expect years of deliberate improvement before deep passion can blossom for your work.

The key thing, in other words, is to direct expectations away from match theory — which says passion depends primarily on making the right job choice — and toward career capital theory — which says passion will grow along with your skill.

44 thoughts on “In Choosing a Job: Don’t Ask “What Are You Good At?”, Ask Instead “What Are You Willing to Get Good At?”

  1. Great advice, Cal. I actually look for passion with this mindset. I market myself as someone who is willing to learn and really absorb because I genuinely want to get good at the things I love. I cannot yet say with 100% confidence that I’ve found my passion, but I do know that there are many things I feel my passion growing for as I get better.

  2. Patrick says:

    Great advice. I do think that your advice at the end of the post would qualify as “necessary, but not sufficient”. I just finished SGTCIY, and while I absolutely loved it, my lingering thought was “well, Cal seems like a smart guy, so what made him pick computer science as the focus of his skill-development?”

    I get that learning how to work well is way more important than finding the mythical “right work”, but one still has to pick something at some point. And even if they understand that passion is cultivated by skill, and skill takes deliberate practice, and yadda yadda yadda, they still need to eventually make a decision.

    I assume that you picked up computer science and writing for any number of reasons — maybe they were for the reasons that you outline in your book, or maybe it was for a “passion” reason at the time. Now that you’ve gotten strong enough at those pursuits to not be ignored, so to speak, your original reason(s) for choosing your career path are rather irrelevant.

    So are you saying that it really doesn’t matter which job you take, as long as you’re willing to invest years in mastering it? Or is there room for other considerations (“it’s enjoyable to me”, “I think this career is ethical”, “I like helping people”, etc.) provided that the individual doesn’t believe that the answer will come from a priori passion?

  3. Magnus says:

    Doesn’t your advice beg the question? How do I know what I wouldn’t mind investing years in mastering?

  4. Claire says:

    Hi Cal, I was recently reading this article from Barking Up the Wrong Tree which was an interview with Adam Grant. I’ve been following your blog since high school and much of your advice works well for me, but how would you respond to this part of the article where Grant says:

    “That’s where Anders Ericsson left off is where my interest picks up, which is what motivates somebody to do that in the first place? Why would somebody invest deliberate practice in something? It turns out that actually most of these world-class performers had a first coach, or a first teacher, who made the activity fun.

    If you excel at something, and you experience mastery, it often does make it more fun and enjoyable to do it. We’ve overlooked the reverse effect, which is that often interest precedes the development of talent. It’s having a coach or teacher who really makes something exciting to be involved in that leads you to often put in the practice necessary to become an expert at it.”

    It would seem that some degree of passion is necessary to choose what to start deliberately practicing?

  5. JL says:

    I had similar thoughts to Magnus.

    When you tell the student to pick something that he/she wouldn’t mind investing years in mastering, isn’t that closer to match theory? Maybe I’m reading that one sentence out of context but it implies that career satisfaction is “matched” to some intrinsic trait of knowing what to pick to spend years to master.

  6. Shane says:

    Hmm that’s really interesting, and I can definitely see how that would lead to success — if motivation to learn that new skill lasted long enough to become proficient enough at it for it to become enjoyable. Or, I suppose, it may just take a fair bit of willpower.

    What would you say to someone who is passionate about developing a skill that’s already quite common?

  7. Vivien says:

    Recently found your site! These posts are strangely reassuring because it has always been hard to define my “passion.” Do you have a Twitter account?

  8. Kianna says:

    Thank you for the fantastic advice. As a current high school senior, I really needed this reminder that becoming so good that they can’t ignore you will take time.

    Due to the fact that mastery could take up to two decades to achieve, would you recommend a student interested in becoming good in writing go to a well known university (eg. NYU) and be in great debt versus a much smaller university (eg. Seattle University) with little or no debt?

  9. Evan says:

    Hmm…@Vincent, do you think you can “find” a passion, or are you perhaps building one as we…type?

  10. Nat says:

    Kianna, I would recommend that a person interested in writing to choose a non-writing major. Finding and getting writing jobs is tough, but you will do a lot of writing for any major. You can also write for school publications.

    If you choose a non-writing major, especially a STEM one, then you’ll be a good writer with a specific knowledge base – as well as a major that can serve as a backup while you pursue those writing jobs.

    As far as the cost of school – Suze Orman recently said it best http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNM7nvcVm-0 – and you really don’t want to rely on a writing career to pay back the cost of an expensive education.

  11. Michael Arnoldus says:

    Dear Cal,

    I truly enjoy your writing and I’m fascinated by your thinking on deep work and deliberate practice. So it’s with love when I feel I need to ask you to please not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I get your mission in stopping the solitary focus on passion – however completely decoupling what we choose to do from any intrinsic traits are clearly going to far. By saying that, you seem to push the view that every person is really just a machine or a piece of infinitely flexible biological machinery. Clearly there are differences between people.

    Every choice must at some point be grounded in internal processes and hence in some sense depend on internal traits. Why did you choose to stydy CS and focus on how to study?

    The question of passion is focusing only on internal traits without taking the environment we need to work in into account. Focusing solely on the environment and completely forgetting the internal solves the first set of problems, but creates a new set – a bunch of people trying do to things that they can find absolutely no motivation doing. I’ve seen this too often.

    I would think “the middle way” makes sense. Do you disagree?

  12. Carey says:

    To me the point is “that you wouldn’t mind” investing in. Indicates some sort of interest or intrigue with the topic or area of study. To me that’s KEY. There’s lots of things I know I could learn, but don’t at all WANT to learn – and would therefore be a pain-in-the-neck of a career for me to be in. Great article!

  13. Keith Nerdin says:

    Thanks Cal. It’s also important to note that simply going to work at the same job for decades is not the equivalent of deliberately practicing and developing a skill. One is FAR more likely to produce the side effect of passion than the other.

  14. Jenna says:

    “What are you good at?” automatically narrows the possible choices to the skills that a specific high school student has already been exposed to and interested in. This often would result in a list of possibilities of which very few in any are “rare and valuable”. Not so great a place to start.

  15. John says:

    To JL and Magus,

    I think you guys don’t quite understand Cal’s theory of creating a career you love.

    The simplest way to explaining it is this…

    Standard Theory:

    You a magical gene in your DNA that no one else in the world has that will make you the BEST GOLFER, WRITER, RUNNER, PROFESSOR in the history of human kind. It is true that you still have to work hard, but you have a innate talent for that activity.

    Cal’s Theory:

    This DNA and inborn passions is a bunch of baloney! All of the BEST WRITERS, MUSICIANS,MATHEMATICIANS are created by 90-95% by Deliberate Practice for many decades. If this is true and genes don’t have a big impact unless you want to become a gold-medalist sprinter than you can become “whatever you want” as long as you are willing to put in the decades of discipline-specific deliberate practice.

    If Cal’s theory is right than you should pick “anything”(usually Cal says to pick something you are already interested in or already competent) and commit to putting the decades of deliberate practice necessary to become “THE BEST IN THE WORLD”.

  16. Kianna says:

    Nat, thank you so much for your response. I am specifically interested in screenwriting. Although I know it is a difficult field to break into, I am willing to put in the years of hard work. I’ve read, re-read, and analyzed Cal’s posts about screenwriting and the case study in SGTCIY.

    I am afraid that if I major in something else, I would be “distracted” and not be able to practice screenwriting deliberately due to other work for my major. If I major in Film, it would be easy to find people to critique my writing for almost instantaneous feedback. I would become immersed in the filmmaking and screenwriting community, rather than trying to split my time between another major and the filmmaking community.

    The video regarding the cost of school really made me think. I want my time during and after university to be spent in the field of my choice, rather than being dictated by monthly loan payments. Thanks once again for your helpful advice.

  17. Sam says:

    Cal,

    How would one go about identifying and researching which skills or fields are appropriate for granting one’s desired traits? In your blog posts you mentioned not all types of career capital are suitable for granting the desired traits, ie management expertise may not be relevant for the digital nomad lifestyle. It would make sense to be very sure that the skill in question is really able to deliever your desired traits before “investing years” in mastery. Again, the devil is in the details, and I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on how to go about doing this in depth.

  18. write 5-10 scripts every week or more.
    listen to people who write to screen and there is a lot out there how they bring out their characters.
    Improvement starts slow and accelerate.

  19. reid says:

    Cal,

    As always, I enjoy your latest postings. Your comment regarding picking something where you would not mind investing and investigating reminded me of Robert Greene’s book, Mastery. I would recommend it to you as it has helped me counsel my students. It also reminds us that learning to mastery takes a while and we must exercise our patience. Would also recommend to Cal’s readers.

    -Reid

  20. Thank you so much, Cal. Your book changed my entire thought process about my life and work, and your continuing posts here reinforce and remind me of that underlying lesson.

    A great source of direction for me has been thinking about how I can help others best. Essentially, the service mindset.

    While I can certainly help 1 hungry person by buying them lunch, I can help 1000 by making a lot more money. Then the question turns into how to make more money, and I come back to your advice of building and leveraging rare and valuable skills.

    This article, focused on finding our purpose, really helped serve as a guide. It also helped me apply your framework of thinking to help more people by investing in myself.

    http://bit.ly/V5vqG9

  21. Ashley says:

    I would say, pick a rare and valuable skill to become masterful at UNLESS you already have an existing passion (yeah, yeah I know you hate it but there are a select group of people who just gravitate towards art, sports, writing, etc and can’t help themselves and do it). For the majority of people, picking something that will be really valuable and useful is the best course of action. For that, check to see what the most in demand jobs are that make a lot of money and see which ones interest a person the most. Then select it and work deliberately to become great at it.

    I’ve done it with coding and it’s already benefited my life so much.

  22. Joanne says:

    I attended Seth Godin’s talk on leadership at Rutgers University a few days ago. During the Q&A, he answered my question about picking among several interests (I also threw in the word, “passion,” in my question because I wanted to know whether, in his mind, passion comes before or after attaining expertise). It turns out that he agreed with Cal: work on being an expert in something, and passion follows. He spoke about the importance of paying enough dues: “Do you care enough to fail until you get good enough?” About making a living, he told us to “build a real network of people who know of your generosity, who know you.” People want solution makers, “those who can solve interesting problems.”

  23. Mark Strasell says:

    Wouldn’t picking something that you wouldn’t mind spending years mastering also dangerous? Something about Canadians and hockey?

    Shouldn’t the advice be, what is it you want out of life and which is the job that will give you that the easiest, fastest and quickest?

    After all, according to you, what you choose to master in is irrelevant when it comes to passion/interest etc.

  24. Jacob Wolfram says:

    Hey Cal!

    I’ve been reading your unique blog for a long time now and I’m happy to tell you that I graduated from college easily by employing some of your proposed ideas and techniques.

    Now I’m planning on getting into law school using the same reasoning from this blog: “Pick something that you wouldn’t mind investing years in mastering.” That means I wouldn’t mind mastering critical thinking skills, recall and speed-reading.

    If ever you could think of better skills for lawyers or point out that one (or all?) of my suggested skills is wrong, feel free to do so. I’ll be happily waiting :)

  25. Jacob Wolfram says:

    P.S.

    Mind suggesting a rare skill for lawyers? :)

  26. Thomas says:

    This is so true but i have a feeling this is never going to happen because to be good at something I go by the theory you need 10000 hours if so it would take forever for someone to prefect there job even if they where willing to it would take to long.

  27. Richard says:

    @Mark: Maclean’s published an interview with an authour who wrote a book on the deceptive simplicity of deliberate practice as an “in” to the hockey world. It’s worth reading and is relevant to the wider discussion. Given that hockey is a physical pursuit and there is much stronger evidence for genetic advantage in sport than in other disciplines, it’s not necessarily as applicable to other skills, but I think it still serves as an important cautionary tale.

    http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/01/20/year-round-training-and-320000-wont-guarantee-an-nhl-career-or-even-a-future-fan/

  28. Stephen Thompson says:

    I had a similar experience to “pick something you wouldn’t mind spending years mastering” – though in an anti-pattern sort of way. Back in undergrad while studying to be a musicologist (music historian) I was introduced to the task of reconstructing four-voice music from only one or partial line extant from a medieval manuscript. It would require learning the keyboard and choral voices – something I expressed a reluctance to do. I preferred to just play my instrument, the Lute.

    The Prof responded with “..its not just what you want to do in a profession, but also the tasks your profession will demand of you. There are always things we might not like to do, but we do them. If you refuse to learn these tasks, then you might want to reconsider musicology as a profession.”

    Good advice, I chose a different major based on that. I am reminded of that conversation 35 years ago by this post:

    “What are you willing to get good at?” Thanks.

  29. PJ says:

    Mark, you’re really misinterpreting this.
    When he says good, he means world class. How many Canadians do you know REALLY willing to becoming good/(world class) hockey players? That would require a LOT of dedication, and for most people, hockey’s just a recreational activity to hang out with friends.

    Your second point is probably more dangerous than what you’re accusing him. Looking for a shortcut will invariably lead to frustration especially when improvement isn’t visible

  30. PJ says:

    Cal, could you go into more detail about selecting what to master or link to a previous post where you have? It seems like its the one thing troubling everyone including me.

  31. Eduardo says:

    The main problem here is the use of the Self-Determination Theory, as it is not validated scientifically. The only theory about motivation that has been validated, so far, is that of Steven Reiss.

    I’ve read your books Cal, and there are superb. But the main problem is that every person is an individual, and we have different psychological needs. Therefore, maybe I need “power” a lot, so been the best will make me happy, but another person could not need this so much.

  32. Jakub says:

    @John – that’s a good explanation, but I still agree with JL and Magnus that asking HighSchool or College students to pick a “skill” or even “area” they would want to invest years in is a bit naive. I have many friends who graduated a few years back and STILL don’t know what they want to do with their lives.

    It’s even worse when you do know what you want to do, invest a few years, and realize your “dream career” isn’t as dreamy as you initially thought. I definitely had those moments myself, and it’s definitely very disheartening to come to that realization.

  33. This is a great question, as we spend time in classes and focus on our majors and future careers we so often here the questions “what are you good at” and “what are your passions” I feel your question helps us to focus a lot more and lets people know that is is ok to try new things.

  34. Andrej says:

    I think a lot of people have already mentioned it, but to me it seems it is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to advance in the argument. If you ask “What are you willing to get good at?”, then that sounds exactly like asking “What’s your passion?” I can’t find an exact analogue for “What are you currently good at?”, but the passion question wouldn’t even come close to it.

    Don’t Ask “What Are You Good At?”, Ask Instead “What Are You Willing to Get Good At?”

  35. Mark Chan says:

    This is the Potential Age.

  36. Pimsleur says:

    “What are you good at”? When I hear that sentence, I have some kind of a flashback and I can’t help myself but thinking about my mother asking me that sentence while being in a discussion about my future (job). I have also been asking me this question a lot, but I do agree that it might be much better to think about “what are you willing to get good at”. This does not necessarily mean that you need to do something that you don’t really like as you could possibly just specialize in your specific “field of interest”. Take me as an example. I love languages.however, studying linguistics alone will not help me much to get a decent job. Therefore I decided to study computational linguistics. This major is very new and not very well known (yet!). The cool thing is, I still get my daily dose of language study (which is after all my great passion) but I am combining it with something very practical and useful. Hopefully this will enable me to get a decent job once I graduated! kind regards from Switzerland

  37. Peter Hsiung says:

    Cal good point. After reading that article, I have found myself asking that question more in the form of where I am willing to “build upon” in terms of existing skill rather then just merely focus on what I am good at already. Lately I was thinking of learning more about “supply chain” then just marketing itself.

    All too often, I feel we get stuck at what we are good at then focus on what are we willing to get good at. Though at the same time, I don’t recommend “reinventing the wheel” (such as a sales person wanting to become a engineer) since its a waste of energy and resources if you don’t have the background. After all, its not a theatre where we could refashion someone into a completely different person.

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