In 2012, I published a book titled So Good They Can’t Ignore You. It argued that “follow your passion” was bad career advice. I didn’t claim that passion was a problem, but instead argued that it was too simplistic to assume that the key to career satisfaction was as easy as matching your job to a pre-existing inclination. For many people, this slogan might actually impede their progress down the more complicated path that leads to true satisfaction.
One of the interesting things I uncovered in my research was that the term “follow your passion” didn’t really emerge in the context of career advice until the 1980s. Where did it come from? I argued that two critical trends converged during this period.
First, the unionized industrial work that characterized mid-century American economic growth gave way to a less rooted knowledge sector. Workers who might have previously taken a job at whatever factory happened to be located in their hometown might now be forced to travel cross-country in search of a suitable office position.
For the first time, the question of what you wanted to do for a living became pervasive — a shift captured well by the emergence in the early 1970s of Richard Bolles’ seminal career guide, What Color is Your Parachute: one of the original books to help readers identify which professions suit their personality and interests. It’s important to remember that this was a radical notion. “[At the time,] the idea of doing a lot of pen-and-paper exercises in order to take control of your career was regarded as a dilettante’s exercise,” Bolles later explained.
The second force at play was Joseph Campbell, the polymath literature professor who was heavily influenced by Carl Jung, and popularized the hero’s journey as a foundational mythology that emerges in many cultures. In 1988, PBS aired a multi-part interview with Campbell hosted by Bill Moyers. This wildly popular series introduced the concept of following your bliss, which Campbell, who read Sanskrit, had adapted from the ancient Hindu notion of ananda, or rapture.
Combine these two forces — a sudden need to figure out what you wanted to do for a living with Campbell’s mantra — and a strange, secularized, bastardized hybrid emerges: the key to career happiness, we decided as the 80s gave way to the 90s, was to follow your passion.
I was reminded of this history as I recently began reading Stephen Cope’s engaging treatise, The Great Work of Your Life (hat tip to Brett McKay). In this book, Cope dives deep into the classic Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, which tackles the centrality of ananda, and was almost certainly an influence on Campbell’s blissful bromide.
Cope notes that this text indeed argues for the importance of discovering one’s dharma (calling), and giving it full commitment. What caught my attention, however, was the complexity Cope ascribes to this notion. In the ancient context in which the Bhagavad Gita was first composed, dharma was not something you identified through soul searching about what really lights your fire. As Cope writes:
“In the caste system of ancient India, dharmas were prescribed at birth. Arjuna [one of the two main characters of the Gita] was born into the warrior class. So, he was destined to be a warrior. It was his sacred duty to fight a just war. He never had any choice in the matter, nor was his dharma based on any particular personal qualities.”
As Cope then elaborates, in the traditional culture where this story was told, the very concept of an autonomous “personal self” didn’t exist.
This idea of dharma — or its equivalent — manifesting as a burden or responsibility that one takes on, not an energizing inclination, is common in the many cultural interpretations of the hero’s journey monomyth. Ancient wisdom, in other words, doesn’t so much prescribe that we follow our passion, as it does that we approach with passion the trials and responsibilities placed before us.
Modern career advice may be based on an incomplete translation of the underlying philosophies that sparked its emergence four decades earlier. For many, recognizing this reality is empowering. The belief that the world owes you the perfect role for your special unique personality is myopically self-focused and ill-suited to hard times. The alternative notion that the world needs you to offer all that you can is comparably liberating.
37 thoughts on “Ancient Complications to Modern Career Advice”
Thoughtful post as always, Cal. I also think the “follow your passion” approach arose out of the expansion of choice we have as we have gotten wealthier. Logically it seems that as we have more choice, we are better positioned to make a better, or the best, choice for ourselves but this presumes a deep understanding of ourselves and our actual needs.
I totally agree. I’m currently reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. I’m in the first chapter, but the theme of the book is related to what you said
“Logically it seems that as we have more choice, we are better positioned to make a better, or the best, choice for ourselves but this presumes a deep understanding of ourselves and our actual needs.”
My comment( the 2nd one) touches on this as well. If you get a chance to read it, reply back.
The expansion of choice has been crippling in many arenas. A pastor named Kevin DeYoung wrote a book to millennials a few years back to help guide them in their choices of job, spouse, etc. He told them to stop “praying” about every single small decision to the point that they make no choice out of the fear of missing God’s plan for them, and to learn to exercise wisdom and commit to things.
The book’s title, “Just Do Something.”
I find this idea pervasive in modern Christianity. The extremely common teaching, not unlike the ‘follow your passion’ mantra, which is that we need to seek ‘God’s plan’ for our life.
What Cal is talking about in this post really strikes at the heart of this idea. The Christian Bible offers no mandate for anyone having some specific and truly unique life purpose, that has been ordained by God.
Cal’s observation that ‘follow your passion’ is a very modern idea I think is relevant here too, in that the idea that we all have some ‘unique purpose’ or ‘plan’ that God has given us is only relevant when we have multiple options available, and we have the freedom and affluence to pursue one. Presumably the one God has ‘ordained’ for us.
When adversity is thrust upon us, our purpose becomes a lot simpler. Get through it, and thank God for what we have.
This was a great post. It reminds me of what you explained about Steve Jobs in So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The fact that he forgot his own roots is a lot like this misunderstanding of the Gita’s message. It is important for people to understand how and why we did what we did, how we rose, how we fell. We need to know why we do what we do. If you understand humans more accurately, you see that passion following doesn’t work for various reasons. Francis Spudford once said human beings are
“a being whose wants make no sense, don’t harmonize: whose desires, deep down, are discordantly arranged, so that you truly want to possess and you truly want not to, at the very same time. You’re equipped, you realize, for farce (or even tragedy) more than you are for happy endings…You’re human, and that’s where we live; that’s our normal experience.”- UNAPOLOGETIC Francis Spufford
He was a Christian Writer who was in a way, elaborating on Jerimiah 17:9 which says
The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
The idea of following your passions works if life matched up with the narrative that we’re ok. But the bible and all of human history show that we are terribly more complex than we can imagine. This is partly why your writing rocks. It supplements nicely with the message of the Bible. The bible didn’t go into exhaustive detail about career focus, but when you look at things a with careful consideration as you do, you help open people’s eyes to the trivial peripheral concepts that weigh us down as we seek something more. Trust me, Jesus lived deep.
As a ministry worker, I have had my moments of sadness due to follow your passion. Those times always came(no surprise) when things were not immediately gratifying. Reading Deep work gave me a practical understanding of why I should just put my cleats in the ground and stand firm in my position.
Before I Go- thanks for your writing man. Another book I will mention is the meaning of marriage by Tim Keller. Even for a married man, it’s a great read. In it, Keller speaks against an idea similar to follow your passion. I won’t spoil the book though, just check it out.
Tim Keller is another deep thinker who reminds me of a religious-based Cal Newportian thinker. Actually, the more pertinent book to mention with regards to this discussion of vocation is “Every Good Endeavor” where Keller explores the Christian philosophy of work. My main take away from this book was that work, in virtually all forms, is an act of worship, our way of embodying God’s hands in the world.
His sermons, free on most podcast apps, are superb and also highly recommended Michael.
I’m also a big fan of Tim Keller! Along with his book on work, John Mark Comer’s “Garden City” is a really good read on the Christian view of work.
Yeah Josh! Keller is the man. Hahaha. When I first became a Christian, he was the guys I listened to most outside of my personal Pastors and mentors. I got out of the habit of listening to his stuff though. I used to eat his gospel in life podcasts( the one you mentioned) up. I used to watch most of those sermons on youtube actually. I will definitely check out that book. Thanks, Josh.
Sir, this post makes it clear how important is to have complete knowledge about the texts we read . It can significantly alter our views and beliefs. The Bhagavad Gita not only tells us about our karma and dharma, but also is a guide to go through life’s different emotions and situations.
I always used to wonder how many options does a boy/girl born in a slum have ? Seeing them just somehow surviving, the notion of “Do what makes you happy” does not exist for them. It’s always what is their dharma, that which will make the survival easier and peaceful for them.
Kshatriya(warrior), Brahmins(Priests), Vaishyas(Merchants), Shudras(Laborers) were the four divisions. There was also a fifth class of untouchables. Fitting people forcefully into these categories without possessing the required abilities, was posing a major problem. Due to this quality of work suffered. Imagine a person weak in physical health, forced into an army of warriors. Furthermore the fifth category of people called “The Untouchables” suffered so many inhumane acts, it was horrific. Imagine being denied to drink water from the same well as others just because you belong to caste of “The Untouchables”.
These caste systems were created on basis of the work the people could do, but unfortunately the reality was far from expectations. People misused these “DHARMA CASTES” to flare up their dominance, pull down others, oppress others, mistreat less fortunate people. Because of this “DHARMA” segregation Indians had to suffer a lot and still suffer now. This led to the failure of the four DHARMA CASTE system and people began to choose work according to their abilities, so that they were not confined to the DHARMA CASTE in which they were born in. A son of a Vaishya(merchant) now wanted to become an army personnel(Kshatriya), a daughter of a Shudra(Laborer) now wanted to become a Brahmin( Knowledgeable person/academician). This was all a result of confining a person to the caste they were born in and restricting them many basic human rights.
One such example is Babasaheb Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, he was born into a family of “UNTOUCHABLES” but due to his determination and intelligence he went to become an academician, scholar, India’s First Minister of Law and Justice, Architect of Constitution of India. His life perfectly justified your statement that “The alternative notion that the world needs you to offer all that you can is comparably liberating” . He did all he could to abolish the blind belief of untouchables and contributed significantly in setting up law and order for everyone, so that no one suffers what he had to suffer.
Several years ago, The New Yorker published a cartoon in which a slightly disheveled, down-on-their-luck, sad-sack person stood on a street corner holding a sign that read: Followed my bliss. I found it so funny that I cut it out and put it on the frig. It gave me a daily means of recognizing–and laughing–at myself.
I am glad you finally posted on the Gita, it is an important book to understand.
Two points for deeper considering stick out, and I want your thoughts, eventually.
First, the Gita sees work as sacrifice to be performed for the sake of Dharma, regardless of personal sucess or failure. Unfortunately, our modern meritocratic values (check out the meritocracy trap) views sucess as the end, work as a means; someone reading the Gita may well ask, “is this sort of equanimity going to help me get head?”. OTOH, someone struggling professionally despite being Dharmic may well ask “I made a mistake, I need to find my passion, be more self-oriented, hanker after sucess etc.”. The core system of values in the Gita place self-transcendence through whatever means above professional achievement… without this value, it is very difficult to follow the ideas in the Gita, to make work subservient to Dharma.
Second, some interpretations of Dharma can be interpreted to support an unjust caste system; on this point, perhaps the time when this text was written, ones particular Dharma may not so much have been determined by birth, but by inclination, which was more or less given. I am not an expert of Indian history so am unsure on this point.
I suspect the passion myth you talk about comes from an odd mix of “will” that we have developed since the 1960s (damn Sartre), not only do we have a self that is completely free to choose, but it is and should create its own destiny….
This is a useful elaboration. Cope definitely emphasizes the degree to which a key component of the Gita’s prescription is “giving up the fruits,” in that the work produces the value, not the results or rewards.
It seems like as Indian culture evolved Dharma was increasingly seen as a means to help destabilize the caste system, which is good (Rohan’s comment above makes this case). The dominance of the caste system when the Gita was composed, however, helps remind the modern western reader the degree to which the concept of self and personhood was different back then…the self was contributing to a larger fabric of life, not necessarily an autonomous being seeking actualization.
To clarify, I am questioning the importance of caste at the time the Gita was composed. Anyway, ‘stick to your caste’ is not the central narrative of the Gita, though of course this comes up as part of the narrative given the cultural context.
The paradox the Gita addresses is how to come to terms with transcendence of the self (mind, ego, senses, will) and material world (maya), yet still face the fact that we exist and *act*. In other words, if you realize the true nature of self, do you detach and become a hermit? Die in a cave? Note this was common amongst Indian emperors. The narrative revolves around this idea of being bound to action, even if you decide to become a hermit, you are acting, and moreover, you think you are doing the acting, but really it is the universe-god, you may really have little part in your actions (determinism? i am unsure?).
There is still scope to discover the laws of Dharma (understand what is contextually right, as Ghandi clearly tried to do), but it is not an existential crisis or illusory search for your passion or “what am i supposed to do with myself”
While I agree with the gist of what you say, please note that there is a bit of cherry-picking going on
The Gita also says it is better to do your own dharma however badly than it is to do someone else’s dharma however well, which has been interpreted (at the material level) to mean that you should do what you’re naturally good at and find more congenial than something you think is socially prescribed, even if you happen to do it very well. Dharma is not just socially prescribed law – it also means the natural order of things, and what is good and just.
According to your argument if you are born into a doctor’s family your dharma is to do medicine – even if you can’t bear to dissect animals – this is more common than you think in India and a dangerous way to think.
Lastly there is an increasing body of literature i have been reading that points to the importance of purpose in picking your work.
While I am 100 percent on board that “passion” is not the way to pick your path , I think we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. There is definitely a big role for what’s unique about you both talent-wise as well as about what problem of the world ticks you off the most. At the confluence of those two is where I think the answer lies
I love Cope’s book, but as someone who has been deep-reading the Gita for over 5 years every single day, I felt compelled to comment that your note may mislead people on what the Gita says. It is definitely not about caste-imposed duty but about doing the task in front of you, that arose for whatever reason that operates to make your life what it is( based on your conduct in your past births, etc – according to Hindu thought)
The point is to do what lies in front of you but to pay heed to what’s unique about you in picking your path from there – in a way that best serves the world and leverages your gifts.
This wouldn’t be my argument. The importance of pointing out the caste system was to indicate that when idea of dharma was composed, the culture that surrounded it had much different notions of personhood. As Cope elaborates, finding your dharma is as much about your duty to the world to make use of your gifts/opportunities/situation as it is about actualization. We tend to think today too much about “what would make me happy,” and not enough about “what would make me useful”. The ancient texts almost all agree that the latter will paradoxically lead to more satisfaction.
I disagree with Shubha about the line regarding doing one’s own job badly better than doing someone else’s job well. It has nothing to do with self-actualization, which is liberal wishful thinking, but is an explicit directive to stay within your caste, and not get uppity. Krishna also talks about the “horrors” of caste-mixing, along with some other things that have aged badly since 1000 BC. The Gita is full of obscure mysticisms that even sages, experts, and translators don’t understand fully. Not a great resource for career or even life advice, but it’s not that much different from Martin Luther King Jr. using the same Bible that talks about the Curse of Ham and Elohim endorsing slavery and genocide wholeheartedly as a source of wisdom and strength against segregation and the denial of the right to vote–just people evolving while holding on to cultural legacy. As a famous graduate of Georgetown who I disagreed with on a lot of legal decisions said, “Words do have a limited range of meaning, and no interpretation that goes beyond that range is permissible.”
My question for you, Cal, is: do you remember when you talked about the dangers of deep procrastination? How does this post or collection of thoughts integrate with that. We know for a fact that motivation is very important in success, and to be a valuable contributor to the world, you have to be good and effective. Surely you’re not saying work is all duty, even though duty is a huge component as Firmin DeBrabander writes in The New York Times. It’s not only a duty for your clients but also people who rely on you, like a wife (or husband) or child(ren). I wholeheartedly agree that careers aren’t for play and the nature of work is complex with many stakeholders and interests, including personal utility/happiness being important. Would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks
It is my understanding that Joseph Campbell learned Sanskrit and subsequently translated the ‘Gita’ to the German language, before translation to English. There is no doubt in my mind that Campbell fully understood the nuances and was careful in selecting the words he chose. I can’t recall that Campbell ever associated ‘Passion’ with ‘Bliss’.
There is a strong parallel between this concept and Stoicism. In Roman Stoicism in particular, there was a strong emphasis on doing one’s best at whatever role or station Fate had put you in. For example, Epictetus from the Enchiridion:
“Remember that you are in actor in a play of such a kind that the author chooses…For this is your duty, to act well the part that is given to you; but to select the part belongs to another.”
And perhaps even more directly:
“Our duties naturally emerge form such fundamental relations as our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, our state or nation. Make it your regular habit to consider your roles-parent, child, neighbor, citizen, leader-and the natural duties that arise from them. Once you know who you are and to whom you are linked, you will know what to do.”
Marcus Aurelius expressed something similar:
“Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can – if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.”
I think there is much wisdom in considering these ancient perspectives. In a world where we supposedly have unprecedented freedom, it provides us with bases from which we can select our direction from a smaller but more meaningful set of choices.
Christianity and Judiasm also have similar interpretations…
As I’ve learned teaching at a Jesuit university, the catholic notion of a calling, for example, is incredibly theoretically rich…
I found parallels to themes in the Gita, the conflict but necessity of reconciliation between the “castes” of ‘warrior kings: Adam 1’ and ‘priests: adam 2’ in the book ‘lonely man of faith’. It seems the duality between the dharma of Adam 1 and Adam 2 comes up again and again in myth, and I think Elaine Aron and related researchers did some work linking these archetypes to sensory processing sensitivity and evolutionary game theory. Adam 1 and Adam 2 may arise in a dynamic game where there are trade-offs between acting (Adam 1) and processing information (Adam 2).
Outstanding post! “Follow your passion” has been a moniker that I grew up with, but it also contradicts a more deeply-rooted teaching in my life; Perseverance is a major key to life’s successes. I think that each of us would do well to ponder this statement an it’s application in our lives.
Too late for me. I have nearly reached the end of my working life and I still don’t know what my passion is. It could probably be fixing things, but that doesn’t pay as well as my current job, I prefer less passion and more pay for what I can do.
Great post, the misreading of Bhagavad Gita by the hippies has been obvious for decades. Its a deep philosophical/ religious text with a lot of historical and social context. It was never about finding bliss (ananda or pleasure) at all. If anything, the idea of “finding bliss” is closer to being in the Zone or Flow (which Csikszentmihalyi popularized)
Broadly, I have always found the Gita to be closer to the Taoist and Buddhist philosophy of equanimity + “expectation free” work and duty as exemplified in one of its most famous paragraphs that talks about the idea of karma:
“While doing works, do not think you have the right to claim their fruits. Never, in any state of life whatsoever, should you crave for the fruits of your works.”
The yogis of ancient India wanted to understand the nature of the mind, in order understand how to use the mind effectively. Meditation was an investigative tool to understand the nature of the mind. Highly trained yogis pretty much all came to the conclusion that the mind is highly malleable and we are not a slave to our default desires/addictions (read passions). If anything Buddha actually taught that ‘dispassion’ leads to happiness and freedom from suffering rather than passion. ‘Dispassion’ should not be interpreted as indifference. It is more like learning to enjoy the process rather than the fruit of your endeavor. This is also captured in Bhagvad Gita.
The Buddha’s noble 8 fold path states that “right view” of the mind generates “right intentions” in the mind. This in turn produces “right actions”. For a student the right view may translate to something like “I want to learn because the process of learning itself is a reward rather than the grade”. This will generate “right intentions” of the mind system that convinces the mind to focus on active reading and testing to verify whether we are actually learning or not. Mistakes are seen as gaps in understanding rather than signs of personal failure.
I’m inspired by Rhadika Nagpal’s dharma (whose famous essay i discovered thanks to “Deep Work”): to be the best whole person you can be in your current situation. In my case, as a lawyer and a musician, the only way i can unificate all of my actions is to be the best whole person with what i have in this moment. If i concentrate to the point where i lose myself in what i’m doing, i don’t need to ask again if i’m happy. That’s why focus is so important: focused people forget themselves and therefore, serves better. Another very important thing to me is improvisation. I love everything Pat Martino says about the art of improvising. After he lost his memory and had to start again playing jazz he became a very wise man.
“Jazz to me, is much more than a repertoire. It’s the ability to improvise, and flow as an individual under any conditions”. (https://jazzbluesnews.com/2017/11/06/patmartino/)
Would you be able to share the link to the Rhadika Nagpal’s dharma piece? I’ve done a search but haven’t come across it!
Hope you enjoy it!
View you blog for sometime
Want to join this community
As a trans person it’s very interesting to hear your emphasis on your usefulness, or a sense of duty, over just what makes you happy. For, in much of modern queer circles, choosing to live as yourself despite familial and societal pressures otherwise hinges on the idea that your own happiness in life trumps others’, so as long as you don’t harm them.
For instance, if I were to place my family’s happiness first, that would logically mean I should not have transitioned. I have chosen to be selfish for a few years of my life, such that, one could argue, that I am a less depressed – caused by gender dysphoria – and a more functioning person who’s better able to contribute to those that I care about. For me, “discovering who I am” was a necessary and meaningful part of my adolescence. So what is the difference between “discovering who I am” in the queer context, and in the career context that makes one more productive than the other?
I’m someone who unironically believes in much of modern social justice movement, for it has massively benefited my life. Especially so, it’s interesting to compare your ideas that largely stem from ancient texts and those of more modern feminist thinkers.
It’s not surprising – both the academia and productivity circles are often quite removed from more liberal dialogue. But I’d like to make my presence and maybe your few other queer readers known, and that our very existence in the modern society often depends on rejecting – often very useful – traditional ideas and reading modern texts. It’s always a struggle for me.
Interesting question. One difference I noticed when working on SO GOOD, is that in the career context, self-discovery is often is a dead end. Many people are not wired for a specific job from among the unique set of jobs that happen to be available at the current socio-economic historical moment. So when they set out to discover, through self-reflection, their “career passion,” they end up frustrated or lost. The more accurate narrative for career satisfaction is often that it comes from traits they have little to do with the specific content of the job (e.g., autonomy, mastery, connection and impact).
As for the clash between modern and ancient texts, I think that has been around since basically the very first time anything was old enough to be considered ancient! My guess is that such clashes are important as they create the dialectic through which intellectual progress continues. Which is to say, I share your suspicion of anyone who points to extant thinking and claims it to be complete, and share your assessment that sorting through these clashes can often prove nothing less than a struggle.
Thank you for the thoughtful reply!
Hey again, Cal, after reading the post, I re-read the Gita and skimmed again your so good book (SGTCIY) and read Cope’s book.
Preface: I found SGTCIY pivotal in my own development decade ago, so I see clear value in your argument.
However, I think more work need to be done to understand individual differences. We grew up in an age of the *anyone can be anything* dogma, an obsession with finding your passion is one extreme manifestation that you are right to criticize. OTOH, so is an obsession with “just build the skills, and if you’re struggling it is your fault for not building the skills” and not thinking about fit.
I am now suspecting there are real hard-wired differences in conscientious, IQ etc. that would frustrate anyone (myself included) who did not find the right fit but followed the advice in SGTCIY. The Gita talks about this in terms of “gunas”; it is taboo to talk about innate traits today. However, given the high returns and society shaping power of certain traits, I await a strong analysis of how traits contribute to sucess and should effect career choices.
Sir this is an incident which happened recently in India and it highlights the problems people face due to divisions based on work made years ago. Bhagavad Gita gave a logical and best way to identify people, but people without reading any of the texts misinterpreted a few sentences and made divisions for their own advantages. This is the actual state in India even after all the progress…https://www.vice.com/en_in/article/889v5z/dalit-man-india-assaulted-by-mob-for-touching-upper-caste-scooter?utm_source=viceinstain
As a practising Christian thought I’d make a few comments in relation to whether we should be seeking to find out if God does have a plan for our life. The answer is yes he does, there is both a general plan which is applicable to everybody, and also specific things which only we can do given our talents and circumstances. Think of Esther in the Bible who was in the right place at the right time to change the course of history.
You find these things out by exercising faith, prayer, hard work, making plenty of mistakes, and by having a patriarchal blessing.
And of course I cannot see a problem with our finding out what our talents are, that other people do not have insomuch abundance, and using those to bless the lives of others and ourselves.
We should be of course mindful of the choice we have today because this choice was simply not available to most people that have lived.
And I totally agree that we shouldn’t just do things that we enjoy, indeed many of the things God might expect you to do will be very difficult and are certainly not in the realm of pleasure.