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Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do

Computer on the Beach

The Great Career

Laura loves what she does. To many people, myself included (I’ve known her for the past five years), she represents the Platonic ideal of  a great career.

Laura  is a database whiz. Companies hire her to wrangle their most gnarly data into streamlined structures. If you’re lucky enough to engage Laura, she’ll assemble a handpicked team of programmers and descend on your office for up to six months. She’ll then take your generous check back to her charming Jamaica Plain bungalow and set about finding novel ways to spend it.

She allows months to pass between projects — the paydays being ample enough to buy her as much downtime as she wants. She has used this time, among other pursuits, to earn a pilots license, learn to scuba dive, and travel through Asia.

In several earlier posts, I argued that mastering a rare and valuable skill is the key to generating a remarkable life — much more important than following your “passions” or matching your career (or academic major) to your personality.  It occurred to me, however, that to continue this discussion, we need to better understand our goal; that is, we need to figure out what exactly makes a remarkable life remarkable.

In this post, I’m going to tackle this question, using Laura as our running example of someone who has achieved the end result we have in mind…

The Introspection Principle

If you want to quickly assess how Americans think about the search for the “right” job, spend a few minutes browsing the career guide bestseller list at For example, when I last checked…

  • The number two bestselling guide was a book titled Career Fitness Program. The first step of its three step program was a “personal assessment.”
  • The number three bestselling guide was Nicholas Lore’s Pathfinder, which “leads readers though the process of deciding exactly what they want to do for a living and finding a way to make it happen.”
  • The book in the number five slot, Career Match, notes in its description that those “whose careers fit their passions and personalities” find them to be a “source of great satisfaction and success.”

Sense a pattern?

These bestsellers are founded on the belief that matching your work to personality traits and interests is the key to finding a job you love. I call this the introspection principle because it elevates the act of self-reflection to be the important for making big life decisions.

This principle extends beyond career issues. It’s also at the core of popular advice for new college students. For example:

  • The description for Patrick Combs’ ubiquitous Major in Success (he’s sold over 120,000 copies) emphasizes that students should choose a major that “suits their interests.”
  • The cover of Lind Andrew’s canonical How to Choose a College Major instructs students to “use your own interests and talents to find the perfect major.”

The introspection principle is so ingrained that we forget to think of it as a hypothesis that needs to be tested. If you’ll indulge my heretical-side, however, I think it’s worth taking this idea out for a spin.

My question is simple: when we study people like Laura who love what they do, is an introspection-driven match between their work and their personality the explanation for their happiness? And if it’s not, what is?

To answer this question, we can turn to 30 years of cutting-edge scientific research…

The Surprising Science of Human Motivation

As Dan Pink recounts in the introduction to Drive, his new book about workplace motivation, our understanding of what compels people to action was upended in the late 1940s. Before this point, conventional wisdom said that we’re motivated by rewards (think B.F. Skinner and his rats). The more we are rewarded, the more fired up we get about our work.

Then Harry Harlow, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, began giving puzzles to the rhesus monkeys in his primate laboratory.  He noticed a curious effect: when he rewarded the monkeys for solving the puzzle, they became slower at the task.

Twenty years later, Edward Deci, then a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, tested this effect in humans, and found a similar result: the presence of cash made them worse at solving creative puzzles.

This kicked off three decades of intense research into the sources of human motivation.

Eventually, Deci, working with his longtime collaborator Richard Ryan, corralled the diversity of (sometimes contradictory) research on the topic into a single, over-arching model called Self-Determination Theory (SDT). This model has been extensively validated and summarizes, to the best of our current understanding, what can make someone love what they do. (See this 2000 paper by Ryan and Deci, from the journal Psychological Inquiry, for a good overview).

At a high level, SDT makes a simple claim:

To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

In more detail…

  • Autonomy refers to control over how you fill your time. As Deci puts it, if you have a high degree of autonomy, then “you endorse [your] actions at the highest level of reflection.”
  • Competence refers to mastering unambiguously useful things. As the psychologist Robert White opines, in the wonderfully formal speak of the 1950s academic, humans have a “propensity to have an effect on the environment as well as to attain valued outcomes within it.”
  • Relatedness refers to a feeling of connection to others. As Deci pithily summarizes: “to love and care, and to be loved and cared for.”

SDT explains why Laura’s career resonates with us. She clearly has autonomy (she handpicks projects and runs them on her own schedule) and competence (she’s highly regarded and compensated for her expert ability). She also has relatedness, both from her close-knit teams and her ability to build a schedule that dedicates extended amounts of time to friends and family.

Falsifying the Introspection Principle

SDT answers our original question: Is the introspection principle correct? They key feature of the three SDT need are their universality — they span both differing career fields and cultures. Put another way: three decades of research has shown that the traits that make us happy with our work have little to do with our personality or so-called “passions.”

Similar conclusions apply to related decisions, such as choosing your college major. Forget trying to divine some perfect match, and instead choose a major for your own reasons — not pressure from your parents or a misguided view on what’s “practical” — and then strive to become excellent at it. As I argued before, your love of the subject will grow with your sense of autonomy and competence.

For those who sweat this style of decision, this research should provide relief. There’s no reason to lose sleep over whether you’re “passionate” about your major, or if your job is what you really want to be doing with your life. Working right trumps finding the right work.

It’s to this new goal, “working right,” that we turn our attention next…

Working Right

Research reveals that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are the key to loving what you do. So how do you get them? There are different answers to this question, but the strategy that I keep emphasizing on Study Hacks has two clear steps:

  1. Master a skill that is rare and valuable.
  2. Cash in the career capital this generates for the right rewards. 

The world doesn’t owe you happiness. Your boss has no reason to let you choose your own projects, or spend one week out of every four writing a novel at your beach house. These rewards are valuable. To earn them, you must accumulate your own career capital by mastering a skill that’s equally rare and valuable.

It’s important, however, that you cash in this capital, once accumulated, for the right rewards. The word “right,” in this context, is defined by the traits of SDT. In other words, once you have something valuable to offer, use it to gain as much autonomy, competence, and relatedness as you can possibly cram into your life.

This explains, for example, why there are so many CEOs in the world who are excellent at what they do, but also stressed, anxious, and unhappy. They generated career capital by becoming excellent at management, but instead of cashing it in to satisfy the needs that we know would make them happy, they instead bartered for increased prestige and income. The strict demands of the job sap their felling of autonomy, while their sense of relatedness dissipates with the late night work binges.

When we return to Laura, we see that she’s a perfect example of the Study Hacks system in action. In the 1990s, she started working for a major technology company. She noticed that the giant databases at the core of the company’s business were increasingly crucial to its success. She focused on mastering these systems. As the technology boom continued, her skill became increasingly rare and valuable. Instead of cashing in the capital this generated to become an overworked VP, she instead exchanged it for her freelance venture — an approach designed to maximize the autonomy, competence, and relatedness in her life.

Back to the Grandmasters

Now that we’ve established how a rare and valuable skill can be used to generate a remarkable life, we can return, in the next articles in this series, to the topic promised at the end of my recent post on deliberate practice: the details of building this mastery.

Stay tuned…

(Photo by dio5)

178 thoughts on “Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do”

  1. This is one of your best posts. I just find the application of deliberate practice so difficult outside of very focused fields (like math, computer science, sports). It seems like something that is hard to do in moderation: for example, if you are looking for a job, you have to practice different aspects of interviewing repeatedly, whatever skill is required repeatedly, etc.

  2. Brilliant post, Cal.

    Would be interesting to hear your take on how these “rare and valuable” skills will be affected by certain macroeconomic factors such as the rise of China/India, outsourcing, etc. How durable is a skill like database management when considering India’s well-educated, inexpensive, hungry workforce?

    I suppose that the hedge against all of these is, as you say, to be so good that they can’t ignore you, but, these days, a “monopoly” on a certain skill definitely doesn’t leave one with immunity; the marketplace moves too fast, and saturation or redundancy soon make themselves present.

  3. Cal, great post.

    I’d argue that the best way to build competence is to do something that interests you. It’s not a necessary component of SDT, but it helps to love what you’re trying to become competent at.

  4. Laura’s lifestyle reminds me of a fantasy future I used to imagine to make myself feel better. On the way to my early morning construction job I would imagine a lifestyle that was opposite of all the things that I didn’t like about my lifestyle. I would work six hours a day for a computer company. When I would arrive at work I’d spend the bulk of my time solving problems that my colleges were stuck on. I would sleep 9 hours a night and drive a Porsche 911. I owned a small, but nice, house with my own little work out room. I’d have a pool table and a few close friends and a growing relationship with a girlfriend.

    Just thinking about this would cheer me up, even if I had no real plan on getting there. I like where I’m going now (some six years later) but maybe I should have taken that fantasy more seriously to make it happen, who knows.

  5. great post! Though feeling of connectedness is important, the innate “passion” for the profession is not. It’s funny how every career counselors and advice books preach the opposite. Could you please elaborate on finding a “rare skill?” What makes a skill rare and valuable? For example, how would you stand out as a rare and valuable person in a popular field such as computer graphics? Is specializing in a narrow topic the answer? But what happens to the importance of being a “well-rounded” person?

  6. Yes, Pirsig argues in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance’ that when one becomes fixated on external rewards, such as grades, then natural inquisitiveness shuts down. What matters most is the act of discovery, the sheer joy that you experience when you study, or do something that stimulates you: the more you look at and explore something the more you see. Indeed, it’s something you touched on in your earlier posts about making yourself so good that they can’t ignore you – when you truly focus on something with a desire to discover, rather than to gain some external award, then you find yourself on the path to mastery.

  7. You didn’t mention that the first book on the Amazon career list also requires significant chunks of introspection? (That parachute color isn’t going to figure itself out, after all.)

    Like Laura, I also love my job. It ranks high on the competence and relatedness scales and mid-high on the autonomy scale.

    But for me it’s also that I deliberately picked a lifestyle that would generate energy/happiness which I could then give back into my job–which means I did some significant introspection.

    For example: I like room in my life for contemplation and I like to be outside, so I deliberately looked for apartments about 2 miles away from my office so that I could walk back and forth to work.

    And I made that choice by thinking “when in my life have I been the happiest?” and all the times I was the happiest about what I was doing was when I was able to spend significant time every day outdoors, walking and thinking.

    But since no one’s going to pay me to walk around (that’s neither rare nor valuable) I found another way to work it in to my life, and being able to walk every day makes me even happier to be able to do my job.

    Just throwing that in as a small vote for a bit of introspection when considering how to structure a career. 🙂

  8. The introspection principle feels very American, Western philosophy. The “working right” principle seems very Asian. Just my personal observation.

  9. I think the three psychological needs are missing a couple points.

    Gladwell describes meaningful work as having autonomy, complexity, and a direct correlation between effort and reward.

    In addition to the needs claimed by SDT, I think complexity and a direct correlation between effort and reward are necessary for one to be happy in his/her work for any sustained period of time.

  10. The focus on introspection is, I think, closely tied to the third factor of relatedness. I guess this is one of the focuses of the Parachute book. For me, a field you are interested in is important because you are more likely to like the people you work with if you share values and interests with them – which is a good reason for having values and interests drive part of your career decisions.

  11. I feel this post caters more to technical majors/people. You can’t necessarily be competent in something that’s not a skill. How can you achieve competence when you’re a, say, latin major?

  12. Cal,

    I think that you are underestimating the importance about liking a particular subject. For instance, here is a tidbit from Paul Graham’s essay:

    “A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell “Don’t do it!” (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.

    Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.”

    We can say that Paul Graham’s friend self-determined her course in life but she still made a mistake.

  13. great new topic Cal!

    In response to Nazim:
    Master a skill that is valuable. IE: What will people pay you money for? Writing learn latin study guides? Translate ancient fragile relics? Consult for a movie where a character speaks ancient latin? Teaching children about latin and english connections? you tell us where your brainstorming leads.

  14. Cal, thanks for this insightful post.

    You have to look deep within your own self and find out what works for you and what does not work for you.

    There is an element of truth to finding your passion.

    I know of one sportsperson who has become a multi-millionaire at very young age, but failed at everything else.

    He was a mediocre student and failed as a businessman.
    The only thing he was world-class at was sports and he achieved excellent in it. That was his love and he pursued it with undiminished zeal. This is true for many other people too. Also, Laura should consider herself lucky that she managed to find a financially valuable skill that she could use as a freelancer/consultant instead of joining the ranks of management. For every Laura out there, there are many others who are struggling in this economy.

    The job market is volatile and dynamic: it keeps on changing. The skills that are valued today may not be valued tomorrow. Even your job can be outsourced in a jiffy.

    You may be a genius at what you do, wealthy and successful and suddenly you can receive a pink slip. This has happened to millions of people, who’ve had to upgrade their skills.

    Some have even changed professions. We now know of many doctors pursuing MBA degrees and people with MBA degrees have decided to be self-employed by starting home businesses. Even so, I think your ideas are useful, and I appreciate your ideas, but let us take it with a pinch of salt. The picture is more complex than you imagine it to be.

  15. Great post, Cal. I wonder if you would like to refine the definitions or expand the field. If we are talking about remarkable lives, what do we mean? Clearly, as your examples show, people who make the sacrifices necessary to achieve rare and valuable skills can shape remarkable lives. The question is whether every remarkable life must also feature a skill that is rare and valuable. What if “skill that is rare and valuable” is not a necessary condition of “remarkable life”?

  16. Wow! Thanks for your insights. I have turned really annoyed with how the term “passion” is thrown around in college major and career decisions (as you have said, for most people these so-called passions are only feeble and unattended interests), and after perusing your other post, I’m beginning to alter my own planning…

    A mastery-centric view of passion says that aligning your life with passions is a good thing, but almost any superficial interest can be transformed into a passion with hard work, so there’s no reason to sweat choices such as an academic major or you first post-college career.

    Now I’m thinking of really committing to majoring in History and Cogsci and going to Law School. Once I gain expertise in say, Intellectual Property, I’ll be able to cash in on SDT and replicate Laura’s lifestyle. Hmmm. Thanks for the food for thought.

  17. @Alex: I’m an intellectual property attorney. I’d strongly recommend doing some research before diving into law school. If you’re hoping to replicate Laura’s lifestyle, becoming an attorney is not a good option. Most lawyers and law firms haven’t even figured out that 40 hours/week isn’t a part-time schedule.

  18. Hey Cal, if you want to see an example of someone living a truly remarkable life, check out the Bio of Rory Stewart.
    The man is a modern day Lawrence of Arabia. He was soldier briefly, then he became a diplomat, then he walked across South Asia, then founded an NGO in Afghanistan. He was also a governor of an Iraqi province while under U.S. occupation. He became a professor at Harvard. Most recently he returned to the U.K. to run for parliament. He’s accomplished all this while still in his twenties. He’s done so much deliberate practice, that the Obama administration asks him for advice on Afghan policy.

  19. My problem with this is you give one example and conveniently leave out whether she was interested in technology and/or databases and whether that fits her personality and skills. I have heard just as many stories of people happy with their jobs who do follow their “passions”, interests and purpose (in terms of what they want to do in life and such). I don’t argue that those (autonomy, competence and relatedness) are important qualities in having a career you love but rather there are SO many jobs that those qualities including a rare skill that by nature introspection is required to narrow it down unless you want to leave it completely up to chance. You say choose your major for your own reasons but what reasons are they if not related to who you are?

    I don’t think people should spend an eternity introspecting about some perfect passion but anybody can do a basic look at themselves and see what they are good at/not good at and where their interests lie (in how they spend their time). Then just pick a career path that works with one of them and follow the advice above and they’re set.

  20. Being a regular reader, I’ve noticed that over the past few months you have been regulating the comments less??? You’re barely on here anymore 🙁

  21. @Jack – I used to buy into the argument that competition, particularly from India and China, would drive salaries down significantly for IT. Then I moved to China and realized that good IT people are still well compensated (not nearly as well as they are in the US but by local standards quite well) and true experts, like Laura, will always be well compensated when there is work. The trick is to maintain your expertise and not sweat the temporary dry periods.

  22. Does Laura love what she does for work, or loves the time off she gets?

    I find that it’s very hard to find your passion and in turn make a career. Much easier to discover how you want to live your life and find the job that suits your needs

  23. Meg, I appreciate your comment — if you see this, would you be kind enough to share with me some of your knowledge and experience in Intellectual Property? My e-mail is AlexLeszczynska at gmail dot com. Thank you.

  24. Hey Cal,
    I just wanted to say thank you for this post. An eye opener for me as I’d never heard of Self-Determination Theory before. It explains a lot that’s going on in my life right now, though.

  25. Hi Cal,

    Two things I wanted to follow up on this post about: first, you didn’t mention whether Laura enjoys managing databases. It appears to me that she doesn’t spend a lot of time doing it, and my idea of doing something you love is, you would want to spend all day doing it, not just enough time to earn you enough money to travel the world. Because in that case, what you really love and pursue is traveling the world, not your work. Put differently, I think the definition of loving what you do is when it becomes the end, not just the means.

    On a related note, I think other than the 3 basic psychological needs of SDT (or maybe as part of them – need to read my psyc papers more carefully :D), there’s also this desire to use your lifetime to effect some change in the world; in other words, to have a meaningful life. How is that possible if a person doesn’t devote her time to one cause, and is always breezing off to exotic lands as soon as she can afford it?

    Lastly, I, like you, am heading off to an academic career. But unlike you, who studies something highly practical and desired, I’m in social psychology, which may or may not be practical and useful depending on exactly what you study. How do I wrangle a desirable skill out of it? I’d guess lots of publications and presentations would be an option, but there has been a trend recently of people who published a lot and have teaching awards in grad school and still end up adjuncting year after year, never getting a tenure position (see here). It’s my worst nightmare. How do you become highly desirable in a market like that?

    Interestingly, I’m going to the SPSP conference this week and may meet the creators of SDT in person *shudder*. If you have questions you want to ask them, you can relay them through me, though no guarantees 🙂

  26. Hey Cal-

    Remarkable article! And quite timely. I’m helping my sister think through her next career move. She has amassed a solid skill set (not Jedi Master-level, yet) and has a good network of friends/colleagues. But she feels lacking in her current role. Using SDT, I think her answer lies in autonomy.

    I also like the parallels of SDT with Tim Ferriss’s Lifestyle Design philosophy. He advocates one’s time/freedom as her most valuable, non-renewable resource. Feels like if you nail the 3-dimensions of SDT you’ll have designed one hell of an awesome lifestyle!


  27. Great insights here, and I’m looking forward to you developing this theme in future posts. A question you: I bet a lot of your readers already have skills that are rare and valuable, but don’t recognize them as such…the “jack of all trades, master of none” syndrome that afflicts liberal arts students, MBAs, and others with broad rather than deep knowledge. Tim Ferriss seems to be speaking to such people when he discusses the “credibility snowball” in the Four Hour Workweek, saying that “expertise” is subjective in most fields and that you only have to be marginally smarter than your target customers to convince them to pay for what you know. But Tim’s advice is aimed primarily at entrepreneurs, and he seems more interested in helping people pull the wool over people’s eyes to make a quick buck in any case. Any thoughts on how those of us who have studied a “little about a lot” can make an honest living by packaging/combining the different pieces of our education into skill-sets that people will find both rare and valuable?

  28. Where the hell were you when I needed you? I never figured anything out in college or graduate school. As it turned out college ruined my life. I used to think I had potential, and college was where I found out definitively that I was in actuality slow. My classes overwhelmed me. I went to tutors, I spent hours studying, tried different methods the whole deal. Nothing got the material sunk into my fool head. I even tried understanding the concepts as you suggest here to no avail (of course this was way before you were even in college, this was years ago now).

    Even changing my major from premed to social science didn’t help. My understanding was next to nil. I did well enough to graduate and get into the next level of school, where I really fell down. I got nothing out of college and grad school. I had no expertise and I retained nothing. Ever since then my life has been a string of failures, my employability limited to short term work, my confidence practically extinguished and my capacity for learning set back further in the past 12 years than in the previous 17. Even some of the techniques you mention here are a bit over my head. How I could have used this site (though with more concrete examples) a decade ago. How my life would have been improved by it.

    I hope you eventually write that book about living an extraordinary life beyond school. I would love to read it. Be sure to include a chapter for adults who have to overcome a lifetime of not having the benefit of such insights.

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  30. @Linh, If I were you I would focus in one area and get really, really good at it. It doesn’t matter if it’s wide and semi-popular like looking at political parties from a social psychology perspective, narrow but interdisciplinary like applying social psychology to language learning (if it is, please contact me!) or a very narrow bit of the discipline itself, if you get a reputation as the go-to person for something unique then you will do well. If you just publish papers and make presentations on various topics, adding a little insight to a lot of areas, then you aren’t likely to create the kind of valuable, desirable skill that Cal talks about here.

  31. Dan Pink is great and so his talk at the TED conference about the “Science of Motivation.”

    I agree it’s a great talk. Dan knows how to make a point.

    I just find the application of deliberate practice so difficult outside of very focused fields

    My hypothesis is that DP in non-traditional fields isn’t necessarily difficult to do, it’s just not obvious to identify. I’m working now to clarify my understanding of unconventional DP, and hope to be posting on it sometime soon.

    Would be interesting to hear your take on how these “rare and valuable” skills will be affected by certain macroeconomic factors such as the rise of China/India, outsourcing, etc. How durable is a skill like database management when considering India’s well-educated, inexpensive, hungry workforce?

    According to Dan Pink, globalism makes rare and valuable skills all the more crucial. As you note, however, you have to choose them well — involving cultural competence and creativity if possible — or just be so damned good that expense is no object — as in Laura’s case.

    I’d argue that the best way to build competence is to do something that interests you. It’s not a necessary component of SDT, but it helps to love what you’re trying to become competent at.

    The research shows that intrinsic motivation is crucial to maintain DP (i.e., a feeling like the choice is entirely yours), and being interested in something can certainly give you this feeling of control. The idea, however, that most people have something that they “love” or are “passionate” about, is just not supported, and can lead people to perpetual unhappiness as each new endeavor does not generate the immediate joy they imagine a passion should yield

    Could you please elaborate on finding a “rare skill?” What makes a skill rare and valuable?

    I’m in hot pursuit of this topic…stay tuned. (Any insights or examples from people’s own experience would be appreciated)

    For me, a field you are interested in is important because you are more likely to like the people you work with if you share values and interests with them – which is a good reason for having values and interests drive part of your career decisions.

    True enough. Though I’m interested in two ideas: (1) most people don’t have these a priori values and interests; and (2) such things often develop out of a career that you get good at.

    We can say that Paul Graham’s friend self-determined her course in life but she still made a mistake.

    Of read his essay. It assumes that we have innate likes that can lead us to jobs we’ll enjoy. SDT research, however, says that his doctor friend is unhappy because she doesn’t have enough autonomy, competence, or relatedness in her working life. If you understand the theory, even a doctor can build a valuable skill and cash it in for these traits.

  32. Hey Cal, if you want to see an example of someone living a truly remarkable life, check out the Bio of Rory Stewar

    I read The Places In Between, brilliant book.

    We should all make time for something we are passionate about even if it starts off as just a few hours at weekends.

    This sort of misses the point. I’m downplaying the importance of so-called passions, and turning your attention, instead, toward the universal traits we know make people happy.

    Much easier to discover how you want to live your life and find the job that suits your needs

    I agree with this idea (see my post on lifestyle-centric career planning), SDT theory, however, might supercede it to a large degree. That is, most people’s answers to the question of “what type of life do I want” will include, indirectly, lots of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. So if you’re focusing on maximizing those traits, you’re going to be pretty fulfilled.

    The only thing he was world-class at was sports and he achieved excellent in it. That was his love and he pursued it with undiminished zeal

    There’s a chicken and an egg argument here: did his love grow with his ability, or did it pre-exist his involvement in some innate natural state. The study of virtuosos, for example, (based on Bloom’s massive survey), reveals that for most it wasn’t until many years had passed before the skill — be it violin, swimming, or mathematics — became an important part of their identity.

    I also like the parallels of SDT with Tim Ferriss’s Lifestyle Design philosophy. He advocates one’s time/freedom as her most valuable, non-renewable resource. Feels like if you nail the 3-dimensions of SDT you’ll have designed one hell of an awesome lifestyle!

    A lot of Tim’s experience-based insights on work life are a nice match to the research literature.

    there’s also this desire to use your lifetime to effect some change in the world; in other words, to have a meaningful life.

    It’s interesting, Dan Pink emphasizes this in Drive, but Ryan and Deci don’t push it so hard in their research. I think it falls under the category of relatedness, but I find the differences in emphasis fascinating.

  33. Is Laura’s motivation to work intrinsic or extrinsic?

    This is a crucial question. SDT theory was developed to fix many of the misunderstandings and flaws of the more simplistic intrinsic vs/ extrinsic dichotomy that dominates popular imagination. What Ryan and Deci show, in essence, is that when people say “instrinsic motivation” is important, they’re really capturing the idea that the task supports autonomy.

    With this in mind, Laura is quite intrinsically motivated — she does what she wants on her own terms.

    I hope you eventually write that book about living an extraordinary life beyond school. I would love to read it. Be sure to include a chapter for adults who have to overcome a lifetime of not having the benefit of such insights.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I hope to write that book too (indeed, there may even be rumblings toward this direction in the works…but you didn’t hear that from me.)

  34. Hey Cal,
    Can you quickly give your argument for why money, as a motivating force, cannot bring happiness? Is it possible that someone enjoys financial success so much that s/he is “happy”?

  35. Can you quickly give your argument for why money, as a motivating force, cannot bring happiness? Is it possible that someone enjoys financial success so much that s/he is “happy”?

    My understanding of the literature is that there’s nothing intrinsically good or bad about money. It’s autonomy, competence, and relatedness that matter. For many, large paychecks can be good feedback on your competence. The trap to avoid, however, is to sacrifice autonomy for this reward, because then you’ll just balance the good with a bad.

  36. I have to agree with those that brought up the point as to whether Laura was passionate/interested in the technology that she became an expert on. I think it’s really important to note that by discovering your passions, skills, interests & work values to see what you want to be an expert on. I mean, I can be an expert on, I don’t know, how to train babies to not cry, but if I hate working with babies, is that going to have me live a remarkable life? Maybe when I’m not doing baby work, but that doesn’t sound so remarkable to me….

  37. I disagree with your idea that it doesn’t matter so what you study, but how you study. The idea is if a person works hard at a subject , they’ll eventually master it and love it because they have mastered it. What about deep procrastination?

    Yes, it is hard work to get any degree and some students confuse the pain of hard work with lacking passion for a subject. But more fundamentally, can you either find or create a job from your major that gives you that autonomy, competence, and relatedness that you talk about in self determination theory? I believe that various kinds of people need varying amounts of these things.

    For one person, connecting with people at home and talking to coworkers every once in a while is enough of a connection. This person doesn’t mind working hours alone over a paper or in a lab as part of a job. For others, this life would feel incredibly lonely.

    An example of this need for people is in What Should I Do with my Life? A student went and got a Ph.D. in marine biology, but then got out to his funded, isolated research project and didn’t like it. Why? He missed people. He eventually became a dentist.

    Another important factor: what kinds of thinking are you good at and do you enjoy?
    Do you like putting together colors, textures, and images? Or do you like juggling equations and code and making it all fit together (word press founder inc quote)? Do you like working your way through systematic processes? Or do you like combining words in certain ways to convey meaning? Or do you like to tease meaning from equations?

    For example, I know that I can learn anything I am determined to learn. It’s a just a matter of time. Difficult things take longer than easy things. But my thoughts on these two ideas, how I relate to people and how the type of thinking I enjoy most, are leading me away from my current major choice.

    You address these choices in a previous article ( where you suggest that you shouldn’t let your parents (or anyone else) influence your choice of a major or that you shouldn’t choose a major because it’s practical. I agree with you about many of these things, but sometimes, these choices are hard. It’s difficult to separate who you really are from who your parents, your significant other, and your best friend think you are. And when you find deep down that your current direction that you’ve been diligently working at it is the wrong direction, I think it’s time to make a change. It’s time to start putting in 10,000 hours in a different direction. Then your passion for the subject will flourish.

    So your idea:
    “A mastery-centric view of passion says that aligning your life with passions is a good thing, but almost any superficial interest can be transformed into a passion with hard work, so there’s no reason to sweat choices such as an academic major or you first post-college career.”

    At some point, you have to decide to master that superficial skill. You are choosing to make that superficial skill your passion. This decision can have a drastic affect on your
    life and is an important decision.

    Sorry for the looooong comment, but I’m making some important decisions in my life based on these thoughts that have been swirling around in my brain!

  38. I have to agree with those that brought up the point as to whether Laura was passionate/interested in the technology that she became an expert on.

    She did not have an a priori interest in database design. She got started working for large technology company, and drifted into that area. Once she started to get good at it, she realized she could leverage the ability to gain more autonomy, competence, and relatedness in her life.

    I disagree with your idea that it doesn’t matter so what you study, but how you study. The idea is if a person works hard at a subject , they’ll eventually master it and love it because they have mastered it. What about deep procrastination?

    The key to avoiding deep procrastination is autonomy: you have to feel like what you’re doing is your choice, not someone else’s choice, or the result of pressure. This certainly holds for jobs as well. In fact, with this in mind, I think it’s great to say “choose something that sounds interesting,” as this will help support your sense of autonomy. That being said, however, don’t mistake this superficial interest as some deep passionate connection between you and the job, and don’t be scared if you find yourself not loving every minute and feeling fulfilled every day at your new workplace.

  39. Hi. I’m currently a college sophomore in the Philippines and I never fail to catch your weekly dose of wisdom.

    I’m applying for an exchange program, and it required me to write my curriculum vitae. I’d like to know if you can give tips on how to write this just in time for my internship application next summer.

    Thanks, Cal. More power to your blog! 🙂

  40. Those three requirements might be necessary, but I suspect they are not sufficient for many people. Introspection is an absolute requirement for those of us who want to use our time working on the world’s problems as best we can. I would feel anxious and depressed were I were not working every day on my research. (I’ve tried other professions; now in academia; I agree that the autonomy is wonderful, but it is not why I’m here.) You could potentially try to sweep introspection into the third argument, but the kind of connection I’m talking about feels qualitatively different from your description and required soul-searching. Consulting is not for everyone.

  41. This is profoundly insightful. There’s been a vague pain and sense of stagnation since college. I felt the need to find what is my purpose in my life before entering grad school or face the same question after 2 years and lots of money: what to do with my life? This article suggest that I’m asking the wrong question. Instead what rare and valuable skills can I acquire now for a happy life later?

  42. Cal,

    Amazing post and practical career-related interpretation of SDT. I do agree with your other post that developing competence drives one’s ability to attain autonomy, but I have to admit that your example of Laura is an exception to the rule in our economy, and that personal interest in one’s work beyond mastery is a key motivator that cannot be neglected. My career path from engineering to medicine is an example:

    I chose computer engineering in university so I could attain Laura’s lifestyle… a dream I had when in high school. I joined a start-up company so I could develop seniority early in my career of aspiring autonomy. However, I realized that software development for me was boring, no matter how much competence I would attain. Further, all of the senior engineers 40+ years old were still living a corporate life managed by others without any such autonomy. In fact the start-up was their first chance at exercising some degree of autonomy by leaving a big company like IBM. I realized that even highly specialized programming skills were not going to give me the autonomy I craved so I did a lot of research and entered a career that gives all three aspects of SDT: Medicine.

    Medicine satisfies all three criteria of SDT
    1. autonomy: professional license that gives you freedom to live in almost any location with a flexible schedule, depending on specialty. Job demand still outpaces supply of physicians in Canada/USA.
    2. competence: well defined specialized knowledge and skillset that is well compensated. This drives the autonomy aspect of SDT.
    3. relatedness: helping others on a very personal level and working on interprofessional hospital teams with other usually kind individuals (if you chose a hospital specialty)

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  44. Hey Cal,

    What an unbelievably great article. Really, I don’t really read these types of articles on blogs often. I guess I must read the wrong blogs…

    Again, this is exceptional content. I don’t even want to add anything to the conversation at this moment, I just want to show my appreciation for shifting my world-view a little bit.

    Thank you, Cal! 🙂


  45. Love your blog…read two of them today. Just finished Drive this week too. But I’d add that part if the reason that Laura & people like her, myself included, are successful & motivated in the work they’re doing is it does fit their talents. People like Laura, myself, and the author of this blog are good at what they do because it fits their gifting. Further, it’s hard to be creative & fully engaged in work that doesn’t truly fit your passion.

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  47. so how do i find a skill which is rare !?!
    i find it very hard these times to find such a skill, everywhere are experts for almost ANYTHING.

    and if its just becoming exceptionally good at something, I could just focus on something I really LOVE (yes, passion trap and so on) and become really good at it.

    i dont get it,i’d be happy to see an answer to this… of you or any other blogreaders .. thanks:)

  48. I think SDT is just an attempt from academics to create a one size fits all system to describe human motivation. There are clearly exceptions to the rules, and I’m not sure how formulating motivation will help anyone. Why would you ever use only your rational mind to try to fulfill emotional needs? As for exceptions, as an example, some people are perfectly content to be recluses and do not require any “human connectivity” or whatever you call it. When you mention the “passion trap” I believe you are subconsciously trying to justify one’s decision to pick “greatness” over doing what gives you joy. There is no way to have both unless you truly enjoy doing something on an intrinsic level that ultimately also gives you “greatness”, however you choose to define it.
    Think of it this way: nothing that we ever do will truly matter. No matter how long you are remembered after your death, or how long the effects of your actions resonate, eternity is a longer time. Therefore, in the background of eternity, nothing really matters. If you think that things beyond your immediate comfort and homeostasis really do matter, it’s usually because you were do conditioned by your parents and people around whom you grew up. So you might as well do what you feel gives you joy, and then have responsibility enough to deal with the consequences. Thinking of things this way will get rid of that nagging feeling that you should be doing something else in life, but have decided to go after “power” and “greatness” instead of everyday joy. Just think about it.

  49. I’ve just discovered this website today. I was wondering if i should switch majors- from engineering to literature. It’s been driving me crazy for almost 4 months.
    I’ve been drifting around reading random articles for a few hours and you know what- this has helped me TREMENDOUSLY
    I really don’t know how to thank you enough for writing this. but thank you.

  50. Hi!
    I think we are purpose driven. What you write about is called “´working your ass off”. I agree that it works, but not if you want a lot of other things in your life, family, hobbies, friends etc.

    if you start from passion you already ahve a skill, if you twist it so you add purpose into it then you have your job and a much better life I would say.

    Take Lauras example. I think she probably works 12h a day when she works. so really it’s 12months a year. And what good does she make in the world?

  51. You say that almost anything can be turned into a passion with hard work. So does that mean that all that is required is decision? And what about ‘natural talent’?

    And I suppose you explain the fact that people can not like things while being good at them by saying that they have the wrong reasons for doing them, like listening to parents’ advice when it was not what they wanted? So it’s all psychological mistakes?

  52. *facepalms* Well that was really funny, I didn’t intend the thank you to be the link text, but it works as I did intend it as a “thank you” for your (free) work for us. CDJ.

  53. Fascinating. I agree the first step I took toward a life of excellence is to get practical and ruthlessly guard my time. After years spent seeking my “passion,” I discovered my inclination to simply do what I was good at – a very human one at that.

    Nonetheless, one must figure that some human inclination, some kind of human desire, the very root of human conditioning, encouraged one to pursue a certain field. Indeed, your tendency toward logical, structured mathematical thinking (As a physics major, I possess this trait) and your writing ability helped in shaping your life’s path. In addition, living a remarkable life is a bit loaded, don’t you think? Part of being human is our emotional range and being happy with our lives is more like a passing emotional state than a standing love affair. I like to think while “passion” is bull, having a “purpose” that can take you forward, is more to the point. It’s that thing that leaves you raw and angry for it’s an original thought or agenda, or at least, it seems to be. It’s what happens when the question “Why do I exist?/Why should I bother existing?” becomes “How can I serve myself and others?” It’s damn hard to change (deliberate practice, indeed), so most of us are just using what we have to the best of our “ability.”

    Ignore my blubbering, the article and the site are awesome. I suppose I’m saying the same thing you are – you can’t know what you haven’t tried, reality and “being” are interwoven; success happens in the real world, not in our minds.


  54. Thanks for a refreshing perspective. An oversimplistic “follow your passion” advice is too commonly dispensed but it does not seem to help a whole of lot of people in making real career choices.

    One concept that would help clarify some points in the article and in the various comments is the clear distinction across knowledge, skills and personality traits. This is explained in Marcus Buckingham’s book, “Now Discover Your Strengths”.

    Database design, Latin, medicine etc. all involve a base of knowledge that can be acquired through various formal and self-study methods. The word skill is best suited to describe something that can be codified into a series of proven steps to achieve an objective. Skills can be acquired but need to be practised constantly. Our personality traits are natural mental tendencies and preferences that are partly inherited and get fairly set in the early years.

    Knowledge is domain- or subject-specific, skills could translate across related domains whereas our traits are generic and influence all the millions of auto-pilot reactions and decisions we make throughout the day.

    This is why it is silly to make simplistic connections between a personality profile and career avenues. Look at the top performers in any profession and you will find immense variety in personality traits. Sure it is easier to relate some personality traits to certain types of jobs but the exceptions are too many to make the link prescriptive.

    Discovering our traits helps channelize them to activities that we are more easily passionate about, in almost any industry or job we are in. Sadly some people fail to make this connection, especially due to the mixed way in which knowledge, skills and traits are discussed. Such people often find hobbies that give play to their natural traits.

    Achieving excellence even in one or two activities in any profession requires a combination of knowledge elements, one or more skills and some traits. It is the natural trait that fuels the discipline and repetitive practice needed to attain the higher levels of competence. Yes, willpower and motivational factors can help somebody get very good in what they aim for but that final level of magical, passionate, effortless, play-not-work comes when there is some natural inexhaustible fuel arising from our brain patterns.

    Finally, this means, yes, one can choose any major and get into any industry based on practical economic considerations (rare and valuable abilities, emerging industry with high growth prospects and so on) but self-awareness can help them tune their career growth path to reach higher levels of competence.

  55. The major problems with the “passion” and “be yourself” approach is that they are based on romanticized and unrealistic perceptions and expectations. In reality, even romance itself isn’t “dream romance” all the time. It makes people increasingly unable to adapt to circumstances that are anything less than what’s there in their dreams. This is more like a toddler’s way of seeing the world. It’s not the way a mature adult ought to be seeing things.

    Personally I think the passion is always within people all along, so the idea of “find your passion” is fundamentally incorrect. So long as people have the energy at physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual levels, they have the passion and the capacity to put it into action. Reality is more like “What you choose to put your passion into”. Also I think this “find your calling” ideas that go around are nonsense. Fields aren’t living things to call you. People choose their fields for various reasons. You put your energy in music for e.g…soon you’ll find every website offering music, you could tell profiles of artists back to front, you could tell which year which album was released and what’s the tracks on them as well as the length and maybe even the liner notes. There is a serious misunderstanding between cause and effect.

    Keep putting your energy and thoughts on making money and you’ll see all sorts of ways in which you can get it. Then you start doing the right things and you become very very good at it. The initial interest can come by itself, but actually it’s the person who’s putting their interest into what they want, not the other way round.

    It’s just about defining what you want out of life and then becoming very good at having it. But then everything requires work, planning and support. The world’s best musicians always ask students to improve by doing what is difficult for them to do, that’s beyond their comfort zone. And eventually bring it within their comfort zone.

    It isn’t that we have to find our passion and love. Actually I’d say that we are full of passion and love. The question is where are we choosing to put all of it and where should we be putting it? And how do we then go about doing it? I think above all the responsibility lies in people’s own hands more than they think it does. Consciously or subconsciously a person is choosing to be what they want and then living that journey doing whatever it takes. Finally the results they get are relevant and meaningful to what they believe in and therefore they see themselves as successful.

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  57. Can I simply say what a aid to seek out somebody who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You positively know easy methods to deliver a difficulty to light and make it important. Extra people have to read this and understand this facet of the story. I cant believe youre not more fashionable because you undoubtedly have the gift.

  58. Hi Mr. Newport,

    you are a geek per definition, so how you dare to tell people what they have to do with their job lives?

    In this article, you’re even making fun of people like Nicholas Lore who has successfully spent his life in the career coaching field and he has even been rewarded for his execellent contribution by President Clinton!!

    Before speaking, you must eat your own dog’s food at least!!

    In other words, have you professionally ever coached people to do their best with their talents? The simple answer is: NO!!

    Have you ever heard “The Parable of Talents”? The simple answer is:NO!

    Otherwise, you wouldn’t have written a book like that!!

    Your attitude is just the typical arrogance of an intellectual elite who lives in their “Ivory Tower”!!

    Keep on staying in your “Ivory Tower”!!


    Fab, greetings from Italy.

  59. A final note:

    “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

    by Aristotle


    BE, DO, HAVE!!!!

    NOT: Do, Have !!!!

    It’s very different!!

    Apart from that, for a deep learning you need energy and passion and if you aren’t passionate about a particular subject, you will not have energy!!

    This is the ABC of cognitive psychology and even if it wasn’t, it’s just common sense like 1+1 = 2!!

    Unless the elephants fly and so 1+1 = 3 or 4 or 5 and so on!!



  60. The major roadblock to building a stable and meaningful future out of your passion/s is structural. How many of your friends have their college degrees in interdisciplinary fields? How many college counselors in high school, or parents, or friends suggest cross-pollinating disciplines/subjects as a degree strategy? Subjects are broken into module-like components, are primarily expert-to-student driven, and are very often spoken about as if they exist in vacuums. And, this all begins in kindergarten when, for example, standardized tests are administered to children who still believe in Santa Clause. By the time just budding adults reach college they often find themselves “undeclared”. But this seems normal because for many it is the first time they are presented with choice and options about what to learn. The usual course of action, though, is to decide on ready-made degree paths — assuming budding adults even pursue college.

    Jobs really needn’t be found or scarce skills sought after. Interests should be developed over time, nurtured and stretched. Curiosity should be prized and rewarded — from an early age in and out of school. This is the road to stable and meaningful work. In adulthood, too, this can be accomplished, for example, by pursing a hobby intensely while scanning the market for gaps or dark spots that may be able to put areas of that hobby to work.

    One thing is for sure: finding the right job takes time. And, the more time people spend engaged in meaningful activity the more likely they are to develop the eye sight needed to spot opportunities and the grit to hang in there when times seem rough and uncertain. We don’t rely on fires for warmth through the night any longer. For this reason, in part, we should consider pursuing those activities that fill us with meaning.

  61. Generally good and unique perspective from which everybody can benefit a lot. Just one point: you shall not say that people who want higher position and tighter work schedules are “worse” than people who exchange it for something lighter. This is arbitrary. As long as one is contributing to the society and feeling what he does is fulfilling, then its’ good. In this sense many executives(far more than the typical stereotype might suggest) are also content with their work and feeling autonomy/competence/relatedness. Bashing them all together doesn’t do them justice.

  62. I’ve been really enjoying this blog. I watched a movie last weekend “The Life Of Walter Mitty”. One of the main characters is a rough and independent adventure photographer for Life magazine. I started to think about why we are drawn to people like this in the context of autonomy, mastery and purpose. Now it’s pretty clear. This character has fulfilled all of these three things to a very high degree and of course we want these same things! 1) He has extreme autonomy. He chooses when, where, even what he’s working on. 2) At this point he’s a grand master photographer and only honing his skills. 3) Purpose: he believes what he’s doing is important for others. He feels that he’s making a genuine contribution. Finally, he “got so good at adventure photography that they couldn’t ignore him” and he used this skill to “buy” even more autonomy, mastery and purpose. I know that this is all from a movie, but here is a diverse list of real people who also have enviable lives from the viewpoint of autonomy, mastery and purpose:
    Anthony Bourdain
    Haile Gebresellasse (elite runner)
    Beto Perez (created Zumba)
    Laird Hamilton (surfer)
    Rick Steves
    Jim Rohn
    Anthony Robbins
    Richard Branson
    Bob Dylan
    Paulo Coelho
    Tom Hanks
    Tim Ferriss
    Michael Palin
    Steve Martin

    These people all really followed Cal’s plan. Get really good at a something and use this “career capital” to buy the “right rewards”.

  63. Cal,

    Let me start by saying I enjoy reading your blog, and your compositions are well put and clearly engaging, easy to follow. Overall wonderful. However, I’m uneasy;

    Are you saying that the Job that I have, which I’ve been doing for 4 years after graduating from said major churns my guts inside out every time I sit in-front of that computer screen simply because I’m not doing it well? Are you saying that this career path I’ve been on for close to 9 years is actually something I could “become passionate” about if I just perfected it and did it well? Are you saying I can fall in love with doing something I absolutely dislike?

    I might be ignorant, but I cannot bring myself to believe your theories.

  64. I really enjoyed the areas where you talk about the balance with competence, relatedness, and Autonomy. I feel really strongly about how you emphasize that some people do not cash out when their needs are met. Although the title of being a CEO can be great you do increase your work time and are not able to enjoy somethings. I think some people that think they know what their dream job is might not know about the stress that can come with the job. This then leading them to find out they hate their career.

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  66. Hi,

    What if I am currently in a career that I am not that interested in (Electrician) and cannot see how I could obtain rare and valuable skills? I just don’t see any feasible way to clime the career ladder from this position as well. Like, if you’re an Electrician… That’s it that’s what you do. There is no way to go up from there compared to say office jobs where you have all the potential to work your way up. Do I need to start over in a new career?

    I’m 26 living in Australia, cheers in advance.

  67. Hey guys, I’ve been reading Cal’s book for the second time and I’m doing some much deeper reading and contemplation of it this time.

    I’ve recently come across Munger’s 25 cognitive biases too and he speaks about rewards and incentives being very powerful; Cal touched on them here saying the opposite is true in some regards.

    How can we add some nuance to both Munger and Cal’s philosophies to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting ideas on the power of reward and punishment? It has clearly resulted in some slimy sales success for Munger yet seems to result in a loss of some substance of passion in terms of human work….


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