How Can Two People Feel Completely Different About the Same Job? — Career Drift and the Danger of Pre-Existing Passion


The Emersonian Doctoral Candidate

I’m flying down to Duke on Tuesday to speak with their graduate students. Preparing for the event inspired me to reflect on my own student experience. In doing so, an Emerson quote came to mind:

“To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven”

Emerson does a good job of capturing the reality of a research-oriented graduate education. Even though students enter such programs — especially at top schools — strikingly homogenous, in terms of their educational backgrounds and achievements, after a few years, the group tends to radically bifurcate.

Some students love the experience and thrive. They dread the possibility that they might have to one day leave academia and take a “normal job.” To them, graduate school is Emerson’s heaven.

Other students hate the experience and wilt. They complain about their advisors, and their peers, and the school, and their busyness. They can’t wait to return to a “normal job.” To them, graduate school is Emerson’s hell.

I began to notice this split about halfway though my time at MIT. I loved graduate school, so I was mildly surprised, at first, to encounter cynical students secretly plotting to abandon ship after earning their masters degree, or to stumble into dark blogs with titles such as, appropriately enough, Dissertation Hell (” a place to rant…about the tortures of writing a dissertation”).

Why do such similar students end up with such different experiences?

Because I happened to be a professional advice writer at the same that I was a student, I studied the issue. I think the answers I found are important to our broader discussion because this Emersonian division is common in many professions, and understanding its cause helps us better understand the complicated task of building a compelling career and the pitfalls to avoid.

Directed vs. Drifting Careers

Graduate students who experience Emerson’s heaven tend to aggressively seek out and develop expertise. Once they have this expertise, they use it as leverage to control their project choices, collaborators, and workflow.

The students who experience Emerson’s hell are more passive. They approach graduate school like college — waiting to be assigned tasks that they can work real hard to complete. Their theory is that hard work alone should yield good results. This theory, of course, is flawed.

When you’re passive about the direction of your student experience, you tend to end up with projects you do not like, bogged down with tasks no one else wanted to do. Over time you’ll begin to see the work as a negative force — leading to cynicism and diminishing motivation.

This division is important because it applies to many different professions. The employees (or entrepreneurs) who thrive tend to actively direct their career using the tenets of Career Capital Theory, just like the successful graduate students.

Those who struggle tend to drift through their working life, hoping, usually in vain, that by simply working hard and doing what they’re told, they’ll end up with a compelling livelihood.

The Passion Pitfall

There are two reasons to discuss these observations. The first is positive: when you understand the dynamics of crafting a compelling career you’re better able to harness them in your own life.

The second reason is negative: Understanding the difference between directed and drifting careers underscores the danger of common career advice; most notably, the ubiquitous entreaty to “follow your passion.”

Apologists for this reductionist theory often claim that it’s worth propagating, because if it helps even one person build the courage to pursue a dream, the effort becomes worthwhile.

But as emphasized by the above discussion, things are not so simple.

Here’s what worries me: When you persuade someone to obsess over the match between their work and a mysterious, innate, pre-existing passion (which, for some reason, we assume everyone has, even though the evidence suggests the opposite), you’re setting them up for career drift.  Passion theory says that your passion pre-exists, so when you find the right job, it will be right from day one.

In reality, as we’ve just seen, a particular job is not likely to become a source of passion until you’ve been actively directing it — sometimes for years — in the right direction.

By telling someone to “follow their passion,” therefore,  you are, quite ironically, reducing the probability that they’ll end up passionate about their work.

To put things another way, the division between Emerson’s heaven and hell is permeable and one we should all hope to cross in the right direction. But we need to understand that this is an active effort, conducted over time, and not the result of a simple match made at the very beginning of our career.

(Photo by USUHSPAO)

32 thoughts on “How Can Two People Feel Completely Different About the Same Job? — Career Drift and the Danger of Pre-Existing Passion”

  1. I think that the concept of activeness vs. passiveness applies to many aspects of our lives.

    I recently noticed that the people who get ahead are often the active ones. People don’t necessarily get ahead because they were born “rich”, “good-looking”, or “intelligent”.

  2. I feel, for once, that you’re over-generalizing and bending things to fit your theories. In the “hell” case I disagree that a passive approach explains student’s dislike of graduate school and I find your reasoning simplistic (and a somewhat demeaning). In particular, I’ve found that a lot of people simply do not enjoy the type of work that graduate school requires. Doing research involves being comfortable with ambiguity, not having clear goals for long periods of time and being very familiar with repeated failure. It’s possible to have a very active approach to work and not enjoy any of the above. Especially in technical fields like computer science, people who are great engineers and product developers would not necessarily make great researchers and scientists. The different kinds of jobs require different skills and mindsets and just because one lacks one or prefers one to the other does not mean that they are passive or believe that hard work is enough. In fact, I would say that the people who decide to quit after a Masters are in fact being very active — they’ve realized and decided that the research lifestyle is not for them and they are taking the step of moving to something that better suits them. The only mistake these people have made is not having had enough exposure to academic research before entering graduate school (which is not always their fault).

    Secondly, it is not clear to me that “following your passion” implies being passive. In fact, I would argue that it should be other way around. If you really are “passionate” about research and your job that should mean that you are chasing down opportunities and doing the best you can. While you shouldn’t be job-hopping in the hopes “finding your passion” you should also not be working on something you hate for years in the hope that once you’re better at it you’ll enjoy it. I would not enjoy being a tax accountant or a bartender no matter how I’m good at it because I do not see either of those matching with my vision of how to contribute to society. You shouldn’t blindly look for your passion but if you find yourself not enjoying something you need to really think about what you’re not enjoying and how to change it.

  3. Fascinating. This really resonates with me. I worked for 8 years in an industry (call it industry A) that is related to the one I now work in (industry B). All my life, I’ve been struggling to get into industry B, it was a major aspiration of mine. It was my “passion”.

    At the time, it seemed that the opportunities and most sensible way to get the relevant experience was to go through industry A. While I was there I strived to learn everything, to become an expert in my field, to get myself to a place where I thought I could just shift across to industry B. As a result, I think I had a fairly fulfilling job, despite it not being where I wanted it to be.

    Now that I finally made it to industry B, I can feel that my career is stagnating, and I recognise the exact conditions that you stated. Now I’ve got where I am, I’ve been sitting back and waiting for stuff to happen. That’s partly due to the culture of the company I work for (they’re bad at organising stuff and expect people to do 5 jobs at once rather than manage resources properly). So this piece has really been a wake up call that I need to get proactive again and start pushing myself like I used to. If I can’t do that without feeling exploited at my current company, then I’ll have to move on and find somewhere that I can do it.

    Thanks for this. It’s given me a fresh perspective.

  4. Most of my comments echo Shrutarshi’s first paragraph above, so I won’t elaborate much, except to reiterate that it’s disappointing to see you adding to the stigma of “Mastering out.” There is a real contradiction in your reasoning that it takes work and time to build a successful, rewarding career and at the same time asserting that if everyone just approached their academic work in the ‘right’ (i.e., “active”) way, they’d all be happy, successful academics. The fact is that sometimes putting in the work and time (and even achieving success in your field wrt conference presentations, journal papers, etc.) yields an unexpected result: discovering that academia is not the career for you.

  5. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog over the years. but disagree with your take on passion. I used to have a view similar to your own until I actually stumbled upon something I was madly, wildly, enthusiastic about–a feeling that I had never felt before in my life aside from moments throughout my childhood. It’s only because I quit the drudgery of another activity (one in which I was diligently trying to acquire “skill”) that I found something I truly enjoyed (and have become financially successful at).

    Moreover, the activity I’m passionate about is something I did not “warm” up to after acquiring the necessary level of skill. I took to it almost immediately. Learning about it was a reward in and of itself.

    It’s quite possible having passionate work is not something that is available to all of us. But your blog may incorrectly lead astray those who DO need to quit banging their heads against a proverbial wall and jump into something entirely and utterly different.

  6. It is not that “follow your passion” is wrong. We should just expand on that. “Follow your passion, once you find it. However, finding your passion might take effort and don’t think you found your passion until you reach the meat of the subject.”

    And another important point is that “hard work leads to success which develops passion, and then snowballs.”

    The fundamental idea that Mr.Newport is trying to make is definitely right. Don’t go up to 10 years olds and say “follow your passion”, it will do more harm than good.

  7. To the above poster,I think that you miss the point and it seems like you take this article personally instead of for what it is.Cal has developed his theory from observation and deduction and while I’m not sure if I understand it perfectly,it makes a lot of sense.I’m an adult who had to return to university and when I’m really active,good things happen but I tend to go back to passiveness from time to time and I can see a difference!
    I do agree about not following a passion because it involves feelings and emotion and those drift from time to time.However,when I manage to do deep and focused work,not only I retain more in less time but I happen to be more passionate about what I do and to me it’s a byproduct of the “deep work” I’m able to do.I just have to learn to be more consistent though…lol

  8. I’m not really sure how anybody could be happy at MIT– it is such a concrete-filled campus. So grey.

    For me, I found the classes in graduate school to be awful. I’d come from a SLAC environment in which the professors cared about learning and gave a lot of feedback, to one in which everybody knew the classes weren’t what was important. I’d get things wrong but not know why, and sometimes I wouldn’t even know what I’d gotten wrong. I had a very difficult time internalizing that.

    However, once the classes were over and I moved onto research I did great. Ironically, in research, unlike classwork, I would get regular feedback and had a better idea of how to improve and what steps to try next.

  9. Most of the time I love your posts, but this one leaves out some really important stuff. One of the things this post fails to recognize is that not all PhD students are doing it to work in academia anymore. Many of us are doing it to be better at research work in the world of practitioners, where the mode of work of course entails all the deep work (which is what I love in your writing), but where the culture of work is very different and the process of academia can be frustrating. I am one who is EXTREMELY focused and self-directed, but I still can’t wait to get the degree completed so I can start the work I’m training for. The idea that being self-directed means one should never want to leave academia is incomplete.

  10. I agree that building up skills and expertise is the key to becoming a successful and independent PhD student.
    Do you have any suggestions how to identify the skills that will take you to the top of your field? I’m a Statistician, working on the analysis and improvement of certain statistical algorithms but I don’t know in which exact area of my field I should build up my expertise.

  11. The students who experience Emerson’s hell are more passive. They approach graduate school like college — waiting to be assigned tasks that they can work real hard to complete. Their theory is that hard work alone should yield good results. This theory, of course, is flawed.

    Dear Cal Newport, I have subscribed to your posts and have enjoyed reading them. Just would like to ask on one part in this post, which is probably not the main subject of this entire post, but I would like to clear this doubt of mine. How is it so, that the theory that hard work alone should yield good results, is actually flawed?

    It is interesting to me, specifically because recently I have questioned myself how is it really, to have the ability to pass university exams with flying colors. Besides getting past procrastination and setting aside time for deep work and understanding of the study materials, I thought I figured it would be hard work alone that would produce good exam results. I am a part-time degree student holding a full-time job, am just coming to the end of my first year and am contemplating on repeating my first-year units because I found I wasn’t prepared at all for the year end exams due to poor time management. So I figured if I were to repeat, I need to figure out what I have not been doing that other students who seem to be able to achieve good results effortlessly.

    Henceforth when I read that part on your post about the flawed theory, I just had to ask. If it is not hard work alone, then what would be it to yield good results?

  12. The original quote is actually from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

    The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven

  13. Hard work without a superior strategy wont yield a good result.
    You can practice and study but without that strategy you be doing trial and error. You might succeed but its more likely you will run into recursive looping.

    if your interested in a subject your also likely to take an active role to investigate what makes it interesting and also research side projects. If your not interested, any passion wont work due to it involves different brain centers. Passion as an emotion is secondary to interest.

    This ties into casuality where the human brain is projecting a scenario based upon the baseline context which if you belive your not controlling the outcome then it will be hell as the brain project future actions ahead of time.

    Hard work requires strategy and if you use one that actually works described here in various posts you be acing your academic career which I never found interesting at all and frankly boring.

    Strategy allows your brain to organize your actions into a working format that produce a more effective or efficient result in less time than any other approach.

    For example, you can do “Deep practice” and gain great result but if you have a better way to evaluate what to practice then the deep practice is way more effective and timesaving.

  14. Cal, is this Emersonian doctoral candidate theory a well researched and experimentally validated theory or a theory pulled out one’s bottom?

    This sounds like a corollary to Dweck’s mindset theories but there are many things that sound obvious but are actually the opposite (and you can a proponent of a few of such theories).

    There are many factors that play into the PhD experience that graduate students do not have full control over. The first obvious one is the adviser and the second is the type of assistant-ship or financial support for the education.

    So, what I’m saying is that theories should be stated as tested or non-tested. It’s human nature to fall in love with our ideas or theories and be convinced of its truth without experimental validation.

    An old adage something like, a scientist is not someone who has good ideas but has good methods of testing ideas. With all due respect, you are a computer scientist and not a behavioral psychologist and so, I don’t think you would have the skills, tools and resources to experimentally validate your hypothesis you stated. So, please don’t express something as if has been validated and true when in fact it’s just a “layman’s” conjecture.

  15. @Nicoleandmaggie

    I’m not really sure how anybody could be happy at MIT– it is such a concrete-filled campus. So grey.

    Aww, don’t say that. MIT’s campus isn’t great and I admit that I would hate working in one of the basement labs, but a) the computer science department is in a bright orange building and b) the people are bursting with creativity and energy– really the campus isn’t the determining factor in happiness here. There are a lot of factors that draw people here that clearly outweigh the architecture.

  16. It is not that “follow your passion” is wrong. We should just expand on that. “Follow your passion, once you find it. However, finding your passion might take effort and don’t think you found your passion until you reach the meat of the subject.”

    And another important point is that “hard work leads to success which develops passion, and then snowballs.”

    But sometimes this isn’t what happens at all, depending on the person. I think possible the problem here is that Cal is taking popular advice about passion and saying it is categorically wrong for all people, when it is wrong for SOME people. He understands the problem is that it is ubiquitously applied, but I don’t think the proper answer is to turn around and say “here’s the way it works instead’ in the same ubitquitous manner.

  17. Man Cal, I wish you’d been around when I was working for my PhD. I would have easily finished in half the time!

    Seems to me that this advice:

    “follow your passion”

    should be replaced with this advice:

    “direct your career so as to maximize the chance that, once you’ve put in your 10,000 hours (or whatever), you will then be able to live with passion”.

    Passion in the future depends on being smart now.

  18. Hey Cal, longtime reader here. I’ve been reading your blogposts and books since I was in 9th grade and now here I am at Duke as a freshmen. I would love to meet you if you’re still here (please be!). Do get in touch with me if you have the time.

    Shreya Vora

  19. So the question I’m seeing from the comments is that if the advice to follow your passion will lead to unhappiness because you can’t get the ideal working conditions until you earn the right to cash in for autonomy, competence, and relatedness; Can you find a career path that will allow you to enjoy the process of getting career capital and how much searching for such a thing is worthwhile?

  20. Your advice definitely describes my graduate school “heaven” which was highly directed. I basically told my advisor what I was going to do and he said “fine” and that was that. Leaving graduate school however caused me to enter drift mode, so it seems like the environment may be a big factor.

    Also, I wonder if there is a third option besides being directed and drifting which is more like following your nose where you take advantage of opportunities that arise but don’t necessarily set targets or goals. In this mode, you don’t necessarily exercise control in an active way in the sense of aggressively being proactive but you also make careful choices about the opportunities you accept, such that they are in line with your interests.

  21. You should be writing for the NY Times, Cal. One caveat: I agree that it doesn’t necessarily make sense to insist people give up success and look for their passion, but passion sometimes grabs you. It’s like, for somebody who hasn’t been in love, they say “I’m looking for x,y,z in a partner.” And they may feel driven to find such a partner and succeed, but somebody who has fallen in love is more likely to say it’s an unconscious need for that person. There’s no x,y,z about it. I think passion works the same way. You can’t always explain it when it happens, and it doesn’t necessarily grow on you out of a successful relationship, although it can. It can be quite sudden. With a passion, you may face multiple, repeated failures in fact and unremitting frustration but continue on and many great success stories happen this way. Studies show that one of the greatest factors in success, in fact, is something called “grit” which is the ability to overcome failures and not give up. Now you may just be ornery, but you may also have a passion for something that precludes you giving up, and it may not come from being successful at all.

  22. Emerson is actually paraphrasing from the character Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost…

    Farewel happy Fields
    Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
    Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
    Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
    A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
    The mind is its own place, and in it self
    Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
    What matter where, if I be still the same,
    And what I should be, all but less then he
    Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
    We shall be free…

  23. That’s funny you say this because I really do think it all comes down to personality type. I love my job right now at Liberty but I have a coworker that I can tell just struggles and I don’t get it. I think we really have an amazing job. It’s just the nature of the world though I guess.

  24. By the way: I would be really interested in suggestions and case studies on how to become a better PhD student. I know, there are already some articles about this on your blog and I try to implement your advice, but if you have any more insights I would be very interested in reading them.

  25. Interesting observations. I too noticed different types of PhD students when I was one of them, but I had a slightly different take.

    Sure, there are students who strategically pursue an academic/research career after considering their various career options and are fully aware of hiring trends in this industry. I think most students *think* they fall into this category.

    Frankly, I think many students choose grad school and romanticize the experience because (1) school seems comfortable and familiar or (2) a professor encouraged them to join his/her lab or (3) it seemed like a good idea at the time. I think many students dread graduating into the non-academic world because (1) finding and keeping a job seems fraught with uncertainty and (2) they just don’t really know what their career options are outside academia/research or (3) how to leverage their skills to effectively market themselves for those careers. As a postdoc, I organized career development workshops for the postdocs at my institution, and this was a really common refrain.

    Then there are students for whom academia/research isn’t their calling, but they strategically leverage their grad school training (technical expertise, project management, critical analysis, communication, credibility, etc) to make themselves more valuable in whatever non-academic position they pursue. Hopefully I fall into this category; didn’t stop me from experiencing frustration and misery as a PhD student. I could deal with it because school has an endpoint.

    It’s totally possible to be happy at work/in a PhD program while living entirely within your comfort zone. Stretching outside your comfort zone hurts!

    Finally, let’s not forget that PhD heaven or hell depends partly on luck (a student can’t predict when capital equipment will break down, for instance), partly on creating your own luck (making connections with other people and facilities to help you get things done), and partly on pragmatism (asking which advisors have a reputation for efficient graduation of students).

  26. Hi Cal — I actually read your website a great deal when going through my own phase of being a disgruntled graduate student, and it helped a great deal — if only because it taught me exactly HOW I needed to apply myself (“deliberate practice”). And while Emerson’s quote still rings true, I — like others in the comment stream — disagree with your characterization of “cynical students plotting secretly….”
    If anything, now that you are in a faculty position, when you have graduate research students of your own, I would hope you would welcome them to figure out (quickly) if academia is for them, and then support them if they want to leave and go on to do other things. It is the sense of having so much of your future in someone else’s (often capricious) control that breeds the cynicism and the secrecy. For students who are successful in and enjoy graduate school, this may be hard to understand. However, graduate school and academic life is not for everyone, and that should not in an of itself be a sin. The alternative is a life in which nothing is ventured (nothing gained), and all of one’s life choices must permit no place for errors.
    Now that I’m done with my degree and have a job in industry which I am thoroughly enjoying (as I suspected I might), I can look back on the experience with some sense of calm. But living it felt anything but. Given the overall wisdom of your blog and its many helpful specific suggestions, you may wish to temper your characterizations of those who appear to have failed on the dimensions on which you have succeeded — your posts are too broadly applicable (and valuable!) to get lost in that.

  27. In reality, as we’ve just seen, a particular job is not likely to become a source of passion until you’ve been actively directing it — sometimes for years — in the right direction.

    I believe the problem is that most institutions, academic and business, encourage passive obedience, not independence or initiation. It’s no surprise that after 25 years of indoctrination, graduate students have difficult adapting to the newfound open-endedness of dissertation. Only those who have been regularly skeptical of institutions and authorities most of their lives find the transition smooth. Unfortunately that represents a minority of people.

    I’m also not so sure writing dissertations and academic papers is best approached with a self-directed attitude. Since papers have to be reviewed by journal editor, the writer must inevitably cater to the desires of the editor. In this way, independence, creativity, and self-direction take a backseat to, once again, obedience.


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