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The Nuanced Road to Passion: A Career Case Study


The Insult of Simplicity

There are many reasons why I don’t like the advice to “follow your passion.”

One reason I haven’t mentioned much recently is that I find its premise insultingly simplistic.

It would be nice if we were all born with a clear preexisting passion.

It would also be nice if simply matching your job to a topic you liked was all it took to generate a meaningful career.

But reality is more nuanced (as we should expect, given the rareness and desirability of the goal being pursued here).

In an effort to be more positive than negative, however, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief case study that sketches a more realistic image of how people end up with work that matters.

This case study comes from a reader whom I’ll call Peter…

Peter’s Tale

After graduating college, Peter, like many recent graduates, had no clear preexisting passion to guide him. So, like many recent graduates, he did something expected: he applied to law school.

At law school, Peter began to build useful skills. Among other things, he learned to write precisely, think analytically, and more specifically, to unwind legal statutes.

During his summers he interned at various organization. One of these internships was with a large NGO. He learned that the work of this organization (it’s a non-profit you’ve heard of before) resonated with him. Of equal importance, he learned that one of the divisions in this organization had need of lawyers.

So Peter worked hard during the internship and the remainder of law school (he claimed that his now battered copy of Straight-A helped him through this period).

This performance earned him a job offer from the NGO. He’s excited for the position which he is just about to begin.

It’s too early to tell whether this particular career direction will continue to blossom into a true passion for Peter, but there’s a good chance it will (I’ve heard this same opening act many times before).

What strikes me about this narrative is that it complicates the simple tropes advanced by the Passionistas.

Peter, for example, described his journey as follows:

“It really was a matter of following the path where I could build on my existing skills and had the potential to move towards some kind of mastery.”

He then added:

“When others ask for advice, they seem to want to hear the narrative about how I followed my passion, but that would be an enormous oversimplification.”

When it comes to the important task of build a meaningful career, I think we need to hear more from the Peters of the world, and less oversimplified cheer-leading.


Administrative Note: I did a talk for Jenny Blake’s Speak Like a Pro virtual conference. If you’re interested in public speaking you might find the conference interesting. I believe it begins today (Monday). Check it out…

(Photo by The Other Dan)

41 thoughts on “The Nuanced Road to Passion: A Career Case Study”

  1. Hi Cal,
    I do appreciate your articles because of how thoughtfully they are written, and how well you present your arguments. Having said that, I still stubbornly stick to my beliefs about following one’s passion.

    While I understand that there are many “gurus” out there who have made “following your passion” an oversimplified statement, there is absolutely nothing easy about making the decision to follow that which you truly love. It has a lot of heartache and vulnerability. You’re putting yourself and your work out there every time, because of the emotional attachment you have to it.

    Plus if everybody was to throw the “follow your passion” advice out of the window and stick to conventional forms of skill building, this would be an incredibly boring world.

    Your way is a much simpler route to go through, almost clinical actually. It’s simple, but not easy. Yours has a formula. Following one’s passion really doesn’t. Your advice works very well for some, but for others, it could potentially kill their spirit.

    I just think there are two kinds of people in this world. The crazy ones and the logical ones.

    It makes sense to strike a healthy balance, of course. I mean, I myself am employed.

    Kind regards,


    • When I read Cal’s blog posts about “don’t follow your passion,” I was getting the idea that you shouldn’t do it blindly. For example, many people don’t really know what they are passionate about. They can say, “I want to be an astronaut,” or “I wan’t to be an engineer,” or “I want to be an entrepreneur,” and they may have some preconceived notions about what the career entails, but most of the time they don’t know enough or its idealized. So when they are told to “follow your passion,” it’s not helping because they don’t know enough about the job. So, Cal is stressing that you should “build your skills” so that you have some experience in the field and you can decide if you are passionate about it or not.

  2. Thousands of failures are necessary for a handful of successes. The market is a machine that needs many different ideas as it rips through them all and weeds out the ones it could use at that time vs the ones it does not have a need for at that time. It is
    in the machine’s best interest to have people each “follow their passion” to produce a wild and diverse array of products and services. The machine is indifferent to the fact that 99% of those ideas will fail. The 1% that do succeed financially serves as motivation for others to keep taking risks and trying.

    However it is my best interest to observe the market and detect what is needed and considered valuable. I then spend the time acquiring those skills and then try to sell those skills in the marketplace in exchange for money which allows me to sustain myself.

    Following one’s passion has millions of possibilities, whereas finding work that the market deems valuable and will pay for has only thousands of possibilities.

    I am reminded of a quote by Mark Twain: “It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone, or any important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget all others. He added his little mite–that is all he did.”

    • Andrew Wiles, the man who found the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, said a similar thing. He observed that he who would put the pieces together to form a correct proof would get all the credit.

      Like Newton, he was aware that he was standing on the shoulders of giants.

  3. Cal, I would love to see you take up one component of the “Passion” portion of the equation that I feel like you seem to not address. That is that in many cases, what drives people to put in the time and effort to become competent -> good -> excellent -> mastery is a pre-existing passion or at least very strong interest. To take two examples from your book, the guitar practicing guy and Steve Martin. Your description of the guitar guy meticulously, intensely practicing a riff over and over until he masters it would likely work for anyone trying to become excellent, but few people that did not already *really* want to learn guitar would be unlikely to force themselves to do that. Likewise, Steve Martin’s description of his approach to Banjo strikes me in a similar fashion. While less immediately demanding than the guitar guy, it does take at least an initial interest in the banjo to apply that sort of steady consistency to it.

    As illustrations that practice, effort and learning matter more than inspiration with regards to mastery, these examples function perfectly. But they do point to an underlying passion that in some cases drive the effort. And they also provide a great corrective to the “passion alone” advice that is sloppily given.

    This in no way belies your primary contention, but it is a different case and deserves a little more acknowledgement than I have seen you make. It might be a helpful avenue to consider and discuss. Passion *can* be used to drive the effort, as long as it is kept in perspective.

    Thanks, and as always, I make these comments in tremendous gratitude to the impact that your writing has had on me.

  4. To Sheila’s comment, I don’t think there are two types of people at all (i.e. crazy people and logical people). That is overly simplistic. Lots of crazy idealists struggle with finding their niche and welcome the advice this blog has to offer. Ergo your one friend who goes from cupcake baker to dog-walker to banker and back again.

    The reality is that the most oft-repeated advice on careers is to find what you love and then follow it. That advice presumes that you know what you love, or can easily find it out, or at least determine what it is early enough in your career so you can start doing it before your working days end.

    Many people spend time reviewing an array of possible options in their minds when thinking about what they are passionate about. The process goes something like this:

    “I love books, should I be a librarian? A writer? A writer of fiction? A reporter (maybe I really am passionate about stories. Should I look into reporter jobs). A PhD in literature?… But, but, I like math also! Should I be like a Malcolm Gladwell? or maybe I should join wall street then write about it, like that guy that wrote Liars Poker. I bet he followed his passion….”

    On and on they go, following all kinds of leads in the hopes that one thing will present itself as the “true passion.” Meanwhile they have to work. They have to support themselves and perhaps others. They need to secure a job that they can reasonably be content with. So they spin around again, trying to figure out which one “passion” to pick for the reasonably-content job… It is exhausting.

    I find Cal’s advice freeing because it allows you to put aside that need to figure it all out and instead, tells you just become very good at something that is valuable. Take Michael Lewis for example, I don’t think he set out to be a famous financial writer, whose work has been the basis of two Academy-Award winning movies. He wasn’t even passionate about being a financial trader. But by learning the craft of the bond sales world, by becoming really versed on the workings of Wall Street, and I’m guessing by practicing his writing, he was able to leverage disparate skills into a career that is quite unique.

    Yes, it takes a lot of courage to follow what might be your “passion.” But I think in many successful careers, people just got really good at something and then became observant enough to seize an opportunity when it presented itself.

  5. The thing is, I had a passion. I was determined to become an engineer, working in the aerospace industry or in renewable energy, but I gave up. I switched to biology and reluctantly scrapped by through college all because I thought engineering was too hard. Now I will never fulfill my dream of working for SpaceX unless I go through the pain of school again and spending more money I don’t have on another degree. I’ll be in my late 20s by the time I actually get the degree I wanted. What should I do? If I focus on biology, I will forever have this harbored resentment within that I am not working towards that awesome future that makes me feel alive thinking about it.

    • Take classes towards your engineering degree while you’re doing whatever you’re doing now. Late 20’s is young, though I’d still say the same thing if you were 50. Keep in mind though that SpaceX might just be greener grass and engineers may not be doing all the things you are imagining that they do, so it would be wise to talk to various engineers already working in the field in which you’re interested to see if it’s really what you want to do and that way you won’t spend more money on something that turns out to be disappointing. Otherwise, go for it. It’s never too late.

  6. It’s like your passions find you while you are waiting for other things to happen. Peter’s story is somewhat similar to what is going on, on my front right now. Thanks for sharing this!

  7. I enjoyed your book and I enjoy reading your blog, but I feel this discussion about the passion quite non sense.
    I mean, I think that it is very clear that those that doesn’t have a defined passion can not follow their passion. But I think that if you have a defined passion, and there is something that you really love to do, that you enjoy and that makes you happy.. why not doing it? I think that if that is the case, it worth a lot the effort to practice, practice, study, study and become so good that they can’t ignore you.
    So those that don’t have a passion, don’t follow it, but those who have it, and who enjoy it, and who dream about being really good in their passion, I think that those are really fortunate. I think that this is a subject quite simple and it is not necessary to over complicate it.
    It is my case, I knew what I wanted to do since I was 12 years old, and since then I have been working very hard to do it. I followed my passion and now I consider that I am very good at it and I really enjoy my work. And of course I keep learning everyday.
    It looks like you have something about having passion and I can’t understand it.

    • I think the issue here is that you’re relying on an assumption that is so common that you’re treating it as self-evident. In more detail, you’re assuming the following: if there is something that “you enjoy and that makes you happy” then matching that topic to a job will lead to a career that you enjoy and makes you happy.

      This syllogism seems logical, but it’s in fact flawed. Years of research into workplace satisfaction tells us that the *specifics* of what you do for a living does not matter nearly as much as we think. The traits that lead to deep satisfaction include things like autonomy, competence, impact, etc. These traits are hard won and usually require that you systematically get good. They don’t require, however, a job matched to a strong preexisting inclination.

      The problem with your assumption is that it leads people who have a “passion” to believe that all they have to do is match a job to that passion — if they do so, they’ll love their work from day one. In reality, however, they are almost certainly not going to love their work from day one, as this love requires traits like autonomy, competence, and impact that can take a while to develop. The result is that they end up confused and anxious, believing, perhaps, that they choose the *wrong* passion and that they should switch to another job. The notion of “passion” has become a red herring that distracts them from the real path to meaning and satisfaction.

      If we killed the word “passion” from our job hunting vocabulary, and instead talked more specifically about the types of traits that generate real meaning, and the types of strategies that returned these traits, I think we’d have a lot more people a lot more pleased with their working life.

      • I didn’t say (and I don’t believe at all) that if you follow your passion everything will be easy and you will be happy.
        I think that we all know that it doesn’t work like that.
        To be good at something you must work (practice, study, etc) very hard, and it doesn’t matter if the subject is your passion or not.
        If you want to be very good at something you must work very hard. I think this is a fact.
        Then, if you have this clear, I don’t see the problem about following your passion. I think it is a great experience, very fulfilling.
        And I don’t have any problem with those that don’t have a passion, or that don’t want to work on their passion. I understand that they can achieve a lot of fulfilling, success, etc. studying and working on anything else.
        My only concern is about your rejection for passion. I don’t understand it. I think that we have thousands of examples about very successful people that followed their passions. They worked very hard, they suffered sometimes, but they are happy because they achieved what they dreamed in their childhood. I am not talking about being World Champion. I am just talking about being good at what you really like, and being able to live from it.
        I think that’s something great.

        • I think the confusion here is that you think that I dislike passion. I have nothing against passion. In fact, I think passion for one’s work should be a goal.

          What I dislike is the advice to “follow your passion” as it gives people the wrong impression about what is required to end up with passion for your work. In your response it’s clear you understand this distinction that the match of your work to a passion does not by itself offer you long term benefits. But I think many, many people do not understand this distinction. That’s why I want to get rid of the advice as it misleads many.

          • I think what David is trying to say is that preexisting passions can help you choose where you focus your EFFORTS towards becoming good at something, not something that gives you happiness right away. You might argue David had a strong interest–rather than passion–in something which compelled him to get good at that area.

    • As per my observation words like passion, motivation, interest are used quite freely in the society we live but sometimes can be very misleading. If we enter any profession with a conclusion that we like it or whether dislike it, then it will be fairly easy for us to get off track. If we focus on these snappy words while picking up a profession then its going to become an effort to keep up with that job because as these heightened states of emotions or feelings are very short lived and once they fade away boredom is born which tricks us to search something more meaningful or passionate and we keep going round and round. like a dog chasing its own tail.

  8. I’ve learned a lot from this blog, but the incessant beating of the dead passion horse has become redundant and unhelpful.

    What I read in this story is a guy who was influenced by you, Cal, and so describes his (still very early) success in the same terms you would. Good for him for landing the job he wants, but I don’t see why I should read his story as evidence for your theory of career success any more than I should take people who describe their own success as arising from having “followed their passions” at their word either. You’ve rightly pointed out that people cram their own histories into that “passion” narrative because it’s the dominant narrative about career success that they have access to. Who’s to say that’s not what we’re seeing here (but using your language and framework instead) from a fan of your work?

    Maybe it isn’t, but the point is, your post doesn’t give us any kind of illuminating detail that would show that, or that would crystallize your general argument in a new form. It’s stale.

  9. It could be argued that “follow your passion” is in fact what Cal is arguing for, though it’s not immediately obvious.

    The problem is that the word “passion” has lost its original connotations. The term originally meant “suffering” or “agony” (as in “the passion of Jesus Christ”) – if you look it up, it derives from the Latin “passio” (“suffering”). In other words, it refers to a person, object, or activity that you are willing to undergo agony for (e.g., a lover).

    Hence, “follow your passion” – if properly understood – is potentially valuable advice. What Cal is really attacking is the notion that “passion” means little more than “what makes you happy” in a banal sense. Properly understood, “follow your passion” really means that you should find your agony.

    For college grads just starting out, perhaps the question should be “what activity do you find the most satisfying, even though it’s arduous, time-consuming, potentially harmful to your health/psyche, and your friends and family think you’re crazy for pursuing it?” And if the activity is a valuable one, and ordinary people (read: saner people) are unwilling to undergo the pain or difficulty required to achieve it, then you have an advantage. It’s not a true “passion” unless it draws blood.

    Many successful people are psychologically unstable to some degree. You have to be a bit compulsive – if not downright obsessive – about an activity to become really good at it. Lives have been ruined in the pursuit of some of the most lasting achievements of human civilization.

    • Well said Tom. I wanted to add the origin of the word “passion” in my earlier post, but you did very articulately.

      I also wanted to stress a point I made earlier about spending a lot of time working on something one is passionate about, vs doing something the market finds valuable. The amount of things one could do is limitless whereas the number of things the market finds valuable is limited.

      Many times we see people that are passionate about something turn that into a successful career even though their passionate work and their career are completely unrelated. I think it’s because there are certain traits of just being passionate about anything (“attention to detail, obsessively thinking things through in every way imaginable, etc) that can be applied to any career.

      And you are right about unbalanced individuals being successful. Sadly as the world becomes more complex it will require more hyper specialization from people.

  10. The idea of following your passion usually comes at a time when we are all deep in the midst of our educations. Wondering what to do with your college training is difficult enough without some fool injecting the idea that you should have a passion for something, and that you should follow it. I think that causes more stress and confusion than we think. It’s not at all liberating to discover you should be following your passion when, at the age of 22, we might not have any idea what we want out of our lives. Seriously, how much time have you set aside to become passionate about anything at all up to that point?
    The author here seems to be saying that you can follow your passion just as soon as it reveals itself to you, while you are learning and perfecting useful skills that are suited to your aptitude.

  11. David,

    Great arguments. Do you have a blog?

    The “don’t follow your passion” argument only works for people who do not have genuine interests in reachable goals. “Wanting to be an astronaut” or “become a NBA champion as the 1st midget in history” is not the same as “having a passion for cooking” (open a restaurant) or “passion for animals” (becoming a vet), etc…

    As for the argument “people bounce from work to work”, well… as Cal Newport said himself in a podcast with Brett McKay, this enables you to develop a wide array of skills that could prove to be useful in the long run.

  12. Quartz just published a personal essay along these lines:

    Her career advice, which I think would clear some of the confusion for your readers, is to not make a living doing something you hate. As opposed to “follow your passion”, avoiding what you hate leaves room for different possibilities and unforeseen opportunities, which make up the winding path of a great career.

    My favorite line: “I love what I do. And it loves me back.” Some may be ok scraping by financially (to each her own), but I am much happier now that I’ve found a career path that adequately compensates me for my efforts.


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