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Zipcar CEO’s Dangerous Advice on Passion

Problematic Passion

The Wall Street Journal’s At Work blog recently featured an interview with Zipcar CEO, Scott Griffith. The title worried me: Zipcar CEO: “If You Don’t Have Passion for Your Job, Quit.”

Sure enough, in the interview, Griffith recalls that he had an interest in technology and transportation as early as junior high school. He then generalizes widely:

[W]e all kind of know what our passions are pretty early in life, and if you can figure out a way to align your avocation with your vocation, the sky’s the limit for your career and your happiness.

This, of course, is the standard thinking on career satisfaction. As readers of my new book know, it’s also dangerous advice. To reiterate: most young people do not have a clear passion. In fact, it’s unclear what “passion” really means at this stage. Is it a hobby? An obsession? A vague interest?

Griffith is well-intentioned. And to be fair, he also precedes the above with the caveat, “it may not be that clear to everybody.” But ultimately he’s still reinforcing a dangerous trope: that we’re all hard-wired for a specific profession.

As I’ve argued, this belief leads young people to anxiety and disillusionment when the reality of work doesn’t match their dream job ideal. For most, passion must be cultivated over time, as part of a more general process of building skills and then leveraging these skills to control our career.

Put another way: passion is a great goal, but unless you’re exceptionally lucky, it requires more than just a little day dreaming in the back of a junior high classroom.


At around 6:00 pm this evening, I drew the winners for my one-on-one conversation contest. They have been notified by e-mail. Thank you everyone who entered. I wish I could speak to each of you individually, but with well over 150 book purchases submitted, I would have been glued to the phone for the foreseeable future!

In other book news, you might enjoy this excerpt from SO GOOD which ruffled some feathers over at Fast Company. Turns out people really like Steve Jobs. Who knew?

(Photo by crschmidt)

18 thoughts on “Zipcar CEO’s Dangerous Advice on Passion”

  1. Just read your book and it appealed to my “flies in the face of conventional wisdom” sensibilities. However, I’ve learned to read with a healthy skepticism these days. “So Good…” passes the test of “advice that does no harm.” Meticulously laid out with anecdotes of brilliant folks with Ivy League credentials, I want to test the theory with us mere mortals! “Life passion” falls into the same bucket as “soul mate” in that it at least invites the fantasy that little work is required once found, and you beautifully debunk that myth as far as a career goes. I just read a book (Social Media is Bullshit) that lays out why social media does not lead to sales, and along with this book are the two most promising business/advice books I’ve read this year. Although Seth Godin recommended yours, I bought it anyway. Seems as if the great successes rewrite history and forget their past in recommending passion. Human nature I guess.

  2. Cal,
    I am reading few of your posts now…what makes me worried is that you also have developed an extreme viewpoint like other people. Is it a researcher’s bias?
    One side you say that people who believe that we are born with a specific talent or a passion and we must find that passion are wrong. On the other side you are also persuading people to start developing passion for whatever job they are doing at present and forget about looking for something which may really in this world be their true passion. So you are persuading them to stop looking for their real passion because according to you it doesn’t exist but it is cultivated.
    In Ayurveda and Hinduism philosophy everything is expressed in terms of moderation for example homeostasis of human body. Any extremism is not good whether it is of first kind of people when they just quit their job and leave everything for the search of their true passion or whether your way of stop looking for your true passion and start cultivating a passion in whatever thing you are doing at present and forget about your true passion. You are representing the philosophy of our parents who also kept reiterating the fact “that stop the madness of searching what you love just love what you have.” Don’t you think you have become like our parents who stopped us from looking out of the box giving so many examples of people who loved what they were doing and become successful?
    Meaning of success for an individual is different for every single human in this world. One can never have one model of success. For example as I can see from your arguments is that being successful means being recognised by other people, earning money, having a good home and maintaining a good family. But Cal , it can be different for someone else, for example Buddha … do you think Buddha was an unsuccessful man because he left his home for search for truth or may be his passion whatever you say :). Do you think Buddha was an unsuccessful man because he was begging on the streets and not working for money or fame?
    I hope you remember my last message to you about two types of passion, one being the instinctive passion which is like food for your soul and the other being the conscious passion which you develop overtime. Cal, a lot of people follow you and are looking for a good advice from you. Be very careful not to be on one extreme thought because you may kill any other way of being happy. The best part would be combining your thoughts which I would say old world school of thoughts about passion like our fathers and grandfathers and new world school of passion which says find your true passion. Combine both the schools in the way that until you really find your instinctive passion keep searching for it but don’t do it in extreme , in the meantime when you don’t know what your instinctive passion is develop a conscious passion for something which can sustain your search for your instinctive passion. Keep experimenting with different things of the world to find your instinctive passion and in the meantime keep something in your hand going side by side and develop a conscious passion. In this way one day you would really find your true instinctive passion and after that life will be all effortless 🙂
    Yours truly,

  3. This remind me a martial arts coach who knew that he wants to be a martial arts coach at the age 16.

    The problem with people who know what they want from life very early is that they don’t realize that they are exceptions and don’t understand that most of us discover what we want to do much later in life.

  4. I’m about 3/4 of the way through your new book, and I really like the messages you have presented, as well as the way they are argued and backed up with facts and case studies. My passion in life is ultimate frisbee, but I didn’t even start playing until I was a junior in college. I’ve always liked crazy sunglasses, but I didn’t think about running my own social good sunglasses business ( until I stumbled upon an ad for waveborn from a random DC newsletter.

    I agree that creating career capital (anything from how to throw the frisbee at different release points to how to run efficient meetings to how to lead other employees or teammates) is more beneficial than just blindly following whatever you are passionate about at a given moment. Most folks still have passions yet to be discovered. For example, my father started taking art classes at the senior citizen center after he retired from managing retail stores his whole life. He just won first prize at the state fair with one of his works, but had never even considered art as a passion of his until after his working life was done.

  5. I haven’t read your book yet but I hope you are not suggesting that one should look happiness only in whatever he/she is doing. Just like bad marriages there are bad career choices especially when they are made early in life. And just like good marriages, careers require tender care. After all passion lasts only so long…

    I have switched careers once before. And I don’t regret that decision one bit. I have enjoyed every moment of it, including the slogging it entailed early on. And I am almost certain to do it again. I have no illusions about the freshness of grass that lies on the other side, given my age (wrong side of the 30s) I expect it to be doubly hard.

    There is but one life to live and risk of failure is not good enough a reason for me not try things that matter to me.

  6. I have read all of Cal’s books and I think the latest is the least helpful. For one-Cal attempts to generalize his hypothesis based on hand-selected accounts that are essentially testimonials-not a good source of experimental data. Next he refutes the passion hypothesis by again hand-picking several people who have failed following their passion-this data is invalid for the above reason. Also most if not all of the people who opted to follow the craftsman approach came from Top Schools-people from these schools are given much more career opportunity then many others which is why you see Harvard, Wharton, Stanford English majors working on Wallstreet. The vast majority of people in the workforce are working jobs that they do not enjoy. To therefore suggest that they should embrace deliberate practice -which is the opposite of enjoyable is absurd. This essentially says do what you are not going to enjoy at a job you do not enjoy in order to get better. I could go on but the book is off the mark especially in terms of experimental design. Coming from Dartmouth and MIT-Cal should have been much more careful about testing his hypothesis. However, I do appreciate that Cal opened up a discussion on how to use Deliberate Practice in Cognitive Based Domains.

  7. Cal,

    Your book has provided me with a great, big, overdue epiphany. I can’t thank you enough. I’ve always thought I was a bit crazy for thinking along the lines of what you’ve written, as so many people have been pushing the follow-your-passion kool-aid since I got out of college.

    I was on vacation when I blazed through your book, so it may be a combination of your writing and a clear mind, but I suddenly have a certain excitement about the engineering job I got out of college over three years ago. This is honestly the first time I’ve felt this way, falling into the passion trap right out of school and wanting to quit my not-so-sexy job for the past three years.

    I truly believe that you’ve struck gold with this line of thinking, and you’ve articulated it so well in this book. I suddenly feel like I’m on the right track again, not making a mistake by continuing at my opportunity-filled job each day. It’s a horrible feeling to be told that you’re making a mistake by NOT doing something sexy each day, which is what passion advice essentially boils down to.

    Your book has had the ability to stoke a fire that went dim over three years ago. For that I thank you.

    Mark Dowdell

  8. Cal I’m new to your ideas. I read your article on the HBR blog and found my way here because your thoughts are intriguing.

    The “follow your passion” mindset that’s very common now wasn’t popular a short-time ago.

    In previous centuries, if your father was a farmer, you became a farmer. More so, you understood from a young age that one day you’d be a farmer.

    So the follow your passion advice is relatively new. And in my view — good advice.

    But I also agree with you that it’s outdated. Passion is only one ingredient to success, and it’s not enough.

    Great writing! I’m excited to learn more about your ideas.

  9. The problem with people who know what they want from life very early is that they don’t realize that they are exceptions and don’t understand that most of us discover what we want to do much later in life.

    True. Also, “knowing what you want to do at an early age” is a more random, ambiguous thing then we often understand. Some people’s personalities are setup to latch onto things more easily. When you latch onto something you tend to develop skills quickly and then feel more and more passion for it. You then look back and say, “hey, I followed my passion.” But the reality is that there was nothing intrinsic about this particular activity. The skill is what mattered.

    The vast majority of people in the workforce are working jobs that they do not enjoy. To therefore suggest that they should embrace deliberate practice -which is the opposite of enjoyable is absurd.

    The experience of deliberate practice is more nuanced. It’s not fun in the sense of checking e-mail. But it can also be deeply satisfying. It’s the feeling writers experience struggling with a novel, or musicians struggling with a new piece. In many ways, it’s the opposite feeling of being in a job where you offer little of value and are therefore bored.

    Your book has had the ability to stoke a fire that went dim over three years ago. For that I thank you.

    Thanks Mark. You should consider leaving a note on Amazon!

  10. Cal,
    You are to be commended for seeing the opportunity to create the “anti-Passion” or “anti-Follow Your Bliss” niche. I would guess, once you throw your lot in with a certain philosophy and write a book about it, and promote it actively, that doesn’t leave much room to consider alternatives or exceptions to the rule. My first reactions to the advise in the book seem to echo the adage, “if you may a hard bed, lay in it.” Which many will extrapolate to staying in a toxic relationship, etc. Maybe the point of reckoning is once a person has an awareness that dedication and hard work and skills development are doing little to “cultivate,” then the passion shaker needs to be spun and a new path chosen. Kudos for sharing a blog to permit different views and opinions.

  11. I followed this advice back in 2009 and it has changed my life for the better.

    I run my own business and never felt happier.

    I sometimes wish I would have done it earlier but don’t regret the 9 years I worked in corporate as it helped me develop the skills needed to become a successful business owner. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint

  12. I have to admit that advice does sound a little dangerous but people who listen to it should put the advice into context and perspective of their own life. Sometimes quitting your job even if you don’t have passion for it is not practical.


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