03 October 2012

Cal Newport on following your passion

Cal Newport recently came out with a new book So Good They Can't Ignore You. Part of his central thesis is that "following your passion" and similar cliches given at graduation speeches are terrible advice.

I've followed Cal Newport's blog for years and he's been preaching this for many months. I agree with his idea, though I find his message kind of simplistic and I think he could explain it better.

I think that he's mainly pushing back against the cliche of "following your passion." There are a few jobs where passion is very common. Many people who go into sports, art, music, acting were children who saw adults doing something and decided they wanted to do it to. But most jobs aren't tangible like that. A lot of people got to their successful, fulfilling career through some circuitous route. The main point is that typically there is no easy obvious route to the wonderful career.

I went to a government career panel (for PhD scientists) and one of the panelists said that he talked to some other guys and they all agreed that they came to their current job in a circuitous route. It was only in hindsight that they could see how each choice they made along the way brought them to where they are now. It was perfectly logical now, but there's no way they could have predicted it when they were just beginning their working life.

Everyone will have preferences for some kinds of work over others and that is not something that should be ignored. But it might not be a overwhelmingly "passionate" preference -- like falling in love. The problem with a statement like "follow your passion" is that it makes it sound like the ideal career choice will suddenly come to you in a fit of heavenly inspiration. Like how a naive teenager might think that the first person they fall in love with is the person they'll marry for life.

There is also the pressure of living in a highly competitive world and opportunity cost. Life is much easier if you picked the "right" path from the start, went to the right college and majored in the right subject, etc. Yes, that is true, but there should be more discussion of how mild "failure" and changing directions is normal in a career.

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