Once upon a time, my job was to sell bonds. I didn’t like my job. I spent a lot of time thinking about what job I should do instead. The internet said that people should do what they are passionate about. So I thought, what am I passionate about? And I thought about it some more. But the answers were never that compelling.
There were a lot of things I was interested in, but nothing had that quality of deep and soul consuming fire which sends people up the tallest mountains or dodging bullets to feed refugees. So I kept thinking about it. And then, finally, I read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
Now I can tell you that passion is (mostly) bullshit. There is a better way to find work you love.
Why Passion Is Overvalued And Overblown
The myth that passion is the way to find work we love, like any good lie, is built on a grain of truth. That truth is that when someone is innately passionate about something, and it works out it for them, it just makes so much sense. We see someone who was born passionate become successful at what they love, and think by golly that’s the way the world is supposed to work. But we forget that this is like looking at someone who was born with a passion for playing the lottery and happened to hit the jackpot – it doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everyone.
The second reason we over attribute success to innate passion is that we tend to like what we become good at. There are a whole lot of people who did not decide what to work on based on any preexisting passion, but developed passion because they became good at what they did. These people then confuse things by telling themselves and others that they have been passionate about what they do all along.
Cal Newport opens So Good They Can’t Ignore You with Steve Jobs as an example of someone who was not always the quintessential passionate entrepreneur. In truth, Jobs was a bright young man who stumbled into something good and then developed a passion for it only after experiencing some success. As evidence, Newport cites the fact that Jobs was a co-founder at a startup company before starting Apple but abandoned his job without telling his co-founders to spend months at the All One spiritual commune. Not the type of behavior you’d expect from a person who was supposedly deeply passionate about starting a computer company.
Finally, some people just lie about being passionate. They say they love what they do because they’re afraid to admit they don’t. This is a symptom of the fact that our society presumes that to be good at something you must be innately passionate about it. So much so that many people feel it is a mark of personal failure to even admit they do not LOVE their jobs.
For all these reasons and more, passion gets way more credit than it’s due.
Ask Not About Passion But About Career Capital
Instead of trying to figure out what we are passionate about, Newport urges us to focus on acquiring what he calls career capital. For Newport, career capital is rare and valuable skills.
How is this different than the passion-based approach?
First, as a question, the career capital framework shifts the focus of our decision criteria from a question that is centered around “I”, “What am I passionate about?”, to a question that is centered around others, “What is the world looking for that I can become really good at?”
Second, it specifies that the skill must be rare and valuable. For instance, writing words on the internet about books you’ve read is not a rare and valuable skill, so getting good at that is probably a waste of time.
Third, the career capital framework does not demand passion as a prerequisite for trying things. This means you won’t prematurely disqualify things you may end up having a great career in before you have a chance to try them.
Fourth, using the career capital framework makes it explicit that you have to not only identify what skill you want but also acknowledge that you have to get really good at it. Getting good at things is hard. To become genuinely skilled at something you have to get up and do stuff that is tiring and dull and uncomfortable and you have to keep doing it, often for years. Acknowledging this up front helps you make decisions about what you are willing to pursue.*
Finally, the Career Capital approach also provides a safer road-map for getting to where you want to be because as Newport points out, passion can be dangerous. Dangerous because making decisions on passion alone can lead us to attempt things that we are genuinely unprepared for. Passion has lead many people to start businesses armed only with good intentions and no skill or contacts. Unfortunately, this is like jumping out of an airplane without really knowing how to use your parachute. Yes, you are deeply motivated to learn how to open your chute but you only have so much time to do it and the results will be devastating if you don’t. I did this when I started a business without customers. It’s painful, don’t do it.
Career capital is not as sexy as passion. No one is going to put “Develop Career Capital” on a t-shirt or mug. In fact, it’s so economically intuitive as to be banal. But it is a better approach because it both changes the questions we ask and better defines what we’re seeking.
Once You Have Career Capital, Bargain for Control
The final but critical step in Newport’s formula for achieving work you love is to bargain with your accumulated career capital for control and autonomy over what you do.
To see why these qualities are critical to having a career you love, imagine what it would be like to be a rock star without them. Yes, you’d be famous, and make a lot of money but if you only had three weeks of vacation per year, and no say over where and what you had to play, you’d probably grow to hate it in the long run.
Now imagine you’re a rock star that gets to decide where you and how often you work (within reason). And you’re allowed to pick most of the songs you play. You’d probably end up hating the former and loving the latter scenario, even though they are technically the same job.
Part of the brilliance of Newport’s framework is that he makes it explicit that our ability to set the terms of how we work can be just as, if not more important than what we do.
Work Past And Future
In 1931 the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that given the rate of improvement in economic productivity, in the future (our present), we would only have to devote a few hours a day to paid “work.” The real problem, he predicted, would be figuring out what to do with all our leisure time.
Keynes’ vision of the future has not come to pass. We still spend a large portion of our lives doing whatever people are willing to pay us for. There has however been a somewhat compensatory shift in focus towards making that work meaningful and enjoyable.
The problem, up to now, had been that no one gave much serious thought to how to intelligently go about finding work you love. Cal Newport’s career capital framework has changed that. Both by reframing the questions we ask and by better defining what it is we’re looking for, Newport gives us the tools to make better decisions and ultimately create more meaningful lives.