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Passion is Bullshit – Cal Newport on Finding Work You Love

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.

 



I Is Not Enough – Amartya Sen on the Utility and Moral Dimension of Thinking Beyond Ourselves

One of the reasons for this blog is to share different frameworks of thought that I’ve found helpful or interesting with others. I am the kind of person who really enjoys having a conceptual framework for why, what and how I go about doing just about anything.

In the introduction to his book, The Idea of Justice, the economist Amartya Sen makes an eloquent case for his attempt at crafting a theory of justice. What I love about the passage that follows is that you could replace the word justice for any number of things such as: nutrition, monetary policy, relationships, investing, meaningful work, and have a compelling argument for why we should strive to build a theory around our actions and the actions of others:

The identification of redressable injustice is not only what animates us to think about justice and injustice, it is also central, I argue in this book, to the theory of justice. In the investigation presented here, diagnosis of injustice will figure often enough as the starting point for critical discussion. But, it may be asked, if this is a reasonable starting point, why can’t it also be a good ending point? What is the need to go beyond our sense of the word justice and injustice. Why must we have a theory of justice?

To understand the world is never a matter of simply recording our immediate perceptions. Understanding inescapably involves reasoning. We have to ‘read’ what we feel and seem to see, and ask what those perceptions indicate and how we may take them into account without being overwhelmed by them. One issue relates to the reliability of our feelings and impressions. A sense of injustice could serve as a signal that moves us, but a signal does demand critical examination, and there has to be some scrutiny of the soundness of a conclusion based mainly on signals. Adam Smith’s conviction of the importance of moral sentiments did not stop him from a seeking a ‘theory of moral sentiments’. Nor from insisting that a sense of wrongdoing be critically examined through reasoned scrutiny to see whether it can be the basis of a sustainable condemnation. A similar requirement of scrutiny applies to an inclination to praise someone or something.*

As compelling as this is for me, there are, I’ve been told, some people who consider an intellectual framework to be superfluous, if not downright stupid. To such people, a theory is nothing more than an extra layer of unnecessary complexity around a problem. Instead of theoretical frameworks for action, such people assign value only to their intuition and unique personal experiences.

For example, people often dismiss the need for an intellectual framework in the context of weight-loss and exercise. They say things like, “If I want to lose weight,  I just eat less and exercise more.” or “If I want to get stronger, I just go to the gym and lift heavy weights.” And in some sense these people are right, they recognize that often it is doing simple and effective things that make real progress and over intellectualizing can be a waste of time and energy.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it runs a dangerous risk of oversimplification and ignores the role that generalizable framework plays in improving the lives of others.

I say improve the lives of others because meaningful lives are the result of good decisions (on average) and good decisions are the result of understanding how the world works. In light of that understanding, the failure to try and think beyond our own intuition and experience can be viewed a failure from a moral dimension.

The failure to attempt to think beyond ourselves is a moral failure because it means we never stop to ask if and how our experiences manifest the underlying reality of the world. Such an approach to life precludes the possibility of creating a generalized framework that can be communicated, tested and then shared to better the lives of others. 

That said, there are good reasons to be skeptical of theory. Sometimes theories are bullshit.1 But the failure of an individual framework is not the failure of the method. We should consider what works for I and then carefully, and incrementally attempt to discover why and how it will work for we.

 

*Sen, Amartya Kumar. The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard U, 2011. Print.



Brett Victor – Building Technology to Human Dimensions & Being Conscious of The Adjacent Horizon

The Humane Representation of Thought from Bret Victor on Vimeo.

 

At almost 1 hour the above talk by Brett Victor is both long and incredibly thought provoking. In it he explains how our current technological landscape utilizes only a narrow band of humanity’s capacity for thought.

People like to talk about where technology is going and what it will do for us but as Mr. Victor demonstrates, technology doesn’t move towards its highest expression by improvements in processing power or market forces alone. Instead it requires people equipped with the intentionality to design technology that work with and across the scope of human capabilities.

 

For me his point about the needs for intentionality in how we design technology speaks to a larger issue in our society. That is, the misguided assumption that outcomes are driven by market forces through a competitive evolution towards their most useful and desirable incarnation. This is naive, many things are shaped almost irrevocably by the design decisions at their beginnings, or to use the technical term they exhibit path dependency. The way that cities are designed is a good example of this.

This is worth talking about because only once we acknowledge this reality that things won’t take care of themselves can we begin to look at the edges of what might have been, and what better future might be on the adjacent horizon, but only with our help. As Mr. Victor eloquently ends his talk:

Humane won’t just happen. This not just like Sussman’s technology that is going to happen because there’s already really powerful forces at play. Humane is never a default. And humane only ever comes out of deliberate and conscious design work. If you do the incremental thing, and just ride the current wave of technology and let technology lead you wherever it leads you it’s going to lead you to a tighter and tighter cage…

 

 




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