Is "Follow Your Passion" Really Bad Advice?

I see that Cal Newport has a new book out where he argues that following your passion is actually bad advice.

I like Cal Newport and have been very helped by the things he has to say, such as his excellent article getting creative things done. But I think this is, unfortunately, a case of overstating a point in a way that renders it inaccurate.

For example, if “follow your passion” is bad advice, then does that mean “don’t follow your passion” is good advice? Should we do what we hate instead?

Newport argues that what we should do is cultivate skill, and we typically come to love those things we become good at. I think there’s a lot to that (though it’s not everything, and isn’t always the case).

But what I disagree with is why Newport feels like he has to “debunk” the notion that we should follow our passion. I doubt that most people who say “follow your passion” mean that in an unqualified sense. The right way to understand passion as it relates to our careers is as follows.

1. Passion truly is critical. You should follow your passion — but…

2. Passion is one of three things you need to consider. You don’t consider passion alone. Instead, you consider (1) what you are passion about, (2) what you can be excellent at and (3) what meets a real need in the world. Your greatest career effectiveness (and, likely, calling from God) is at the intersection of those three things.

3. To speak in terms of “don’t follow your passion” or “the notion that we should follow our passion is a cliche, and it’s bad advice” is to give a hugely incomplete picture of things because it can mistakenly lead people to overlook the critical place that passion does play (understood as I describe in point 2). It would be much better to say “passion is not enough,” or something like that.

4. Newport is right that passion is not always first. But sometimes it is. Let’s not discourage those people who do have a clear passion by telling them that following their passion is bad advice.

5. The best way to find your passion and gifts is to act. Years ago spiritual gifts tests were common. Rick Warren said when he took one back in the day, he only had one gift: martyrdom. Another guy who went around mooching off of others all day turned out to have the gift of “poverty” — which turned out only to reinforce him in his crazy efforts! In contrast, the way to find out what you are good at and love to do is not to take a test or just think to yourself “this is my passion,” but to do stuff. Then you find out what you love and are excellent at (and what is actually serving people), and build on that.

If that is Newport’s point, that’s great. But then his book would have been much more helpful, I think, if the big idea being used to promote it was “passion is not enough,” rather than trying to make the bold (and wrong) statement that the advice to “follow your passion” is wrong.

I’m all for bold statements, and calling attention to counterintuitive things. The trick, though, is that you have to be right in the statements you make. It’s great to say something unexpected, but that unexpected statement has to remain true once the person has understood the subject more deeply.

In this case, I think that those who have said “follow your passion” are being misrepresented.

However, with this clarified, Newport’s book is certainly worth checking out and I sure will be helpful on many, many fronts. I applaud Newport in the very helpful work that he does. I just think that this particular (very big) portion of his book and its lead marketing themes could have been recast in a much more helpful light.

  • Jay Oza

    What he says in his book that if you throw away everything you have built for passion, then you are not likely to succeed. He just explains what Steve Jobs said in his Stanford speech that before you abandon what you are good at and pursue your passion that it is not that simple and you will end up being disappointed.

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