Advice Against Doing What You Love

In his book So Good They Can't Ignore You, Georgetown professor Cal Newport turns popular wisdom on its head. He says "Don't plan your career around doing what you love."

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This was advice I needed to hear, because I have long been guilty of encouraging my college students to choose their career path around what brings them the most joy. I held the tired belief that if you chose a job that you love, then you would never have to go to work. 

But that isn't true. So stop waiting for the clouds to part and for inspiration to grab hold of you. The passion hypothesis is backwards. Newport shares a bunch of stories, including the story of Steve Jobs and the founding of Macintosh Computers, where extremely passionate individuals found their way into their careers through the backdoor, so to speak. Jobs, for example, wasn't passionate about building personal computers. (Don't drop your iPhone in shock!) Building computers was simply the easiest way for him to travel the world. After awhile, Jobs got really good at building computers and built a company that would go on the become the most powerful company in the world, at least by some metrics.

Newport's Book

The stories in Newport's book are good. But the real argument, I think, comes from psychologist Angela Duckworth in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In her study of exceptional individuals, such as high level CEOs, top-performing students at top American universities, and so on, Duckworth identified two related personality traits that high performing people had and low-performing people did not. Those traits were passion and perseverance. Together these signify the amount of grit a person has.

Unlike Newport, Duckworth maintained that inborn passion (for animals or computers or teaching, etc.) can be responsible for the passion part of the grit calculation. For example, I was able to complete two graduate degrees and write five books because of my inborn passion for existential and humanistic psychology. I can't explain where that passion came from, but it was pure intrinsic interest that drove me. Today, however, I am motivated by a passion that took me several years to grow. It is a passion for teaching and learning. 

Passion Can Be Grown

If you are having trouble deciding what you are passionate about, then take heart: passion can be grown. This is the main point of Newport's book. Because Duckworth has spreadsheets of empirical data and Newport has a few case studies, I will follow Duckworth’s formulation. 

Duckworth explains how you and I become more passionate about things we spend time on--especially when that time is spent in a systematic way. Absently plunking keys on a keyboard is unlikely to cultivate passion in playing the piano. But if I set a dedicated hour of time aside to work on piano theory and to practice chords and fingering and so on, and I do this for a period of years, then not only will I improve my playing ability, but I will develop a passion for doing so. The data is clear in her book: the more time you spend in systematic and dedicated fashion on a skill, the more passion you will have for that skill.

When I began to appreciate writing style and quality, and I wanted to begin improving these elements of my own writing, I first began simply writing as much as possible. Doing so I was able to write loads and loads of stories. I have a folder somewhere with 20 essays and 30 short stories. I don't even remember writing a lot of them. This is not what Duckworth was talking about.

When Duckworth interviewed exceptional writers, here is what they told her they did: they spent a few hours each week working on basic writing mechanics. Not simply writing as much as possible, but working specifically on concision, for example, or alliteration. Some writers would read a passage they admired, then try to reproduce it from memory. Then they would go back and see how the choices the admired author made differed from their own. See? Not just maximizing words per minute or playing the same song over and over again.

When these writers took the passion survey that Duckworth created, the ones who spent the most time in systematic practice were more passionate than those who worked on their skills mindlessly.

What Does This Mean For Students?

If you haven't settled into a career yet, then maybe you don't have to worry about figuring out what you love. Maybe you can take a look and see what sorts of jobs are available or what kinds of industries they represent. You might even find a job that makes a lot of money, and dedicate yourself to cultivating a passion for the work. Just remember: passion does not come easily. It requires work. But with a lot of effort you can cultivate a passion and skill for the work. Then you will get paid handsomely to do something you’re passionate about. 

What If I Am Already Employed?

If you already have a full-time job, then the same principles still apply. If you dedicate yourself to an element of your work, and apply yourself to it in a systematic fashion to improving that element, then your passion for your work will grow. (And you will probably also get paid more. In my experience, however, the increase in passion is far more valuable than the increase in compensation.)

As a college professor, my passion for teaching petered out during the COVID-19 pandemic. The business side of higher education just became too obvious to ignore. During that time I wrote a novel that began, "This is a story about higher education, and how terrible it is." I began looking for work elsewhere, even looking at job listings at a local factory. Thankfully I decided to invest myself in becoming the best teacher I could be, and began readings lots of books on the subject and experimenting carefully in my classes. I was no longer driven by passion, but by systematic study. I changed variables and measured their impact. I dedicated myself to the values I decided were the most important to becoming a helpful teacher. And my passion began to grow. 

The Psychology of Motivation Confirms That Passion Can Be Grown

This all fits in with self-determination theory (SDT), which is the leading psychology of motivation today. SDT is based around the principle that humans perform best and are most personally satisfied when their actions are self-driven or self-determined. I will be happier and more effective when I am in control of my decision and behaviors. 

If, as a college professor, I am working for a paycheck or to keep my department chair off of my back, then my decisions are not self-determined. These common motivations come from without. They are the carrot or stick, respectively. Carrots and sticks decrease need satisfaction. They lead to burnout.

But if I am working on becoming the best teacher that I can become, then I am driven by my values. These come from the inside. They are mine. With them I am self-directed. I am autonomous. Yes, I get paid, but the money is not why I spend 10-20 hours each week working on my books or my website or my interpersonal skills. These go beyond my job-description. 

Instead of “what are you passionate about?” maybe you could consider the alternative: “What will you choose to be passionate about?”