I’ve written quite a lot on this blog over the years encouraging you to follow you passion. And today I’m going to tell you to think twice, because I no longer believe “follow your passion” to be such sturdy advice.
I have Cal Newport to thank for changing my mind. Last week I read his new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and it promptly rocked my world. While the 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss has inspired a ton of people not to settle for the default career path, Newport’s book provides the reality check Ferriss fans desperately need to ensure we don’t do anything too drastic.
Summarizing below my big takeaways from So Good They Can’t Ignore You…
Why you should think twice about following your passion
In short, because working right trumps finding the right work. Newport provides plenty of examples and cites numerous studies to help back this up.
One such example is Thomas, a one-time typical wage slave who escaped to a monastery in the mountains to study zen meditation. Thomas soon found though that the reality of being a Buddhist monk didn’t quite match up to his dream of being one, and so he eventually returned to his banking career and began taking the work more seriously. Within two years he’d been promoted several times. As Newport writes in the book…
His work is challenging, but Thomas enjoys the challenge. It also provides him with a sense of respect, impact, and autonomy–exactly the kind of rare and valuable traits… that are needed for creating work you love. Thomas acquired these traits not by matching his work to his passion, but instead by doing his work well and then strategically cashing in the capital it generated.
The lesson here is that most people have it backwards. We tend to believe that we should first find work that we love and then become really good at it. The reality though is that most people who love their work don’t start off loving it. It’s only when they become really good at what they do that they earn the respect of their peers, gain more control over their careers, and feel like they’re making a positive impact in the world.
That’s not to say you should stick with a job you hate instead of quitting to pursue work you’re more likely to enjoy. Life’s too short for that, but don’t get caught dreaming of some perfect career that will come to you out of the blue. That’s never going to happen.
Beware the courage culture
There are plenty of voices online nowadays — and I used to be among them — telling you that the only thing standing between you and the life of your dreams is fear. All you need to do is overcome that fear, and then you’re golden.
Newport writes that while this “courage culture” is usually well-intentioned, it’s also dangerous. Many people end up mustering their courage and taking the leap into a new career, only to find that courage alone doesn’t keep the lights on.
I took the leap two years ago, and I’m making it work. But most of my “success” so far has come down to a skill I’d already spent years developing before taking the leap, that being web design. I earned $5k last month, and the vast majority of it came via freelancing. Not via passive income, not from people paying me to write on my blog, and not in exchange for some magical digital product. It mostly came down to hours of hard work in front of the computer, providing real value to a handful of clients.
So how do you know if you’re really ready to take the leap (and not just drunk on courage)? Newport advises taking the plunge only if you have good reason to believe that people will pay for the skills you already possess. And this you can test without burning any bridges, such as by freelancing on the side while you continue working at your regular job.
The importance of deliberate practice
But what if you don’t have any such skills in the first place? Well then you need to put your dreams on hold and get to work. And you need to work hard, continually stretching yourself and leaning into the discomfort, not just giving up or taking a break when the going gets tough.
This kind of work is called deliberate practice, and it’s what separates the winners from the wannabes.
Unfortunately, we all have this innate resistance to doing that which is difficult. I suspect many folks are drawn to books like the 4-Hour Workweek precisely because they want maximum reward with minimum effort, just like the title promises. Well, sorry, but if you really believe the world works that way, you’re pretty much doomed.
Unless you’re exceptionally smart or lucky, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll ever achieve a 4-hour workweek without putting in years of blood, sweat and tears up front. I know I’ve worked harder than ever since I quit my job. The hours are longer and the rewards are more uncertain. I’ve had to face some hard truths and change directions several times. And I’m still nowhere near getting away with working just four hours a week.
At the same time, I see myself as one of the lucky ones, because I tend to enjoy doing things that are difficult and I already had some career capital to fall back on in case my initial plans fell flat (which they did).
So if you don’t already have some killer skills to your name, you’d better fall in love with deliberate practice. Commit to becoming really good at something. If you know exactly what kind of work you want to do, then focus all your energy on building the skills necessary to succeed in that field.
If you’re not sure what kind of work you want to do, then get busy building general skills that will give you a leg up in many different fields. Work on your social skills, become a competent writer, learn how to deliver an effective speech, that kind of stuff. At the same time, work your ass off at whatever job you pick up to make ends meet. Don’t just be a bartender; be the best damn bartender in town. More doors open up once you become so good they can’t ignore you.
Living the dream ain’t easy
Let’s look at a couple of examples of people who are living what many would consider dream lifestyles.
First, there’s Wandering Earl. Earl’s a travel blogger who’s regularly treated to all-expenses-paid trips from travel companies, gets gifted travel gear from the likes of XShot, and has just started leading his own tours. Essentially, the man is getting paid to travel the world. Sounds pretty cool, right?
But Earl didn’t achieve such a lifestyle overnight. He hit the road thirteen years ago, and has put in lots of time working less-than-ideal jobs and vagabonding on a shoestring budget. When I first met him in Romania earlier this year, he was spending most of his days holed up in an apartment writing a comprehensive guide about living a life of travel.
Then there’s Benny Lewis. Benny loves learning languages and moves to a different country every few months to add a new one to his repertoire. He makes good money teaching other people how to effectively achieve conversational fluency in a foreign language. Again, sounds pretty dreamy, right?
But just like Earl, it’s taken Benny a while to get there. He’s been on the road for almost a decade, and spent many years working odd jobs in hostels and the like before he started making a living through his language hacking skills. And methinks it’s tough to find a better example of a guy who regularly engages in deliberate practice, constantly pushing through mental discomfort to master foreign tongues. His work certainly ain’t easy.
The lesson I take from both of these guys is that the dream job never comes first. No matter how passionate you are about something, you’re going to have to spend significant time building real skills and learning how to deliver real value before you can make a living doing work you love.
When to follow your passion
Newport argues in his book that “follow your passion” is bad advice. I wouldn’t quite go that far. The way I see it, following your passion is all well and good so long as you accept what’s usually involved in such a pursuit (i.e. an incredible amount of patience and hard work). Don’t take the leap and expect to land on your feet within a year or two. Ask yourself if you’d be willing and able to endure at least five years of constant struggle before breaking through. If the answer is yes, then by all means go for it.
Otherwise, the smart play is to stick with your 9-to-5. Get busy mastering your skills in that environment, and then, as Newport advises, strategically cash in the capital you inevitably generate.