New career advice: don’t follow your passion


A question we find ourselves asking from time-to-time is, “What do I want to do with my life?”. To some it may seem natural, but for most of us it’s an on-going, continuous reflection of our lives.

Actor Steve Martin has said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” This quote has also provided inspiration for a similarly titled book by Cal Newport, a writer and Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University.

In his book, Newport argues that “following your passion” is a seriously flawed and potentially dangerous way of thinking. He challenges the wildly popular notion and discovered that people who were successful and fulfilled in their careers did not follow their passion.

According to Newport’s research in a recent study, 500 Canadian university students were asked what their passions were – only four per cent of those passions led to careers.

Steve Jobs is a prime example of an individual who did not follow his passion. Throughout his earlier years leading up to the development of Apple computers, he was in India seeking spiritual meaning, studying Buddhism and following a Zen lifestyle. If he were to “follow his passion”, he would have become a yogi.

Jobs’ biggest influence in the aesthetics of Apple products was due to his study of calligraphy and the simple, minimalistic nature and beauty of the Zen lifestyle. This supports the idea that you can give great value to the world through your work and talents.

So if you’re not supposed to follow your passion, what are you supposed to do?

Become excellent at something. Do this in two ways: build the skills needed and develop career capital.

Build rare and valuable skills

Make sure these skills are of interest to you. This gives you actual value in the marketplace and distinguishes you from others. The more skills you have, the more leverage you have. It must be deliberate and strategic. Think of them as little milestones of accomplishment.

Whether it is developing graphic design skills, creative writing or learning a new language, your skills are your currency in the marketplace.

Acquire “career capital”

Newport disperses the term “career capital” throughout his book. It is the first I’ve ever heard of the term but it makes perfect sense. The more you invest in your capital, the more valuable you will be. “Doing the work right trumps finding the right work,” writes Newport.

This is because the specifics of the work are not important. Traits such as mastery, purpose, autonomy, impact and creativity cause you to be intrinsically motivated by your work. Through skill building and career capital, you will find that many career paths may lead to these traits.

The point I want to leave you with is this: don’t worry if you have not found your niche or “passion”. Don’t worry if you don’t know what program to choose or what major to declare.; start somewhere. Getting an education of any kind is a great place to begin. Then shift your focus on acquiring skills and building your capital. Become so exceptional at what you do that you cannot be ignored.

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