Years ago, when I was
working hard as a corporate finance intern eating donuts and browsing the interwebs in my cubicle, I stumbled upon Cal Newport’s blog, Study Hacks, and I was instantly hooked.
“Why do some people find fulfilling and compelling careers, while others don’t?” was a question that Cal, a now 30 year-old computer scientist, was intent to answer– and he set out on a mission to find out.
The answers he found were surprising.
In fact, says Cal, most of us have got the wrong idea altogether about how it is that we come about work we’re passionate about. We’ve fallen victim to what he calls “The Passion Hypothesis,” the overly simplistic notion that “the key to occupational happiness is to first find out what you love and then find a job that matches this passion.”
“Well duh,” you’re probably saying. “That’s just common sense. Everyone knows you’re supposed to ‘follow your passion’ to find work you love. Right?”
“It’s hard to predict in advance what you’ll eventually grow to love,” writes Cal. After poring over research and interviewing dozens of people who are passionate about their work, he noted that very few of these people started out by identifying a pre-existing passion and then matching it up to a specific job. (Now do you catch my drift when I propose that career planning is a horrible idea? ;-)
Take, for example, Ryan Voiland of the organic Red Fire Farm, one of the many passionate folk Cal interviewed while exploring the topic. “Ryan did not follow his passion into farming,” writes Cal. “Instead, like many people who end up loving what they do, he stumbled into his profession, and then found that his passion for the work increased along with his expertise.”
In other words, we’ve got it backwards– rather than identifying your passion in advance and then dropping everything to follow it, Cal proposes that passion for your work is instead something that’s cultivated over time.
Amazeballs! Who would’ve known?!
Today I’ll share three helpful takeaways from Cal’s new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love— the real reasons behind why you haven’t found work you love.
1. You’re obsessed with finding your “one true calling”
If you’ve been stressing hard about finding your passion, then Cal is the bearer of extremely good news: you can stop sweating bullets about finding “the one thing that will make you happy.”
Years of research points to many factors contributing to workplace happiness, but “the reductive notion of matching your job to a pre-existing passion is not among them,” notes Cal.
Instead, the reasons people come to love their work have more to do with the qualities their work affords them, particularly autonomy, competence, and relatedness (see Self-determination theory), which are “more general and agnostic to the specific type of work in question. Competence and autonomy, for example, are achievable by most people in a wide variety of jobs– assuming they’re willing to put in the hard work required for mastery.”
Rather than obsessing about finding that elusive magical-unicorn job, says Cal, find something that sparks your interest and then focus on cultivating desirable traits within the work you’ve chosen.
Working right trumps finding the right work.
– Cal Newport
Finally, you can drop the exhausting and unrealistic notion that you must pinpoint your exact passion ahead of time in order to be happy.
(To be fair, Cal openly acknowledges that there are exceptions to the rule: he notes, for example, that this viewpoint doesn’t apply under the following three conditions: if the job forces you to work with people you dislike, if it involves doing something you think is useless (or even bad) for the world, and if it presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing rare and valuable skills.)
2. You haven’t developed sufficient career capital
This leads us to the question of “How do we work right? How do we gain the competence, autonomy, and relatedness that are key factors in loving the work we do?”
Simple, says Cal: if we want to be afforded work that allows creativity, impact, and the autonomy to work on our own terms, we must have rare and valuable skills to offer in return– what Cal calls “career capital,” which we can then “cash in” for the traits that define great work.
In other words, we have to become really, really good at what we do– so good they can’t ignore us.
“Here’s what struck me about Ryan’s story [of Red Fire Farms],” writes Cal. “He didn’t just decide one day he was passionate about produce and then courageously head off into the countryside to start farming. Instead, by the time he made the plunge into full-time farming in 2001… he had been painstakingly acquiring relevant career capital for close to a decade. This might be less sexy than the daydream of quitting your day job one day and then waking up to the rooster’s crow the next, but it matches what I consistently found: You have to get good before you can expect good work.”
My awesome and hilarious friend Kevin of We’ve Created A Monster is a great example of this principle in action. As an e-publisher and Internet marketer, Kevin loves his work (read about a typical day in the life of Kevin here), but he didn’t just decide one day he was passionate about Internet marketing and then courageously quit his “normal” job to live the life of his dreams.
In fact, early in his career, Kevin initially followed the “Passion Hypothesis” into the field of animation and found himself miserable:
I wanted to be an animator since I was a kid. I loved stories and my favorites were classic Disney like Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, and 101 Dalmatians… My Grannie saved a bunch of flip-book animations I made when I was around 6 or 7.
Anywhoo after college as I was working as an animator I realized something: working as an animator sucked balls.
I had “wasted” years of college and was $50k in student loan debt just to find out my new career was horrible.
Long hours, low pay, terrible deadlines… Ugh.
I’d rather blowtorch my nipples off than spend another day of my life doing this.
So… I walked out.
I was unemployed for 6 months, and sent out hundreds of resumes for jobs I didn’t want to pay bills I hated paying.
I only got one response – ClickTracks.
Kevin spent years at ClickTracks, gaining the skills and expertise necessary to get really good at what he did and to obtain sufficient career capital. Now he’s leveraged the skills he developed earlier in his career to build an autonomous lifestyle that affords him creativity, control, and impact (importantly, he’s also focused on mastering the art of marketing– see point #3 below).
Kevin’s story of how he ended up finding work he loves is very much in alignment with Cal’s theory. He didn’t identify a pre-existing passion and then follow it into his current work– in fact, this method worked out horribly for him.
Instead, he discovered his current line of work “by accident” and found that his passion increased over time as he gained competence and leveraged his skills to create a meaningful and autonomous work environment.
Contrast this with the often-heard story of the blogger or the Internet marketer who leaves his “normal job” to pursue these desirable traits without having first developed sufficient career capital. THIS is where so many of us get in trouble (check out my Advanced Riskology post, How to Make the Hardest Decision of Your Life, for more on this topic).
If you haven’t found work you love, avoid this trap by focusing on getting really super good at something rare and valuable. Work that affords high levels of impact, creativity, and autonomy is earned, not freely given. Focus on building career capital and watch your level of passion increase as you approach mastery.
Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.
– Pablo Picasso
Career capital alone, however, isn’t always enough. You’ve also got to understand that…
3. Marketing matters
Fark. Yes. ThankyouJeezus, someone finally said it.
Marketing MATTERS, guys, and not just for business owners. We’ve all got something to market, and whether it’s a product or a service, a message or an idea, or yourself, marketing matters more than you can possibly imagine.
Case in point: I very rarely refer to myself as a writer or even a blogger. Heck no– instead, I call myself a Marketer of Truth. Yes, I am that nerdy. My mission has little to do with writing; rather, it has to do with spreading much needed messages of truth to the masses, and that, my friend, is marketing.
Check my Facebook Timeline for proof:
“You’re either remarkable or invisible,” writes Seth. “Remarkable marketing is the art of building things worth noticing.”
Is who you are and is what you do worth remarking on? What differentiates you from the masses?
No matter who you are, marketing matters.
Points worth emphasizing
Cal’s philosophy strikes a nerve with some people, and I can see why: not only does it challenge conventional thinking, but in a sense he seems to be saying “Suck it up. Do the hard work, put in your time, and autonomy and competence and happiness will come later.”
Two points worth emphasizing here: first, I think that one of the most dangerous things we can do is place our source of happiness somewhere out into the future. Saying that “If only I stick with this crappy job long enough, then I’ll have the career capital necessary to dictate an autonomous lifestyle and I can finally be happy!” is in a way akin to saying “If only I could find that perfect job I’m passionate about, then I can finally be happy!”
If we can avoid falling into this trap, finding enjoyment and trust and excitement in every step of the journey even as we work our asses off, then I think we’ve got things right. Gaining mastery is hard work, but the act itself– the process itself– is worthwhile, and that’s worth emphasizing.
The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.
– John Ruskin
Secondly, I’d point out that although gaining career capital does mean that you have to put in hard work and deliberate practice, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve gotta spend years working crappy entry-level jobs or that you have to continue along the same path you’re on now.
In fact, I’m convinced the best career capital (read: rare and valuable skill) often comes from taking initiative rather than “paying your dues” in the traditional sense (see, for example, Charlie Hoehn’s Recession-Proof Graduate), and I’m also a fan of allowing for the exploration of different career options, given that we eventually settle our sights on one (or a few) core competencies.
Regardless of the paths we may take, however, the same core truth remains: if you want to enjoy the traits that are generally associated with loving your work, you’ve first got to become so good they can’t ignore you.
Grab a copy of Cal’s book now, especially if you’re compelled to create a working life full of meaning and passion: >>So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love<<.
Also check out the deets of The Unlost’s upcoming
e-course e-experience on finding your truest career and life path, which incorporates many of Cal’s insights (integrated with Unlost-y type concepts), right over here.
Most importantly, have a supercalafragalistic expialadocious day. May the week and the month ahead of you be filled with wonder, joy, and passion. May your life be smothered with awesomesauce.
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[Image by Helga Weber]