The Real Reason You Haven’t Found Work You Love (The Wisdom of Cal Newport)

on September 24, 2012 | in Work | by

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?”

Um, wrong.

“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:

If you want to change your life, start by reading Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath or Purple Cow by Seth Godin. Seriously. Go do it now.

“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.

# # #

[Image by Helga Weber]

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  • Thought-provoking post Therese. I’m trying to see which method here works in my own life. I found work that I really enjoyed doing, did not see a future in it because of uncertainty and fear. Then went off and did other work only to realize 10 years later, that I loved doing what I started with. But I have built up a lot of skills and have this ‘career capital’ you speak about which now helps me do my original work better. I’ve thought about passion completely differently but your take on Cal’s book, Ramit Sethi’s take on it last week and the book itself which I must read now has given me a different perspective about it.

    Love Made to Stick which I am rereading for the third time!

    • Yeah, it’s definitely a different perspective than the norm (but perhaps a truer one?).

      Dan & Chip Heath are my faves! :)

  • Shannon Hogan Cohen

    always enjoy reading your posts……keep up the critical thinking skills!

  • Yes – love this post! This topic is something I’m especially passionate about. People tell me how “lucky” I am to have a “dream job”— but I know the truth. I’m not lucky. I put in the hard work, took on challenges, stretched myself, networked, and developed the skills I needed/desired to get where I am. It took about 18 months for me, but 6 months in, I was already truly happy… I don’t have a fancy college degree, I’m in my mid-twenties, and I have a young child at home. Anyone can do it!!

    • That is awesome, A! YOU are awesome!


  • Jennifer

    This is a great one! Ordering the book on my kindle now. Thank you!

  • Very good post Therese. I ordered Cal’s book today. I can’t wait to read it.

    • Awesome, glad you liked it Wade! Lemme know what you think of the book!

  • Steph Shackelford @ BeEmbraced

    Great post and summary of the book. You definitely peaked my interest! This is a topic I’m really interested in as I start my own coaching business for high school and college students. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and I think it’s reassuring for students to know that it really is about the journey… as long as you have some hopes and dreams, it’s easier to know the next steps.

    • Hey Steph, I’m definitely in agreement that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach regarding… well, anything in life! :)

  • cj renzi

    “I’d rather blowtorch my nipples off than spend another day of my life doing this.” may be the best line I’ve ever read online. And it is precisely how I felt after 7 years of teaching elementary music. I wasn’t good at it, nor did I want to be. What I was good at is playing the guitar. It is critical to note the vast difference between the two. So I opened a guitar studio in 2005 and never looked back. My “passion for the work (guitar) increased along with his (my) expertise.” I spent 15 years playing guitar before I began teaching elementary music. I had no business in a classroom after one semester of really crappy student teaching. How I ended up there is a book waiting to be written. Anyhow, I had put in tens of thousands of hours practicing the guitar. I was good at it so I could enjoy it. Rare it is to have words resonate so strongly as Cal’s. So, a hearty thanks to Cal and Therese. I’ll sleep the sleep of the dead tonight.

    • Haha. Glad that was good for a laugh! :)

      As a fellow guitar player – congrats on the studio!

      • cj renzi

        Thanks man! Whatdaya play? I love me some shred, but I am mostly a classical guy.

    • Hahahahah, yeah, I *had* to publish the “blowtorch your nipples” thing :).

      Great story CJ, thanks!

  • This is such an interesting post Therese. As time has progressed and I have slowly but surely discovered my passion I have come to be a huge believer in the power of experiences.

    Most of the things I love doing, I wouldn’t be capable of doing many years ago. I didn’t have the discipline, the mindset, nor the focus to give to it.

    For example, with martial arts it takes a lot of hard work. Sometimes, my body hurts. Often the struggle is mental. Yet, I know that if I want to truly understand this art and give my life to it – then I must be willing to push forward.

    I think many years ago, I would have looked for a magic swing of the bat. I wouldn’t be willing to put in the work. So, consequentially I wouldn’t have been able to give what is necessary to get the most of out of it.

    I guess, all I’m saying is that I basically agree with everything you just wrote :).

    • That’s a great insight, Izzy. Thx for sharing!

  • Awesome post and I’m totally guilty of having spent YEARS trying to follow my passion instead of seeing where I could best be of use to, you know, other people. Thanks for the reminder to pick up Cal’s book- I loved his talk at WDS!

    • Live & learn, right! :)

      & Yes, Cal’s talk was great!

  • Adam

    Ah so true. I always wondered why people stress about finding the right JOB, when instead they should be finding any job that will allow the right LIFE and then do the work necessary to make it happen…

  • Mika


    Yess yesss! thank youuuu! Someone finally farking said it! Your shiz won’t sell just because you slathered awesome sauce on it.

    <3 you, Therese, it's always a pleasure reading your stuff:)


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  • I think Cal (and you) bring up some very profound thoughts here. It really made me think. However, due to personal experience, I disagree that it’s not possible to match a job to a pre-exisiting passion. I say this because my pre-exisiting passion AND major in college was writing/journalism. And, my first job was as a reporter. I LOVED it. I lived for my work. But unfortunately, when the recession hit, I was forced to leave and enter ANOTHER field by survival default: public relations and marketing.
    A field that I’m good at, but is not my passion. And now, I’m stuck, because I’ve been out of journalism too long, and can’t get back in.
    My other passion is creative writing, so I’m working on making that dream come true, but I think that career happiness or unhappiness can easily be the result of circumstance. I WOULD encourage people with a pre-exisiting passion to consider looking for work to match their passion, because is IS possible to wake up every morning and feel excited to enter the office by following that route too.
    Thanks for such a great, thought-provoking post!

    • Hi Shari,

      Thanks for your thoughts and for sharing your story. I do agree (and Cal agrees, too; he says so in his book ;-)), that it definitely IS possible to identify a pre-existing passion, follow it, and end up satisfied. For some people, this works.

      It’s just that for a lot of others, it doesn’t work! In fact, it leaves many people disillusioned and disenfranchised.

      There’s never one right answer, so I’m gad you pointed it out that there can be (and certainly are) exceptions. Thanks for sharing– I wish you the best in your forthcoming endeavors!

      • Thanks much! Oh, and I meant to tell you, I love your website’s name, “The Unlost.” The name alone prompted me to click on it. It’s very mysterious. It also reminds me somewhat of Newspeak from George Orwell’s novel, 1984. :-) I like your movement!

        • Thank you! I’m very proud of the name, if I do say so myself :-)

    • I really don’t think it’s too late for you to get back into journalism. In your current job and through your creative writing you’re keeping up your writing skills.

      Don’t give up.

  • Hi Therese,

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read about making ourselves into people who are passionate about our work.

    I’ve been in the work world a long time and have found that Cal is right on the mark. I’m glad you introduced me to his work.

    When I was first out of college, I tried hard to find a job I was passionate about, but I just didn’t know enough about myself to do that. I worked hard to get a job that I thought was perfect only to find after a couple months that it was dreadful.

    The job I ended up loving, and that led to another great job, was one I felt was going to be the most boring thing in the world. It turned out that I loved it.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts when you come back from vacation.

    • therese

      Yes, Cal is great! One of my favorite authors! Thanks so much for your comment. Would love to hear more of your story!

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