Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

February 8, 2019

Career plays a major part in our life. Once we graduate and enter the workforce, we spend a significant proportion of our life working at a job. Therefore, it is important to question, as a university student, ‘How can I enjoy the workforce that is going to take up for the next 10-30 year of my life?’ It has been a burning question that I struggle to find a straightforward answer until I recently encountered the book written by Cal Newport called ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’. The idea  of the book is to answer a simple question: ‘Why do some people end up doing what they love, while others failed’. Newport realised the importance of this question. Before he enters his career to become a computer science professor, he seeks to find out the answer to this question.



The Passion Hypothesis


The conventional wisdom given to us by society when it comes to career advice is to figure out what you love and follow your passion. Even Steve Job himself encouraged  students to find out what you love during his famous commencement speech at Stanford University graduation. His advice went viral, and follow your passion” became the common phrase that we hear nowadays. The author calls this belief as ‘The Passion Hypothesis,’which claims that the key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches the passion.  The passion hypothesis, even though widely believed, might be wrong and potentially dangerous for most of us.


Following one’s passion does work for some people, and it is even more common among gifted individuals, such as professional athletes and musicians. However, the hypothesis is not universally applicable despite the fact that it has worked for many people. Therefore, it is important to study a large number of examples and ask what really works for the majority of the cases.


After extensive interviews from entrepreneurs to songwriters, Cal Newport found out fulfilling careers often root from complex origins which reject the popular belief that all we have to do is follow our passion. Scientists who have studied the question of workplace satisfaction for decades understand this problem, but not many career-advisory  fields and general publics have paid them serious attention. When it comes to the science of passion, scientists make an alternative claim compared to the traditional advice of “Follow your Passion”.


Scientists found out that career passion is rare. In 2002, a Canadian psychologist Robert J. Vallerand conducted an extensive study to find out whether the university students have passion and if yes, what they are. Of 539 Canadian university students who participated in the study, less than 4% identified with passions related to work or education, with the remaining 96% claiming their passion as hobby-style interests such as sport and art. This strikes a strong blow on the passion hypothesis which claims that people have a pre-existing career passion.


Another argument that they discover is that passion takes time to develop and it is the result of mastery. At the early stage of your career, you are likely to come across numerous obstacles that could make you stressed and uncomfortable. Rather than giving up, you step out of your comfort zone and take on the challenges. As you get better and better at what you do by taking on these challenges, you are more likely to develop your skills and become competent. You start to feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction from what you do. The knowledge and experience you have accumulated over the years boost your confidence to take on more challenging tasks much more efficiently. You develop strong relationships with your co-workers and see many examples of your work benefiting others.  This is the point where you started to love what you are doing and develop a passion for what you do. This, in turn, leads to mastery and satisfaction in your job. This means that people who have spent more time on a particular job are more likely to love what they do than those who just started out.


As you see, following the passion at the early stage of your career is a piece of dangerous advice.  It makes you doubt about whether the difficult tasks that you are facing in day-to-day work-life is truly the thing that you really love. Instead of taking on challenges and mastering the tasks at hand, having a passion mindset makes you seek a better opportunity or an easier path than what you are doing. You started comparing what you don’t love about the job with what you love about others job. You begin to wonder whether there is a better opportunity out there waiting for you to be discovered. This is problematic because it leads to dissatisfaction, diverse you focus and makes you continually switching tasks. So, if following passion is bad advice, then what should we do?


The Craftsman mindset


A great job offers three traits in common: creativity, impact and control. Creativity means you have the opportunity to implement your idea and supervise your work. Impact means what you are working has a positive impact on others. Control means you have the ability to choose and decide what, when and where you want to work.


Careers that meet these criteria are rare and valuable. Economics’ demand and supply state that if you want to have these rare and valuable jobs, you have to provide something rare and valuable in return, which author Cal Newport states as the Career Capital. So, how do you develop these rare and valuable skills?


First of all, you scrap the passion mindset and adopt the craftsman mindset. Rather than following your passion, what we should do is to develop an attitude of a craftsman. That means to approach your working life in which you focus on the value of what you are offering to the world rather than focusing on the value your job is offering you and dreaming about a better job out there.


The Craftsman mindset is better than the passion mindset because it gives you clarity and focus. Rather than wondering about better opportunities out there, you are determined to perform the current task well. You take on the challenging tasks and get better at them. However, Cal Newport also warned that there are situations where Craftsman mindset is not applicable.

  1. Your job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.

  2. Your job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.

  3. Your job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

With these in mind, how do you develop a craftsman mindset? The best way is to craft your skills in a way top athletes and musician player practice, which is known as deliberate practice. Professor Anders Ericson of Florida State University wrote an inspiring book about a deliberate practice called ‘Peak: how to master almost anything’. He describes it formally as “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance”. It requires you to get out of your comfort zone, stretch yourself and receive ruthless feedback on your performance.


In the content of building career, most knowledge workers avoid this style of skill development because it is uncomfortable. If the task you are working on is not challenging enough or is repetitive, your skill level will remain at a plateau after some time. Deliberate practice allows you to stretch your skill over this plateau. However, working hard on a challenging task is not enough, you continuously need to receive feedback on the work you are doing. It is through deliberate practice that you gather rare and valuable skills. It is the deliberate practice that is the key towards loving what you do. It is the deliberate practice that makes you become so good to be ignored.


In conclusion, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” has taught me to commit on challenging tasks and develop rare and valuable skills. It turns my viewpoint away from worrying about which career that I am going to get into once I graduate. Now, I am more focusing on deliberately crafting my existing skills and taking on numerous challenges in addition to existing university studies. It is easy to understand the concept of the book, but much harder to apply it in real life. Now, I am taking the challenge to apply the principles laid down in the book toward my day-to-day life. I believe “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” is an important book that will shape the direction of my future, so does yours.


Polite Notice:

All the credit for the idea goes to the book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport. I am just a reader who got inspired by the idea of his book. If there is any misconception or misunderstanding in this article, it is all due to my lack of proper explanation. I wish you all the best with your journey to craft valuable skills and become so good they can’t ignore you.


Reference: Newport, C., 2016. So Good They Can't Ignore You. Hachette UK.





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