Do Like Steve Jobs Did: Don't Follow Your Passion

Steve Jobs didn't start Apple because he loved technology. This excerpt from "So Good They Can't Ignore You" tells the much messier story behind the old saying, "do what you love."

In June 2005, Steve Jobs took the podium at Stanford Stadium to give the commencement speech to Stanford's graduating class. Wearing jeans and sandals under his formal robe, Jobs addressed a crowd of 23,000 with a short speech that drew lessons from his life. About a third of the way into the address, Jobs offered the following advice: You've got to find what you love…. [T]he only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking, and don't settle.

When he finished, he received a standing ovation.

Steve Jobs—a guru of iconoclastic thinking—put his stamp of approval on an immensely appealing piece of popular career advice, which I call the passion hypothesis:

The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you're passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.

This hypothesis is one of modern American society's most well-worn themes. Those of us lucky enough to have some choice in what we do with our lives are bombarded with this message, starting at an early age. We are told to lionize those with the courage to follow their passion, and pity the conformist drones who cling to the safe path. As one prominent career counselor told me, "do what you love, and the money will follow" has become the de facto motto of the career-advice field.

There is, however, a problem lurking here: When you look past the feel-good slogans and go deeper into the details of how passionate people like Steve Jobs really got started, or ask scientists about what actually predicts workplace happiness, the issue becomes much more complicated. You begin to find threads of nuance that, once pulled, unravel the tight certainty of the passion hypothesis, eventually leading to an unsettling recognition: "Follow your passion" might just be terrible advice.

Do what Steve Jobs did, not what he said

If you had met a young Steve Jobs in the years leading up to his founding of Apple Computer, you wouldn't have pegged him as someone who was passionate about starting a technology company. Jobs had attended Reed College, a prestigious liberal arts enclave in Oregon, where he grew his hair long and took to walking barefoot. Unlike other technology visionaries of his era, Jobs wasn't particularly interested in either business or electronics as a student. He instead studied Western history and dance, and dabbled in Eastern mysticism.

Jobs dropped out of college after his first year, but remained on campus for a while, sleeping on floors and scrounging free meals at the local Hare Krishna temple. As Jeffrey S. Young notes in his exhaustively researched 1988 biography, Steve Jobs: The Journey Is the Reward, Jobs eventually grew tired of being a pauper and, during the early 1970s, returned home to California, where he moved back in with his parents and talked himself into a night-shift job at Atari. (The company had caught his attention with an ad in the San Jose Mercury News that read, "Have fun and make money.") During this period, Jobs split his time between Atari and the All-One Farm, a country commune located north of San Francisco. At one point, he left his job at Atari for several months to make a mendicants' spiritual journey through India, and on returning home he began to train seriously at the nearby Los Altos Zen Center.

In 1974, after Jobs's return from India, a local engineer and entrepreneur named Alex Kamradt started a computer time-sharing company dubbed Call-in Computer. Kamradt approached Steve Wozniak to design a terminal device he could sell to clients to use for accessing his central computer. Unlike Jobs, Wozniak was a true electronics whiz who was obsessed with technology and had studied it formally at college. On the flip side, however, Wozniak couldn't stomach business, so he allowed Jobs, a longtime friend, to handle the details of the arrangement. All was going well until the fall of 1975, when Jobs left for the season to spend time at the All-One commune. Unfortunately, he failed to tell Kamradt he was leaving. When he returned, he had been replaced.

I tell this story because these are hardly the actions of someone passionate about technology and entrepreneurship, yet this was less than a year before Jobs started Apple Computer. In other words, in the months leading up to the start of his visionary company, Steve Jobs was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.

It was with this mindset that later that same year, Jobs stumbled into his big break. He noticed that the local "wireheads" were excited by the introduction of model-kit computers that enthusiasts could assemble at home. Jobs pitched Wozniak the idea of designing one of these kit computer circuit boards so they could sell them to local hobbyists. The initial plan was to make the boards for $25 apiece and sell them for $50. Jobs wanted to sell one hundred, total, which, after removing the costs of printing the boards, and a $1,500 fee for the initial board design, would leave them with a nice $1,000 profit. Neither Wozniak nor Jobs left their regular jobs: This was strictly a low-risk venture meant for their free time.

From this point, however, the story quickly veers into legend. Steve arrived barefoot at the Byte Shop, Paul Terrell's pioneering Mountain View computer store, and offered Terrell the circuit boards for sale. Terrell didn't want to sell plain boards, but said he would buy fully assembled computers. He would pay $500 for each, and wanted fifty as soon as they could be delivered. Jobs jumped at the opportunity to make an even larger amount of money and began scrounging together startup capital. It was in this unexpected windfall that Apple Computer was born. As Young emphasizes, "Their plans were circumspect and small-time. They weren't dreaming of taking over the world."

The Messy Lessons of Jobs

I shared the details of Steve Jobs's story because when it comes to finding fulfilling work, the details matter. If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, we would probably find him today as one of the Los Altos Zen Center's most popular teachers. But he didn't follow this simple advice. Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break—a "small-time" scheme that unexpectedly took off.

I don't doubt that Jobs eventually grew passionate about his work: If you've watched one of his famous keynote addresses, you've seen a man who obviously loved what he did. But so what? All that tells us is that it's good to enjoy what you do. This advice, though true, borders on the tautological and doesn't help us with the pressing question that we actually care about: How do we find work that we'll eventually love? Like Jobs, should we resist settling into one rigid career and instead try lots of small schemes, waiting for one to take off? Does it matter what general field we explore? How do we know when to stick with a project or when to move on? In other words, Jobs's story generates more questions than it answers. Perhaps the only thing it does make clear is that, at least for Jobs, "follow your passion" was not particularly useful advice.

Excerpted from So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport. © 2012 by Calvin C. Newport. Reprinted by permission of BusinessPlus. All rights reserved.

Cal Newport, Ph.D., lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a writer and an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He also runs the website Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success. This is his fourth book.

[Image: Flickr user Kristian Bjornard]

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  • Renate Ver

    I don't agree. Jobs said: Find what you love, if you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. That's what he did. He studied history, dance and went on a spiritual journey. All that was him searching for what he loved. He didn't settle and became a Zen teacher, he kept looking. Untill he found it.

  • Amanda I. Greene

    I am interested in what the author of this blog post thinks about this possibility - What landed Steve Jobs his fortunate opportunity was the spiritual work he was doing. It may be that his passion was for self-exploration, and so following his passion, in this sort of indirect sense, really did lead him to the awareness and self confidence required for the job opportunity he ran into. They say luck is preparation combined with opportunity.

  • I Don't belive that Jobs knew what he wanted, see people are not born whit "i'm gonna be a teacher" in their head.We are born with characteristics that fit in all of these job titles that were created by other humans, how can you say you were born to be a policeman when those characteristics that a policeman has can be found in many other job titles you can be anything you want.Jobs found what he loved by being open to try different things

    As i'm writing this i'm looking to try things that match my characteristics (I want Respect,Power for good,feel Proud ,financial freedom,money as tool to do more ,justice for people in disadvantage ) i thought i wanted to be a policeman but i don't like being told what to do.

    people like me might have the hardest time making money or finding what they love because we don't like the system we were born into, don't want the slavery that schools offer ,don't want these 9-5 jobs with bosses that only care about the company.

  • Filipe Duarte

    once you learn a new skill theres a chance to develop pssion for that skill over time, askill or a set of skills that you can work with in a diferent area.

  • Filipe Duarte

    once you learn a new skill, it becames part of you you are, therefore theres a chance to develop a level of passion for whatever you do with that skill.

  • Cak Khoiron

    What the diferences between "your passion" and "what you love" Thank you....

  • Daniel Travolto

    he definitely chose his passion every time. you are being to strict with your definition and flexibility of pashion. You dont have to be passionate about a job. you can be passionate about a particular are of the job and the passion also can join all the time... bein true to your heart is the key

  • WL

    Mr. Newport; you miss the point...Steve Jobs was an Artist..not a techie. "...what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that influenced us." Oscar Wilde

  • Nhlanhla Bhajo Malakoane

    Yes absolutely agree with you, this article is wrong,Jobs did not love tech and computers, but loved Arts and design and used computers as a portal to express his passion for design.

  • Diana

    This is a fantastic article, despite it being a bit old, and the lunkheads who didn't like or understand it. The author is absolutely correct. It is especially applicable to this day and age when it's almost guaranteed that people's passions aren't going to earn them a living designed to keep them out of poverty in the 21st century, particularly with social sciences and the arts. Technology is where it's at today, no matter how much they try to push careers in Education and Healthcare. The jobs aren't there, and if they are, they don't pay nearly enough for a decent lifestyle, let alone lavish. Talk all you want about passions, and money not meaning anything, but money does make the world go round, now more than ever.

  • Le Douce

    If you've read Jobs's bio by Walter Issacson, you'd know Jobs was into technology at a young age.

  • Arthas29

    If 1970's Steve Jobs lived in 2013 he would be diagnosed with ADD, given the prescription drugs and told to relax and  sit down.

  • Hey

    I disagree with the argument this article is trying to make.  Have you seen Steve Job's lost interview tape from when he was at next?  Steve loved computers since he was a child. He does know computer programming and he is a computer whiz. Get outta here and please actually listen to Steve Jobs speak. he has an old interview where he talks about this on netflix.

  • Sarnaa Archie

    I think Steve Jobs wanted to improve people's lives. His attention to spiritual enlightenment was a narrow attention to that passion...and ultimately, I believe, informed his decision to infuse what was in front of him with the life that comes from that passion. Steve pursued his passion for sure, it's obvious in what he built for us.

  • Yuliya

    Jobs is telling us to follow what we love and enjoy to do at the moment, what we feel like doing at this stage of our lives.. And only after some time it all will make sense. If you like cooking, but have no idea how to start business - just cook in some restaurant, and idea to open your own may come to you later. If you enjoy dancing - just dance, maybe later you will open your dancing school. And the opposite - if you enjoy good food, but hate cooking, you can still open your restaurant and hire cook. Or you can work as restaurant critic. I dont think Jobs mean that there is always one passion per person trough all his life and our task is to find it and follow. I think we have to do whatever we like in every moment, try this and that, expand horizonts, improve and develop ourselves. And only with time and experience it will become clear what to choose..

  • Prashanthb

    This article is distorting what is a straight thought. Jobs did what he did because he loved the idea of selling and creativity. That was his passion. Apple was born out of this passion and not as a survival means. The author is misguiding young people seeking career direction. 

    In one of the videos of 'All things D'(along with Bill Gates) on youtube he tells...."you gotta do what you love in entrepreneurship because only people with passion can take all the beatings of what is thrown at them". This tells that passion is of paramount importance and it always TRUMPS SKILL at work.

    I may not have expressed myself clearly here but I just want to say that a person authoring a book must have better understanding of the subject than exhibited here.

  • Sinjin Lee

    unfortunately the author's argument is decidedly flawed.  if you took the time to read the Walter Isaacson autobiography you would have clearly seen that Jobs displayed an interest and natural passion for technology at an early age.

    also, just because he was not a "pure" engineer like Wozniak does not mean that he was not passionate about technology...that's like saying just because you could not play on the high school basketball team means you lack passion for the game.

    further, i thought people could have more than one passions???  just because Jobs was passionate about japanese calligraphy, eastern spirituality and poetry does not mean that he could not also be passionate about entrepreneurship, technology and turning a dime.the problem with steering people towards areas where they are "skilled" rather than "passionate" is that you end up creating people with mediocre lives...45 year old lawyers who make a lot of money but who genuinely hate their jobs...or writers who hate writing but force themselves to churn out another book because of the extra prestige.  the truth is a lot of people lack the courage and faith to genuinely pursue what they most desire...falling flat on your face and failing is a fear that is hard to escape for a lot...i would read up on Howard Gardner's writings on "flow states"...that is, natural skill areas of people where they exhibit extraordinarily high levels of relaxation and focus when engaged in a particular task.

    lastly, michael jordan sure must have lacked passion for basketball...otherwise, why else would a 38 year old, body failing athlete play night after night for the lowly Washington Wizards??? for the extra dimes I guess...