The Secrets To Career Contentment: Don't Follow Your Passion

"Do what you love" has become a career mantra, but is it a formula for real success?

"Follow your passion," might be the most common career guidance, but it is actually bad advice.

The theory that following your passion leads to success first surfaced in the '70s, and in the intervening decades it’s taken on the character of indisputable fact. The catch? Most people’s passions have little connection to work or education, meaning passionate skiers, dancers, and readers run into problems. In a culture that tells people to transform their passions into lucrative careers via will-driven alchemy, it’s no wonder so much of today’s workforce suffers from endless job swapping and professional discontent.

In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport exposes the Passion Trap and offers up advice about how not following your passions will ultimately lead to satisfaction. The following four tips will help you put yourself on the path to professional fulfillment.

Don’t do what you love. Learn to love what you do.

It seems that one of the most important factors in career contentment is simply experience. In a job satisfaction survey of college administrative assistants—work traditionally considered repetitive or "boring"—a third of respondents considered their position a "job," merely a way to pay the bills. Another third deemed it a "career," or a path towards something better. The final third, though—incidentally, also those who’d spent the most time doing this type of work—considered it their calling or an integral part of their life and identity.

The takeaway: Be patient. Passion comes with mastery and time.

Adopt a craftsman’s mindset.

People with the passion mindset ask "What do I really want?" which breeds an obsession with whether or not a job is "right" for them. They become minutely aware of everything they dislike about their work and their job satisfaction and happiness plummets. By contrast, the craftsman’s mindset acknowledges that no matter what field you’re in, success is always about quality. Once you’re focused on the quality of the work you’re doing now rather than whether or not it’s right for you, you won’t hesitate to do what is necessary to improve it.

The takeaway: Make the quality of what you do your primary focus.

Practice hard and get out of your comfort zone.

So, how do you become the craftsman? You practice.

A chess player must devote roughly 10,000 hours to becoming a master. Once that level has been reached, however, the real pros continue not just to practice, but to do it smarter. They study seriously and engage in what Newport terms deliberate practice. In the case of the chess player, deliberate practice might mean studying difficult theoretical chess problems well out of the established comfort zone.

The takeaway: Although deliberate practice is often strenuous and uncomfortable, it’s the only path to true mastery.

Acquiring rare and valuable skills.

The craftsman mindset drives you to acquire and refine special skills. People with rare skills are more likely to get great jobs in which they’re allowed creativity and control. Also known as career capital, they’re what help set you apart.

For example: A new app company hires two product designers. Ned’s a bit of a newbie to digital and has a background in illustration and print design; he was hired for his great eye. Dan, however, seriously studied app design and, realizing its importance a few years back, worked to become a whizkid at code. When the company hits a rough financial patch and someone needs to go, it’s Ned who gets let go. Why? Dan had the rare and valuable skill.

The takeaway: Improve the quality of whatever you do—and if that means acquiring a valuable compatible skill, do it. All the more career capital for you.

Though following your passion is today’s ideal, it often won’t get you anywhere but frustrated. Focus instead on acquiring unique skills and refining the quality of what you do with the focus of a devoted craftsman. You’ll be well on your way to cultivating not only a satisfying career, but a new, rarer kind of practical passion built on commitment, mastery, and pride.

Sebastian Klein is cofounder at Blinkist, a service that feeds curious minds key insights from non-fiction books. As Blinkist's Editor-in-Chief, he specializes in distilling complex concepts from great books into smart, beautiful language. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

[Image: Flickr user Zemlinki!]

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  • Domingo De Guzman Soria

    This article should be called "The Passion Trap" or "Living in the Real World". Finally somebody has the courage to tell young people entering college that "Follow your Passion", the most common advice by a career counselor (a "career mantra"), is totally WRONG and definitely NOT a formula for success. Thousands of Teachers and Professors know this, but to many counselors eager to please the new generations of college students give them a bad advice.

  • Mike Rowe wrote a letter to a fan about this topic and I thought he addressed it well. My boiled down version is this: if you're passionate and great at what your passionate about, go for it. Give it time, try to create opportunities. Always self-evaluate. Are you making progress? How much time can you afford to give this particular dream? If you're passionate about something that you're not great at, it might be time to consider other options.

  • Ji Kim

    sometimes it feels like chasing an unicorn.....job that you are really passionate about and job that pays to support your family/future......if you can't find it, start your own company or lower your standards. I'm still working on it :)

  • Chris McCaffrey

    I've read versions of this article over the last ten years and where there are some good points the sentiment is way off. Its like the article was commissioned by HR execs from some of the largest most bureaucratic corporations around today. This feels likes its from the same mindsets that constructs workshops on team morale building, stuff like "be a leader", and "be the best" or "beyond the box" ect.. etc.. trying to alter a persons perspective doesn't alter their true belief. I've known scores of people that followed their passion and are doing great.

  • Jake Chazan

    Please give us one example. Just because you say it doesn't make it so. And provide a definition of what doing great means.

    Following your passion is the opiate of the masses. In the absence of having an opportunity, following your passion will lead to a dead end.

  • bmorelikeme

    Jake- Sounds like you're bitter. "Opiate of the masses"? Sure, it's an opiate but most people don't actually implement the advice. So, it's an opiate that many do not actually follow through on.

    Following your passion takes work and usually a long time to manifest the end result. However, it's called FOLLOWING for a reason. The steps it takes are the lions share of working toward the goal you care about.

    Yes, you need money to live, yes, you need to get a job you probably don't love to support yourself, but if you're not working toward your passion on your free time (you know, the time you spend "relaxing," watching tv, going to the bar, playing in a rec league, etc) then you're not even attempting, yet alone "following" the passion. It's great advice, that is very rarely followed.

  • Ian Wardell

    The headline talks about contentment. The article talks about success -- success meaning financially lucrative. So that's not the same thing.

    Passion ought to be our goal but tempered with the necessary compromises.

  • Jake Chazan

    I have never seen in all the interviews I have seen people that have pursued their passion and not looked for validation of their work, of their choice. Validation takes many forms, approval of parent, a spouse, peers, judges (ever watched Chopped on the Food Network?). It's not just about money. But pursuing your passion in the absence of making a living? Don't get it.

  • I want to reframe passion as energy, fuel. With passion, you feel fired up. Without, it's a struggle, a chore.

    What aligns to our deeper purpose in life and personality type will produce energy. Working with people is a passion of mine - without access to connection and interaction, I dry up and wither away. It must be the central part of what I do for me to feel fully alive and have unlimited access to a renewable source to energy. When I was at a desk job, I lost energy and felt exhausted and underutilized (so I looked for energy in food, shopping, and extensive vacations instead).

    And energy is ultimately what we want - to feel energized in our bodies so we can wake up joyfully, do what we need to do, have energy for connection, love and sex, and get up and do it all over again.

    What is your source of unlimited energy and fuel? What fires you up? And what's the cost of living without that fire?

  • Juan Martin Delgado

    Kind of agree. However, I believe you need to find or start a company associated with a product or service you find cool, innovative... that you will definitely use (or a problem you frankly want to solve)... the latter on top of a role you enjoy or you think you would (seems obvious, no?). Then, nothing is perfect and you need to understand and deal with trade-offs.

  • Vijayraj Kamat

    Starting an article with a statement that goes against the regular tide - is a popular 'hook' :)

    I think this article talks about "achieving success in your career". And how that can be achieved by constantly learning, picking up niche skills and mastering them. Nothing new, is it?

    I think "Following your passion" is primarily about 'Fulfillment' than 'success'. If we keep 'doing' without bothering about the returns, success is an inevitable 'side effect' Of course, some get into the trap of 'hating their current job' as an excuse for 'wanting to follow their passion' - . but they will fail either way! Whether they say 'Following passion' or 'achieving success' :)

  • Lots of wisdom in this, yet you also do have to have the willingness to do something for a long time. If you enjoy something, you are more likely to stick with it so you get mastery. To me, "right fit" work is doing what fits your talent, aptitude, attitude, desired impact, and satisfaction. Hard work is required for the last two!

  • This article is predicated on a fundamental error in logic. The vast majority of people do not have ENDURING passions when it comes to interests. In fact, you take any hobby that someone loves beyond reckoning and make them work at it for 8+ hours a day and it will be a short trip to hating Mondays again AND they will have lost their hobby to boot. The human brain is wired to stop producing dopamine once something is learned to the degree of being second nature. Your physiology will not release mood enhancing chemicals in response to stimuli that are extremely familiar. Human interaction, conversely, will continue to produce various neurotransmitters that create engagement, positive or negative. People who have done the same boring job for many years and consider it a calling have a) found a way to keep learning and finding NEW stimuli in that job, b) have a job that requires a lot of interpersonal contact, or c) they have below average intelligence. Novelty is engagement.

  • Hey liked it the way you use terminology to explain that sticks with reality not just bombardment of old words . It's really work this way, people should know the functioning of brain.

  • Follow your passion is a very idealistic way of thinking especially in North America. The truth is that in life, the 80-10-10 rule applies. 80 percent of the time work is routine, 10 percent we hate, 10 percent we enjoy. we just need to amplify the 10 perfect we love.

    For instance, a "starving" artist will follow his passion but with out business acumen will likely live a horrible life.

  • frabis

    As someone who has taken the recommended path and reaped a lifetime of frequent career dissatisfaction, I couldn't disagree more with this article.

    Part of the problem is failure to differentiate between passion - which to me implies a personal sense of meaningfulness - and simple enjoyment. I may enjoy sleeping in on weekends and doing the Sunday crossword, but clearly nobody is going to get paid to do that. Superficial pleasures, of which we all have many, don't imply passion. The key is identifying what activities give your life a deeper sense of meaning or purpose, and then - no easy task, but necessary - figuring out in what environments consonant with your values you might be paid for engaging in these.

    That said, it's helpful to (at least attempt to) perform any task, regardless of how small or mundane, with a sense of mindfulness and awareness, and to do it as well as we can.

  • It's True that "Be patient. Passion comes with mastery and time", but Which one you want to pursue. It has to be the one you love doing, or you care about.

    From my experience, forcing myself to grow passion from things i'm not into has lead to frustration, since has weak foundation. I believe there are may choices out there. So what I did, I reset my self, quit my job, learn new passion, grow it into skill, and create new business out of it.

    Many has underestimate passion since it's a bit overrated. I think Passion is the fundamental base of great works & creation.