"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.