This week, a friend sent me an article about why “follow your passion” is bad advice. The article cites the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, whose author, Cal Newport, makes the case that the “follow passion” cliché is flawed. He explains that innate passion is rare and has little to do with why most people end up loving their work, or not. In addition, he says, following one’s passion can lead to anxiety and chronic job hopping.
Newport contends that preexisting passion is not only exceedingly rare, it also should not matter. According to the author, one should work on mastering skills of one’s current job, rather than trying to find passion. Those with compelling careers, who derive great satisfaction from their work and become truly excellent at something, do so because they put in the hard work necessary for mastery. In a sense, Newport says we should cultivate our passion, that if we practice something long enough to master it, passion will follow.
Then there is the matter of how one practices. Newport says that what makes very successful people extraordinary is that they are experts at practicing. They come to understand how to push themselves to the limit of their skill set and then reach beyond, expanding their abilities day after day. This process is what the organizational psychology literature today calls deliberate practice, or mindful practice.
In recent years, fashionable and widely read writers such as Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell have popularized the “10,000 hour” rule.The basic notion is simple: There are no born geniuses, and no amount of natural ability is sufficient for greatness. Mastery requires a huge investment of time and practice before it will manifest itself. And, the magic number of hours of mindful practice seems to hover around 10,000.
So, what are my thoughts on whether you should “follow your passion”, and on the role of deliberate practice? I must agree with Newport that preexisting passion does not exist. On the other hand, his assertion that one should work on perfecting the skills of one’s work, rather than searching for a passion, is not a concept I would endorse.
While preexisting passion may not exist, searching for and finding one’s passion does. In order to find true passion, we should follow our curiosity. When we are curious about learning something, we tend to put our heart into it and to work hard at it. If we practice something long enough and deliberately enough to reach a level of mastery, it may become our passion.
Deliberate practice is demanding, and not particularly fun. To me, one of the indicators of how passionate we are about something is our willingness to keep practicing it. We will not continue striving, pushing ourselves beyond our limits, if we are not developing some type of passion.
Follow your curiosity to find your passion, and to cultivate more dots. I ended the previous entry with the thought that we should not be narrow. We should strive to expose ourselves to the best things humans have done, in a broad range of fields, and to bring what we learn into what we do. Explore and learn as much as we can, and practice things that pique our interest. In the cases where our inquisitiveness fades and passion does not result, following our curiosity will nonetheless have given us more dots to connect.
When Steve Jobs dropped in on his calligraphy course at Reed College, he was not following his passion; he was simply following his curiosity. After he had discovered calligraphy he became passionate about it. But, at the time, he saw no practical application of what he was learning. It was only years later that he found the opportunity to bring his passion for calligraphy into his work. As he says, it is impossible to connect the dots looking forward. You can only follow your heart and then connect your dots looking backward.
Image: Flickr-user Mikael Tigerström