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The Minimalists

Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus write about living a meaningful life with less stuff for 2 million readers. As featured on: CBS, BBC, NPR, Forbes, The Atlantic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and National Post. They live in Missoula, Montana.

‘Follow Your Passion’ Is Crappy Advice

JFM Walking, photo by Adam Dressler

Are you passionate about your life? Your job? Your hobbies? What are you passionate about? How do you incorporate those passions into your life?

These are important questions, questions closely linked to your happiness and contentment and personal growth. I’m a big proponent of doing what you’re passionate about, or “following your passion,” as it were, so much so that Ryan and I dedicated an entire chapter in our book Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life to finding and pursuing your passions. Unfortunately, these days there are many passion-misers running around the Internet promulgating an irresponsible view of following your passion. While these people are often filled with good intentions, the end result of their advice, of dropping everything to merely follow your passion, can prove to be disastrous.

This summer, Ryan and I were fortunate enough to spend a couple hours in a tiny classroom with our friend, Cal Newport, where we discussed life, habits, discipline, and why “follow your passion” is bullshit advice.

Cal Newport, Ph.D., a 30-year-old an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, is interested in why some people lead successful, enjoyable, meaningful lives while so many others do not. Being a self-proclaimed geek (N.B. he’s one of the coolest guys I know), Cal is not satisfied with simplistic slogans (e.g., “follow your passion!”) or conventional wisdom (e.g., success requires stress). Instead, he dives deeper, looking to decode underlying patterns of success in all their nuanced glory.

I’ve always respected Cal for his contrarian viewpoints. His popular website, Study Hacks, is one of only a handful of blogs to which I subscribe. Over the last two years, Cal has helped me shift my perspective on several key areas of my life, including the oversimplification of mantras like “follow your passion.” In celebration of his new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I asked Cal the following questions.

Questions with Cal Newport

JFM: The advice often regurgitated throughout the Internet is simply, “You should follow your passion.” Why does this sound so appealing? Why is this bad advice?

Cal: It’s appealing because it’s both simple and daring. It tells you that you have a calling, and if you can discover it and muster the courage to follow it, your working life will be fantastic. A big, bold move that changes everything: this is a powerful storyline.

The problem is that we don’t have much evidence that this is how passion works. “Follow your passion” assumes: a) you have preexisting passion; and b) if you match this passion to your job then you’ll enjoy that job.

When I studied the issue, it was more complex. Most people don’t have preexisting passions. And research on workplace satisfaction tells that people like their jobs for more nuanced reason than simply it matches some innate interest.

You advocate cultivating your passion, instead of following your passion. What are the key differences?

“Follow” implies that the you discover the passion in advance then go match it to a job. At which point, you’re done.

“Cultivate” implies that you work toward building passion for your job. This is a longer process but it’s way more likely to pay dividends. It requires you to approach your work like a crafstman. Honing your ability, and then leveraging your value, once good, to shape your working life toward the type of lifestyle that resonates with you.

In your research, what were some of the most common misconceptions you discovered about following your passion?

The biggest issue I run into is semantic. When I say, “don’t follow your passion,” some people get upset because they think I am saying, “don’t follow the goal of being passionate about your work.” But I’m not saying this. Passion is great. I just don’t see a lot of evidence that passion is something that existing naturally waiting to be discovered. It takes hard work and planning to develop.

In a recent speech, you told people to, “Do as Steve Jobs did, not as he said.” I thought this was great advice. Can you expand on it?

Steve Jobs, in his famous Stanford Commencement address, told the students (and I’m paraphrasing here): You’ve got to find what you love, don’t settle.

If you read the press and social media that surrounded the event, it’s clear that many people interpreted this as him saying, “follow your passion.” If you go back into the details of his biography, however you discover this is not what he did. He stumbled into Apple computer (it was a scheme to make a quick $1,000) at a time when he was “passionate” mainly about eastern mysticism.

But Jobs was open to opportunity. When he sensed that his scheme was bigger than he imagined, he pivoted and poured a lot of energy into building a company around selling computers. He cultivated passion. He didn’t follow it.

Often times, people get excited (i.e., passionate) about an idea, but they quickly lose steam and soon lose their drive to see their idea through. Why does this happen? How can we rectify this problem?

An issue here is that we rarely talk about what true passion feels like. The sensation of excitement about a particular idea is often a different sensation than the type of deep passion that drives people into a fulfilling career. Excitement comes and goes. True passion arises after you’ve put in the long hours to really become a craftsman in your field and can then leverage this value to really have an impact, to gain autonomy and respect, to control your occupational destiny.

If someone is lost and she doesn’t know what her passion is, what first step do you recommend to get him or her on the right track towards cultivating her passion?

Here’s the key: there is no special passion waiting for you to discover. Passion is something that is cultivated. It can cultivated in many, many different fields. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to say, “I don’t know what my passion is.” What does make sense is to say, “I haven’t yet cultivated a passion, I should really focus down on a small number of things and start this process.”

Cal Newport is a computer scientist and MIT graduate. His new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, debunks the belief that “follow your passion” is good advice. Cal also runs the popular website Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success.