„Follow your passion“ - Is this really a good career advice?

Max Ritter

My career assumption since finishing university has always been: Find out what you’re passionate about, then find a job that matches this passion. This involves regular deep thinking like asking “Who am I?”, “What do I truly love?”, “What are my hidden talents?” and always challenging whether your current job and position matches the high expectations that you have put yourself on them. I am not the only one approaching career planning like this, it’s a common mindset supported by persons like Steve Jobs, who talked about it in his famous Stanford speech from 2005.

But there is another approach, and it’s quite the opposite of what Jobs is selling as the path to success, fulfillment and happiness: Don’t follow your passion. This sounds counter-intuitive and weird at first glance and it took me some time to better understand the concept behind it. Hold on with me as I will explain it to you, as it’s much more than the negotiation of the passion hypothesis. I challenged my view on this question when I first read the chapter called “Burned out with passion - about our dangerous search for passion” in a book from the German psychologist Dr. Leon Windscheid named Feeling Better: A Journey to Serenity. I was curious to see if there are other famous people supporting this anti-passion mindset. And indeed, there is a speech from the well-known investor Ben Horrowitz from 2015 at Columbia University, that has a very interesting take on this principle. A real eye opener for me was to finally read So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love from Cal Newport, who presented an alternative approach to following your passion.

So what is it, and why is not everyone doing it if it works so well? Let me introduce the craftsman mindset to you: It’s an approach to your working life in which you focus on the value of what you are offering to the world, instead of following the passion mindset, in which you focus on the value your job is offering to you. The word focus is important here, because depending on what goals you pursue, the same kind of work can be perceived totally different. When you constantly try to optimize your job satisfaction by the pursuit of self-fulfillment, this can instead lead to chronic dissatisfaction and daydreaming about the better jobs that just need to be discovered. According to Newport, what you should do instead is is to get good at something rare and valuable, and then cash in the career capital into something that defines a great job for you.

There is the famous 10.000 hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book from 2008 called “Outliers”, describing the amount of practice time required to master a skill in perfection. It requires deliberate practice to stretch your skill past the comfort zone and to receive ruthless feedback in order to improve it continuously. That’s why most knowledge workers avoid this style of skill development, because frankly, it’s really uncomfortable. But in order to build up a long-lasting career based on the accumulation of career capital, becoming so good at something that you can’t be ignored anymore (hence the title of Newport’s book) is a valuable asset in your portfolio. Building upon that, you can create work you love, but you first have to understand the various traps that can distract your focus on its way.

Having control over the way you work, the people you work with and your working duration and schedule is one of the greatest traits to acquire when you have built up enough career capital that people want to work with you. But only then it works out, and switching a job too early in search of control when the basic foundation or skills are not yet there can be dangerous. Let’s take the example of an experienced software developer, who has been working for years at a software company, but now wants to gain more control about his time and therefore quits his job. This can be a good or bad decision, depending on whether sufficient career capital has been build up for that new position or not.

In case this person wants to become an IT Freelancer and provide his clients with the same skills that he has already mastered in the previous years and brought to a high level of professionalism, there will be for most likely a market that will pay for it. The added control about with whom to work and when to work can be a big benefit, for example when this person negotiates to only work 4 days a week and gets paid a high hourly or daily rate by providing expert services to its customers. In contrast, if this developer now tries to make a living by opening a Yoga studio, but has only learned to practice Yoga with some online courses up to this point, that’s might be not so clever. I am not saying that changing careers is bad per-se, but as we learned previously it takes a lot of time to master a skill so people are willing to pay for it, and this can be stressful if your main income goes away in the meantime.

For me, the clarity that the craftsmen mindset brings is refreshing, as it allows me to sidestep the anxious questions generated by the passion hypothesis and to safely abandon the myth that there’s a single right job waiting out there for me to be found. Instead, I can focus on building up career capital by offering services that I am good at and that are at the same time in demand by the market. I think it’s still great if what you do aligns well with your passion (I am lucky enough that this is the case for me), but it should not be a prerequisite to building up a compelling career.

In this article, I was only able to touch the tip of the iceberg on what Newport is describing in his book. I hope you got the basic idea of a different strategy on how to design your career path, that with patience and effort will allow you to create a profession full of control, flexibility, influence, and creativity.