On Passion and Its Discontents

An Earlier Book

New readers of this blog might not know that back in 2012 I published a book about career satisfaction. It was titled So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

The book draws from interviews and relevant scientific research to answer a simple but important question: How do people end up passionate about what they do for a living?

Early in the book I make a provocative claim: the popular advice that you should “follow your passion” is counterproductive in the sense that it will likely reduce the probability that you end up loving your work.

I detail two reasons why “follow your passion” is bad advice:

  • The first reason is that most people don’t have a clear pre-defined passion to follow. This is especially true if you consider young people who are just setting out on their own for the first time. The advice to “follow your passion” is frustratingly meaningless if, like many people, you don’t have a passion to follow.
  • The second reason is that we don’t have much evidence that matching your job to a pre-existing interest makes you more likely to find that work satisfying. The properties we know lead people to enjoy their work — such as autonomy, mastery, and relationships — have little to do with whether or not the work matches an established inclination.

What works better? Put in the hard work to master something rare and valuable, then deploy this leverage to steer your working life in directions that resonate.

(This is what I call career capital theory. For more on these ideas, c.f., my New York Times op-ed, my CNN article, my talks at Google, 99u, and WDS, or my Art of Manliness podcast interview.)

The reason I’m dredging up this topic is that several people I know recently pointed me toward new research that supports some of my conclusions.

The paper is titled “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?” It’s written by Paul O’Keefe, Carol Dweck (of growth mindset fame) and Gregory Walton. It’s set to appear in the journal Psychological Science.

The Stanford press release announcing the article is titled, “Instead of ‘finding your passion,’ try developing it.” As the release elaborates:

“While ‘find your passion’ is well-intended advice, it might not be good advice.

A new study by Stanford psychologists examines the hidden implications of the advice to ‘find your passion.’
Mantras like ‘find your passion’ carry hidden implications…they imply that once an interest resonates, pursuing it will be easy. But, the research found that when people encounter inevitable challenges, that mindset makes it more likely people will surrender their newfound interest.

And the idea that passions are found fully formed implies that the number of interests a person has is limited. That can cause people to narrow their focus and neglect other areas.”

When So Good was first released, I was somewhat alone in my anti-passion advocacy. It’s nice to welcome some new prominent voices to my side of this issue.


Blog – Cal Newport