The War on Passion: Why Cal Newport Is Wrong About Finding Your Passion

Cal Newport and others are attacking the conventional wisdom of finding your passion.

Is passion really necessary to find the work that you love?

Can you get good at anything and turn it into a fulfilling career?

Here’s what I found out when I dove into Cal Newport’s latest book.

Finding Your Passion

I knew it was the next step; writing songs became a passion and I just kept doing it, and then it got to the point where I thought, ‘I’ve got 15, 20, 25 songs, maybe I should try to play them for people and see what happens.

– Ray LaMontagne, Washington Post interview.

In The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle tells the remarkable story of Ray LaMontagne.

It begins in 1995, when a twenty-two year old LaMontagne is working 70 hours a week in a shoe factory in Maine. One day, LaMontagne hears Stephen Stills’s “Treetop Flyer” and he becomes hooked. He runs out and buys every used Otis Redding, Al Green, and Ray Charles album he can find.

After quitting his day job, he spends the next two years holed up in his apartment, recording himself singing over Stills and others. LaMontagne would spend hours each day singing and re-recording until his throat hurt. When he releases his first album eight years later, it goes on to sell nearly half a million copies. The critics proclaim his throwback soul, folk, and blues sound “a gift.”

Well, if it really was a “gift,” Ray LaMontagne worked damn hard at it. Check out his incredible rendition of Cee-Lo’s “Crazy” here:


What explains the story of Ray LaMontagne? Is it his passion for music and songwriting and his love for singers of the past?

Or is it his incredible work ethic and his deliberate practice of covering famous singers for hours each day?

Or is the answer somewhere in between?

Cal Newport & the War on Passion

Cal Newport objects to the idea of following your passion.

In advance of his new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport engaged in a guest-blogging media blitz to advance the idea that following your passion is bad advice. High-profile appearances included Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Inc., and Lifehacker.

Newport’s war on passion appears to have made a convert out of Ramit Sethi and April Dykman of personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly.

Newport’s objections, broadly speaking, fall into two categories:

  • Many people don’t know what their passions are.
  • Your passion might not pay.

Is Cal Newport right? Is passion for your work a red herring, yet another piece of evidence that this entitled generation suffers from a Peter Pan complex? Are you better off putting your head down and working on your craft instead of expecting to like what you do?

Is “Follow Your Passion” the Right Advice?

He says the lesson of Steve Jobs and others that he profiles in the book is that “follow your passion” is too simplistic and that fulfilling careers are made of fits and starts.

Here’s the thing: I agree.

As an agile thinker, I’m a big believer in experimentation. I believe in the humble approach: “You won’t know unless you try.” Fail fast, fail forward, and move on applies just as well to business, careers, and your personal life.

But just because you might not know ahead of time what your passion will be until you try a bunch of things doesn’t make passion unimportant.

What Cal Newport and others object to is the idea of preexisting passion. This is the idea that you come out of the womb with a deep calling that you must pursue to be happy.

It should be plain that this is silly, magical thinking at its worst. The idea of preexisting passion has more in common with The Secret and the “Law” of Attraction than serious career advice.

Like talent, passion is something you develop over time and with practice.

Not knowing what you are passionate about yet is the sign of shoshin, or a beginner’s mind. It’s a sign of openness, not a sign that you will never amount to anything.

What We Agree On: Skill Development is Crucial

“Finding your passion doesn’t matter. Skill development is the key to happiness in your career.”

As provocative as this idea is, Cal Newport doesn’t spend more than a chapter trying to debunk the idea that passion is important to doing your best work.

Really, the main focus of So Good They Can’t Ignore You is deliberate practice, what Dan Pink calls mastery. The rest of Newport’s book echoes the work done by Dan Pink in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code, two books I highly recommend if you’re interested in deliberate practice.

Newport’s right: no one is going to pay you for your passion for pottery, unless you can demonstrate remarkable skill.

So what’s the solution?

Passion is Nothing More Than Sustained Enthusiasm

I define passion as sustained enthusiasm. Sustained, because it lasts longer than a fad. Enthusiasm, because it excites and invigorates you.

Sustained enthusiasm is the reason deliberate practice works.

Sustained enthusiasm is the reason you go back up the mountain after you’ve fallen 3 or 4 times skiing.

Sustained enthusiasm is the reason you keep writing your blog even though you can count the number of readers on two hands.

Sustained enthusiasm is the reason the bluegrass guitarist Newport profiles in his book practiced for hours and hours every day and became good enough to tour as a professional in his teens.

(Strangely, Newport uses this as an example of not needing passion in your work. Do we seriously think this guy doesn’t have a passion for bluegrass music?)

Note what a passion is not:

  • It’s not set in stone.

    You can be passionate about something for a decade and then find you’re no longer able to sustain it. That’s OK. That doesn’t make it any less a passion while it lasts.

  • It’s not irrational.

    You don’t need to make stupid decisions or go broke for your passion. Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod makes the point that he wants to live long and make art, rather than live fast and die young.

  • It’s not all-consuming.

    You can have time for regular life. You can even have multiple passions in different areas of your life. Passion does not equal obsession.

The war on “passion” seems to be as much about definitions as anything. When influential thinkers like Cal Newport and Ramit Sethi are railing against “passion”, I believe they are using these other senses of the word that aren’t helpful when you are thinking about your career.

A passion is a sustained enthusiasm for a topic, process, or craft.

Pretty simple when you put it that way.

You Need the Full Hedgehog

The core of Cal Newport’s argument is that skills take time to grow, and that many people who are just starting out need to go through that initial period of frustration in order to gain a high-enough skill level to actually enjoy their work.

In Daniel Pink’s terms, you need mastery before you can be happy at your job.

Jim Collins in Good to Great would agree. That’s why skill is one of the three key circles in the Personal Hedgehog concept:

The Personal Hedgehog

You won’t be fulfilled in your role until you’ve developed a certain level of mastery. That’s why the overlap between marketability and passion is labeled a Dream. Many people dream of being a rock star or playing professional sports, but they realize that they don’t have the necessary skills.

But notice the overlap between skills and marketability, which I’ve labeled a Job. Here’s where many high achievers sit for years and years before a midlife crisis hits.

  • It’s the Ivy League lawyer who realizes she doesn’t want to make partner and become her boss.
  • It’s the newly promoted engineer who doesn’t have any interest in managing other people.
  • It’s the Wall Street banker who yearns to create something of real value to society.

Most of us who have a Job and not a complete Personal Hedgehog will try to fill the “passion gap” in some other way. We’ll try to fill it with family, charity work, or a Hobby. Or tragically for some, addiction to drugs or destructive behavior.

If you’re like me, you believe that the future of work requires integrating work and personal life in a new, holistic way. And that means not settling for work that doesn’t hit all three circles of the Personal Hedgehog concept.

Remember that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. The agile transformation in the way we do work is just beginning.

Are Having a Mission and Following Your Passion Really Any Different?

Late in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal introduces the concept of a mission. He says it’s important when creating the work you love. He calls a mission an overarching goal to your career that energizes you and gives the example of a doctor eschewing huge fees to work in a field that she genuinely cares about.

That sounds a lot like a passion to me. Why relabel it a mission? What purpose does that serve?

Is the War on Passion Just Marketing?

Near the end of the book, Cal Newport gives away the game. Talking about “the law of remarkability,” he seems to say that the war on passion angle was mostly a marketing ploy to sell his book.

And it seems to have worked, considering the guest posts and media coverage he commanded when the book came out.

Is Newport really against the idea of passion in your work, or is he just emphasizing the role of skill-building and deliberate practice?

What’s the Alternative to Passion?

Let’s take another angle. Suppose you don’t need passion (or sustained enthusiasm) to become successful in life. Rather, mere interest or talent is enough. Okay, but you’re still starting from something. Even a small flame of interest or talent can grow into a passion.

But where are all the examples of people who flat out hate what they do for a living, but are huge successes?

I can’t think of any. At all.

The problem is when 80% of people are unhappy at work, telling them that if they just dig their heels in, they will like what they’re doing and grow a passion for it (eventually) is a recipe for perpetual unhappiness and failure.

Why would working the same nine to five slog over and over produce any better results?

What did Rita Mae Brown say about insanity again?

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

Telling people to work 10,000 hours to get really good at something they have no passion for is a recipe to produce highly skilled, bored, unfulfilled people.

Surprise, that’s exactly the kind of workforce that we have in America.

Final Thoughts

Ray LaMontagne practiced his butt off to reach his unique sound. But he also has a passion for the voices of yesteryear, like Al Green and Ray Charles.

The magic of it is that there is no way to decouple the two. You need both passion and practice to reach your full potential, to find your Personal Hedgehog.

Let’s turn it over to you:

Do you believe passion is relevant to having a fulfilling career? Or should you work at any craft before worrying about passion?

Image by Matthew Straubmuller.

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