As I have said before, I admire Cal Newport’s Study Hacks blog very much; even when I don’t agree with his conclusions, I find his ideas useful. He is good to think on if a man would express himself neatly.*
But yesterday one of my friends told me he was absolutely turned off by the premise of Newport’s book on Career Capital Theory, which, according to the blurb on Amazon, is all about why it doesn’t make any sense to follow your passion into a career, so I thought I’d lay out my own interpretation. Cause I think he’s essentially right, even though I also believe that following our passions is a sane and useful thing to do.
He’s got several blog posts on the subject; this one, directed mostly at graduate students but applicable to everybody, is a good intro to his theory. Essentially, he sees two aspects of the “follow your passion” advice that are problematic, one being that even if we’re following what we understand to be our passion, we’re going to have to learn the skill set(s) needed to succeed in it, and that particular piece of the journey might not be so much fun. Indeed, it’s when many people give up their path. And the second is that, since passion for the work usually FOLLOWS the mastery of the skill, rather than preceding it, and indeed, mastering the skills seems to be foundational to arriving at the passion, it’s really hard to know what one’s passion is, if one hasn’t gotten there yet. Hence, a lot of drifting around, on the part of the people attempting to follow their passions. Which have not yet arrived.
Besides, even if we manage to figure out a passion, and get into a career associated with it, we’re going to discover that we’re not happy all the time, and the career is not perfect. On account of that being human part. Alas.
Oh, what to do? How to figure out a career path, or maybe even a major? Here’s my take:
1) Figure out what you’re good at. I don’t mean the skill sets you have; I mean your foundational strengths. Just because you could knit by the time you were five doesn’t mean you should become a professional knitter (I myself would have been Very Sad, had I gone that route, and yet I’m passionate about knitting and very damn good at it). I mean, what are you essentially good at doing? Paying attention to details? Establishing connections with other people? Looking at several alternatives and picking the best one? Whatever your strengths are, they can lead to various careers where you’ll be fulfilled, because you’re succeeding at pieces of the job, at least. And those pieces of success can be what you work from when you’re learning new skills, or working in the areas of the job that you don’t find as satisfying. Of which there will be some.
2) Don’t confuse “following your passion” with “being happy all the time.” Or even “feeling passionate all the time.” I think that “following your passion” is good shorthand for “paying attention to what you enjoy, and working hard at it, and trusting that working hard at a useful job will indeed end up being fulfilling, and remembering that most people are just about as happy as they make their minds up to be.**” But if, instead of shorthand, it become a shortcut, then indeed, things might not turn out so very well.
3) Desperation is not attractive. We were watching Hysterical Blindess the other night, wherein the great Uma Thurman actually manges to make herself unattractive, playing a completely desperate woman trying to Find True Love. You know those people? The ones who’re so convinced that they NEED to find a partner that they can’t actually see the real humans around them, on account of looking so hard for the fantasy people in their heads? It’s like that with people desperate for True Careers. If what you’re focused on is the horrible state of NOT HAVING A TRUE CAREER, then you can’t see all the aventures passing you by — the conversation you could have had that completely changed your outlook, the book that was sitting on a friend’s table that could have pointed you in a new direction, the class lecture you could have listened to that gave you a new idea. And you’ll end up drifting because you are desperate, rather than changing your life, or even just enjoying your life, because you are not.
4) Even if you actually HAVE a passion, and are willing to put the hard work into learning the skills needed for the career you connect to it, there will always be more than one way to utilize your strengths in the service of your passion. I’m looking at you, Graduate Students in the Humanities. I have loved being a professor. I’m not leaving because I dislike the profession; I used my strengths, I had passion for my work. I just have some other things to do now. So if you get to be professors, too, yay! I hope you love it as much as I have done. But if you don’t, yay! You will be useful someplace else. And your passion for your work will follow, if you put heart and hard work into it. Life is like that.
*Prize of Getting Mentioned in a Future Blog to the first person to identify that line. Special kudos if you got it without googling.
**Here’s another one.