The Passion Paradox: Why Following Your Passion isn’t Always The Best Advice

Written by Callie Taralson
on June 05, 2014

Editor’s note: You can find “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport at your local bookstore

I’ve always been told that following your passion is the best way to truly love what you do. When I was younger, I loved to write, draw and talk about sports. I thought I wanted to be an author, designer or sportscaster. Some said I should follow those passions. Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, argues differently. In his book, Newport set out to answer the question: how do people end up loving what they do? What he discovered was that following your passion may actually be bad advice. This concept may seem counter intuitive, but Newport makes a compelling argument.

On the surface, following our passion seems like great advice, but if we dig deeper, following our passion can leave us asking a lot of questions: What if I don’t know what my passion is? What if I’m passionate about something, but I don’t know if I could do it as a career? What if I followed my passion, but I’m still unhappy? For some of us, the idea of following passion when making career decisions can lead to confusion, anxiety, negativity and chronic dissatisfaction with our work.

Chronic dissatisfaction, according to Newport, may be because many of us do not have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered, specifically within our careers. We are more likely to be satisfied with certain traits, not jobs, that perfectly align with our passion. Knowing what I know now, I realize my desire to be a writer, designer or sportscaster wasn’t necessarily about the job. It was about the opportunity to be creative, the chance to collaborate with others, and my love for sports. These traits are not specific to any certain job or industry.

Another reason for this anxiety could be that for most of us, passion develops and evolves overtime. If we are looking to passion as our only guide to job satisfaction, we may miss out on potentially amazing opportunities. Rather than spending our energy trying to figure out our passion and finding the right work to match, we should spend our energy “working right” and passion will come as a result.


Bright Paint on Canvas Mint Green, Pink, Yellow

So what does it mean to work right? Newport shared a number of stories and steps throughout his book on how to work right and love what you do. These are what I found to be the biggest takeaways:

Have a Craftsman Mindset

There are two mindsets discussed in the book. The passion mindset asks, “How can the world/organization add value to me?” The craftsman mindset asks, “How can I add value to the world/organization?” Set aside the question of how our job feeds our passion and focus on how we can contribute. Regardless of how you feel about your job today, this mindset will be the foundation for these next steps.

Build Career Capital

With a craftsman mindset, it’s easier to take a step back and find opportunities to add value to the job/organization. Some examples include learning a new technology, becoming the expert of an internal system, or strengthening your presentation skills. Through this process, we start to build rare and valuable skills known as career capital.

Practice Deliberately

Building capital is not just about time and experience. It takes deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is stretching your abilities beyond where you are comfortable and asking for honest (sometimes brutal) feedback. The combination of practice and feedback helps accelerate the process of building capital. As Newport says, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Invest Your Capital

As you continue to acquire capital, opportunities to invest your capital will grow. People will start to look to you for that promotion, speaking engagement or other career growth opportunity. The more capital you build, the more new and compelling opportunities will present themselves – and what comes your way may surprise you! It’s through these opportunities that you can invest your career capital where you are excited. This is when passion will start to follow you.

There are people in the world that have a passion with a definitive path. For others, that path isn’t always so clear. I didn’t become an author, designer or famous sportscaster… not because I ignored my passions, but because I found what I love to do in a new arena. I get to collaborate with a rock star group of consultants and Operations Team every day. I have the opportunity to be creative through employee events, company blog posts and employee programs. I tapped into my love of sports working with SDG’s Health & Wellness program. I work for a company that continues to provide employees the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to our clients, organization and community.

Having passion is important, but following that passion when making career decisions is not the best route for everyone. Sometimes it takes the right mindset, focus, practice and working right that brings the passion to us.

For more on finding work you love, check out Cal Newport’s book. He shares compelling stories and interviews with professionals and shares even more ways to become “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”