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Cal Newport: “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice

About this talk

American culture is obsessed with the idea that we need to “find our passion” in order to be happy and successful. But there’s a problem: “It’s astonishingly bad piece of advice,” says best-selling author Cal Newport. We have no pre-existing passion. Instead, passion is found by first building a rare and valuable talent and using it to take control of your career path. In other words, be so good and work so hard that no one can ignore you.

Cal Newport, Author

Cal Newport is an author and a professor computer science at Georgetown University. His writing focuses on unconventional advice for life in school and after graduation. His most recent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, argues that “follow your passion” is bad advice. Newport’s writing and ideas regularly appear in major publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Post, and Inc. Magazine.

Comments (24)
  • Ryan McMunn

    I agree with this 100%. I wasn’t originally passionate about languages. It was only after putting in the effort to learn Mandarin, and experiencing the rapid advance in my career path, that I became passionate about this and started up BRIC. The friendships it enabled me to develop have also been amazingly rewarding.

  • xaigo

    I was a bit sceptical at first, but now I have to admit that this is one of the most valuable talks I heard in a long while. Thank you!:)

  • DogmaPyramid

    But what if you hate your job? Being better and working harder will make you enjoy it? Guess I have to read his book to understand this concept.

    • Pug

      Good Question. Ive hated literally every job Ive ever had. They all lacked something. Maybe Ive lacked the talent to get a job I love. I have a BFA in Design and have never been hired for a real Design job.

    • Oliver

      The book is great, but I don’t think it’s black and white – either loving or hating your job.

      I’m not an expert on the topic, but I think the better question is, why do you hate your job and what about it do you hate? Do you violate personal values? Is it the company culture? The industry culture? Just saying “I hate my job” won’t give one enough of a starting point to make a change.

      • DogmaPyramid

        Well put, Oliver. If I understood it correctly, the way you see it, the more you know about what triggers your frustrations, the better; it should make it easier to track the source of the problem and, hopefully, change the situation. If that’s what you meant, I agree (and if it’s not, I apologize in advance). I haven’t thought it from that point of view, and it’s an interesting take on the subject.

        Cal’s ideas look intriguing by headline alone, I think I should pick this up very soon. Maybe it can change my way of thinking for the better.

  • DonSprouse

    I would agree and disagree with Cal Newport. If you are someone who is not athletic, well you are most likely not going to become the next inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, though you may be passionate. That being said. You do not have to build a “Rare” or even “Valuable” talent to such an extreme as no one can ignore you. My success was built because of a talent I was born with. I took a step back and asked myself, “What was it I ‘Really’ enjoyed doing when I was young?” For me it was art. I had a passion for art. I also had a passion for marketing and my college professors, friends, and family always said I had a great eye for analyzing the visual reach a company was intending. “The talent was natural and the passion was already there.” I than attained bachelor’s in marketing, masters degree, and digital design degree. This took the born with “Talent and passion,” and enhanced those abilities for success. My talent was not rare and in many cases is not valuable. Go walk around the streets of many urban cities and there are artist who are much more talented than myself and there is no financial value in what they are doing. What sets people apart for success in the professional world is when they take a passion and/or talent they already have and they build upon it.

  • Sara Manning Brooke

    I do not discount the idea that you must develop a talent through hard work, that does not mean that passion should not be a factor. It’s definitely not so black and white, and this is Cal Newport’s redefinition of how to turn passion, e.g. talent, into a career,
    and doing so has helped him sell books. I for one will continue to pursue my many passions/talents, and encourage my children to do so as well.

  • redrazor11

    Excellent part on deep-thought and blocking time for it. There are an abundance of distractions that are scientifically engineered to occupy our attention at all times (cell phones, social networks, etc.) You can’t get away if you don’t try.

  • zeb

    What a self inflated
    mess! He confuses ‘passion’ with ‘talent’. ‘Passion’ is
    a folk term for ‘intrinsic motivation’ (not talent). Domain specific intrinsic
    motivation has a great role in predicting success (it is easy to find researches
    on it). I can not believe how easy it is to pretend you have something to say about psychology and management without any
    sound knowledge.

  • Sean Zimmermaker

    Loved the presentation.

  • nate

    He really harps on the ‘pre-exsisting’ passion. Passion isn’t something anyone is born with, as he says ‘you build up’ passion through experience. Who cares if you are born with it or not? If you find a passion, either at a young age or old, follow that passion and turn it into a career

    • Ben

      Old comment, I know, but I think you’re missing the point. The basic idea is that we should be wary of this common career slogan because it suggests there is a perfect career out there if only we could find out what our passions are. It gives us an excuse to be lazy and keep on searching and avoiding hard work!

  • csryyt

    I love his presentation but here’s my thought.

    I agree with him that If you’re really good at something, even it’s not something you’re passionate of before, you’ll love it and keep doing it. And passionate will come afterwards just like he said.

    To get there, you have to work really hard to be good at it.

    Question is, then what goal you should start work hard towards? I think answer come back to what you like to do, may be not that passionate, but something you have some experience or enjoy doing.

    So I think, 1st rule shouldn’t be ‘Don’t follow your passion’ but it should be ‘Don’t keep finding what you’re passionate about but start with something if you want to be success. You’ll be lucky if you already got something that you like to do and it can turns into business.

  • growthguided

    I really enjoyed your perspective. Thank you for your stance on the process of connecting with our visions

  • Wes Davidson

    Thanks Cal,

    Great presentation and helped me refocus on how I am redefining work for 2014. Focus and deep work are the key for me in finding and maintaining passion. I appreciate you getting the message out

  • Stefan

    Terrible as talk on the internet. Dude, please read the quotes out loud! Why don’t you?! I’m not constantly looking at the screen when I’m listening to a talk. I’m often not even in my room, so I can’t quickly look. Thanks to you I have to walk there and rewind to understand what’s going on. Incredibly annoying. Maybe I’ll watch later, but very likely I’ll skip your talk because of this.

    • #firstworldproblems

      This guy.

  • Alison

    Thanks Cal, a very interesting and thought provoking perspective.

    I would like to add a thought that I have found useful, which is asking myself whether what I am doing enlivens and energizes me, rather than whether it is my passion.

    There are often many ways that you could provide a solution or create work within a passion area. For instance, I am a clinical psychologist with a passion for helping people lead more fulfilling and rewarding lives. I also have a passion for alleviating suffering. Within that there are many ways to make an impact. I realized that my talent and interest lay more in teaching and training, than in providing one on one assessment and therapy. So the form I use my passion changed, aligned with my strengths and talents, rather than the passion itself. This way of working enlivens and energizes me as is more solution focused than problem focused.

    So the problem was not so much the passion as the mode of passion delivery!

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts. I have just ordered your book so this may be clarified in there.

  • Robin S

    yeah, I’ve never connected to that.

  • Rex Forbes

    Chicken or the egg, starting with passion, then getting good

    • Shizuppy

      That’s what I don’t understand. If you’re going to bother to work super hard at something, you’d think you’d already have to be “passionate” about it.

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