Is “Follow Your Passion” Useful Advice?

In a recent Fast Company article, Cal Newport talks about how Steve Jobs became Steve Jobs of Apple instead of Steve Jobs of the Los Altos Zen Center. But just as in the presentation he gave at WDS, it leaves a lot of questions. It seems that after all his research there are still no answers about how to find work we love.

All [Jobs’ story] tells us is that it’s good to enjoy what you do. This advice, though true, borders on the tautological and doesn’t help us with the pressing question that we actually care about: How do we find work that we’ll eventually love? Like Jobs, should we resist settling into one rigid career and instead try lots of small schemes, waiting for one to take off? Does it matter what general field we explore? How do we know when to stick with a project or when to move on? In other words, Jobs’s story generates more questions than it answers. Perhaps the only thing it does make clear is that, at least for Jobs, “follow your passion” was not particularly useful advice.

So, can you predetermine passion for a career or not?

I’ve long suspected that you could. There are jobs, even though you’ve never done them, you know you wouldn’t like. If it’s possible to know which careers you wouldn’t like, it must be possible to determine careers that you would like. While Jobs couldn’t know that Apple was going to blow-up like it did, he knew he had an interest in it.

But let’s assume that Cal’s research on finding passion is accurate—that it’s not good advice.

Cal Newport's Newest BookFor his new book, Cal conducted interviews looking for a consistency among those who like their jobs. The biggest factor for people who’d found “their calling,” was how long they had been in their industry. So if Cal is right, and there’s no way to predetermine passion, all the people who found their calling are either lucky or suffer from a sunk cost bias. The sunk-cost group are lying to themselves because they don’t want to believe they’ve spent so much of their life on something meaningless. That group is easy enough to understand but what about the lucky group?

Having yet to read the book I’m not sure if he tried to find a group that had spent many years in an industry but didn’t like their jobs. There are three groups that need to be interviewed to make this research whole.

  1. People who’ve found their calling.
  2. People who have spent many years in an industry and are still unhappy.
  3. People that spent many years in a career that didn’t suit them but ultimately found something that did.

Only interviewing those that have found their calling is likely to produce a survivor’s bias. And only by interviewing all groups can we start to see patterns of what works and what doesn’t when picking a career.

Cal’s conclusions from the interviews was, to have a meaningful career you need to stop looking for passion and get good at something rare and valuable. Once you’ve become good at something rare and valuable, you can obtain “traits” which will make all those years worth the effort. Things like autonomy, remote work agreements or part-time arrangements.

But what about people who have become rare and valuable and are still unhappy?

Becoming Rare and Valuable

After finishing high school, I joined the US military and was assigned to work as a computer technician. I was sent to a three-month job training school covering all aspects of computer support. Later I was sent to another school to learn Unix support and after that, another school for the Defense Messaging System. I was also given a secret-level clearance so I could support both classified and unclassified systems.

After separating from the military I continued working with the Defense Messaging System for a government contractor. I then spent some years doing desktop support for private companies but later returned to government contracting. By the time I’d come back they had a new proprietary system call the Automated Message Handling System that had replaced the Defense Messaging System and I was sent to another training class.

The point in giving you my resume is to show how specialised my job was in the IT industry. Having a secret clearance and working on these systems put me in a very small, very specialized group. So without knowing it, I followed Cal’s “rare and valuable” advice, but after ten years I didn’t feel like I was any closer to gaining traits that would make the job feel like a calling or even make me happy I had the job.

Will This Job Offer Those Traits?

Cal’s argument has a lot of merit. I’ve been thinking about it for a week and I can’t find fault with his comments—after all I’ve spent the last 8 years looking for my passion and have yet to find it. But his conclusions seem to be missing something. If I was able to spend ten years as a computer tech and not get the traits needed to feel like it was a calling, there are two possible problems. Either some jobs are unable to produce traits that are meaningful or I wasn’t good at the job.

If Cal’s research has debunked the idea that passion can be predetermined, it leaves the questions “what traits will make me happy?” and “which careers will most likely produce, or allow for, those traits?”

I’ll agree with Cal on one thing, this research generates more questions than it answers. And it leaves me thinking that perhaps financial independence is the only way to happiness. That reducing your reliance on money will allow you to do those things that you’re passionate about but no one will pay you to do.


Update, July 2013: I finally got Cal’s book and did a summary and review which you can read here:


Finding the Perfect Career: Passion or Pursuit

I’ve been following Cal Newport’s blog for a couple of years. I remember when he first started writing on the issue of how “follow your passion” might not be a good idea. I was a bit skeptical at the time and I’m still not sold.

He has written a new book on the topic called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. While researching the book’s contents to see if it’s something worth reading, I found this video of Cal speaking about his research at the 2012 World Domination Summit.

In the video Cal gives an overview of his research. First is a story of Steve Jobs, in his first few years at university, his subsequent drop-out and working with Steve Wozniak on their first few projects. The conclusions drown from Jobs’ story, and a few other anecdotes, are that passion isn’t what leads most people into careers that they later say are meaningful or “a calling.”

The second story is of Bill McKibben, a few years after graduating from Harvard when he decided to leave The New Yorker, move to Vermont and write The End of Nature. Bill’s story is where Cal gives alternative advice to following passion.

He says there are two steps to finding meaningful work.

  1. Get good at something rare and valuable.
  2. Use that as leverage to gain the things (or traits) that matter to you.

In McKibben’s case Cal speculates that he wanted simplicity, autonomy and to have an impact. By moving to a cabin in the Vermont woods he had simplicity, by writing he had autonomy and, because he was a good writer, he had impact in the environmental movement.

McKibben started developed skills while working for the The Harvard Crimson newspaper, then continued developing those skills working for The New Yorker. Had McKibben not been a good writer he wouldn’t have gotten an advance sufficient to move to Vermont and write the book. And then Cal cautions of two pitfalls in getting the traits that will make your career meaningful:

  1. If you try to get the traits without first being valuable, your chances of succeeding drop.
  2. Once you’re valuable, that’s when you’ll have the most pressure to stick on the path.

As in his previous articles, he suggests that what you do is much less important than you think when looking for meaning in your career. That you’ll be just as happy in one job as another, so long as you’re able to have traits that are important to you—which only come after you’re valuable to someone.


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4 Tips For a Better BarCamp

I was recently at Barcamp Bangkhen 3 in Bangkok and noticed that some people’s Barcamp experience was better than others. I’ve been interested in networking for a while and have spent a lot of time reading about the practice and meeting with entrepreneurs to test what I’ve learned. I thought I’d give a few tips on networking as applied to Barcamp.

Host a Talk

I’ve been to a couple of Barcamps before but this one was the first time I’d spoke. It changed everything. Before my talk no one approached me that I didn’t already know, but after my talk people I didn’t know were coming to me the rest of the day. Some people wanted to clarify something I’d said but a lot of people just wanted to know me more.

Don’t be the guy who says they’ve got nothing to talk about. Everyone has something they could speak on. You don’t have to be an expert on the topic you choose, you’ve just got to be further down the path than the people listening. I gave my talk on language learning. I couldn’t have given this talk to a crowd of linguistics professors but I knew more about language learning than most people in the room, and that’s enough.

Don’t Speak on Tech

Automatic Language Growth at BarcampA lot of people think Barcamps are all about technology. And while the talks do tend toward tech, I think you should do something else. After people have sat through six talks about iOS vs Android, the latest development in Ruby on Rails and everything else on tech, they’re going to want a break. My talk was the only one not on tech or startups and one dude said mine was the best talk of the day. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but he remembered it because it was different.

Bring Enough Name Cards

Even if you don’t have a business, get cards printed with your name, telephone number, email and website. Leave the box open at the front or by the door during your talk so people can get a card without having to ask you. Some people will be too shy to ask for a card but will still want to connect with you after the event. Some people will want to talk with you but you’ll be engaged with someone else and they won’t want to wait. Having enough cards and leaving them so everyone can get one will ensure you have a lot of new connections after the event.

Stay Till the End

90% of the name cards I got were given to me in the last hour of the event. People like to build rapport during the event and save “hey, send me an email sometime” for the end. If you leave early you’ll miss a lot of new connections.


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Write About It

People ask me a lot, “I really want to write but what do I write about? I feel like I’ll run out of things to say so quickly.” Sometimes it’s businessmen, sometimes it’s a student; this feeling doesn’t know social status, gender or race—everyone suffers from the idea that they’ve got nothing to say.

What do you already know about? What do you already talk about with your friends? I could talk about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, not Mixed Martial Arts as a whole, but only BJJ for two days and not talk about the same points twice—but then I’ve been around the sport for ten years and read every book on the topic.

So what if you’ve not been studying for ten years, and you didn’t read all the books? When someone tells me they can’t write because they’ve not studied the subject, I tell them “it doesn’t take ten years.” I could talk about language learning for a whole day and not cover the same topics twice. And I’ve only been a language nerd for about two years.

And age has nothing to do with it. When I was in high school I was a super Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, I read everything I could about the band. At that time I could have talked all day about the band and not covered the same topics twice. I even won concert tickets once because of my Skynyrd knowledge.

It doesn’t take a long time to become knowledgeable on a topic, and the more you write about it the more you’ll learn. I think it’s likely that you’ll reach a ceiling in your understanding of a subject if you don’t write about it. Look at everyone who’s the person in any particular industry. Without exception, they all write about their field. If they don’t get those ideas out of their head they have trouble generating new thoughts on the topic.

You don’t get fit to go to the gym, you go to the gym to get fit. The same is true for intellectual pursuits—write about things to get better at them, don’t wait till you’re good or you’ll never be good.

What if I really don’t have anything to write about?

If you don’t have anything to write about, go do something and write about the experience. A lot of books have been written by doing this.

If you’re interested to have a job in some field but know nothing about it, start a blog and interview people in that industry. Or start experimenting and write about how it goes—I’d love to read about your adventures, even your misadventures.

If you’re a student, it could be a way into a career. If you interview people in that industry or do some experiments that get noticed, hiring managers will know you when you apply for a job. It could be the only thing that get’s your resume shuffled to the top of the pile.

The same advice is relevant for people looking to change careers. Writing about an industry you want to move to will get you noticed. And it’s a more comfortable way to make a big change than going back to university or just quitting and trying to find an entry level job in the new industry.

Like I said, I want to read about your adventures, so start writing about them, and send me the link to your blog once you do.

Information, Happiness and the Opinions of Others

I wrote an article a while ago about being happy. That article is now unavailable so I thought I’d talk about it again. I’ve had two conversations recently that made me think I should have been more clear with the original article. It could be construed to think I’m unwilling to consider your opinion. Or that I’m so steadfast in my beliefs that there’s no reason to talk about yours, because mine won’t change.

In my last article I said it’s been about six years since I’ve watched the news on TV or read a newspaper. And that when people ask me how I stay informed I tell them, simply, “I don’t.”

Then I turn the question on them and ask what they’ve read in the news this month that was positive. Some people can cite an article or two from the hundreds they’ve read.

Then I ask what news they’ve read this month that was actionable. Something that now having learned, will change the way the live or at least change what they’re doing today. Again it’s an article or two out of hundreds.

My shunning of the news doesn’t stop at newspapers and news television. I use F. B. Purity on Facebook, which has a black list, to keep things out of my feed which contain “news” or other things I don’t want to hear about.

If you’re interested here’s the list:

air force
coast guard
fox news
school board
homeland security
department of state
state dept
house of representatives
fred holmes
got talent
child abuse
ron paul
mitt romney

After reading the list people sometimes ask me “wouldn’t you want to know if your friend was in the hospital with cancer?” Not on Facebook I wouldn’t. If I’m close enough to them, they’ll call. Otherwise what am I going to do with that information—especially if I’m in another country?

Facebook Likes and Google Search Rankings

I’ve learned a lot about being happy from Facebook likes and Google’s search rankings.

Facebook highlights things that get attention from your friends. If your friends click like on a post or make comment on a status update, Facebook gives it a bump. It assumes it’s something you would like to see, so they push it to the top. The more comments and likes, the more it comes to the top.

Google works this way too. The more links a site gets, the more it moves up the search rankings. The more people talk about it on Facebook and Twitter, the more authority it has in Google.

With this system, the only way to “dislike” something is to ignore it. As soon as you make comment on something, even to protest, you’re voting for it and bringing it to more people’s attention.

So then, it seems the best way to be more positive and happy is to ignore things that upset you. That doesn’t mean I’m closed-minded and never consider others’ opinions. I’m open to new ideas and conversation, as long as it’s intelligent conversation, but I refuse to let a torrent of inactionable negativity into my life.


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Tearing Up the Script: Thoughts on Education Reform

When I was at Payap I had more free time to talk with friends between classes. When topics came up about business, politics or education, there was one classmate who I’d almost always differ with. And when we did differ, we’d argue the exact opposite view.

I’ve been like this for years. Things that seem so obvious to me, others take the opposite view as obvious. What I’ve found is, people are often unwilling to look at something radically different to see if it might be a better fit.

Take lottery winners. When people win the lottery they are asked what they’ll do with the money. They often say “I want to drive a Mercedes instead of the Honda I’m driving now” or “I want to wear a Rolex instead of the Timex I’m wearing now.” They take what they already know and make it a little bigger and a little better.

Why not tear up the script? Why not change the very fiber of your life?

Let’s take a look at education. Specifically university education. The business programs at most universities start with classes in basic accounting and micro-economics and basic marketing, then they move on to managerial accounting and entrepreneurship. I’m sure someone smarter than me decided on this order, but why?

My best guess is that universities are teaching just-in-case information instead of just-in-time information. They assume you’re going to be around for four years (and structure their classes to ensure this). They’re in the business—and I do mean in business—of credentialing. If education were the goal, it seems the order would be reversed.

It seems best to start with entrepreneurship and managerial accounting and only later, if I decide I need to know the details of accounting, to sit a financial accounting class.

Of course in order to do this the universities would have to ask other questions. “What is our goal? Are we trying to produce entrepreneurs and business leaders or are we training departmental staff?”

Who do you thinks knows more about accounting, the CEO or the VP of accounting? Most universities want to train both entrepreneurs and departmental staff. It’s difficult enough to do both at the same university, it’s impossible to do both in the same classroom.

Maybe this is too radical for you? Maybe you’d be interested in tearing up a few pages from the script but aren’t interested in throwing the baby out with the bath water?

Let’s keep the structure and look at testing.

Every class I’ve taken at university has progressed the same way. All the students enter on the first day and we’re told what we’ll be covering, which books we’re to read and what days our exams will be. And the exams are always the same—A mid-term and a final.

If credentials are the goal, this format makes sense. The school intends to teach something and wants to know in the middle of the term if I’m on track by giving me an exam. Then gives me a final exam to see if I’ve learned what’s required to get the credentials.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to give an exam on the first day of class? What if everyone in the room has some prior experience and could skip the first four chapters?

I propose we have an initial exam and a mid-term exam. This way we start where we have the most time for education and not waste that time covering things we already know. Then, to ensure that we’re heading in the right direction, a mid-term.

Final Exams

What do final exams and grades show anyway? That you came to class? That you did enough to pass? That you learned how to work within that system?

So what if we tore-up the script? Reversed the order of classes? Started with the overview classes and then examined the parts? No tests, no GPA’s?

Of course this type of system only works if people are interested in what they are studying or interested in their work. For the people who want to credentials because it will get them a pay raise, the system is working fine. For the people who want their degree to shuffle them to the top of the resume pile, the system is working fine.

But think about people who are really good at what they do. Those people have a body of work. The people who are really good don’t get jobs because of their resumes, they get jobs because of their reputation. That dream job you want …it’s not available to people with resumes.

There’s a big difference between education and credentials. Universities, as they are now, seem only concerned with credentials. What would it look like if we tore-up the script and got back to educating instead of certifying?


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How to Acquire a Native Accent

I was talking about accent with a teacher who’s recently moved to Thailand. She told me about the immigrant students in her native England. How when they moved to her community with no English ability would spend the first year or so refusing to speak.

One boy she told me about was from India and moved to the UK with his family. She said the boy didn’t talk for the first year. Not to the teachers, not to the administrators and not to the other students. Then in his second year, you couldn’t shut him up. In that year of not speaking he’d managed, not only to learn English but also, to speak with an almost native accent. I asked her if this was common in her classrooms and she said he was the rule, not the exception.

Losing My Alabama Accent

I was born in Alabama in the southeast of the United States. This region has a particular accent and I’ve been told by friends who knew me then, I had one of the strongest accents they knew. I didn’t think much of it at the time but after graduating high school I moved to California. People would ask me to repeat myself and were continually asking me where I was from. Sometimes, during a serious conversation, people would laugh. People would say that even though I was being serious, my word choice was funny.

I decided it was best to change my accent. I started listening to the way my friends talked. Friends from California, Arizona and Colorado who I perceived to have a neutral American accent. After some time of just listening I tried to replicate their pronunciation. I was OK in the beginning but I would lose it over night. I’d wake up in the morning and sound like “Alabama” again. After a while I managed to wake up with a neutral accent but couldn’t maintain it if I talked to someone from Alabama—if I called my family for instance.

It took about two years from when I started listening to my friends till I sounded like them without trying. These days I have a much more neutral American accent. I don’t lose it overnight or even if I call my brother who still lives in Alabama and people often remark, when I visit Alabama, that I “sound like a Yankee.”

What About Adult Language Learners?

The Indian student was well within the critical period and although I was an adult when I changed my accent, English is my native language. So is the adult language learner cursed to have a foreign accent?

Dr J Marvin Brown, while developing what would become Automatic Language Growth, decided to test what would happen if adult students learning Thai, observed a year-long silent period similar to the Indian boy above. The program has been running at the AUA school in Bangkok for around thirty years and while it has the same bell-shaped curve in student ability as every school, the students who observe the year-long silent period tend to have native Thai-like pronunciation. The people in the program who don’t observe the year-long silent period have the same pronunciation problems as people from different language programs—the same problems as most adults.

Is this silent period the key to native-like pronunciation or are these people just gifted language learners?

Part 1: Two Questions for Language Learners
Part 2: Language Learning: The First Five Years
Part 3: Are You Speaking Thai or Speaking English with Thai Words?
Part 4: How to Acquire a Native Accent