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Following your passion is bad advice?

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I watched this google talk by Cal Newport.

The youtube description sums up the talk pretty well:

In this eye-opening account, Cal Newport debunks the long-held belief that "follow your passion" is good advice. Not only is the cliche flawed -- preexisting passions are rare and have little to do with how most people end up loving their work -- but it can also be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job hopping.

After making his case against passion, Newport sets out on a quest to discover the reality of how people end up loving what they do. Spending time with organic farmers, venture capitalists, screenwriters, freelance computer programmers, and others who admitted to deriving great satisfaction from their work, Newport uncovers the strategies they used and the pitfalls they avoided in developing their compelling careers.

Matching your job to a preexisting passion does not matter, he reveals. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.

With a title taken from the comedian Steve Martin, who once said his advice for aspiring entertainers was to "be so good they can't ignore you," Cal Newport's clearly written manifesto is mandatory reading for anyone fretting about what to do with their life, or frustrated by their current job situation and eager to find a fresh new way to take control of their livelihood. He provides an evidence-based blueprint for creating work you love.

In particular, he references what Steve Jobs said in one of his speeches at Stanford. It's now a very famous speech where he advised people to follow their dreams and to never settle. Newport points out that this is actually really bad advice.We don't have any reason to believe that you should follow your passion, if your goal is to love what you do.

First, not many people have a pre-existing passion. A lot of people struggle with picking out their passion from their interests. Many times, people's passions are very ill-suited for the job market as well. He said there was a psycholgist who designed a test that would determine what a person is very passionate about, and this psychologist gave this test for 500 Canadian university students. Only 4% had a practical passion, whereas most of those students were just passionate about hockey.

Second, This advice does not support the research on job satisfaction. People who have satisfying careers often do something that does not match their interests.

The path to passion is usually complex. It's rare to find a case where an individual knew what they wanted early on, then they went after it, got it, and had a satisfying career.

In Steve Jobs' case, if we go back to his high school and college years, there was nothing that showed he had a specific passion for technology. He went to a liberal arts college, dropped out, lived very poor for a while, bummed food and what-not off other students, got a night shift job at Atari briefly, went to India, moved to the west coast to student Eastern mysticism etc. etc. This is a portrait of a person who is seeking, and not someone who has a specific passion for something and they're running after it. How he ended up creating a business of selling personal computers was very opportunistic. He didn't go to college to study electrical engineering, or entrepreneurship etc. The way he ended up in the business of selling personal computers was chaotic.

If following your passion doesn't work, then what should you do? Newport uses the case of Bill McKibben, which he thinks is an ideal case for obtaining a career that you love. McKibben is the author of The End of Nature, possibly the first book written for a general audience on global warming. In his life, he went to Harvard, and got involved with the student newspaper. He worked hard there, became an editor, and he used that to land himself a job at The New Yorker. He didn't stay at this job for very long, he actually quit, moved to a cabin in Vermont, and he wrote End of Nature.

Newport's main point is that it doesn't matter what McKibben would have done with his life. McKibben isn't happy with his life because he's a freelance writer that writes about environmental issues. He's happy because what he does contains general traits that he likes. For example autonomy and doing something that impacts the world.

He is able to have a career that has these traits, because he traded it for a rare and valuable skill that he built up over time.


What Cal Newport is saying here seems very similar in spirit to all the things I've read from other people at Reddit's discipline community. People end up on that board all the time who are usually 18-25 years old and they don't know what to do with their life or how to motivate themselves.

"How do I find my passion?"

"Where does motivation come from?"

"Is it possible to develop passion?"

"I'm a 25 year old loser/failure neckbeard and I still live in my parents' basement. Please help."

The general advice from older members and people who have a good sense of what they're doing is, motivation comes after discipline. You have to just establish some kind of goal, and then do it with great intensity. This sets up a dynamic in your life that causes you to gravitate toward bigger and better things. Most people need certain experiences before they get a sense of identity. And these experiences are very often only possible with a high amount of discipline. You have to just do stuff, whether you want to or not. People often don't end up where they planned, that's rare (especially if you're a teen or in your 20s).

I really like Cal Newport's advice, because it's practical and realistic, but optimistic that career/work satisfaction is simple.

The reality is that we all live in society, so we have to work with it. To survive, we all need income, so we can trade it for food and shelter. If you don't agree with this, you can move to the Alaskan wilderness and live off the land.

If you want a job that has these often rare and appealing traits, you have to trade your rare and valuable skill to get that. People who are successful and happy with their work often worked very hard to build themselves up. Later, they traded this for a job that possesses more general traits that match their wants.


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A lot of people struggle with picking out their passion from their interests. Many times, people's passions are very ill-suited for the job market as well.

Although it may be something of a simplification, if everyone follows what they think is their passion then economies would collapse pretty quickly. Maybe there's another risk, though: if you're encouraged to follow your passion and you therefore decide on it even though you struggle to pick it, you may waste a lot of time pursuing something you're ill-suited to; you then fail at it but don't want to give it up because you've invested in it emotionally, and so on.

What do you think of Newport's advice looking back on your own experiences?

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What do you think of Newport's advice looking back on your own experiences?

I think "looking back" on things is a pretty interesting philosophical problem in itself. Human beings are obsessed with seeing patterns in things. People do things like see faces on Mars, speculate about massive conspiracy theories, we get suspicious of others and attempt to uncover plots against ourselves, tell stories about our life, ponder about the meaning/purpose/direction of things, our justice system relies on the existence of logical stories, the way we judge others relies on the stories we have constructed in our thoughts.

For some reason, people are more likely to go mad studying orderly things (math in particular, see "Pi" and "A Beautiful Mind", or any movie with the trope of the mad scientist), rather than creating art.

Personally I think the truth is that we're all out of control. I don't believe in free will, I don't think it exists. Possibly even worse, scientists are now telling us the universe is completely random and the best we can do is map probabilities about the future, no matter how powerful our calculations. Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us we are far, far more biased and out of control than we believe. I'm pretty sure most people find this reality very scary.

The movie Irreversible is a good take on this.

I think the story we create in our heads when we look back on life is an illusion, and very arrogant in itself. I do it myself. I sometimes think about what happened to me, in my own life. I usually point to 2 main events. The first one was failing out of the Texas Academy of Math & Science where my life was set. The second one was my mom discovering my pipe for smoking weed, which lead to a massive argument, which lead to me running away.

But I think the truth is, both of these things are hardly more significant than the direction of the breeze outside, or accidentally bumping into a specific stranger out in public one day and saying, "Excuse me."

For example, I remember the day my mom found my pipe, I actually went for a run around the neighborhood, during that time, she discovered it. I was planning on tossing it, because I figured it was too risky to leave anywhere in the house. I could have easily have grabbed it, stuck it in my pocket, then tossed it anywhere. Why didn't I do it just then? Maybe I heard a sound in the environment that jolted my thoughts a certain way, causing me to forget about it. Maybe if I had just tied my shoes next to the drawer that contained it. Maybe if my mom said something to me beforehand, or not.

How different could my life be if the tiniest, arbitrary thought or fluctuation in the environment caused me to simply put a piece of glass in my pocket and walk out the door? How different could my thoughts, ideas, and feelings be right now? Where could I be right now? Who could I be? I could be dead for all we know.

But why stop there? What if you rewind the tape even further back? What if you wind it forward? Where do you draw the line where the story starts and ends? Who or what do you blame? Not only are there virtually infinite permutations to the story, there's at least as many different ways to interpret it and tell it.

There's a million billion little strings attached to every event and every decision in a person's life. But for the sake of practicality and sanity, humans simplify the narratives of themselves and the world into more manageable, culturally relevant stories. Despite what I just said, this isn't totally worthless, because society & culture naturally causes the universe around us to gravitate toward certain things. It isn't totally meaningless to say, "If I go to college and study hard, I'll be more likely to get a good job and become happy." That's probably true, just not necessarily.

In summary, identifying and judging yourself or someone else with an arbitrary story is arrogant, because it assumes you have somehow discovered the "true" story out of all possible stories and interpretations. This leads me to believe that judging your past or someone else's past is a waste of time, but for the sake of making a decision in the present moment, you should use reason to figure out what action should be taken. There's the saying, "Don't shit where you eat." in other words, having sexual relations with a co-worker is not a bright idea, because there is a strong correlation between said action and drama/work dissatisfaction. Simply take this probability into account, analyze it, then make a practical decision. Nothing more or less. Ideally, you shouldn't judge yourself or anyone else about anything they do, no matter how evil or noble. Regret/grudges & pride are both useless.

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