Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

by Cal Newport

Read:  2017-12-16, Rating:  8/10.

The Four Rules:

  1. Don’t Follow Your Passion – Passion Is Rare.
  2. Importance of Skill – Most any work can become the foundation for a compelling career.
  3. Importance of Control – Enthusiasm alone is not rare and valuable and is therefore not worth much in terms of career capital.
  4. Importance of Mission – A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough—it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field.

Rule #1 Don’t Follow Your Passion

Steve Martin quote, “so good that they can’t ignore you.”

The “Passion” of Steve Jobs

The Passion Hypothesis
The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.

“Follow your passion” might just be terrible advice.

Steve Jobs was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.

How do we find work that we’ll eventually love?

Passion Is Rare

Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT)

Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people

The passion hypothesis is not just wrong, it’s also dangerous. Telling someone to “follow their passion” is not just an act of innocent optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.

Observing a few instances of a strategy working does not make it universally effective.

These rules chronicle my quest to figure out how people really end up loving what they do.

RULE #2 Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Or, the Importance of Skill)

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’… but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ ”

Stop focusing on these little details. Focus instead on becoming better.

Irrespective of what type of work you do, the craftsman mindset is crucial for building a career you love.

First, when you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyper aware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness.

Second, and more serious, the deep questions driving the passion mindset—“Who am I?” and “What do I truly love?”—are essentially impossible to confirm.

Craftsman mindset: It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.

regardless of how you feel about your job right now, adopting the craftsman mindset will be the foundation on which you’ll build a compelling career.

three traits that make people love their work: impact, creativity, and control.

Part of what makes the craftsman mindset thrilling is its agnosticism toward the type of work you do.

Most any work can become the foundation for a compelling career.


  1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
  3. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling 2008 book, Outliers. Here’s how he summarized it:

The 10,000-Hour Rule

The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours [emphasis mine].

In serious study, Charness concluded, “materials can be deliberately chosen or adapted such that the problems to be solved are at a level that is appropriately challenging.”

Furthermore, in serious study, feedback is immediate: be it from looking up the answer to a chess problem in a book or, as is more typically the case for serious players, receiving immediate feedback from an expert coach.

Anders Ericsson coined the term “deliberate practice” to describe this style of serious study, defining it formally as an “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.”

if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better.

Deliberate practice might provide the key to quickly becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

To successfully adopt the craftsman mindset, therefore, we have to approach our jobs in the same way that Jordan approaches his guitar playing or Garry Kasparov his chess training—with a dedication to deliberate practice.

There is no magic formula, but deliberate practice is a highly technical process, so I’m hoping that this specificity will help you get started.

Step 1: Decide What Capital Market You’re In

Winner-take-all and auction

There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection.

Blogging in the advice space—where his site existed—is not an auction market, it’s winner-take-all. The only capital that matters is whether or not your posts compel the reader.

Step 2: Identify Your Capital Type

Seek open gates—opportunities to build capital that are already open to you.

Step 3: Define “Good”

Step 4: Stretch and Destroy

The good news about deliberate practice is that it will push you past this plateau and into a realm where you have little competition. The bad news is that the reason so few people accomplish this feat is exactly because of the trait Colvin warned us about: Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.

It’s so tempting to just assume what you’ve done is good enough and check it off your to-do list, but it’s in honest, sometimes harsh feedback that you learn where to retrain your focus in order to continue to make progress.

Step 5: Be Patient

If I stay with it, then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it.

RULE #3 Turn Down a Promotion (Or, the Importance of Control)

Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.

The First Control Trap

Control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable.

It’s really hard to convince people to give you money.

Enthusiasm alone is not rare and valuable and is therefore not worth much in terms of career capital.

The Second Control Trap

The point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change.

“I have this principle about money that overrides my other life rules. Do what people are willing to pay for.” Derek Sivers

Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.

The Law of Financial Viability

When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on.

RULE #4 Think Small, Act Big (Or, the Importance of Mission)

Her happiness comes from the fact that she built her career on a clear and compelling mission

Missions are tricky

Just because you really want to organize your work around a mission doesn’t mean that you can easily make it happen.

A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough—it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field.

“getting to the cutting edge” echoes the idea of career capital.

The Law of Remarkability

For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.

We’re a society trained to watch what’s on and then discuss what caught our attention the next day.

In sum, mission is one of the most important traits you can acquire with your career capital. But adding this trait to your working life is not simple. Once you have the capital to identify a good mission, you must still work to make it succeed. By using little bets and the law of remarkability, you greatly increase your chances of finding ways to transform your mission from a compelling idea into a compelling career.

Working right trumps finding the right work.

Life is good.