[YS Learn] How to love what you do, and the reason why skill triumphs over passion

Renowned author Cal Newport in his book ‘So good that they can’t ignore you: Why skills trump passion in the quest for the work you love’ advises one against popular mantras like ‘following one’s passion’ when looking for a job.

Image credit: Vijeesh

There are plenty of books and blogs giving advice about choosing the right career. However, more often than not, we get advice from people that the recipe for success is to ‘Follow your passion’

Cal Newport, the author of the book So good that they can’t ignore you: Why skills trump passion in the quest for the work you love, strongly believes this advice is flawed and damaging. 

In fact, he calls it a dangerous advice. Newport believes, while this does not describe how successful people actually end up with great careers, he says it actually makes matters worse. It leads to chronic job shifts and unending angst that your reality falls short of the ‘big dream’, he says. 

Citing an example of Apple Co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, Newport says, do what Steve Jobs did, and not what he said. 

“If you had met a young Steve Jobs in years leading up to the founding of Apple Inc., you wouldn’t have pegged him as someone who was passionate about entrepreneurship and starting a technology company.” He goes on to explain that Steve Jobs’ journey and the reason he started up was because he disliked being a pauper. 

What Newport’s book states is - “Compelling careers often have complex origins that rejects the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.”

The best-selling author and professor believes the path to doing work that one loves is in becoming a complete craftsman of the work you have, and in the process collecting skills and having control of your hours. 

Learning to love what you do 

Most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do,” says Newport. 

Motivation, especially intrinsic motivation with work, requires one to fulfil three important psychological needs: Competence - an understanding and feeling that you are good at your work; Autonomy - control over your time and what you do with it, and Relatedness - connection with other people at the workplace. 

Loving your work is mostly determined by expertise and experience, he explains.

The author believes that to be great at your job, you need to have traits that are rare and valuable. The reason is simple demand-and-supply economics - the demand for rare and valuable skills is high and the supply is limited. If you develop traits of rare and valuable skill sets, you offer something indispensable. 

Build the right skill sets 

Newport believes if you want a great job, you need something of great value to offer in return. He says that whether you love your work or not is mostly based on your expertise and experience. This happens when you adopt a craftsman mindset on working on improving your skill sets. 

This will happen with ‘deliberate practice’ he says. This helps one develop the autonomy and competence that are needed to boost the intrinsic motivation. The idea of deliberate practice is to be in a state of flow, where you seek work that is hard enough to push you to learn and be uncomfortable, but not too uncomfortable that you get frustrated. 

By focussing on building the right skills and being a craftsman, people end up seeking problems that will need you to push yourself. This brings the need to develop new skills while continuing to be motivated. 

There are several other theories to back this idea. The popular one being the ‘10,000-hour rule’. It refers to the belief that excellence comes at performing a certain task for a continued period of time. And that time is believed to be 10,000 hours.

Even Malcolm Gladwell subscribes to practice. The widely-acclaimed author states in his book Outliers that great accomplishment at work is not about talent, but about being at the right place at the right time and with great amount of practice. This is a mindset that focuses on becoming so good they can’t ignore you’. It gives you the tools to make you love your job. 

Build control over time and what you do with it 

While you want to acquire the needed talent, what might not work is if your job has very few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills, if the work is on something you believe you are not good at or bad in general, or if the job forces you to work with people you don’t like to work with. 

Newport explains it is important to understand these three factors and then work on your skills. After working on autonomy and skills, the next one is control, and the hard part of it - saying no to things that may ruin it for you. Even if it is about being promoted, it may give you the illusion of time and control, but it also works towards taking all of that away. It is important to remember - working right trumps finding the right work. 

The more you try to force it, I learned, the less likely you are to succeed. True missions, it turns out, require two things. First you need career capital, which requires patience. Second, you need to be ceaselessly scanning your changing views of the adjacent possible in your field, looking for the next big idea. This requires a dedication to brainstorming and exposure to new ideas. Combined, these two commitments describe a lifestyle, not a series of steps that automatically spit out a mission when completed.” 

Edited by Megha Reddy


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