It’s common wisdom. Near gospel really, and not just among young people and founders. Across generational lines, sentiments like those from Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement at Stanford have been engraved into our collective consciousness:
The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.
In other words, follow your passion. There’s just one problem: “‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous advice.”
That’s a troubling claim, but it comes straight from Cal Newport’s investigation into “the details of how passionate people like Steve Jobs really got started”, as well as what scientists say predict happiness and fuel great accomplishment.
Newport’s not alone. In recent years, a host of leaders, academics, and entrepreneurs have all come to the same startling conclusion: nearly everything you’ve been told about following your passion is wrong.
Here are seven habits you need instead.
1. Not Passion, Purpose
Ryan Holiday, author of Ego Is the Enemy:
Your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment. Because just as often, we fail with — no, because of — passion. … [P]urpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.
Until about a century ago, passion was a dirty word. Classical philosophers, like Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, saw passion as a liability, not an asset: an insatiable and destructive force. Why?
Chiefly because passion is dangerously self-centered. In fact, our own modern descriptions of passion betray this inward bend: “I want to [blank]. I need to [blank]. I have to [blank].” In most cases, whatever word finishes those sentences — regardless of how well-meaning it might be — is overshadowed by the first.
Purpose, on the other hand, is about them, not me. It reorients our focus onto the people and causes we’re trying to reach, serve, help, and love. In The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes this pursuit as:
[a] striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.
Passion makes us bigger. Purpose connects us to something bigger and in doing so makes us right sized.
2. Not Passion, Picking
Shaa Wasmund, author of Stop Talking, Start Doing:
‘No’ is a far more powerful word than ‘Yes.’ Every ‘Yes’ said out of obligation or fear takes time away from the things and people we love. When an opportunity appears connected with your passion, it’s even trickier. Instead of snatching up everything that might get your closer to the life you want, give yourself the space to pick carefully.
Good is the enemy of great. That’s how Jim Collins put it anyway. Learning to say ‘No’ is easily one of the most vital skills we can cultivate. And yet, even if you’ve mastered ‘No’ to the obvious stuff, passion rears its head.
The blinding effect of passion leads us unthinkingly into projects and meetings that, in truth, are dead ends. Worse, they sap time and energy that would otherwise move us forward. When Tim Ferriss asked journalist Kara Swisher what message she’d put on a billboard for millions to see, her answer was a single word, ‘Stop.’
And that’s what picking is all about: slow down, pause, evaluate, weigh, and only then make a clear-headed choice. Picking involves, first, putting a time buffer on our decisions, particularly decisions that appear ‘connected with your passion.’ Second, running our choices by an objective third party: a friend or colleague who can call out our blind spots.
Sleep on it. Reach out. The sun will rise tomorrow. And be ruthless with your ‘Nos.’
3. Not Passion, Practice
Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance:
After you’ve discovered and developed interest in a particular area, you must devote yourself to the sort of focused, full-hearted, challenge-exceeding-skill practice that leads to mastery. You must zero in on your weaknesses, and you must do so over and over again, for hours a day, week after month after year.
We all love shortcuts. The allure of getting more by doing less is seductive. But are there times when doing more equals more? Absolutely.
The classic illustration comes from David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art and Fear, where a ceramics teacher divided his class into two groups. The first was told they’d be graded on quality. The other, quantity. To get an A, the quantity group was required to produce fifty pounds of clay pots. Not exactly an artistically inspired assignment. And yet, when grading time came, “a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.”
What accounted for this reversal of expectations?
Easy: while the quality group held back — laboring under perfectionism — the quantity group got busy. They practised. And that’s good news. If greatness came down to passion — or worse, talent — then it’d be reserved for only a select few. Practise means greatness is doable … one tiny step after another.
4. Not Passion, Planning
Liran Kotzer, CEO of Woo.io:
Passion is indeed very important, but what most people don’t know is what’s needed to achieve their true potential. Whether it’s to acquire new skills, get a promotion, or achieve what they want, it all starts with having a plan based on real data and real-world options.
The only word less sexy than practice is planning. And yet planning is a golden thread woven through the lives of artists, leaders, and entrepreneurs alike. The trick here is that plans need not be grandiose. Rather, they shouldn’t be.
Optimism is wonderful when it comes to our dreams. However, when it comes to what’s next — the nitty-gritty actions that’ll get us there — optimism kills. Infected with passion, our plans lose touch with reality. We overestimate strengths and underestimate challenges. Beyond the ‘real data and real-world options,’ we build castles in the sky. That’s one of the reasons platforms like Woo, which lets you get feedback from companies and headhunters anonymously, are so valuable.
Where passion disconnects us from reality, planning — especially planning of the SMART goal and number-crunching variety — drives home the true state of affairs.
That true state rescues us from false expectations, show stoppers, and resentment. As a good friend of mine likes to say, “
The question when you’re trying to bring a dream into reality shouldn’t be, ‘What going to go right?’ It should be, ‘What’s going to go wrong?’
5. Not Passion, Positioning
Jason Stone, founder of Millionaire Mentor Inc.:
Passion can only take you so far. After that, if you don’t have the skills, the tools, the resources, the knowledge, and the track-record to move forward, take risks, and expand. Otherwise, you won’t be able to position yourself as an authority. Positioning is key to make sure you are ready when opportunity strikes!
Humans are associative creatures. We think and act not in isolation but by comparing and contrasting.
As Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote in Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind:
The basic approach of positioning is not to create something new and different, but to manipulate what’s already up there in the mind, to retie the connections that already exist.
This is especially true when it comes to how other people see us.
Passionate people often come off as self-inflated. They’re legends in their own minds. Positioning means leveraging who you are and what you’ve done as a springboard to what’s next. It embraces the associate nature of other people and — while it still leaves room for confidence — acknowledges that how others perceive us is more real, at least to them, than how we see ourselves.
6. Not Passion, Peripheral
Troy Osinoff, author of My Bad Parent: Do As I Say, Not as I Did:
People that think they completely understand their world are the most susceptible to overlook new opportunities. Peripheral is about establishing an unwavering curiosity to use your existing knowledge in uncovering new patterns and trends both for the sake of your personal development as well as the success of your business or career.
Passion makes us myopic. We become so focused on the desire inside us, we lose sight of what’s around us. Objectivity — the ability to see the world as it truly is — atrophies in the blinding light of passion.
Adopting a peripheral perspective forces us to examine the margins. It widens our view. Rather than rush headlong into disaster, we’re able to spot not just the pitfalls but the opportunities we would have otherwise missed.
How? By cultivating curiosity. Questions like, “What am I missing? What am I ignoring? Who could give me a fresh take?” are vital in every area of life. Likewise, so is putting ourselves in new situations, reading books outside our passions, and intentionally pursuing people who have nothing to do with what it is we think we want.
7. Not Passion, Perseverance
Brian D. Evans, founder of Influencive and Inc. 500 Entrepreneur:
The person who calls themselves a student is more a master than those who try to wear the title. Get up when you get knocked down. Come back stronger, faster, and (above all) smarter. The constant desire to learn and overcome has helped me achieve everything. You must persevere.
Although it might sound odd, perseverance is as much about putting in effort as it is about battling ego. Drunk on passion, masters are doomed to repeat failures in the name of ‘pushing through.’ In contrast, students do more than hone their craft; they learn from their mistakes.
Asked if the Patriot’s historic comeback in Super Bowl LI was his ‘greatest game ever,’ Tom Brady replied:
[W]hen I think of an interception return for a touchdown, some other missed opportunities in the first 37, 38 minutes of the game, I don’t really consider playing a good quarter-and-a-half, plus overtime as one of the ‘best games ever’ but it was certainly one of the most thrilling.
Certainly, Brady persevered, and it’d be nice if that guaranteed success. But sometimes you won’t come back to win it. At least, not in the moment. Jobs will be lost. Pitches turned down. Relationships ended. And reviews harsh.
Failure, however, isn’t just an inevitable stepping stone toward success. Rejection is part of success itself. As Louis CK put it to a budding comedian,
The only road to good shows is bad ones. Just go start having a bad time and, if you don’t give up, you will get better.
Is passion a bad thing?
Understood rightly, no. But as the be-all-and-end-all? Yes.
Cal Newport’s prescription was skill: passion is the result of excellence, not it’s source.
Far from a magic bullet, passion can mislead us, blind us, and even turn us in on ourselves. Newport was right: “‘Follow your passion’ might just be terrible advice.” Thankfully, these seven habits put passion in its place so that the fire Jobs spoke of doesn’t burn out … but endures.