Skills vs. Passion

In his 2005 commencement speech to Stanford’s graduating class, Steve Jobs offered the following advice: “You’ve got to find what you love... The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.” Essentially, Jobs put his stamp of approval on an immensely appealing piece of popular career advice called “the passion hypothesis.” This advice argues that the key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion. We are told to lionize those with the courage to follow their passion and pity the conformist drones who cling to the safe path. In fact, “do what you love, and the money will follow” has become the de facto motto of the career-advice field. However, when you look past the feel-good slogans and go deeper into the details of how passionate people like Steve Jobs really got started, or ask scientists about what actually predicts workplace happiness, the issue becomes much more complicated. You begin to find threads of nuance that, once pulled, unravel the tight certainty of the passion hypothesis, eventually leading to an unsettling recognition: “Follow your passion” might just be terrible advice.

Less than a year before starting Apple Computer, the actions of Steve Jobs were hardly those of someone passionate about technology and entrepreneurship. He was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash. If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, we would probably find him today as one of the Los Altos Zen Center’s most popular teachers. But he didn’t follow this simple advice. Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break—a “small-time” scheme that unexpectedly took off. Clearly Jobs eventually grew passionate about his work, but his story really generates more questions than answers. Perhaps the only thing it does make clear is that, at least for Jobs, “follow your passion” was not particularly useful advice.

Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion. There are many complex reasons for workplace satisfaction, but the reductive notion of matching your job to a pre-existing passion is not among them. First of all, career passions are rare. At the core of the passion hypothesis is the assumption that we all have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered. However, the vast majority of people don’t have passions that are particularly relevant to work or education. Secondly, passion takes time. Research shows that the happiest, 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. Passion is a side effect of mastery. The forty-year-old theoretical framework known as Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is arguably the best understanding science currently has on career satisfaction. SDT tells us that motivation, in the workplace or else-where, requires that you fulfill three basic psychological needs—factors described as the “nutriments” required to feel intrinsically motivated for your work:

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

Of equal interest is what this list of basic psychological needs does not include. Notice, scientists did not find “matching work to pre-existing passions” as being important for motivation. 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. The passion mindset essentially focuses on what the world and your career can offer you, which leads to two main problems. First, when you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness—the annoying tasks you’re assigned or the frustrations of corporate bureaucracy can become too much to handle. 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. “Is this who I really am?” and “Do I love this?” rarely reduce to clear yes-or-no responses. In other words, the passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused. A “craftsman mindset” on the other hand focuses on what you can offer the world and is arguably a much better approach to choosing a career.

While the passion mindset offers a swamp of ambiguous and unanswerable questions, the craftsman mindset offers clarity. The craftsman mindset 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.

There is a tremendous quote that comes in the 2007 episode of the Charlie Rose show. Rose was interviewing the actor and comedian Steve Martin about his memoir Born Standing Up. The quote comes in the last five minutes of the interview, when Rose asks Martin for his advice for aspiring performers. “Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they want 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.’” This is exactly the philosophy that catapulted Martin into stardom, and it is good advice to people looking to build a career they love—focus on becoming better and ignore the rest. Put aside the question of whether your job is your true passion, and instead turn your focus toward becoming so good they can’t ignore you. 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. You adopt the craftsman mindset first and then passion follows.

If you consider your own dream-job fantasies, you’ll likely notice some combination of the following traits: 1) creativity; 2) impact; and 3) control. These traits are rare and valuable. Most jobs don’t offer their employees great creativity, impact, or control over what they do and how they do it. Supply and demand says that if you want these traits, you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. Think of these rare and valuable skills you can offer as your career capital. The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming “so good they can’t ignore you,” is exactly the mindset you would adopt if your goal was to acquire as much career capital as possible. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is to create work you love.

However, it is important to keep in mind that certain jobs are better suited for applying career capital theory than others. The following are three traits that disqualify a job as providing a good foundation for building work you love:

  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 useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
  3. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

A job with any combination of these disqualifying traits can thwart your attempts to build and invest career capital. If it satisfies the first trait, skill growth isn’t possible. If it satisfies the second two traits, then even though you could build up reserves of career capital, you’ll have a hard time sticking around long enough to accomplish this goal.

Next, let’s dive into the best strategy for acquiring career capital (rare and valuable skills you can offer). If you want to understand the science of how people get good at something, chess is an excellent place to start. For one thing, it provides a clear definition of ability: your ranking (i.e. Elo system used by the World Chess Federation). The other reason chess proves useful for studying performance is the fact that it’s really hard. To beat Garry Kasparov in 1997, for example, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer had to analyze 200 million moves per second, and to play a competitive opening, it drew from a data-base of over 700,000 grand-master games. Given chess’s difficulty, we can expect that the strategies required to get good will be more pronounced and therefore easier to identify. These traits explain why scientists have been studying chess players since as early as the 1920s, when a trio of German psychologists set out to determine if grand masters had freakish memories (interestingly, it turns out they don’t: though grand masters are fantastically efficient at storing chess positions in their minds, their general recall ability is quite average). One study that proves especially relevant to our interests took place in 2005, when a research team led by Neil Charness (a psychologist from Florida State University) published the results of a decades-long investigation of the practice habits of chess players. Previous studies had shown it takes around ten years, at a minimum, to become a grand master. This is the “ten-year rule,” sometimes called the “10,000-hour rule,” which has been bouncing around scientific circles since the 1970s, but was popularized more recently by Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling 2008 book, Outliers.

Here’s how he summarized it: 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. In Outliers, Gladwell pointed to this rule as evidence that great accomplishment is not about natural talent, but about being in the right place at the right time to accumulate such a massive amount of practice. Bill Gates? He happened to attend one of the first high schools in the country to install a computer and allow their students unsupervised access—making him one of the first in his generation to build up thousands of hours of practice on this technology. Mozart? His dad was a fanatic about practicing. By the time Mozart was being toured around Europe as a prodigy, he had squeezed in more than twice the number of practice hours that similarly aged musician contemporaries had acquired.

However, what’s interesting about Charness’s study, however, is that it moves beyond the 10,000-hour rule by asking not just how long people worked, but also what type of work they did. In the 1990s, this was a relevant question. There was debate in the chess world at the time surrounding the best strategies for improving. One camp thought tournament play was crucial, as it provides practice with tight time limits and working through distractions. The other camp, however, emphasized serious study—pouring over books and using teachers to help identify and then eliminate weaknesses. When surveyed, the participants in Charness’s study thought tournament play was probably the right answer. The participants, as it turns out, were wrong. Hours spent in serious study of the game was not just the most important factor in predicting chess skill, it dominated the other factors.

The researchers discovered that the players who became grand masters spent five times more hours dedicated to serious study than those who plateaued at an intermediate level. On closer examination, the importance of serious study becomes more obvious. 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.” This contrasts with tournament play, where you are likely to draw an opponent who is either demonstrably better or demonstrably worse than yourself: both situations where “skill improvement is likely to be minimized.” 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.

In the early 1990s, Anders Ericsson, a colleague of Neil Charness at Florida State University, 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.” As hundreds of follow-up studies have since shown, deliberate practice provides the key to excellence in a diverse array of fields, among which are chess, medicine, auditing, computer programming, bridge, physics, sports, typing, juggling, dance, and music. In other words, outside a handful of extreme examples—such as the height of professional basketball players and the girth of football linemen—scientists have failed to find much evidence of natural abilities explaining experts’ successes. It is a lifetime of accumulation of deliberate practice that again and again ends up explaining excellence. This is an important concept to grasp because it isn’t obvious—few people participate in anything that even remotely approximates this style of skill development. As Ericsson explains, “Most individuals who start as active professionals… change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work… is a poor predictor of attained performance.” Put another way, if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better. We all hit plateaus.

If you can figure out how to integrate deliberate practice into your own life, you have the possibility of blowing past your peers in your value, as you’ll likely be alone in your dedication to systematically getting better. That is, deliberate practice might provide the key to quickly becoming so good they can’t ignore you. If you simply show up and do what you’re told, you will reach an “acceptable level” of ability before plateauing. 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 because deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.” Pushing past what’s comfortable, however, is only one part of the deliberate-practice story; the other part is embracing honest feedback—even if it destroys what you thought was good. Learning is not done in isolation. You need to be constantly soliciting feedback from colleagues and professionals so that you can figure out where you need to improve. You stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.”

So to quickly summarize, “follow your passion” is bad advice, as the vast majority of people don’t have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered and matched to a job. People with compelling careers instead start by getting good at something rare and valuable—building “career capital”—and then cashing in this capital for the traits that make great work great. Control is one of the most important targets you can choose for this investment. Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment. Acquiring control, however, can be complicated. There is a growing number of authors and online commentators who promote the idea that the only thing standing between you and a dream job is building the courage to step off the expected path. However, it probably makes sense to generally dismiss this “courage culture.” Control is seductive, but control acquired without career capital is not sustainable. For example, if I quit my job to get a 200-hour yoga certification and start my own yoga studio, that probably wouldn’t be very sustainable. Financial viability is extremely important and it’s important to consider what people are willing to pay for. This is different from pursuing money for the sake of having money. Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable. 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. When you look at stories of people who were unsuccessful in adding more control to their careers, you often find that this law of financial viability has generally been ignored.

Mission is another desirable trait in a career. To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions. It provides an answer to the question, “What should I do with my life?” Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on your world—a crucial factor in loving what you do. People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work. Staying up late to save your corporate litigation client a few extra million dollars can be draining, but staying up late to help cure a disease can leave you more energized than when you started. However, like any desirable trait, mission too requires that you first build career capital—a mission launched without this expertise is likely doomed to sputter and die.

Having passion for your work is vital, but it’s a fool’s errand to try to figure out in advance what work will lead to this passion. In his 2010 book, Where Good Ideas Come From, science writer Steven Johnson explains that scientific breakthroughs are almost always discovered in the “adjacent possible,” a term borrowed from the complex-system biologist Stuart Kauffman, who used it to describe the spontaneous formation of complex chemical structures from simpler structures. Given a soup of chemical components sloshing and mixing together, noted Kauffman, lots of new chemicals will form. Not every new chemical, however, is equally likely. The new chemicals you’ll find are those that can be made by combining the structures already in the soup. That is, the new chemicals are in the space of the adjacent possible defined by the current structures. When Johnson adopted the term, he shifted it from complex chemicals to cultural and scientific innovations. “We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape,” he explained. The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas. The reason important discoveries often happen multiple times, therefore, is that they only become possible once they enter the adjacent possible, at which point anyone surveying this space—that is, those who are the current cutting edge—will notice the same innovations waiting to happen.

We like to think of innovation as striking us in a stunning eureka moment, where you all at once change the way people see the world, leaping far ahead of our current understand. In reality, innovation is more systematic. We grind away to expand the cutting edge, opening up new problems in the adjacent possible to tackle and therefore expand the cutting edge some more, opening up more new problems, and so on. 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. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge—the only place where these missions become visible. Advancing to the cutting edge in a field is an act of “small” thinking, requiring you to focus on a narrow collection of subjects for a potentially long time. Once you get to the cutting edge, however, and discover a mission in the adjacent possible, you must go after it with zeal: a “big” action. The art of mission, we can conclude, asks us to suppress the most grandiose of our work instincts and instead adopt the patience required to get this ordering correct.

Rather than believing we have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project or mission in advance, it makes sense to make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant wins. This rapid and frequent feedback allows people to find unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes. The important thing about little bets is that they’re bite-sized. You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of choosing a bold plan and making one big bet on its success. To maximize your chances of success, you should deploy small, concrete experiments that return concrete feedback. These bets allow you to tentatively explore the specific avenues surrounding your general mission, looking for those with the highest likelihood of leading to outstanding results. If career capital makes it possible to identify a compelling mission, then it’s a strategy of little bets that gives you a good shot of succeeding in this mission. To deploy this career tactic, you need both pieces.

In sum, this general framework lays the foundation for a new way of thinking on how people end up loving what they do. Early on, we dismissed the passion hypothesis, which says that you have to first figure out your true calling and then find a job to match. Then, we replaced this idea with career capital theory, which argues that the traits that define great work are rare and valuable, and if you want these in your working life, you must first build up rare and valuable skills to offer in return. We call these skills “career capital,” and dived into the details of how to acquire it. The next obvious question is how to invest this capital once you have it. Gaining control over what you do and how you do it is incredibly important.

This trait shows up so often in the lives of people who love what they do. Investing your capital in control, however, turns out to be tricky. It’s dangerous to try to gain more control without enough capital to back it up. The simple rule: “Do what people are willing to pay for” helps us navigate this control conundrum. This isn’t about making money. Instead, it’s about using money as a “neutral indicator value”—a way of determining whether you have enough career capital to succeed with a pursuit. This is called financial viability and it’s a critical tool for navigating your own acquisition of control. This holds whether you are pondering an entrepreneurial venture or a new role within an established company. Unless people are willing to pay you, it’s not an idea you’re ready to go after. Lastly, we identified mission as 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, you greatly increase your chances of finding ways to transform your mission from a compelling idea to a compelling career.