Is Finding Your Passion a Fools Game?

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The standard modern-day advice of "just find something you would do for free and then do that" may be setting you up for years of frustration and worse, financial ruin.

After stumbling upon Derek Siver's amazing "Books I've Read" page, I quickly ordered a copy of one of the books that he rated a 10 out of 10, So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, by Cal Newport.

And wow.

Just wow.

The whole idea behind the book is that the standard advice of "following your passion" as the key to success and happiness is a seriously flawed argument.

And Cal backs this up with some thoughtful commentary.

On page 18 of the introduction, this little paragraph literally jumped off the page at me:

"The narratives in this book are bound by a common thread: the importance of ability. The things that make a great job, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job."


I cannot tell you how many times I've looked for a framework to explain to someone sitting across from me that "having skills" is equally important to "finding your passion."

But I really couldn't explain it fully, until now, thanks to Cal.

Here's a summary of some of my notes:

Rule #1: Don't Follow Your Passion

On page 12 Cal shares this great story...

" soon notice that the messy nature of Steve Job's path is more the rule than the exception. In an interview with the public radio host Ira Glass, for example, a group of three undergraduates press him for wisdom on how to 'figure out what you want' and 'know what you'll be good at.'

'In the movies there's this idea that you should just go for your dream,' Glass tells them. 'But I don't believe that. Things happen in stages.'

Glass emphasizes that it takes time to get good at anything, recounting the many years it took him to master radio to the point where he had interesting options. The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that's the hardest phase,"

Reread that last line.

Isn't that so overlooked? The idea that we need to develop actual skills.

In today's world of iPhones, Uber and Snapchat, there's a belief that making it big is as simple as creating a new app.

We all want to find our passion and naturally sail off into a life of effortless money-making joy.

But we may have been sold a fairytale that sets a lot of people up for years of frustration.

The book goes on to share how Daniel Pink's TED talk explains that motivation requires the fulfilment of these three needs:

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

Relating your work to a deep-rooted personal "passion" didn't make the list.

Cal's next rules are extremely insightful:

Rule #2:  Be So Good They Can't Ignore You.
Rule #3:  Turn Down a Promotion.
Rule #4:  Think Small, Act Big (Or, the Importance of Mission).

My own notes summarize Cal's ideas this way...

You need to acquire skills that the marketplace values. Without this, you have nothing.

So the people who want to jump into a "business doing their passion" without having skills that the marketplace values are destined for failure.

That's why your friend who opens a business in a completely different field than their career is very likely destined for failure.

You need to earn "career capital" and you cannot skip ahead to working on "your life's mission" without it.

Career capital allows you the opportunity to earn autonomy in your work, gain a feeling of competence and freedom to work with who you please.

Next, finding your own "life's mission" isn't always a sudden big discovery. It's more often becoming great at what you do and then noticing a gap in the market that you can step right into.

So, working on a wonderful mission and being aware of opportunities as you reach a high level of expertise with your skills.

Placing "little bets" or taking small steps and then using marketplace feedback has proven to be a very common and systematic way of uncovering exceptional life's work.

Quitting your job and burning the boats behind you, although great for a movie, doesn't have much success.

Here's what I took away from this book...

Almost any career can lead to a fulfilling life's work if you first earn enough career capital (skill and expertise) and then leverage that capital into gaining more autonomy, and eventually, into a personal life mission.

I've tried mapping this back to our own journey starting Rock Star Real Estate.

If I look at the first decade of my own career, it was a combination of technology + sales + marketing.

The first few years of my work was handling tech support issues for Fortune 500 database customers.

I then moved into sales where I would sometimes do 3-4 sales presentations a day. And I did that for almost four years straight. I had the opportunity to test my speaking and presentation skills daily, for years.

I then managed people for several years.

In my personal time, I spent countless hours tinkering around building websites and studying personal development and marketing.

And during this entire time, Nick and I were saving money and buying properties.

So if I really analyze the birth of Rock Star Real Estate, where we married: marketing, sales, technology and real estate - it's pretty obvious that the first nine years of my career set me up pretty nicely.

And Nick's early career took a very similar path.

It was a huge benefit to have years of speaking experience in the corporate world.

And years of real estate experience, coupled with technology experience, that we could leverage into websites, emails, blogs and articles for lead generation.

The idea of a "brokerage for investors" was just a "little bet" in an industry that already had the concept of "brokerages."  We just made a little adjustment to what already existed.

If we had attempted to build Rock Star when we were in our early 20's, and with less career capital, the chance of success would have been much different I believe.

No one can know for sure of course, but Cal's book has given me a beautiful framework for future "follow my passion" discussions with members, clients, friends and most importantly, my own children.

Thank you, Cal.

This book has instantly made it to my "best of all time list" along with classics like, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Think & Grow Rich, etc. I haven't added a book to this list in a very long time.

If you're frustrated in any stage of your career or business right now, I'd highly recommend picking up a copy.

Until next time ... Your Life! Your Terms!

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0 comments on “Is Finding Your Passion a Fools Game?”

  1. Wow, this is powerful! I completely agree with Cal's points which seem to apply directly to you and Nick's situation. In hindsight, it also applies to my situation. Although I'm no longer working as a computer engineer, many of the skills that I learned and experience that I gained during the first 5 years of my career were invaluable and helped create a foundation towards becoming a real estate entrepreneur. Having and developing skills is certainly equally important (if not more) to "finding your passion".

  2. Previously heard of this concept ...thanks for the summary Tom! I'm an avid reader myself ...the best books I read last year are

    10/10 Maxwell Maltz -new psycho cybernetics
    10/10 George Leonard - Mastery
    9/10 Gary Keller - the One thing
    9/10 Ryan Holiday - the obstacle is the way


  3. Good on you Charles! I left my banking job last year and also am greatful for all that I learned from it. Keep up the great work!

  4. Charles, watching you over the next several years is going to be fun for all of us. Keep doing your thing! Impressive stuff.

  5. Ricardo! I can't believe you're read The New Psycho Cybernetics, read that years ago. Not many people bring that one up. I'll pick up Mastery, I don't believe I've read it. The other two you mention are also fantastic. Thanks for sharing them! I had the chance to listen to Ryan Holiday outline his creative process for writing at a mastermind last week in LA, super interesting guy.

  6. Thanks Tom! And thank you very much for sharing this information! I will definitely be forwarding it to my friends and family.

  7. Thanks Ricardo, congratulations for leaving your banking job on your terms! It sounds like you learned a lot from your experience which is fantastic!

  8. I agree and disagree. First I am really glad you switched from “ability” to skills because ability is a psychomotor function of the body. As an example I have the ability to throw a football, I do not have the skill to throw it like Doug Flutie. So yes skills, rather than ability are a critical component of career success. I do disagree that you have to force the skills to come. I will never throw the ball like Doug Flutie, it would not matter how many hours I spent in practice- which is why we say some people have a natural ability. To me when there is force, it obviously means there is resistance and you should listen to resistance it is telling you something.
    The argument you make about people believing things should be easy is equally true for people (wrongly) believing that for things to be worthwhile they need to be hard or forced. I swear Men’s Health and the Chive are a testament to the macho belief of “no pain-no gain”. Life is not a dichotomy, it isn’t either hard or easy. Life should be about flow- and flow is not forced, it is felt.
    From my perspective as the Learning & Career Advisor for our largest air force base, entrepreneur and social do-gooder, I believe that in North America we start way too late to think about careers. In many European countries you start streaming into careers, not academic fields, in grade 9 and 10. When you start on the right path early, it changes the trajectory of your whole career.
    The challenge is the people that teens are left to rely on to guide them are teachers and parents. Teachers (whom I love and admire) are people who loved school so much, they went to university so they could get a job right back in a school. So if you want to be a teacher, teachers make great guidance counsellors but if you want something different they don’t have a lot of experience in the private sector, entrepreneurialism, working overseas (other than teaching) etc. Parents face similar barriers; you don’t know what you don’t know.
    I was lucky in university I stumbled upon the career centre and I took a Strong Interest Inventory and MBTI assessment. These tools put me on a laser straight path that combined both my personality, interests (passion) and helped me develop the skills I needed. At 41 I have held seven jobs all progressing upward in the same field, very happily. I was even able to fulfill my dream of a sabbatical and volunteer my considerable skills and knowledge overseas. I am now part of an approved list of candidates for the United Nations. Laser focus.
    While understanding your personality and interests is a huge help in finding your passion, you also need to examine your values. As someone who sees lots of people looking for career advice, this is most people’s downfall. They have values that conflict and are not willing to either admit it or to recognize that you don’t get to have everything. Unless you are Audrey Hepburn you don’t see a lot of extremely wealthy Foreign Aid workers, some values just naturally conflict. Once you make peace with that you can be happy and successful.
    If you are looking for great books that will expand your mind with research based information on success I love:
    Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
    Sara Rylott

  9. Wow, all of your comments are a completely new and different way to think about career and life goals. For years and years I have struggled with "finding my passion" to the point I have never been happy doing anything! From a small retail business owner to child care operator nothing has ever stuck. I am now currently unemployed (as we just sold our business) and am having a really tough time taking the next step. Our house is for sale and investing in rentals is the plan but I need to also bring in an income. I am going to sit down with a pen and paper right now and make a list of the skills I have developed over the years and see where it takes me. Thank you all!!

  10. So glad you found some value in all of this Teri! Congrats on selling the business and I'm sure you're next moves will be great ones!

    - Tom.

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