Cal Newport: Don’t Listen to the “Just follow your passion” Salesmen – Focus on Mastering Your Craft

You don’t have to look far today to find career advice promoting the idea that you should ‘just follow your passion and the success will follow.’ Those who give the advice typically quote Steve Jobs’ keynote address to 23,000 Stanford graduates in 2005, when he said: “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.”

According to the usual claim, Steve Jobs followed his passion in life and that’s how he became an accomplished innovator. The suggestion is that passion was his big secret. Entire books have even promoted this idea. 1

The claim is alluring – who doesn’t want a life with passion in it? – but the claim is also simplistic and even dangerous.

Take, for example, the story of Lisa. Nearing 40, Lisa quit her career in advertising and marketing, and decided to pursue her passion for Yoga by starting a Yoga business. She took out a home-equity loan, got certified in Yoga, started the business, and four years later she was virtually broke and on food stamps.

Or take the story of Jane. Jane is a young millenial who dropped out of college after her first year. Why? She wanted follow her passion for adventure. Her so-called innovative idea was to develop a non-profit that would promote her “vision of health, human potential and a life well-lived.” Her plan was to build one or more websites that would generate passive income to finance this non-profit. She began in earnest, but when her websites failed to generate any income, her plan cratered.

These are just two of the stories Cal Newport describes in his 2012 book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

In the book, Newport sets out example after example to debunk the “passion mindset” – the idea that Lisa and Jane bought into, and that is peddled so widely today.

Of particular interest are Newport’s findings regarding creating a true sense of mission and the quest to come up with genuine innovation.

Newport draws on the work of Stephen Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From as he ably debunks the myth that innovation comes from a single flash of insight: “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 understanding. I’m arguing that 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.”

The sobering message is that innovation requires serious, hard work, often years of work. Genuine innovation tends to happen at the cutting edge of any field, in what’s called the “adjacent possible” – that next step that’s just beyond the current area of knowledge and understanding.

Ironically, according to Newport, this is also the very mindset that can produce a true sense of mission in a field, a sense of mission that creates a genuine feeling of passion for your work. It seems, then, the peddlers of the ‘just follow your passion’ advice have things quite backwards. It’s after you put in the hard work and develop a genuine feeling of mission that you come to develop a genuine passion for your work.

That’s the sound, solid advice to follow. But it’s not as sexy, so don’t expect it to become popular any time soon.


  1. Carmine Gallo, The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs.