Category Archives: How To

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.

How Pixar Transformed their Criticizers into Creators: The Magic of “Plussing”

Recall the last time you were at work and had what you thought was a brilliant idea. You thought it so good you went next door and ran it by a colleague.

“It’ll never work!”  the colleague says.

“You don’t think so?” you ask, trying to get your nay-saying colleague to be more open-minded.

“No way. It can’t be done that way,” the colleague says. Or maybe, “we tried that already – it didn’t work!” or “well, maybe, you’ll NEVER get approval, so forget it.”

And you do. You forget the idea, and move on to something else.

Sadly, people talk like that all the time in business and other organizations today. An idea that might have grown into something great gets shot down before it even got off the ground.

Pixar Animation Studios, the California company that has now produced fourteen feature films that have won 27 Academy Awards, found a way to avoid these traps. It’s a method that helps ensure creativity is nurtured not negated.

Pixar calls the technique “plussing,” and what’s fascinating is that science backs up why it works.

Plussing’ – What It Is 1

In an animated film, a single scene of just four seconds requires about 100 frames. A good animator can produce that in a week, or about twenty frames a day. Animators at Pixar are usually assigned one or two scenes at a time. Each day, an animator’s draft work is fed into a central computer where other colleagues and the director can review it.

The teams of animators then meet each morning to review their previous day’s work, and critique it.

The criticism at meetings like these can be brutal, and this is where ‘plussing’ has played a game-changing role at Pixar. Rather than randomly critique a sketch or shoot down an idea, the general rule is that you may only criticize an idea if you also add a constructive suggestion. Hence the name plussing.

Imagine for example that a team of animators is now working on Toy Story 4. The team is reviewing a draft scene where Woody is the main character. Let’s say it’s an action scene. Instead of hearing feedback like, “but that’s all wrong! … Woody shouldn’t look like that here …” , the practice is to say something more like: “okay … what if you could make Woody’s expression even more (e.g. brazen) … ”.

Pixar says the practice has been built on the core principles from improvisation, which are: accept all offers (accept the idea, don’t reject it), use “yes, and …” instead of “yes, but …”, and make your partner look good.

If you follow these principles, dialogue becomes more like a structured debate that’s both serious and yet constructive. It’s not an attempt to gloss over the hard stuff. Discussions still involve challenging problems, like possibly rejecting initial ideas, but this is done always with a view to replacing them with a better solution.

A key element achieved is respectful listening, and ongoing respect for the talents and abilities of the animator.

It’s a Kind of Structured Debate, and Structured Debate Trumps Brainstorming

Plussing is different from mere brainstorming, the term often used for meetings designed to generate ideas. The goal in brainstorming is typically just to come up with new ideas, sometimes as many as possible.

Pixar’s approach is closer to a structured debate. The goal is to critically review existing work, often rigorously, and to generate new ideas that build further and create something better.

Science backs up the idea that structured debate is far superior to simply brainstorming. A study 2 led by UC Berkeley professor Charlan Nemeth found that when a team used structured debate, it significantly outperformed a team instructed to merely ‘brainstorm.’ Nemeth concluded that “debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them.” What might be even more significant is that after the teams disbanded, the team that used structured debate continued to generate further ideas. It seems that the experience of a constructive debate lingers, and people continue to come up with new ideas.

Surprisingly Similar to the Approach Used in Mediation

If you’ve ever been in or observed a formal mediation, you’ll know that the process is in fact quite structured. Most mediators today will use the method of principled negotiation, the model developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project in the 1980s.

One of the core principles is to separate the people from the problem, and thus take the focus off personal issues to avoid negativity. In plussing, the basic rule to ‘accept all offers’ is similarly away to avoid the negatives easily triggered by rejecting ideas. Creative people often can feel that a rejection of their idea is a rejection of them.

Another core principle in mediation is to spend considerable time focusing on new options. That’s very similar to the core idea in plussing – namely that you must always propose a new constructive suggestion for any idea that you criticize.

Maintains Intrinsic Motivation, which Fosters Creativity

Extensive research in psychology now shows the best way to stimulate creativity at work is to make sure people remain intrinsically motivated – that is, driven by interest, enjoyment and satisfaction in the work itself. Harvard’s Teresa Amabile has spent more than 35 years researching this connection, and found it to true for all groups of people, from children to knowledge workers to professional artists.

The technique of plussing by design helps ensure intrinsic motivation, because it offsets the criticism with a focus on creative alternatives. The science supports the idea that this has contributed immensely to the high levels of creative output at Pixar.

How Do You Create a Culture of Plussing?

The mere knowledge that plussing is a wise practice does not make it easy to achieve. Anyone who has tried to change the culture of a team or organization will know just how difficult this can be.

Nonetheless, it can be done. Two key changes are essential: (1) Language and (2) Tools that Implement the New Behaviors.

(1) Language

One of the best ways to change a culture is to change the language used. While it’s true that our thoughts determine our words, it’s equally true that the words we use in turn determine our thoughts. The task is to eliminate the language that destroys creativity – language like “yes, but …” or “that’ll never work …” and replace these with language that shifts the focus to adding value – language like “yes, and …” or “what if …” or “how might we do this? …”. This is how Pixar’s practice of plussing began.

(2) Tools that Implement the New Behaviors

The language alone is not enough. It must become the language everyone uses, and the only way that happens is if there’s leadership from the top.

Pixar serves as a good model. The simple yet lasting change came from implementing the method of ‘plussing’ as required process during meetings. Once that new behavior is recognized as a required behavior, it can then evolve into a standard practice in the organization. But it must be required and practiced, first and foremost, by the leaders of the organization.


  1. For two excellent reviews of ‘Plussing’ at Pixar, see David Berkus, “Why Fighting for Our Ideas Makes Them Better,” published on 99u: Insights on making ideas happen; and Peter Sims, Little Bets (New York: Free Press, 2011), pp. 69-75.
  2. See Nemeth, C. J., Personnaz, B., Personnaz, M. and Goncalo, J. A. (2004), The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 34: 365–374. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.210

Steven Johnson: Why Your Next Good Idea Will Likely Come from a Good Chat

Everyone knows the three things that matter in real estate: location, location, location. Steven Johnson, who wrote the bestseller Where Good Ideas Come From, explains in this TED talk how the three things that really matter for generating great ideas are these: collaboration, collaboration, collaboration.

His research and stories dispel a big myth about how great ideas are generated. The great ideas don’t suddenly appear in that so-called lightbulb moment. It’s seldom a single epiphany. Great ideas are built, and they are usually built through a process that involves iteration and sharing – or in other words, collaboration.

Louis Pasteur famously said that “chance favors the prepared mind.” The adage has helped build the myth that the lone individual toiling away can achieve a breakthrough just through relentless hard work. But Johnson sums up his research with a new take on the quote: it’s not that you shouldn’t be prepared, it’s just that “chance favors the connected mind.”

What does he mean? Johnson begins by showing that the great intellectual period we call the Enlightenment (the late 17th and 18th century) was not coincidence. It was not pure chance that the period produced so many great minds. This happened because the period produced so many connected minds, and the main reason, surprisingly, was the invention of the coffeehouse.  What “makes the coffeehouse important is the architecture of the space. It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share.”

The implication is profound, because we still have a lot of myths about where ideas come from, and, Johnson argues, we need to do away with many of our “conventional metaphors and language.” We need to get away from the basic assumption that an idea is a “single thing.”

That assumption can even get us into trouble. In one striking example, a group in the west had the ‘innovative’ idea of shipping $40,000 incubators to a mid-size village in Africa. The basic assumption was that this was a way to bring this western technology into Africa and save lives.

But the assumption was flawed. After a year, the incubators will have some sort of malfunction, and there’s no one there able to fix them. So they become $40,000 wasted.

What’s the solution? The local team in Africa started to think differently about the problem. They shared ideas. They saw that the local village was very adept at automobile repairs. So they wondered if you could build an incubator out of automobile parts. You can. And they did. They built one at a fraction of the cost, and they’re able to keep it operating because they have the spare parts to fix it when something breaks down. That’s the outcome of a team collaborating.

Part of the task, then, is to get rid of the myths and the old metaphors. Newton didn’t discover the laws of motion in a flash of insight when an apple fell on his head. As Newton said himself, if he saw further than others it was only because he stood on the shoulders of giants.

The myth that Darwin discovered the theory of natural selection in a single eureka moment has also been dispelled. The scholar Howard Gruber painstakingly went through Darwin’s notes and showed that he had worked out the theory “months and months and months before he had his alleged epiphany.”

Another implication is that we need to think differently about how we design workspaces. Johnson says that “if we’re trying to build organizations that are more innovative, we have to build spaces” that foster real collaboration.

We also need to rethink intellectual property, Johnson argues: “we often talk about the value of protecting intellectual property, you know, building barricades, having secretive R&D labs, patenting everything.” But the research suggests intellectual property should focus just as much on fostering collaboration: “there’s a case to be made that we should spend at least as much time, if not more, valuing the premise of connecting ideas and not just protecting them.”

To sum up, there are three key points to take away from this talk:

  1. Where do great ideas come from? Iteration, and iteration happens in collaboration.
  2. How can we build organizations that innovate? Design workspaces that foster collaboration.
  3. And how should we approach our intellectual property? Yes, some ideas need to be protected. But sharing is what likely gets you to the best ideas, so find the right balance that takes full advantage of connecting ideas and collaborating.

Or here’s another way to sum up these three takeaways: collaboration, collaboration and collaboration.

Mariana Mazzucato: How Your Government Could Balance Its Budget AND Support Innovation (Yes, It’s True)

So Why Doesn’t the Private Sector Appreciate This?

The next time you use your smartphone, think of this: every feature that makes it ‘smart’ was initially created by the government. It’s true: taxpayers funded the research and development. The internet, GPS, the touch-screen display, even the voice-activated Siri – all of these were innovations created from US state-funded programs.

Google itself began thanks to a grant from the government: the US National Science Foundation financed the design of the Google search algorithm.

These are just a few of the many examples marshalled by economist Mariana Mazzucato in her thought-provoking 2013 book, The Entrepreneurial State, and in her TED talk at TEDGlobal 2013 (above).

The New Republic named Mazzucato one of the ‘most important innovation thinkers’ today.

Her book and work are a grand attempt to debunk the myth that the State is just a bloated bureaucracy and that all the praise should go to a so-called heroic, risk-taking private sector. She has examined case after case where the groundbreaking innovation came about thanks to the state, not the private sector. Private companies came in only after the hard work was done.

To continue the smartphone example, she shows how the major innovations were in fact “all government-funded. … the Internet was funded by DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense [the ‘Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’]. GPS was funded by the military’s Navstar program. Even Siri was actually funded by DARPA. The touchscreen display was funded by two public grants by the CIA and the NSF”.

The main upshot is that we have created a false understanding of the role of the state in innovation.  The “narrative that we’ve always been told is the state is important for the basics, but not really providing that sort of high-risk, revolutionary thinking out of the box.” So the popular narrative, particularly at election time, is that government is wasteful, inefficient, and certainly not an innovator.

But that government-bashing has a huge cost. In fact, “in all these sectors, from funding the Internet to doing the spending … the envisioning, the strategic vision … it was actually coming within the state.”

So Mazzucato argues that we need to change the narrative. We need to “really think again this juxtaposition, because it actually has massive, massive implications beyond innovation policy.”

We are paying a huge price for this false narrative, because “what we actually need are public-private partnerships.” The huge risk is that “by constantly depicting the state part as necessary but actually … dangerous kind of Leviathan … we’ve actually really stunted the possibility to build these public-private partnerships.”

The further price we’re paying is that the government bashing is hurting the state itself and only helps the rich get richer.

Mazzucato says this is “the biggest implication, and this has huge implications beyond innovation. If the state is more than just a market fixer, if it actually is a market shaper, and in doing that has had to take on this massive risk … where’s the reward for the state of having taken on these massive risks”?

She argues that we’ve messed up the risk-reward equation. Instead of ensuring a proper return on investment back to state coffers, the rewards go to the private companies who cash in on the initial innovations, reap the profits, and then unleash their tax gurus to find ways to pay zero tax.

There’s a smarter way, Mazzucato argues. The smart governments are learning to think different. Countries like Finland are not just funding new research, but they are making sure to take equity positions that will share in eventual rewards. In a word, they’re mastering how to think like an innovator, in the true entrepreneurial sense of the word.

Imagine, she says, if “the U.S. government thought about this” and had created an innovation fund where “even just .05 percent of the profits from what the Internet produced had come back to that innovation fund.” There “would be so much more money to spend today.”

Indeed, the US government might not be in quite so much debt. Such a strategy just might even have helped the US achieve balanced budgets during the last two decades.

As Mazzucato says, there are a lot of self-fulfilling prophecies going on here. By failing to pursue policies like these, the US government is in a dismal financial state, and this has only helped create more government-bashing that in turn leads to policies that further rob the state of funds. A classic vicious circle if there ever was one.

Daniel Gogek