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Skills Win Out Over Passion

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Today’s post comes from regular contributor Josh Rudd, who shares an inspirational speech he gave after reading Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

This speech was Speech 10 from the Toastmasters Book which was 7-10 minutes long.

Speech Title

Find your passion and achieve success, by not following your passion.

Setting the scene

It’s June 21st, 2005, you’re sitting in a massive outdoor amphitheater surrounded by a crowd of 23,000 as a proud member of the graduating class of Stanford University.

You’ve worked incredibly hard over the past eight years.

First in high school, you racked up straight A’s, excellent test scores, AP exams, and eye-catching extracurriculars.

And then in college, you studied hard, worked your way to the top half of your class, and majored in a highly sought after engineering field.  

Now you’re graduating from one of the top university’s in the United States about to hear Steve Jobs, the billionaire founder of Apple, deliver the commencement speech.

You wait; almost holding your breath as down on the stage at the base of the amphitheater, Jobs, stands up and walks slowly towards the podium. You feel the crowd hanging on every word as Jobs begins to speak. Jobs tells three separate stories from his life, offering lessons from each, but you realize that Jobs’ speech centers on one key theme.

One key theme

As Jobs himself says about a little less than half way through his speech, “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.”  

You feel moved, inspired, ready to go out into the world and find what you love.

When Jobs finishes, you rise to your feet along with the rest of the crowd, and give Jobs a standing ovation, completely unaware that you’ve just been given some of the worst advice possible.   

Worst. Advice. Ever.

“Do what you love”, “Follow your passion”, “Pursue your dreams”. We hear advice like this everywhere; from important businessmen, successful athletes and artists, and even friends and family. It’s like a parrot that won’t stop saying the same thing, “Follow your heart, money will follow, SQUAWK!!”

This idea that if you want to love what you do, you need to find work that lines up with your preexisting interests and passions— it sounds encouraging, uplifting, and very persuasive. However, for most people, pursuing your passion is terrible advice.  

For many people following their passion as anything more than a hobby is unrealistic. The most common passions people have are athletics, music and art. But how many people make their livings as athletes, musicians or artists?

Also, the “follow your passion” theory pushes the idea that there is a perfect job out there just waiting for you to find it. That if you take enough personality tests, think long enough and search hard enough, you’ll figure out what kind of work you’ll love. Far from helping you find what you love, this mindset will more likely cause you massive anxiety and doubt over any decision you make, and make you unsatisfied with whatever you do decide.

And, even if you do have a realistic passion which relates to a career field, and you find work in that field, it’s no guarantee you will have any particular ability. You may find that you’re not that good at your passion. Or, more likely, that you have some ability, but it will take a great deal of work to achieve the level of skill needed to really excel. And while grinding away to build the skills you need, your passion fades and your supposedly perfect job losses its allure.

Bad Examples of “Follow your passion”

The idea of following your passion encourages people to do incredibly imprudent things.

Things, that if people weren’t consumed by the quest to find what they love, they would realize had almost no chance of success.

Like the 38 year-old New Yorker, who in 2004 quit her long held job in advertising to become a yoga instructor, a job she had absolutely no experience at. But she felt confined by cooperate life and decided to do something she felt passionate about. With a one month training course under her belt and lots of passion, she went after her dream of teaching yoga. At first she had moderate success, teaching classes at several gyms and the local high school. But things began to go downhill when the 2008 recession hit. As a competent but unexceptional yoga instructor, she lost most of clients in the recession. Eventually, things got so bad she had to go on food stamps. By following her passion into a job she had no previous experience at, she set herself up for disaster. 

What if there were a better idea?

Contrary to popular belief, following your passion is usually a terrible idea, but what if I told you there’s a simple way to be both passionate and highly successful in virtually any job?

Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You

A great book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport, lays out the case that the real key to finding work you love is not passion but building valuable and rare skills.

You see, studies over the past 40 years, have shown that there are three factors which determine people’s self-motivation and sense of purpose, their “passion” in other words, in everything they do.

Three factors determine “passion”

Those three factors are

  • Autonomy: control over what you do
  • Competence: skill and ability at what you do
  • And relatedness: liking the people around you

The third factor is self-explanatory, the more you like the people around you, the more you like and the more connected you feel to what you do.

Competence and Autonomy

It’s the other two factors are more interesting. Competence and autonomy are often very closely related, and you have much more control over them than over the people you work with. Generally, the better you get at something, the more you can leverage your ability to gain independence in what you do.

This means you can affect two of the three central factors which determine “passion” by working towards achieving excellence at whatever you do.

Passionate about your work

Being passionate about your work is essential to having a happy fulfilling life. The problem is that standard dogma has cause and effect reversed – instead of passion often leading to success and mastery, mastery and success often lead to passion.

Thinking about passion in reverse explains the septic tank cleaner who is extremely passionate about his job. He may not have a glamorous or desirable job, but by achieving mastery at it, he has become passionate about it.

In fact, many if not most, highly successful and passionate people got where they are not by doggedly following their passion, but through a much more complicated series of events almost always involving the development of unique and highly sought after skills.  

Was Steve Jobs passionate about computers when he started?

For example, Steve Jobs himself, who as we saw was a strong advocate of following your passion, didn’t start Apple Computers because he was passionate about electronics.

In the years and even months leading up to starting Apple, Steve Jobs’ biggest interest was Zen Buddhism, not computers. When not at his day job, Jobs spent most of his time either training at the Los Altos Zen Center, or at the All One farm, a country commune north of San Francisco.

 Jobs only seriously got into tech when a friend, Steve Wozniack, asked him to partner up on some computer work Wozniack was doing. Jobs actually left this partnership to spend time at the All-one commune less than one year before starting Apple. This shows that directly prior to starting Apple, Steve Jobs didn’t appear to have any deeply held passion to start a computer company. 

However, after he returned from the All One commune, Jobs noticed that “assemble at home” computers were becoming very popular. Jobs went back to Wozniack and convinced him to help build and sell circuit boards for these build it yourself computers. Once the boards were assembled, Jobs went to sell them to a computer store.

The owner was intrigued but only wanted fully assembled computers, offering to buy 50. Jobs and Wozniack went after the offer with gusto and soon Apple Computers was born. 

The point of the story is that Steve Jobs didn’t start Apple because he had a consuming passion for electronics, but because he had a rare and valuable product, the circuit board to the Apple I computer. But by 2005, Jobs was very passionate about electronics, almost certainly because of his built-up expertise and phenomenal success in the field.

Exception or Rule?

And Jobs is far from the only one who fits this pattern.

Newport’s book is bursting with examples of highly successful and passionate people who got where they are not by following their passion but by achieving mastery in their work.  

While not as flashy and inspirational as, “follow you passion and you’ll find happiness and success”, “Put in the work to become excellent and excellence will lead to success, happiness, and passion”, seems to have a much stronger ring of truth to it.

If you work hard to acquire skill and expertise in virtually any field, your expertise and skill will directly result in passion for what you do, while setting you up for success at the same time. You don’t have to worry about finding your passion.  

Work hard, build valuable skills, and passion will find you.  

Keep Learning

Thanks, Josh, for that inspirational speech as a response to reading So Good they Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.

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