Why our success perhaps doesn’t start with passion

What lies at the heart of our motivation?

There’s a theory that building a career around your passion just doesn’t cut the mustard. It’s more a case of focusing on your skills and the passion develops from there…

Cal Newport is Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. and he believes what you do for a living is less important than how you do it. His advice is to concentrate on building your career capital i.e. rare and invaluable skills and knowledge, through a process of ‘deliberate practice’; over time, as you continue to focus and systematically do your work – any work that interests you - with passion, you will excel in your field and can use your career capital as leverage to build the kind of lifestyle that matters to you.

Newport gives the example of Steve Jobs and a famous quote taken from an address he once gave: “You’ve got to find what you love… If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle.” Everyone’s interpretation of this was: “Follow your passion.” Newport says that in fact, Jobs’ biographers tell us he stumbled into Apple Computer and didn’t in fact have any pre-disposed interest in technology. The opportunity was there and Jobs became obsessive about building things of value to the world and as he did this, he became better and better and as he became more valuable to the world, he became more and more passionate about what he did for a living.

From Newport’s research, he suggests that the old American ‘career gospel’ of “Follow Your Passion” is bad advice upon which to build a career you love. He believes it’s not usual for most people to have a pre-existing passion; the path to building a career you love, that provides the returns that matter most to you, is more complex.

The internal locus of control

The ability to make choices and exert control over our life is key to our emotional health and wellbeing. It’s crucial that in order to feel happy and successful, we need to feel in control. In psychology this concept of control is known as self-determination theory. The theory suggests we have three innate needs for personal growth:

  1. The need for competence – to feel we are good at what we do, to learn different skills
  2. The need for connection – relating to, supporting and being supported by others
  3. The need for autonomy – to feel that what we do matters and we have control over our work and goals

When these needs are met, we become intrinsically motivated to pursue the things that interest us and consequently we feel more fulfilled, engaged and satisfied in our work. 

In his provocative book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’, Newport says we can create competence, connection and autonomy even if we have no sense of what our career passion is, provided we adopt a craftsman mindset, rather than a passion mindset.

Digging deep to get the success you deserve

Cal’s research claims that ‘working right’ (working hard) will help you find the ‘right work’ (the love for what you do) and the ‘rewards’ (lifestyle traits that you value). It’s an interesting perspective for anyone who is feeling stuck or frustrated with a job situation or has no idea what their passion is.

This process of regular and deliberate practice, or ‘doing the deep work’ as Newport calls it, to improve one’s career capital is a skill he believes is becoming rarer and more valuable, as we move towards an automated economy. Such mastery requires discipline and focus. Distraction-free concentration to get your best, most creative output. Stretching goals that challenge your cognitive capabilities. Time spent being productive (rather than busy) and engaged in work that is relevant to your most important projects. Pursuing opportunities for new experiences that will add value and differentiate. Being willing to do work we may not enjoy or be good at.

Consequently, we will experience discomfort, which many of us have learned to avoid or distract ourselves from (usually diverting to a digital platform… (Facebook anyone?) or some other addictive, pleasure-seeking behaviour). However, when we learn how to take a planned and focused approach to building our skills and knowledge, we start to feel competent, it becomes part of our identity, we get recognition from others for this competence, which feeds our self- image, and we become intrinsically motivated for further personal growth.  

Why Me Plc is the mindset to adopt

In Winning Edge terms, the craftsman mindset is the “Me Plc” mindset. It’s about asking questions such as, “how do I create extraordinary value and serve others as best as I can?”; “what impact can I make?”; “how can I contribute to make a positive difference?”; “how can I become world class/unparalleled in my chosen field?”; “what more can I learn or experience that will enable me to achieve my highest level goals?”.  The focus is on how you can add value and be the best you can be, rather than starting with “what’s in this for me?”.

The Winning Edge Programme provides the tools to become self-determined, to build this characteristic in the workplace, and in social settings. It’s thought and action-provoking content develops a mindset that will create value and build credibility. Ultimately you will have the ‘know-how’ to design the lifestyle you want and deserve.

It will, as comedian Steve Martin once said, enable you to “be so good they can’t ignore you”.

The rest then, will follow.

Watch Cal Newport discuss his theory that to follow your passion is bad advice:


Hazel Morley


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