You've heard the advice: Follow your passion and the money will come. You may have even acted on it.

Cal Newport, in So Good They Can't Ignore You, argues that this advice is dead-wrong. 

Not only is it wrong, but Newport argues that it is EXACTLY opposite of the advice we should be giving people. In short: following your passion is a sucker's bet.

This idea is slightly distressing for me. More distressing still is that Newport makes a pretty-dang-good argument.

The Argument against 'follow your passion' goes like this:

  1. Preexisting passions are exceedingly rare.
  2. Too frequently, when preexisting passions do exist, they don't create sufficient value.
  3. Telling people to 'follow your passion' creates anxiety. Why don't I love my job? Am I wasting my life? How can I be happy if my job isn't my passion?
  4. People who put their passions first rarely find that 'passion' is enough fuel to pull them through the nitty-gritty of what it takes to 'make it.'
  5. When studying people who DO love their jobs (and he studies a lot of them), Newport finds that in nearly every case passion came after these people put in the hard work to get great at something valuable.
  6. Because of all this, Newport arrives at the conclusion that WHAT you do is FAR less important than HOW you do it. 

The point was well-argued, and--for many reasons--makes me uneasy.

Why It Matters

In 2007, I earned an English degree from one of the best public universities in the nation. While in school, I actively made a series of choices that would lead me away from the poorly-paid-but-attainable job of teaching (ironically, a job that I would turn out to do--and love--many years later), and down the path of publishing. This was a risky move. Working in publishing was akin to volunteerism at the time, and jobs in the field (even in the heady days of 2007) were tough to come by. I fielded constant concerns from friends and family about prospects, and to each I responded with what has long-been my mantra: There will always be room for the best.

Upon graduating, I immediately landed a job as an Associate Editor for a small trade magazine. I had an office, a team of freelance writers, and a managing editor who was a massive prick. It was exactly what I had always wanted.

And I hated it. 

This was terrifying. I was 23 years old. I had followed my passion, eschewing many practical--even lucrative--paths to pursue degree in writing. And three months in to my dream job, I despised it to such a degree that I dreaded going to sleep at night because I knew that when I work up the next morning, I would have to go to work.

So what happened?

What Happened.

The short answer is that I wasn't as good as I thought I was.

In Newport-speak, I hadn't adapted the Craftsman Mindset. I was worried about having a great job (which I defined as a job I could be passionate about), and not worried about HOW I COULD BE GREAT at my job. 

To be happy, we can't focus on great. To be happy we have to strive to be great.

Applying the Principles

Six months later, I was fired. I was devastated. By this point, my ego was buttressed by my job as an editor. Not only that, but I was engaged to my now-wife, a girl who was--and who remains--considerably out of my league.

I reevaluated. I moved to be closer to home, and I took a much more modest (but considerably better-paying) job as a proofreader and editor for a large military contractor. This came with it's own problems (particularly those with autonomy, mastery, and purpose), but it set me down the right path.

Five years later I'm a teacher. It's a career I love. More importantly, it's a career that allows me to get better every single day.

I stand by my mantra. There will always be room for the best. What I failed to realize as a 23-year-old, newly-minted editor is that I wasn't the best. Hell, I was barely good. To be the best requires an obsessive commitment to improvement.

The advice of So Good They Can't Ignore You applies to every area of life. I'm still not the best, but I think I'm pretty-dang-good. More importantly, I'm getting better every day.