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AC Podcast: Cal Newport on Passion and Work

by | The Accidental Creative

Cal NewportCal Newport, author of [amazon_link id=”1455509124″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]So Good They Can’t Ignore You[/amazon_link], shares some thoughts on why “follow your passion” may not be the best career advice.

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Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. Marc Posch

    Great interview. Confirms the saying: It takes 10 years of hard work to become an overnight success.

  2. fjr

    It’s always valuable to read thoughtful advice and argument that runs counter to the popular mantra. Problem finders will in any case tend to notice problems within their scope of interest, that launch a flow of ideas.

  3. Carole Pivarnik

    I suspect that the most satisfying and presumably successful endeavors can be found by solving a problem in a market to which you are already drawn BECAUSE of an innate passion for it.

    • Todd Henry

      Carole, I suspect you’re correct, but that passion may not always be evident at the beginning. I think Cal’s main argument is that passion for a field often becomes evident as you become more accomplished at something rather than from the outset, and that the best course of action is to begin with skill acquisition, then apply those skills to increasingly interesting problems.

  4. Doug

    One of Neil Young’s more recent albums has a line that goes, ‘If you follow every dream, you might get lost.’ There is a necessary friction that we need to have to remain realistic and relevant–and that friction is doing the every day occupational spade work required to become good at something while at the same time pushing the current realities by combining imagination, passion and dissatisfaction with where we are.

  5. T Reed

    Yes, cheap and easy “Find your passion” guru mantras are in and of themselves not worth very much. I comprehend the point here, but It seems blatantly obvious that people need to develop appropriate skills and skill levels to accommodate their passion if they want to turn it into a career. If someone isn’t smart enough to figure that out in the first place, without being told, they probably shouldn’t choose an entrepreneurial path anyway. In my opinion we place way too much emphasis on pre-existing careers or pre-existing routine methods of approaching careers. And introspection IS critically important because 80% of people don’t know what their passion is, and no matter what skill sets they gain on the path they took by rote or necessity, it’s a craps shoot whether those skills will bear any significance when someone finally understands what they should be doing. We are generally trained from birth to move towards a trap of pre-existing capitalistic models of what to do with our lives, and by the basic human need to survive many are trapped in this pattern. The freedom to think beyond this tiny field of avenues, can only be measured by those who have taken the time to BOTH know themselves, AND develop the skills. None of us would even be discussing this if the trap wasn’t already so deeply ingrained that most people simply fall asleep and stay in a job they hate or at least don’t connect with for life.

    • Todd Henry

      I agree that it seems obvious to people who are a little farther into their career, but I see a lot of early-career people opting out of the “grind” in order to do something that gives them an immediate ping of satisfaction rather than developing the skills and platform to “purchase” that freedom later. Introspection is important throughout the process, or else you will end up in a miserable job, settling for something they never wanted. At the same time, I agree with Cal that you can’t sit around pondering what you *might* like to do before acting. I believe that you discover the right direction after diving in, reflecting on your experience, re-directing, etc.

  6. Ken Davis


    I loved this post. Thinking about it kept me from doing urgent work. As a person who by introspection found that my passion started from earliest memories, I do believe that an inward look can be helpful. Where ever it is found, unfortunately our “vocation” will not always encompass that passion . We may have to fine outlets outside our corporate environment to release it. But true passion is rarely expressed as definitively as, “I want to paint watercolor” or “I must build houses” or I want to be a CEO. Instead I think it flows from broader natural gift. “I am an artist,” “I am a builder,” “I am a leader.” By looking at the underlying foundation that makes us want to paint or build a house we can find ways to express our true passion in all facets of our life. I am adding the intentional “outward look” encouraged in your post to the inward look that has been helpful to me in the past. Doing both might be the best way to find ourselves living a life where we could pursue our passion rather than never knowing what it was. Thank you for this thought provoking post.


  7. Jeffrey Cufaude

    Seems like the hybrid of these two is where a lot of us start or end up: what’s a problem you’re passionate about solving or any issue you’re passionate about addressing?

  8. John Cook

    I thought the comment about putting in two intense 2-hour sessions of deep work was particularly interesting. This is exactly the schedule that Henri Poincare, a famous 19th century mathematician, used in his work. I blogged about his schedule here.

  9. kristin

    I always like your podcast but I particularly enjoyed this one. Keep it up!

  10. Steve Hingle

    As someone who’s spent a lot of time (and paralysis) trying to figure out the perfect path, I’m feeling some relief that I don’t have to have it all figured out to get moving. I just need to take action in the general direction, gain knowledge and practice, and tweak it along the way. I think the “Discover Your Passion” stuff is still valuable as long as we don’t obsess about it. These ideas sound cautionary for someone who might consider quitting their day job to go whole hog for their passion. I’ve heard of people who do this, fail, and then never pursue their passion again. And yet being too timid could keep the passion as a hobby, with the person never making a full jump. There must be a sweet spot between leap of faith and strategic planning, and I wonder how to find and stay on the spot.

    I’m wondering about the definition of practice here. I would think doing chargeable work would count and be ideal, but maybe Newport is talking about some extra time that’s more focused. As a life coach, I’m wondering what that might look like: maybe coaching a bunch of fellow coaches, especially top coaches, so I can keep getting feedback. I know Malcolm Gladwell talks about 10,000 practice hours as the difference between top performers and good performers.
    Thoughts, Todd?
    Loved this post!

    • Todd Henry

      I agree about the passion statement. I think that the problem is that people try to make a decision about what they are “passionate” about before they have enough data/experience to see patterns and act on them. Other people ignore the patterns altogether and end up in roles where they are less than optimally engaged. I think the key is to act, observe, then re-direct accordingly.
      With regard to practice, I think the key is to purposefully engage in as many adjacent skill-building activities as possible. Be intentional about developing skills that will increase your platform for expression and effectiveness, whatever that means in your field. Don’t grow stagnant and rely on existing skills, because you will eventually become – for lack of a better term – stale. You have to have a plan for growth rather than taking things as they come, but you have to be willing to adapt as you observe patterns. Just my thoughts.

  11. Rob Robertson

    This Podcast really made an impact on my life. While I understand that the ideals that Cal spoke of in his message might turn off the “dream chasers” It has changed my whole outlook on how I approach my daily work, and I has allowed me to have a great amount of success within my firm quickly. Particularly there was one quote that really stuck out as I read the book by Steve Martin, I am paraphrasing, but when asked how he became so good at the banjo, Steve replied, ” One day I thought, if I pick it up today, 40 years from now, I’ll probably be good at it.” That mentality allowed me to have a greater passion for what I am doing on a daily basis, and allowed me to feel comfortable stepping out of my comfort zone and try new things, because I no longer had a heavy expectation of the work I was doing. I began to work on learning “the chords” so to speak. As a result, I was able to bridge that dreaded gap between having the skill needed for the promotion, but not gaining the skill until you get the promotion. You know, the old “catch 22”. By practicing on my own, I was able to show that I could create and implement on my own, and that has made everyone take notice!

    Thank you Cal and Todd!

  12. Alexia

    I picked up a copy of this book and am half way through it. I am a bit conflicted on his rant about not following your “passion.” Perhaps if we change the word “passion” to “mission” the first three chapters of the book would not be necessary??? I am also not relating well to ANY professional example within his book. He has chosen highly intelligent, highly privileged (i.e. Ivy League educated upper-middle-class) people to feature as examples. I only know of a few people who had this kind of opportunity early on in life. The rest of us had to schlep it out like the majority of the working population. Newport’s position on craftsmanship and career capital are really interesting and right on. I understand why he wrote the book in this tone, but other than my really artsy free spirited friends; I don’t know anyone who just up and quit their day job to become a yoga instructor (or organic farmer…) This is not a new hypothesis; Newport just put a lot of time and research into proving what we all know: excellence in your work gives you privilege and opportunity. PS The book is well written too – I can tell that Newport put his own advice to work in this category and is a craftsman for sure.

    • Todd Henry

      Alexia, I agree with your comments. (You’ll note that I somewhat probed that line in the interview, and I still very much hold to the importance of tapping passion – properly defined – in the pursuit of great work. Grit alone isn’t sufficient to stay the course in the face of difficulty + other options.) That said, I think that Newport is adding an important narrative to the conversation by challenging the myth that passion is the great neutralizer of the monotony and pain of labor. I think the answer is actually somewhere in the middle, and not very cut and dry.


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