What to do with your life

Posted on May 9, 2013 - 9:00 AM PST

In his famous Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs said the formula for success is “to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.”

The problem with this formula is that Steve Jobs is wrong, says Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore you: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

Cal says that even Steve Jobs didn’t start out loving what he did. Just a year before he co-founded Apple, Steve left his job at a tech startup, Call-in Computer, to hang out at a commune for a few months. He just didn’t have the passion.

When Steve founded Apple, he didn’t love it instantly either. Over time, Cal says, “As [Steve] had more and more successes in the early days of Apple, it grew to be a bigger source of passion for him.”

In his Mixergy course, Cal shows you how to avoid the passion trap and become so good they can’t ignore you or the company you’ve founded. Here are three strategies you’ll learn in the course.

1. Don’t Follow Your Passion

There are two ways to start a company.

The first way is to search for a passion. “Most people approach their job with the passion mindset, which says, what does this job offer me?” he says. “They sit there and they say, am I enjoying this job today? Are they giving me enough opportunities that I like, and if not, then this must not be the right job for me and let me switch.”

But even musical geniuses, neuroscientists, and accomplished mathematicians don’t start with a pre-existing passion for their work. “The research on this is actually pretty clear,” says Cal. “In very few cases did the researchers find that they started with an intense passion.”

So what the other way to start a business?

Switch to the “craftsman” mindset

Build your skill set.

For instance, when asked to give advice to aspiring entertainers, comedian Steve Martin said, “Be so good, they can’t ignore you.”

“In other words,” says Cal, ”putting your head down and spending the time to build a skill that is unambiguously valuable is the secret…As your skills grow, your passion will grow along with it.”

2. Practice the Right Way

You want your company to dominate in your niche. But you might be going about it all wrong.

One study looked at a group of chess players, comprised of players who had each practiced for about 10,000 hours. But despite putting in the same amount of practice time, “half these players were Grandmasters and the other half…were intermediate-level players,” says Cal.

So what separates the great from the mediocre?

Do serious study

The great ones improve methodically.

“The Grandmasters spent way more time doing serious study,” says Cal. “Working with teachers to methodically improve key points of their game.”

The intermediate players, on the other hand, spent more of their time playing chess with friends or other chess club members.

“It’s not just putting in the time to get better,” says Cal, “it’s putting in the hard, deliberate work to stretch your ability.”

3. Abort Your Mission

Every great company has an overriding mission.

“You want to find a compelling mission,” says Cal, “something that could nourish you for a lifetime of passionate work.”

But trying to start with a mission is putting the cart before the horse. “The biggest mistake I see is young people saying, ‘Here’s my big mission. I’m going to start this non-profit that’s going to change the world,’” says Cal.

So how do you find your mission?

Build your capital

Get to the cutting edge, and the mission will come later.

“Most people that fail in their quest to have this mission for their life try to make a leap to a mission before they have the career capital to back it up…before they actually get to the cutting edge of their field,” says Cal.

But when people get to that cutting edge, missions reveal themselves. “If you’re not at the cutting edge, it’s very hard to actually identify a sustainable, important, accomplishable mission,” says Cal. “You have to get there before you can find and identify the type of missions that can redefine your working life.”

Tweetable Insights

“Start a business that bores you. The passion will come.” Click to Tweet

“Passionate about your startup from day 1? You’re doing it wrong. Get so good they can’t ignore you instead.” Click to Tweet

Get the Full Course

Get the rest of the course here.

Cheat sheet written by April Dykman. Production notes by Alex Champagne.

  • yaelgrauer

    I really love this, after reading the summary and listening to the course.

    In college, my goal was to work at a nonprofit organization as a community organizer, but I found that willing to work for pennies, a couple of summer internships (and yes, passion–to change the world) didn’t really help separate me from the thousands of other candidates.

    I’ve held various jobs but was never *indispensable* so the advice to be good enough they can’t ignore you really hits home.

    I HAVE to be that good as a freelancer because there are no guarantees–my job security is dependent on my own ability. Coasting isn’t an option; my livelihood depends on me being scrappy, relevant, on time and on point, always…in addition to delivering amazing work.

    I wonder if it’s just the vocabulary people are taking issue with. I guess if I had to rephrase it, I’d say something like, “You have to be passionate ENOUGH to get really good at something.” Not just have great dreams and build castles in the cloud and hope against hope for the best outcome. You have to work away without anyone even noticing for a looooong time. Sort of reminds me of Muhammad Ali’s quote: “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

  • http://mixergy.com Andrew Warner

    I can’t wait to have you on Mixergy. Let’s talk when you’re ready. Got my contact info?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=622131989 Chris Robock


    I know many people that are great at their jobs, but hate it. They continue doing it because they’re scared to try something new. They’re afraid of trying, and failing. Most people, I think, have a passion that they don’t see as being something they can make a living at. Or they feel that they just aren’t good enough, smart enough, or whatever, to be able to succeed.

    Unfortunately, many of us have those friends or family members that mean well, but do everything they can to keep us doing what we’re doing, and not trying anything really new. New is scary. So they stick with what they’re doing, even if they hate it, and they’re miserable.

  • Rob Rawson

    I agree.

    If you’re passionate about something then you’re not going to be asking yourself “Am I passionate?”, you’re more likely to be already doing it!

    So it’s not really that “following” your passion is a problem, it’s just that spending time thinking and trying to analyze or search for what you are passionate about doesn’t make you passionate.

    Usually the reason why someone asks “What am I passionate about?” what they are really thinking is, “I don’t feel passionate right now, what am I passionate about so I can do that and feel passionate?”. The mind is trying to make you feel passionate but it will always fail because it’s trying to run away from the feeling of a lack of passion.

    Basically the only people who spend time thinking, “What am I am passionate about?” and trying to figure it out and search for their passion, are people who are NOT passionate and are searching for passion.

  • http://twitter.com/CroydonH harry croydon

    I agree that passion by itself is not enough – you have to be clever, smart, hard working etc – being just one of any of these things is never enough. Passion can get you in to lots of trouble clearly.

    I think there is a lot more detail here on the postings. Having a passion is important but I agree you need more to make that a successful business.

  • Richard Altman

    all that matters is start up money, if your idea is redundant you shouldn’t ever ask for it, this luxury of learning from failure is the most ridiculous maxim I’ve ever read/heard. a person should be honest and aware, anything less is an insult. i’d like to learn more about finding investors, practical things, not goto Adeo Ressi or some other thing, or these conventions that cost $1,500 to ‘talk’ with other geniuses. I want to know how do get people excited about potentially not getting a return on investment, in the short term. Any stories about people who have no extra money, getting the funds to build a prototype, and don’t mention oDesk. Thanks. Love the site and the straight faced ability to ask questions from people who have never met many articulate AND honest individuals. Thanks Andrew.

    to recap: no extra money, risky and inevitable percept/concept, where are these people who want to invest hiding, and which out of the 1 in 20 actually wants to dent the universe for real (again) not just puke by numbers or make enterprise bs

    again, thanks.

  • http://www.impactlogos.com.au Logo Design

    Ive read Cal’s book and he qualify’s his passion hypothesis by saying that your job has to have 3 key things to qualify for something you can turn into a craft. I cant remember them all but one is it has to enable you to be creative in your job and stand out from the crowd. So jobs like accounting dont generally cut it for becoming a master. He kind of has a proviso that yes you have to choose a job that can give you the chance at making a difference. Sos its the middle ground. Dont go for your absolute passion like I want to save the world before you have the skills and experience and mastery to make that happen. Start in a role that might lead that way in an industry you like and are drawn to. Its never black or white

  • fnthawar

    This advice goes against: http://hbr.org/1999/09/job-sculpting-the-art-of-retaining-your-best-people/ar/1

    After being a Product Manager at Microsoft and being rated Top 3 in the world, I can attest that being good at something doesn’t mean you’ll love it.

    I quit.

  • dustinmattison1974

    No, it’s not too late! I keep trying and learning from my mistakes. I am now teaching my students in China that they should focus on building their skill sets. I teach as I learn and try to practice what I teach. I continue to work on getting an online course ready for sale as well.

  • dustinmattison1974

    In Cal’s book he talks about situations where you shouldn’t keep at your work. I will have to look it up. By the way, does this course cover the same info that is in his book, or is there more?

  • http://mixergy.com Andrew Warner

    I used the book as a basis for the program.

  • http://bradly.co.nz/ Gabriel Bradly

    Andrew I agree with the three points above, but the first tweet suggestion is misleading based on my experience running a ‘boring’ business. I started a business I didn’t believe in just to make money, for the worst of reasons as well – that I saw a several other people earning fantastic incomes in the business. Easily the worst decision of my life.

    I’ve now changed my mindset to become outstanding at five skills, Sales, PPC, SEO, Conversion and Copywriting in a similar vein to Steve Martin. I’m going to become so good that I can’t be ignored. I realized that ideas are essentially worthless, but the ability to execute on an idea is where all the money and value is. Take Steve Jobs for example. The MP3 players was around for years before Apple came out with the iPod. But Jobs had the skill set to execute a completely new way to enjoy music. He then applied that skills set to retail, telecommunications, music, movies and computers. Execution as Cal points out is where we should all focus.

    Thanks for the great content Andrew (I get so much value from your cheat sheets I should subscribe!)

  • http://www.admci.org/ ADMCi

    the juxtaposition of ‘digital’ and ‘craftsmanship’ is an unfortunately jarring combination today. we’re working on creating a ethos of craftsmanship in the digital arts. the thinking here is right in line with hundreds of years of knowledge and the next 100 years will likely be the same for actualization in the workplace… even as our ‘work’ is turned completely upside down by innovations, market disruptions, and massive process change. i’d suggest it’s the only way to find a peaceful path through it all.

  • Arie at Mixergy

    Love this comment. Thanks for posting.

  • http://lessonsdadnevertaughtyou.com/ Omar

    I always wondered why thought leaders spend so much time comparing “passion” and “skills” and make it a point to put them in a fighting battle. It seems like a lose lose battle.

    On surface level, they don’t seem like opposites. And based on the research, they aren’t opposites, but seem to merge.

    As a matter of fact, rofessor Robert Vallerand has done extensive research, who is the guru of passion and motivation, has defined passion as:

    Passion: “A strong inclination toward an activity that people like, find important, and in which they invest time and energy.”

    He has also formed the “Dualistic Model of Passion.” In the Dualistic Model of Passion Vallerand and other researchers, talk about 4 conditions necessary for you to have “passion” for something.

    The 4 Conditions for Passion based on the research are:

    1. Identity.
    The first condition is that you identify at least some how with the activity. You see it as part of your identify. So to have passion for something you should somehow see yourself identified with this thing.

    2. You value it.
    You value this thing in your life. You give it value whereas someone else might now.

    3. Love for it.
    You love doing this thing.

    4. Time investment.
    You find time for this activity and you actively invest time in your life to engage in this activity. If you don’t make time for it, researchers say you’re not really passionate.

    If you reflect it seems to be the exact model for one’s career or business work.

    I think it’s better that people merge them as is also mentioned in Robert Koch’s best-selling book: the 80/29 Principle.

    In the end, reading through the comments. I think what so many of us underestimate is where we derive our SELF ESTEEM and self worth like @AndrewRitchie mentioned what he learned from @DaneMaxwell.

    There are studies that demonstrate athletes who derive their self esteem from their performance in their work and goals have unstable self esteem.

    The research shows that deriving your self esteem from your performance in your career or work is not the best idea. Instead, you’re self esteem needs to be derived from a more stable source such as your character and your virtues.

    That’s what keeps you going.

    But so many of us lose our self esteem because we base it on what others say or think about us, or on what our co-workers or boss say or how we perform. When your self worth and self esteem needs to come from who YOU are and your values.

    In our day and age with the economy the way it is people are losing more and more passion and self worth because of the chase.

    I think if we step back and reflect on who we are we can build more self worth. Finally, based on the research it seems passion is a beautiful thing to have in life regardless of your “skills.”

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  • http://twitter.com/nomuu__ Simone

    That was a really interesting perspective. I kind of see where Cal is coming from. I think it’s true in some cases that to keep something ‘alive’ it needs an audience, paying customers and ability for one to control their work.

    Take my little business, that came to fruition about 3 years ago, I did some little drawings (with no passion or skill for it beforehand) put it online, people started to ask about them, and want to buy them. If those drawings had not sparked something in people, I would have just moved on to the next thing. Having recognition, sparked my interest and passion to continue on with it.

    However, I did go on a journey at that time to find my passion, so I think for me it was important to try lots of things…did I find my passion? I am not sure, I found something that I certainly enjoy and fits well with my personality. I think the whole package of the business, makes it really enjoyable for me, and so more passionate about it.

  • Arie at Mixergy

    Thanks for sharing your story, Simone

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