Don’t Follow Your Passion

You’ve heard career advice from many sources.  Many of them will be a variation of the same theme of, “follow your passion and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  This thinking is so prevalent that is has managed to jump from advice given to the newly graduating into the minds of those already in the workforce but thinking about starting a side hustle or business.  As people map out ideas for businesses they could build, one of the first columns they create might be “things I’m passionate about,” while skipping two previous questions they should ask before writing in that column:

  • Is it necessarily true that having a passion for something means I should start a business related to it?
  • Is this something that people will actually pay for?

Let’s say, for example, that you are an avid traveler. You’ve made it to more than 40 countries, and you’ve traveled in both conventional (hotels, well planned) and unconventional (couchsurfing, figure it out on the day) ways for both short weekend trips and months-long sojourns. You have a lot of wisdom to share and many of your friends often ask you, “Why don’t you start a travel planning business?”

You clearly have a passion for travel, so it makes sense to start a business around it…or does it?

The reality is that up to this point, the travel has not been about others, but has been about you. You travel for your own reasons, and the shape and nature of those trips you have taken in the past have informed your approach. Now, you are going to take this aspect of your life that has served you, and that you’ve enjoyed, and you’re going to use it to serve others. It will no longer be solely a “passion,” but will become something that will require planning, accounting, sales copy, follow up, and customer service, just to name a few things. Will this new dimension add to or subtract from your passion?

There’s a better approach to crafting a new business – one that doesn’t lead with passion, but ends with it, and it’s an approach that has been championed by Cal Newport for some years now. Cal is not a fan of the phrase, “follow your passion.”  As he started to study the origins of the phrase “Follow Your Passion” and how it got embedded so deeply into the zeitgeist, he found that it really first rose in popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as a result, this is a message that Millennials have heard their entire lives. This bestows it with an air of ancient wisdom, but as Cal sets out to prove (and does so successfully) in So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, the idea of “following your passion” is neither ancient, nor necessarily wisdom.

As he started his research, many people told him, “follow your passion” as advice, but the moment he started asking just a bit more, poking just a little farther, the edifice collapsed because there was no evidence for this advice. This is not just important for those seeking to build jobs and careers, but for anyone starting a side hustle or a small business. Imagine someone who doesn’t have the pre-existing passion of our aspiring travelpreneur. He/she might be following a variation on the same path Newport saw so often in his research:

  1. Identify your “passion” through a process of introspection, discussion, and reading.
  2. Then build a business based on that passion.

Indeed, many people don’t have a pre-existing passion and they shouldn’t be made to feel odd or guilty if they don’t. And, as we’ve noted above, being passionate about something isn’t a sufficient reason to start a business. Secondly, even if, like the potential travel planner, you do have a passion, it is faulty to assume that it is the passion that leads you to form the business.

What Cal presents as a counter to this societal trend of “passion driven” business building is a “skills driven” approach. It’s a template that can be used for those building businesses, not just those building careers.

  • Step 1: Get really good at something rare and valuable. These things that you get good at get added to a pile we can call “career capital.”

Career Capital can be increased at whatever speed you wish – not just by the work you do, but the steps you take to improve yourself. If you’re a programmer, for example, the more projects you take on and languages you learn, the faster you will improve and the more career capital you will accrue.

  • Step 2: As your career capital grows you can leverage it to build a side hustle.

When you’re not at work you can offer your programming skills to the marketplace – Perhaps you create a small agency that does projects, or you teach a class on Udemy, or you build software for a niche that desperately needs it. Rather than committing to one “all in” business, you’re experimenting with reinvestments of your career capital and seeing which projects bring you the best ROI.

  • Step 3: Over time, use that leverage to move towards things that resonate with you and away from things that don’t.

As you pursue these multiple paths, the most profitable one and/or the one that is the best use of your time will become clear, and will allow you to prune away from the less impactful work so that you can pivot and focus.

  • Step 4: This will, over time, lead to a source of passion for you.

It’s not sexy, and it takes time, but it is absolutely repeatable. It defuses the mysticism of “follow your passion” and opens your eyes to passion for your business, rather than a business in your passion.

I asked Cal to share just a couple success stories he’s heard from readers since he released the book back in 2012.  That reminds me, if you haven’t listened to Cal’s conversation with Ryan, make sure you do that after finishing this article.  You could also listen to a non-bearded conversation Cal had with me.

* * *

My career capital theory applies to many different career paths. As I learned in working on So Good They Can’t Ignore You, however, it is particularly well-suited for those interested in cultivating more satisfaction in their life by shifting toward more entrepreneurial endeavors.

The person who made this clear to me is the famed entrepreneur Derek Sivers. While researching So Good, I was fortunate enough to interview Sivers. I wanted to hear more about the massive entrepreneurial shifts if made during his own career. For those that don’t know, Sivers had a corporate job in the the music industry. Then he became a full time musician. Then he started and sold a company called CD Baby, which was a popular way for indie musicians to sell their music in the pre-iTunes era, for many millions of dollars — most of which he promptly gave away to charity.

He is, to say the least, an interesting guy.

When I got Sivers on the phone, I wanted to know the strategies he used to repeatedly transition side hustles into major parts of his working life. Here’s what he told me: “money is a great neutral indicator of value.”

He then went on to explain. The problem with career capital is that it can be hard to assess how much you actually have. You don’t want to quit your job, for example, if you don’t really have enough rare and valuable skills to succeed on your own.

Sivers’s argument is that when it comes to starting your own side business the best, most accurate way to assess you or your idea is…money. That is, ask people to give you money. If they do, your skills are valued by the market. If they don’t, they’re not, and it’s time to get back to the woodshed.

In particular, Sivers decided he wouldn’t quit his job to become a full time musician until the money he was making playing gigs at night rivaled his salary. Once a musician, he decided he wouldn’t stop performing to focus on CD Baby full time until its profits rivaled what he was making as a musician. Money was the impartial judge that let me know it was time to make a leap.

This advice is not always what aspiring lifestyle designers or start-up billionaires want to hear, as it’s more exciting to just make the bold step — I quit my job! — and then figure out the rest later. But boldness in your life decisions are not valued by the market. Rare and valuable skills, services, and products are.

A few years ago, I met a young man who put this strategy to effective use. When we first spoke, he was still an undergraduate. We chatted because he was a serious fan of my earlier books, which presented no-nonsense advice for becoming a highly effective student. He had put together his own 10-page cheat sheet on what studying strategies worked best and continued to refine has approach through his student years.

Then he graduated and took a random job at a healthcare consulting firm. I had given him a copy of So Good in our last meeting, so one of his first actions was to conduct an audit of his career capital.

He soon realized that his career capital in healthcare consulting was miniscule and it was going to take a lot of hard work until he enough capital to give him leverage in this market. He was ready to put in these hours, but then he noticed there was another market where his existing career capital seemed much stronger: student success.

How could he tell if that capital was sufficiently valuable to support a career? He turned to Sivers’s neutral indicator of value strategy.

In more detail, he launched a 6 month experiment. He declared himself a “high school, college, career consultant”, put up an official looking web site, and went hunting for clients that would pay him money for his services.

In the first 100 days he signed eight clients and earned close to $10,000. This provided him the evidence he needed that has career capital was sufficiently valued in this marketplace that he could make a living now, and with hustle, perhaps build up enough capital to make a great living.

* * *

So there’s the reminder from the author himself. Don’t wait for permission. Don’t wait for a sign. Build that career capital, test it in the marketplace. Iterate. Keep going. The passion will come. Ignore the noise and be so good, they can’t ignore you. You’ll have to figure out what comes after that. 

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