Is Career Passion Overrated?

In a column in the New York Times on Sunday, Georgetown University Professor Cal Newport put forth a daring concept: that most people should disregard the conventional wisdom of “following your bliss” when it comes to choosing a career. His words ring true not only for young people deciding on a career, but also for older people at a crossroads in their professional or personal lives.

Newport, a gifted student who had three career paths open to him once he graduated, proposes that it doesn’t matter which path you choose; what matters is how hard and creatively you work once you make the choice.

“To other young people who constantly wonder if the grass might be greener on the other side of the occupational fence, I offer this advice: Passion is not something you follow,” Newport wrote. “It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.”

While Newport’s column was meant for young people, it struck home with this middle-aged woman who left a paying job a year ago for the uncertain life of a freelancer. It can also resonate with other midlife folks who’ve left careers and dream of reinventing themselves and making money doing something they love; with women who’ve traded a job for motherhood or vice versa; with someone contemplating a move to a new part of the country or the world; or with anyone considering beginning a relationship, or ending one.

His words are a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that they’ll never be happy unless they “follow their passion.”

“To a small group of people, this advice makes sense, because they have a clear passion,” he wrote. “Maybe they’ve always wanted to be doctors, writers, musicians and so on, and can’t imagine being anything else.

“But this philosophy puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us — and demands long deliberation. If we’re not careful, it tells us, we may end up missing our true calling. And even after we make a choice, we’re still not free from its effects. Every time our work becomes hard, we are pushed toward an existential crisis, centered on what for many is an obnoxiously unanswerable question: ‘Is this what I’m really meant to be doing?’”

As I write this I am thinking of my brother Dan, who is celebrating his 53rd birthday today. More than a decade ago Dan traded a six-figure corporate job for more fulfillment and a dramatic pay cut as a private school physics teacher. He has never looked back and regretted his choice. But his stories tell me that his work can sometimes be exhausting and thankless. He deals with a few difficult people, including students, parents and coworkers. He takes on extra assignments, including teaching at a local college, to earn extra money. He does all his own repairs around his home. Yet despite being exhausted, Dan gives his best, whether he is explaining a complex physics law to a befuddled freshman or re-doing a bathroom. As a result Dan has won many admirers and much respect on the job and in his community. He has truly followed Newport’s advice and “put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.”

So what we can all learn from my brother and Cal Newport is that passion for what you are doing can only take you so far. What matters is choosing a path, making a commitment, working hard, and not expecting a bed of roses. What matters is less focus on what the new path will give you and more on how you can make yourself more valuable to those around you. For those of us in midlife, trying to find our way in the world as we leave behind our primary careers and the child-raising years, this is great advice.

9 thoughts on “Is Career Passion Overrated?

  1. This post is perfectly timed, as I go through my own midlife transition. Thank you!
    I’m not following my bliss, because I’m pretty sure that would lead me to be a chocolate-addicted, smoking drunk at a casino. I am following that thing that has called me repeatedly over the years and I chose to ignore over the priorities of paid work and family. I just finally decided to listen.

  2. I have always felt like writing was my calling, but I can’t seem to find a way to bring in some extra dollars with it. Funny thing is, I don’t need to earn much, maybe $500 a month, so I’m not willing to give up yet. I loved this post, it took me back to the moment when I chose to leave Dell Computers and be a stay-at-home mom, I never regretted it, but now I’m ready to branch out again… great words to take with me! 🙂

  3. Great post; thoughtful conversation. An interesting discussion my husband and I have just about every few months!

  4. I needed to read this post right now.

  5. ohhh you are so right. So much pressure to find the thing and then in middle age we wonder if it was ever there. I am going to look this article up, thank you.

  6. This idea that there’s one thing we’re supposed to be doing with our lives is probably the cause of a great deal of needless stress and anxiety. Maybe it’s why so many people are depressed. Thanks for a great post, Catherine. I hope you’re happy with your decision to freelance. I’ve been doing it for thirty-two years, and still second-guess myself at least once a week. It can be frustrating, but then, what isn’t?

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