I am the poster child for the principles in this book
“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”
— John Kenneth Galbraith
Most of us have dreams that we would love to achieve. Some of us carry them close to us and share them freely. For some, everyone around us knows what they are. Others bury them, trying to survive and hoping that one day the dream can be unearthed.
As a kid, I was captivated by writing. And stories. And my favorite heroes.
I wanted to tell stories.
But I had no idea how to do it.
So many of us have no idea how to follow our passions. We end up trying what is right in front of us.
I acted in plays. Then sang in musicals. Even when I could not sing.
Then I tried film school.
I tried learning digital audio. And video.
And then marketing.
I started a freelance business. And I read as much as I could about storytellers, movies, filmmakers.
But none of it worked. There was hope, but no traction.
I ended up leaving my job. I became a lawyer.
I thought the dream was dead.
But it wasn’t.
In truth, the dream was just beginning.
And there was one book that I read recently that convinced me that I did everything backward.
When I started the book, I initially hated it. I thought the advice was horrible. Horrible, that is, until I realized that the author had perfectly described my own journey. I initially hated the book because it is hard to admit when my own thinking and actions reveal mistakes.
I made a mistake. Okay, more than one ‒ many mistakes.
And now, when I meet people who think and act like I used to, I am compelled to share what I learned.
This is the advice that I give them.
Charlie Rose once interviewed the multi-talented Steve Martin.
At the end of the interview, he asked Steve Martin how he became one of the most successful comedians in the world.
Here is Steve’s answer.
“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ … but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”
Cal Newport recounted the exchange in his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Cal used Steve Martin’s answer to name his book and introduce his theory that a piece of advice that most believe and attempt to follow — follow your passion — is actually horrible advice.
Following your passion is not just a bad idea. It is horrible advice.
At least, that was the thesis of So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
When I first read Cal’s theory, I immediately thought that he had to be wrong, at least for me. I have always followed my passions. And I seem to be doing okay.
Cal was wrong. My partial success proved it, right?
I wanted to stop reading the book. I put it down a few times. And then picked it back up. Fortunately, Steve Martin was a hero of mine earlier in life. I love Steve Martin — so out of respect for Steve, I kept reading.
A Summer in New York Made Me Want to Leave New York
As a freshman in college, I was solidly on a path to attend medical school and become a physician. I studied hard and after my freshman year, I took the MCAT. I did extremely well.
But something was missing. I had started acting a few years earlier. And I had an obsession with filmmaking that forced me to track down and watch as many Alfred Hitchcock films as I could (48 out of 53 was the best I could do).
Now was the time to “follow my passion” instead of doing whatever I was doing. I was burned out. I was so focused on school and education that I needed a break — or at least I told myself I needed a break.
I went to New York. My friend Paul and I attended the New York Film Academy for a summer intensive program.
Monday through Thursday we took classes on every aspect of filmmaking. Friday through Sunday we teamed up in groups of four and made films.
It was a magical experience. But also a practical one. It is one thing to dream about telling stories. It is entirely another to be sweating and nearly bleeding carrying film equipment through subway terminals around Manhattan.
As I recall that summer, I am reminded of stories of young men who dream about charging into battle. The shine fades when the gruesome moments arrive.
I loved my experience in New York. And I have incredible memories. I learned so much. But I never wanted to go back. And I still don’t. Not to the city, but to the lifestyle.
- The people around me worked 20 hours a day. 7 days a week. No spouses. No kids.
- The teachers — all of them filmmakers dying for a break — had worked for 20 years or more. My heart broke when I saw some of the films. I can’t imagine working for 20 years on something that is simply my dream and nothing else — no one would be served or benefit except me. If I am going to work for 20 years, I am going to make a dent in the universe that makes a difference to more people than just me.
- One of the more sobering experiences was walking into the room at the school that stored actors’ headshots. The room was quite large, with shelves stacked with binders full of actor headshots, packed from ceiling to the floor. There had to be tens of thousands of actors’ dreams and hopes shoved into these shelves. I was amazed — until someone told me that this room was the small one. These actors demanded some payment to act. The large room — nearly three times the size — had headshots of actors who would work for free.
I did not want to step into a room full of thousands of headshots and slip my name and folder into the shelves — certain to be lost in the maze of hopes and dreams.
But I still did want to create. I wanted to act, or write, or produce something.
Yet, I knew that staying in New York was not the path for me. I had to find another way. But no way seemed available.
I told myself that I would still write, but would have to find another path. After New York, I was accepted into dental school, but didn’t go. I worked at a startup, however, and started doing marketing, and then audio and video. And I thought that I would eventually end up telling stories — like I wanted — on this new path.
But it was not to be.
I have written previously about the choice I ultimately made, but in short, I gave up the dream. I was going to stop telling stories in order to support my family.
I was 30 years old and about to completely reinvent myself.
I quit my job. I was going to law school. My journey to follow my passion had ended.
The Idea That I Hated
Follow your bliss has to be good advice, right?
I hated Cal Newport’s book. Or at least I hated the central idea as soon as I read it.
The entire book is based around this question: is following your passion good advice?
For me, following your passion had to be good advice. That’s exactly what I was doing. I had passions, and I had to make sure I was living in line with those passions.
As a teenager, I read everything from Joseph Campbell I could find. And one of Joseph Campbell’s phrases that resonated the most with me with this: follow your bliss.
Follow your bliss. That’s what I was doing. I used my passion as a compass to set my direction in life.
And now Cal Newport was telling me that I was wrong. My passion should not serve as my compass. My bliss should not dictate my career.
I hated this idea. But I still kept reading.
Rule Number One: “Don’t Follow Your Passion”
The passion hypothesis is not only wrong, but harmful
Most people believe in what Cal labeled the “passion hypothesis,” which is as follows.
The key to occupational happiness is to match your job to a pre-existing passion.
Cal’s argument is that the passion hypothesis is not true. Examples of this hypothesis are rare. Furthermore, he states that “compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.”
Therefore, Cal provides us with rule number one: don’t follow your passion.
Here’s what Cal concluded:
- Career passions are rare.
- Passion takes time.
- Passion is a side effect of mastery.
Ultimately, following the passion hypothesis makes you less happy.
As I read, I was starting to see some logic to his thesis. But I was not yet convinced. So I kept reading.
Rule Number Two: Accumulate Career Capital
If following your passion is bad advice, what should you do instead?
The natural question, for me, was what should I do if I don’t follow my passions? If I am not going to use my passions — or what excites me — to help me determine what I should pursue as a career, then what should I do?
This above question leads to the essence of Cal’s second rule.
If following your passion is bad advice, what should you do instead? Cal’s answer is to develop career capital.
Career capital is the possession of rare and valuable skills that produce great work. Developing career capital comes from a mindset that is the opposite of the mindset that develops when you attempt to follow your passion.
For example, when I was trying to tell stories for a living, my mindset was to try to get the world to fulfill my needs by helping me do what I wanted to do. Cal’s second rule suggests that the opposite mindset is needed instead. The opposite mindset asks not what the world can do to help you fulfill your passions, but what rare and valuable skill that you can offer to the world. The valuable skill that you offer is your career capital.
I had a hard time disagreeing with this rule. Great work is rare and also valuable. And great work only comes from rare and valuable skills.
Cal’s ultimate point is that having career capital is the foundation of doing work that you love.
So instead of trying to follow our passions and trying to decipher how to even do that, Cal suggests that we focus on what we offer to the world — do we have rare and valuable skills that produce great work?
But what if we do not have rare and valuable skills? How do we develop career capital?
Cal presents two ways to build career capital, and both are needed: (1) adopt the “craftsmen mindset” and (2) engage in deliberate practice.
The craftsmen mindset requires that we focus relentlessly on what we are offering to the world. This mindset is the opposite of the “passion mindset,” in which we only focus on the value that the world offers us. Focus on developing skills that someone else needs. That is how you become valuable.
Deliberate practice is the second path to career capital. Deliberate practice involves engaging in activities that are beyond our comfort zone and then receiving ruthless feedback on our performance in those activities. Fast feedback allows you to improve intentionally and quickly.
By adopting the craftsmen mindset and then engaging in deliberate practice, useful skills will be developed. The skills will be useful since the focus begins with what we are offering to others. And the improvement occurs because of the deliberate practice of focusing on an uncomfortable activity and receiving immediate feedback.
In essence, don’t follow your passion, but develop useful skills that are valuable to others instead.
I am the Poster Child
“Dreams never die. Sometimes you think they are dead, but they are just hibernating like some old bear. And, if the dream has been hibernating for a long time, that bear is going to wake up grumpy and hungry.”
— Harlan Coben
I had given up on the dream to tell stories, whether through acting, writing, or producing. But I had entered law school after 10 years of working in various jobs.
Law school taught me about the legal system, and about how to think about problems from a legal perspective. I learned how to communicate ideas in a logical and coherent fashion. In short, I learned rare and valuable skills — skills that are valuable to entrepreneurs, business owners, and artists.
For a period of time, I had no involvement in telling stories. I was out of the game for years — until an old filmmaker friend called me. He needed help. He needed legal advice about an upcoming film.
Now, after years of stepping away from what I was passionate about, someone was actually reaching out to me!
After I helped my old friend, other people started calling. A television producer. A filmmaker. An author. An entrepreneur. People started to realize that I had skills that they needed.
I did not make the connection initially, until years later, when I was reading about Steve Martin and the passion hypothesis in this book.
For years, I focused on what the world could offer me. I searched for a way to fulfill my own passions and desires. I wanted to pursue what I thought was my ideal life. And I failed.
But when I changed my perspective from looking for what would fulfill me to what I can offer to others, other people reached out and wanted my advice.
Filmmakers want to talk with me (yet sometimes I don’t want to talk to them!)
Entrepreneurs invite me to meetings that I never even knew about before.
Business owners call me when they need counsel.
Artists call me and ask for advice.
I produce movies with great friends of mine.
And even though I am still developing my skills through deliberate practice, I can offer real value to people. Here are some examples of how this has paid off.
- I was sitting around a table talking with a group of entrepreneurs. One minute of advice saved everyone in the room at least $4,000 — every year.
- I was talking to a friend, gave him one piece of advice, and it made him at least $9,000 per year for the life of his business.
- One of the most successful people that I know sought me out because of a legal skill that I possess. It took 15 minutes for us to discuss the legal issue, and then we spent four hours in one of the best conversations that I’ve ever had. It all started with having a skill that a successful entrepreneur would find valuable.
I stopped following my passion and adopted the craftsmen mindset. I attempted to gain the skills that others need. And I became useful to the exact people that I nearly begged to work with years prior. Now I am still focusing on deliberate practice so that I can offer more value to more people — and serve them.
I am the poster child for following Cal’s advice. I tried the passion hypothesis. I hated Cal’s book until I realized that I was living it — both following the passion hypothesis and also completely working against it.
For me, following my passion didn’t work. But developing rare and valuable skills did.
And you know what the crazy thing is? Now that my skills are in demand, my passions are starting to matter again — because I can follow them on my own terms.
I hated Cal’s book — because I lived it. But now I tell pretty much everyone to read it.
Valuable skills are the answer.