(Author of Study Hacks and professor of CS at Georgetown.)

How do people end up loving what they do? Counterpoint to ‘follow your passion’.


Don’t follow your passion

Roadtrip Nation - archive of interviews with people with meaningful careers. Common theme is messy beginnings - years of trying different things before stumbling into a satisfying result - not premeditated passion.

Career passion is rare. Survey students - most named passions are hobbies/pasttimes, not useful to others and so not likely to be self-supporting.

Passion takes time. Survey employees, asking whether they see their employment as a job (arbitrary source of income), career (path into better options) or calling (vital part of their identity). Correlation between chance of calling their employment a calling and years of experience. Competence and autonomy (from seniority) generate passion. Ignores the clear survival bias - people who see their employment as an arbitrary source of income or as a stepping stone to something better are less likely to still be there 40 years later. Probably also some degree of ossification - much easier to see something as identity when you’ve been doing it for much of your life.

Passion is a side effect of mastery. Self-determination theory. Found correlation between happiness/satisfaction and autonomy, mastery, relatedness. But not to passion. Wording is unclear, stated quite strongly that no correlation to passion found, but it’s not clear that anyone actually looked.

‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous - leads people to angst over whether they ‘really’ love what they are doing, if it’s really right for them.

Be so good they can’t ignore you

Craftsman mindset - take satisfaction from mastery rather than from results or rewards. Vs passion mindset - taking satisfaction from matching work to your identity.

What you can offer the world vs what the world can offer you.

Great jobs are rare and valuable, so you have to have something rare and valuable to offer in order to get them. Focus on building valuable skills and experience - career capital - so that you can use it as leverage to get great opportunities.

Contrasts to ‘courage culture’ which advocates eg quitting your job and starting your own lifestyle business, without any acknowledgement that earning money requires providing better value than the competition, which in turn requires better skills/experience/resources/luck.

Jobs which are not suited to building capital:

Deliberate practice. 10000 hours. Grit.

Intentional attitude to time management and choice of activity. Focus on areas which make you the most valuable.

Winner-takes-all market vs auction market. In some domains, it’s valuable to have a variety of skills/experiences. In others, all they care about is your ability to perform in some task. That determines whether you should seek out various experiences or focus on developing a single skill to mastery.

Most good opportunities are very competitive and not open to you at the beginning. Seek open gates - opportunities to build capital that are already open to you eg as a student look for undergrad research projects.

Figure out how to measure quality. Decide on clear goals to work towards. Hard to improve skills without this direction.

Flow. Deliberately push out the edges of your comfort zone.

Be patient. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be rare and valuable. Re: grit.

Turn down a promotion

Focus on control of your own career. Avoid devils bargains eg promotions that grant increased rewards but less freedom.

Trap 1: control acquired without career capital is unsustainable. It’s easy to get freedom by quitting your job, but making it work long-term requires having something that people want.

Trap 2: once you are acquire capital, you are valuable enough that your employer will resist losing control. Have to be ready to fight for it.

Tricky part is knowing whether 1 or 2 applies. Law of financial viability - before committing to a new skill/project/business/lifestyle, find evidence of viability eg prospective customers, investors, open positions.

Think small, act big

Big things happen on the adjacent possible - just beyond the cutting edge. Hard to have a big mission without first having reached the cutting edge in some field and having a look around.

Little bets - repeatedly try small experiments, rather than deciding up front on a big, important goal.

When do you pick a big project, make it something remarkable - lit. remarked upon, talked about. Launch it in a venue where it will be noticed and shared.

Suggests structuring goal into high-level aim, low-level research and skill acquisition, and mid-level exploratory projects. ___

Didn’t find this particularly useful now, but I wish I had read it years ago. I did eventually acquire some capital, largely by accident, but it could have been done much more efficiently.

I did like the twist on STD though. Used to thinking of ‘mastery’ as ‘find something I’m good at’, but it opens a lot more options to think of it instead as ‘make myself good at something’. I’m starting to think about what I could get better at in my own domain, and what other domains would be valuable to branch into.

Similarly, I flailed a bit when trying to pursue the goal I have in mind. The idea that I have to reach the cutting edge first in that field before being able to clearly define a goal is a useful direction. That’s a much more concrete task to approach.