Money & Career, Podcast

Art of Manliness Podcast #78: The Myth of Following Your Passion

In today’s episode I talk to Cal Newport, author of the book So Good They Can’t Ignore Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. In his book Cal makes that provocative case that “following your passion” is terrible career advice and can actually cause people needless anxiety and problems in their lives. Instead of “following your passion,” Cal argues that seeking mastery in your job is the starting step to cultivating work you love.

Show Highlights

  • How following your passion can lead to anxiety and misery
  • What the research says on what makes work fulfilling (hint: it’s not following your passion)
  • The difference between the craftsman mindset and passion mindset
  • Why your focus should be on developing “career capital” and not following your passion
  • Why you need autonomy in your work to be happy (and how you can get it)
  • And much more!


I highly recommend you pick up a copy of So Good They Can’t Ignore You.  It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. More young people need to read this message. Also, check out Cal’s blog Study Hacks for tips and insights on studying in college as well as on developing the craftsman mindset in your work.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast.

Well, I am excited about today’s guest because I am always excited about our guests, but this one in particular. I’ve been following this guy’s blog since I was in law school, that was a long time ago, six years ago, eight years ago, seven years ago about. Anyway, his name is Cal Newport and he has a blog called Study Hacks. He writes about how to succeed in school. He has written a whole bunch of books about being an effective efficient student. So, if you are a college-age guy or a high school-age guy I definitely recommend checking out those books by him.

But today, we are going to talk about a book that he wrote two years ago called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. And in this book Cal takes on this advice we see a lot all over the place when it comes to your career and that advice is, if you want to find a meaningful work and make lots of money and blah, blah, blah, blah, all you have to do is follow your passion. You find your passion, you follow it and once you do that everything will just magically be okay. But he makes the case that it can actually be a really bad advice and it can actually lead to frustration and angst and anxiety about your career. And instead he looks at what the research says about what gives us a feeling of fulfillment in our work and what we can do to cultivate that feeling. So, we are going to talk about that today. I am really excited about this. This is something I think every young person in particular needs to hear. If you are in that point in your life where you try to figure out what you are going to do with your career, this podcast is for you. Even if you have been at your career for 10, 15, 20 years you are going to find some information in here that will, I think, challenge some of the assumptions you’ve had maybe reduce some of the anxiety you have had about yourself or whether you are in the right job or not and things that you can do to turn the job you have right now and to a job you love and that you are passionate about. It’s not about findings but cultivating. We are going to talk more about that right now. So stay tuned.

Cal Newport, welcome to the show.

Cal Newport: Thanks, Brett.

Brett McKay: All right. So, you’ve been writing online for a long time now. It’s something that I have been following for a while. Your Study Hacks blog came in handy for me while I was in law school. And so for any of our listeners who are in college or grad school I definitely recommend you to go check out Cal’s blog for content on studying and planning and things like that. It’s a super good information book. Today we are going to talk about this book that you published back in 2012, that’s right?

Cal Newport: That’s right.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It was sort of like Martin Luther hammering his treaties on the door because it’s sort of an article of faith nowadays that if you want to find meaningful work you have to follow your passion and you make the argument in your book so good that I can’t ignore you that that’s actually can be really bad advice and can make you miserable. So, can you explain why following your passion can possibly make you miserable with your work?

Cal Newport: Well, the first thing to make clear is that there is a difference between the goal of ending up passionate about what you do for a living and the strategy of following your passion. People often mix those up but for our conversation it’s very clear that I am separating these two things because I think the goal of ending up passionate about your work is a fantastical and that book is actually about how the people actually accomplish that.

The actual strategy of following your passion however I do think reduces the chances that you will succeed with that goal. It will reduce the probability that you will end up passionate about your work and there are really two strikes against it. So, the first strike is that it assumes that most people have a preexisting passion that they can identify and then use as the foundation of clear decisions. If you don’t have a preexisting passion that advice doesn’t make any sense. We actually don’t have a lot of evidence that most people do, so what’s the harm with that advice? Well if you are like most people and you don’t have a preexisting passion then if all you’ve heard is follow your passion and everything will be okay, you’re going to be left alone confused and anxious.

The second strike against this piece of advice is that it’s based on the seemingly intuitive syllogism that if you really like something and then do that for your work that you will end up really liking your work, but it turns out that we actually don’t have a lot of evidence that that’s true. If you look at the decades of research on work place motivation and satisfaction we see preexisting interest for your work actually plays a very small, if perhaps nonexistent role and whether or not you will actually like that subject, you will actually like that as a career that there are many other factors that have nothing to do with a preexisting match of something you like to your job. There are many other factors that play a much bigger role if you are interested and is passionate about your work.

So, again, if all you tell someone is follow your passion then what happens when they match some strong interests to their work and they don’t love it, they are left to anxious, to left confused or left frustrated again. So, I think this advice is a red herring. It’s way too simplistic. It’s a childish look at a very adult topic which is what’s the reality of how people in the real world build true meaningful passion for their work?

Brett McKay: Yeah, another strike yet again you kind of hit on this in your book as well is that you might be passionate about something but like no one wants to pay you money for it, right? Like you can’t make a living from it like you could be passionate about like this guy Brad Kelley always talks about, I am passionate about waffles but it’s kind of hard making money eating waffles for a living.

Cal Newport: Yeah, that’s true. And even then, even when you are saying that it’s still assuming okay but if you could somehow make a living off of it that that would be good, but we don’t even have evidence that that’s true. I love craft beer and even if I could make a living off of it that preexisting love for the craft beer does not say that I am going to love doing that for a living. There are plenty of passion, amateur bakers and photographers who are miserable when they open professional bakeries or photography studios because passion work has very very little to do with hey how much to do like the topic that you work deals with ahead of time.

Brett McKay: What about like all these super successful people right that tell you, oh you just follow your passion, like everyone like around this time graduation time and starting off school, everyone is always sharing like the Steve Jobs commencement speech where it’s like follow your passion or like you have the guy Richard Branson in-charge of Virgin whatever airlines and records and his empire. It’s like oh you just follow your passion and you will make money. What’s your take on those guys?

Cal Newport: Well, it’s true that if you look out on popular culture at least if you think about what you’ve seen in popular culture, the idea that lots of famous happy people are advising you to follow your passion and that does seem true, but I think there’s three different things that are going on to make that a reality.

The first is a lot of these people are misquoted or misunderstood. So, Steve Jobs is the perfect example of that. He said in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech, you know you should do something that you love, don’t settle for work that you don’t love and people assumed he meant follow your passion. But that’s not actually what he was saying and we know that for two reasons. One indirectly because that’s not what he did. He stumbled into Apple Computer at a time where he clearly had no preexisting passion for technology entrepreneurship. He developed that passion later in the more complex ways that people do. And two, I uncovered an interview transcript with his biographer Walter Isaacson where Issacson says, yeah in Steve Jobs’ waning years, I asked him specifically about this piece of advice follow your passion and Steven Jobs responded and I am quoting, this is Issacson quoting Jobs, “It’s not all about you and your damn passion, you need to get out there and try to make a dent in the universe that’s what matters.” So, Steve Jobs was not saying follow your passion. He was misquoted.

The second factor that goes on in this phenomenon is that a lot of people who end up passionate about what they do make that subtle shift I talked about in the beginning of our interview in which they equate the strategy of following a passion with the goal of ending up passionate about what you do. So, when the Richard Bransons of the world say follow your passion, often what they really mean is, hey you should set the goal of ending up being passionate about your work, you know, don’t sell yourself short. Those are two very different things.

Then third, there are some people who do have a clear preexisting passion. They follow it and things work out and we happen to hear a lot from them. So I am not saying this advice never works. It’s just how often does it actually work is actually pretty rare. So, those three factors create this whole echo chamber out there in culture. It seems like this is all the people are saying.

Brett McKay: Got you. So I guess it’s like some survivorship bias which I called the five survival fallacy.

Cal Newport: Yeah, there is some survivorship bias and, but it doesn’t matter if in fact exist when you are looking into the bench space. What matters is what’s its frequency.

Brett McKay: Sure, okay. So, just to be clear as a recap, we are not saying that you can’t be passionate about your work it’s just how you pursue that attainment of passion is sort of flawed. So, you make the argument instead of like following your passion you should cultivate your passion. We are going to get into more details, but just very, very broadly what does the research say out there that you know what things we can do to cultivate a passion in our work?

Cal Newport: So the type of factors we know from the research that lead to a sense of passion for your work include a sense of autonomy, a sense of competence or mastery, a sense of connection to people or a mission, a sense of impacting and a sense of creativity. General traits like those lead people to feel passion about your work. So broadly speaking your goal should be to maximize those types of traits in your working life and passion will follow.

Brett McKay: And I mean this is something that’s, I think important to point out as well, that this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like start your own business and become an entrepreneur. You can find, be passionate about your work even if you are working in a corporate gig or you are working for a university or a government job, I guess the research is if you have those type of attributes, you will say you can develop a passion about your work.

Cal Newport: Yeah I think that’s liberating about this idea is that those traits are quite agnostic to the specific type of work. They really have very little to do with have you matched your work to a preexisting interest or is it a certain type of work. It just says if you can have these traits at high levels you will probably have passion for your work whatever it is.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that is super liberating. I know there’s like a lot of you know because I interacted with a lot of young guys and there’s like this pressure on them, right, to like you got to find something that is your life’s calling and you have to be your own boss and you have to be location-independent and like, and that’s a hard thing to do and they just sort of struggle. And yeah like you said they feel frustrated and anxious when they can’t achieve that and they feel sort of bumped out because they are working a corporate job like Steve, but you can actually have very fulfilling work life working that corporate job.

Cal Newport: Yeah, that’s right, I mean if you can get autonomy, if you can get competence, great things happen. So, I tell a story in the book for example where I take two corporate advertising executives. These are real people who at similar points in their life had this moment of crisis where they are thinking okay am I happy, is this the thing I want to do?

One of those executives and these are sort of junior executives at the time, quit to start a yoga studio. She is saying I love yoga, I am passionate about yoga, maybe my problem is advertising is not my passion and I will go open a yoga studio. The other executive said, I am going to find some specialty in here that I am just going to own, that I am going to dominate because then I will have more control over my working life and I can get away from the type of stuff I don’t like in this job and do more of the stuff that I do like.

And what ended up happening to these two people is that the woman who started the yoga studio that quickly failed because she had no particular high level expertise in yoga and in the profile I found about her at the end she was waiting in line for food stamps.

The guy who worked on a specialty became one of the world’s experts in international brands and the profile I found about him talked about how he had this great set-up where he had his own essentially autonomous business but within the umbrella of a larger business so he didn’t have the stress of the risk of running your own shop. He was talking about the ski house that they had built where his whole family would come and stay with him for the whole summer on this lake and he had this very fulfilling happy life. So, it’s two people at a fork in the woods. One of them said, I bet I can transform this job into something I love. And the other said, oh I just got to keep doing something new until I immediately love. We see there is a huge difference in the outcome. The person who said I can make this job into something I love ended-up doing much better.

Brett McKay: And so, this idea of mastery, becoming the best at what you do is kind of where the title of your book came from right? So Good They Can’t Ignore It. Actually, Steve Martin came up with that line.

Cal Newport: Yeah that was his advice to entertainers wanting to succeed in the entertainment industry.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you gave those examples it reminds me a lot of my dad. So my dad was a federal game warden which was basically – it’s a government job, he was a bureaucrat. During the fall season you got to go out and like check duck hunters which was nice, but for most of the time he was just like in an office writing memos, doing paperwork, doing depositions. It was like really boring stuff, but he did it for 35 years but like he loved his job. I remember I was at a like a frustrating point in my life where I was just like, man this work is so boring, I don’t know how can I find fulfilling work. I asked my dad like, dad, you have been doing this for 35 years, how do you still love your job even though for most of the time you just write papers and write memos. He says well I just take one day at a time and I tried to be the best that I can be and that’s why I enjoy what I do. It’s like really simple folksy advice, but like as soon as I started applying that like things turned around for me. I just became a lot, I don’t know, it just lifted off this anxiety to find out what my calling was and I just tried to focus on what I could now.

Cal Newport: Yeah. There’s this great interview with Richard Bolles who wrote the book, What Color is Your Parachute? which helped to bring in a lot of this thinking because it was one of these first books to say, hey you got to figure out what you’re supposed to do, what color is your parachute? And this great interview he did I think it was for Fast Company Magazine. He said when I wrote this book in the 1970s, when I first had this idea that you should sit down and really try to figure out that you are supposed to do, he said people thought it was a dillitante’s exercise. So, our parents’ generation especially our grandparents’ generation none of these would have made any sense to them.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Cal Newport: What do you mean you are sitting down and like really trying to figure out like what you are meant to do or not meant to do? You said you are meant to do something, get a good job, do it well you know have some pride in your work. That folksy wisdom I think you know we now see validated with science. It’s actually a much smarter way to build a fulfilling career.

Brett McKay: All right. So, you have in one section of your book you talked about different mindsets of approaching work, one is the craftsman mindset and the other is the passion mindset. Can you kind of just briefly explain what the differences are between the two and how can you develop a craftsman mindset?

Cal Newport: The craftsman mindset is where you approach your work asking the question what value am I bringing to the world. The passion mindset by contrast which is more common these days is the mindset of asking what value is this job bringing me, is this what I am meant to do, do I love it, what are they offering me. My argument is that the craftsman mindset is what’s going to lead you to work that you love and a simple framework is this. If you get really good at things you produce real value for the world, you will gain more control over your working life. If you have more control over your working life you can steer it towards those traits like autonomy and impact and connection admission that we know lead people to really love their work. You connect those two things together it says if you have a craftsman mindset you are more likely to end-up loving what you do for a living.

Brett McKay: Got you. And the passion mindset you just kind of keep shopping, right?

Cal Newport: You are going to keep shopping, yeah.

Brett McKay: And you are never going to be satisfied.

Cal Newport: And I want to say I think the key, there is two, if I had to summarize everything I am saying down there are like two key points of what I found, I mean I think the first key point is that traits like autonomy and impacting mission is what matters. The second key point is that those traits are rare and they are valuable. They are hard to get. People don’t just give them away. It’s hard in our economy to have a job that has great autonomy or gives you a great sense of mastery or mission or connection.

Therefore, the glue that holds these ideas together is if you have to have something valuable to offer in return and that’s why my book is so centered on you need to have a craftsman mindset, you need to get really good at something. It’s not because just being good at something by itself means you love your work, it’s that that is your leverage to get these rare and valuable traits into your life, you have to have something to offer in return and in the job economy that’s your skills. So, you have to get good in step one and in step two you have to use that as leverage to make sure that you can get lots of autonomy and mastery and these other traits in your working life. That’s my sort of simple formula that replaces follow your passion.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it reminds me of– what’s that guy’s name that writes the Marginal Revolution blog, it’s the book…

Cal Newport: Yeah, Tyler Cowen.

Brett McKay: Yeah, he has told the average is over, right, like if you want to be a success in today’s economy like you have to be so good that they can’t ignore you.

Cal Newport: Yeah and it’s not that just being really good means you love your work but it’s that’s your foundation. Without that foundation if you just run around saying do I love this, do I love that, the answer is going to be no. No one is handing out. Sure like the economy is not going to say, oh you want to just sort of work from home with the web business and within a month be making a great salary and live all over the world, the market says I don’t care. It’s an incredibly brutal economy. What are you doing that’s excellent and anyhow it takes a long time to get good at things. So this craftsman mindset is really the first step towards realizing those goals.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s a good thing to point out too. It takes a long time. So I feel like a lot of young people they want to just right off the bed have a shot like an awesome career, but that can take years to develop, decades.

Cal Newport: Yeah, which is why it’s so dangerous to just tell people follow your passion, because if you emphasize the match is all that matters then people expect the rewards as soon as they make the match, in other words they will be conditioned to expect to love their work on the first day at the job if they chose the right job and that’s so far from reality that you are really setting up a whole generation for chronic anxiety and job hopping.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And so, yeah I like this idea that you talk about as far as having that craftsman mindset of developing career capital. And I think, what’s her name? I talked to her. She wrote something about 20 something so I forget her name. Anyway she has something like an identity capital but I like your career capital. It’s a place to work. Can you talk about like what career capital is?

Cal Newport: Yeah, that’s the metaphor I used to make it easier to think about this strategy of mine. So if the strategy is get good and then use that as leverage to gain desirable traits in your working life. The metaphor that helps you visualize that is this notion that as you build up increasingly rare and valuable skills, you gain more of this fictitious quantity that I call career capital. Just like monetary capital you can then invest it as you grow it into the traits that are going to give you real returns in your life.

So, if you want a really desirable trait in your working life, such as you completely decide on your own what you work on and when, that’s going to require a lot of career capital. So, what you have to do is say how much capital do I have, oh I don’t have very much, I am new to this job, I don’t have much skills. So what I need to do is build up my supply of career capital until I have enough to exchange for this trait. So, it just gives you a sense of an easier way to measure where you are and where you need to get in order to make these career moves.

Brett McKay: So, career capital includes things like I mean it includes like college, right? And things you might be doing in college right now and then internships you might have right after college, is that right?

Cal Newport: Yes. You can start building it right away. That’s why if you have majored on a specific topic all things being equal why does it make sense to try to get a job in that field? Well, it’s because you already have a small foundation of career capital. So, because you have some skills interning and majoring in that field it doesn’t mean that you have to, it doesn’t mean that’s the only field that you can be happy in. Career capital theory gets you this much more grounds and ways to think about things. Oh all things being equal I already have some skills in this area that reduces that amount of additional skills I need to build before I can start getting good things. So, when you apply it to a lot of different paradoxes or quandaries in career thinking, this sort of simple metaphor actually often simplifies what the right answer is.

Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah, I also like the point that you kind of brought up in your book is that you can do all career capital and you should find ways to use that career capital developed like so if you majored in computer science, it’s obvious that computer science is what you should do, but what I think is interesting too is sort of how broad career capital is like as you develop a major or as you earn a major in computer science or whatever else you might major in, you are developing other skills as well that could be applied into, I guess, other fields that are closely related to computer science, but not directly computer science if that makes sense. Like for example, I went to law school, but I don’t practice law, but I learned a lot of skills during law school such as writing and research and how to think analytically that I have been able to kind of use in my career. And I mean all those people always ask me like do you regret going to law school and I was like well, I mean, I say in a way I do but in a way I don’t because I developed some skills that came in handy later on, as I found to how to use those skills.

Cal Newport: Yeah, I think that’s a great point that we are used to thinking about career in terms of these broad level of categorizations you know industry and jobs. Career capital thinking gets you focused on specific skills and you break them out of these really loaded you know high level categories like lawyer or law school and instead you say writing, how to do intensity of research quickly, the type of traits that we see for example in sort of the standard classic or the manliness post. And I think that’s really helpful because it allows you to make transitions for example from a particular industry maybe to another one in a very smart way because you can see, okay maybe I don’t like law as an industry but if I can identify my skills and have some sense of how good I am at different specific skills, you can find other industries where those apply and prevent yourself from having to start over from scratch.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think as I was reading that section, one thing that came to my mind was you often these hear these stories of guys who founded some company that allows them to like live the dream, travel around the world and they talk about how they regret going to college, or like you know you shouldn’t go to college and they advocate going to college because I didn’t graduate from college, I dropped out, look at me I am still a success. And the thing that I’ve always pointed out or I have always thought, usually the guys who are talking about the sort of thing like they got into Princeton or they got into Harvard and then they dropped out. And it is like probably because they got into Princeton or Harvard they developed like career capital that allowed them to drop out and still be a success.

Cal Newport: Yes and they often had around the massive investment and their company before they dropped out you know. I am not impressed about Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard, I mean he had been there for a couple of years and his company was obviously had huge potential. It wasn’t a super bold risky move, but yeah I agree with you. There is often a great potential for them to get in there in the first place and they often then worked really, really hard while they are there to build up the specific skills that they used in their company. And also, a lot of people dropped out of college and it’s a terrible decision.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Cal Newport: So, you we got to worry about survivorship bias. There’s a lot of career capital that is built in college that is hard to build without it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So, I guess people are listening. If you hear people say, don’t go to college, you know, think twice you know don’t just take it on the face value, look into a little bit deeper, I guess is the word of wisdom there.

All right, so, you talked about mastery, autonomy is a big part of cultivating work you love or control. I think most people like intuitively understand this like they want, they would be happy if they were their own boss so they want to become entrepreneurs, they want to become– you talked about people who want to become farmers in Vermont.

Cal Newport: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s fine. My wife and I we love Vermont and we go there every summer and that’s kind of the big joke amongst the Vermonters is that we always people from Manhattan who are burnt-out and they decided I want to become a farmer and that’s going to be wonderful and they are a complete failure.

Cal Newport: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about those Vermont– those New York banker turned Vermont farmers. Why do they fail? I mean they are successful bankers why can’t they cut it in farming and why can’t they have control over their life by being a farmer?

Cal Newport: Right. So, it is, as you point out the appeal of farming and I spent some time with some of these farmers in writing this book to try to understand this. The appeal of this lifestyle is for the most part the autonomy which our intuition and research tells us. You have this autonomy over what you do and why that’s incredibly beneficial. So that what draws the burnt-out cliché Wall Street stockbroker to buy the farm in New York or in Vermont is that drive for sort of more autonomy.

Career capital thinking allows us to really understand what’s going on here because career capital thinking tells us that yes autonomy is very valuable because of that it is expensive in career capital terms. So, you have to have a lot of relevant skills and value to offer in return.

So, what happens if you quit your banking job to go start a farm in Vermont, the issue is you made a move for autonomy, you try to buy autonomy before you had any relevant capital to invest in it. So, you are not really able to obtain it and therefore you fail to actually build up a sustainable lifestyle in which you have that trait. So, I contrast to that in my book with a very successful farmer from Western Massachusetts. And I said let’s actually look at this guy’s background. This guy has about a decade of honing the skills relevant to farming including a degree in vegetable horticulture from Cornell Ag School and years of leasing farmland, that small tracks of land and about a decade of experience before he took on his first major mortgages and brought his first farm. And so, that’s how people become successful farmers. They build up the career capital first that they need in order to successfully gain an autonomist, a successful life as a farmer.

Brett McKay: Yeah and that whole section about how we have like this kind of like courage culture online in particular.

Cal Newport: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Where it says like the only thing that’s holding you back from being your own boss is like you are just you are afraid.

Cal Newport: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And there is like whole industry out there designed to help you not be afraid to make that plunge into being your own boss. And you talk about like lifestyle design folks in your book and like, I guess bloggers are in that kind of realm. I get a lot of people because like I make– that’s what I do, I make my living in writing the Art of Manliness. And so, a lot of people think, oh wow this is pretty easy if I can just like write some post about something that I like then I can eventually quit my job and like I tell them, no it’s actually harder than that like it took me years to get to that point. I mean yeah I just did, at that point really resonated. I see a lot of people who, they like the idea of like having a blog that just magically makes money and they can go wherever in the world and everything will be fine, but like it doesn’t usually work out that way.

Cal Newport: Yeah. And I think career capital thinking really helps clarify this issue once again because yeah people want to travel the world to make a living off of a blog because that would give them again incredible autonomy, that autonomy always comes back. But autonomy as we keep seeing is very valuable, it’s hard to get. You have to have a lot of relevant, rare and valuable skills to offer in return. And that’s why as you point out I am very critical of the courage culture online because by telling people that the only thing standing between you and this great autonomist life is just the courage to stick up and say no to your boss and reject the status quo by telling people that you are ignoring the role that career capital plays and you are going to convince a lot of people to try to jump into these lifestyles before they have the career capital to back it up and the result is almost always disaster. As I profile this young woman in my book who dropped out of college to go pursue sort of vaguely speaking, I will just leave off of my blog without really thinking about it and she ended up in a really bad way because obviously that didn’t succeed. She had no income coming in and without a college degree it was very hard for her to actually find a job now that she saw that this wasn’t working out. That’s what happens. It’s not harmless to say just be bold, you know, seize the day, you got to, the status quo is terrible. All it takes is just a little bit of courage and your life is going to be better. It’s dangerous.

Brett McKay: Yeah, don’t follow the sheep, that’s how I think like you know…

Cal Newport: Yeah and you know the thing about the status quo is that a lot of things that have a lot of structure and that we thumb our nose at knows that are actually fantastic skill building experiences. People will look at college and say, oh so status quo, so normal I don’t need college. But it actually forces you to build a lot of skills. People will look at grades and say, uh I don’t need grades, it’s all like extrinsic motivation. But, hey what happens when you have to fight to get an A on a problem set because you think you need this A to get a job down the road. That actually forces you to do really hard thinking on this mathematics concept and you are going to end up learning that mathematics. I mean this stuff actually works pretty well, I mean I agree that you shouldn’t be a sheep, but there is a lot of structures out there in the status quo that actually do a pretty good job of helping people build skills and gain more control over their life.

Brett McKay: Okay, well, on the flipside though you talk about, so some people make the jump for more control too early, but then there are some people who they are at a point in their career, in their job where they could get more control right, but there is going to be resistance either from bosses or from customers because people don’t like giving up control.

Cal Newport: Yeah. This is where courage is relevant, it’s not early. Where courage becomes relevant is where you actually have the career capital to start transforming your career to have more of these good traits. That’s where you really need courage because that’s where you are going to get a lot of pressure from your current boss or from society or whatever it is, to stick with whatever route is best for them.

And so, courage is important but as not important when you are 21 and just started your new blog. Courage is important when you are 25 and the blog is very successful and your bosses say no, no, no, no, I will give you a promotion, you got to stay here, you will get this respect and trying to make you know do I really want to leverage this capital. That’s when things get tough and where courage is important.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, you mentioned throughout our conversation about the importance of mission, right? And this is something that has vexed me for a long-time trying to figure out like what my mission is because like I am a big fan of Stephen Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He is sort of the guy that popularizes this idea that you should have a mission statement about your life, about your work that sort of guide you and gives you meaning. The problem I found though with like writing, I write the mission statement but then like I don’t really like live it. I think you sort of addressed this in your book that it’s hard to cultivate a mission before you actually sort of know what you are doing if that makes sense. Is that the kind of the point you are making that you have to kind of getting going with your career before you can start developing that overarching mission that will drive you for the rest of the your life?

Cal Newport: Yeah. So a mission which I defined to be an organizing principle for your whole working life that can provide a real sense of passion, it’s not necessary. There are plenty of people who do build up passion without a mission but it is a good strategy for having passion in your life and a lot of people who love to work in life have missions and how you summarize it is exactly right. It turns out for various reasons when you study missions in the real world, study people who have these career organizing goals, what you find is it’s almost impossible to identify a good mission until you are really good at something. So, they try to sit there at the very beginning, early in your career or before you even start a career and say I am going to figure out my mission, you can come up with something but it’s almost definitely not going to be sustainable. It’s probably going to fall apart. So in other words even for something like mission there’s no shortcut to first building up a lot of career capital. Almost everything good in the career space follows from first getting really good at things.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that really enlightened me a bit because that’s something I have struggled and I brought this question to the people before where– do you read the self-help book and self-improvement books and like yeah you got to have a mission, mission. I am like yeah I’ve tried to this before and I was like it doesn’t work like I will write the thing and then like it doesn’t resonate or just I forget about it. I never like in my experience and throughout in life it’s like if I join an organization that already has a predetermined mission whether that’s a job or like a football team or like you know at my church, that says here’s the mission that we are trying to do, like I am all on board, like okay yeah we are going to do that. But when I tried to do it myself, I don’t know, it’s hard, but I think what it was holding me back, was preventing me like living that mission was that I was trying to start before I had gotten started if that makes sense.

Cal Newport: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely what’s happening. Until you are at the cutting edge of a field, until you immersed yourself in a field, it’s just really difficult to actually come up with a good, sustainable, impressive, attractable mission. You focus first on doing what you do well and then it will rise sort of unexpectedly, right? That’s how this really happens. It’s just you are doing something you are going along, you are starting to make some progress, you are starting to get some skills and at some point something comes up you are like you know what, this is a real problem that I could solve and then that changes everything.

Brett McKay: So, yeah, just a kind of recap. So finding meaningful work, work that you are passionate about, cultivating it, be good at something, develop mastery, be autonomist, find autonomy and develop career capital and then eventually develop a mission.

Cal Newport: Yeah, I would order it this way.

Brett McKay: Okay.

Cal Newport: So, because of my computer scientist mind.

Brett McKay: Okay, yeah.

Cal Newport: Okay, so the algorithm would be as follows– you build career capital by becoming good at things, mastering rare and valuable skills, then you can invest that capital into the traits we talked about like mastery, like machine, like autonomy. Those are all things you can get once you are really good at something and are hard to have in your working life before. So it’s this notion of build capital and then invest and you have to do both. So, if you just get really good at something but never leverage that then you could still be miserable. And if you know what you want in your working life but never get it good enough to back it up you can also end up miserable. You really got to have both those steps.

Brett McKay: Got you. So, I mean can you talk a little bit about how you develop you know use these tips in your own work because you are professor at Georgetown, you are an academic. So you didn’t decide to become a location independent blogger even though you have a blog. So, how did you apply these principles in your own line of work?

Cal Newport: Well, a couple of things are important. First, I didn’t sweat the decision. So when it came down to decide what do I want to do after college, I had various options. Having long internalized these concepts I realized that choice was not that important you know whatever I chose to do I could transform it into something I love. What really matters was what happened once I got started. So the first thing I do is I didn’t sweat the match because I didn’t think there was one right thing for me to do. So, computer science career and academia it’s difficult but it had some big potential for crafting a cool life. So I said let me try that. And then I have been very patient is what I would say. I mean I absolutely noticed that as I get better at being a computer scientist I like it more and more. My passion for this field is growing along with my skill because as I get better I can get more of these traits autonomy and mastery impact and even mission. Mission, I am only now, you know missions are common in academia. They are so hard. I have been at this. I have been paying to do computer science for a decade at this point and only now am I starting to pull together what might be a sustainable mission for my academic career. That’s after a decade, working really hard on that. So it’s a lot of patience and a lot of just let me get better, where can I get better, am I pushing my skills forward and you know that’s working for me. And my passion and my love for my work has really grown over the years and I had nothing to do with following some mystical preexisting passion.

Brett McKay: I think it’s awesome. So, I think it’s great advice for our listeners who are making those career decisions, don’t sweat it too much just keep developing that career capital and be patient and things will happen for you if you keep working out, I am not saying it’s going to eventually happen but yeah it did, things will happen if you keep developing that career capital becoming better, you will eventually find work or not find, cultivate work you love.

Cal Newport: It’s absolutely right.

Brett McKay: I love that. I think it is fantastic advice. Well, Cal Newport, it has been a fascinating conversation, before we go where can people find out more about your work?

Cal Newport: You can find out about my books, you can find my blog, you might have a hard time contacting me I don’t use social media and email, but you can certainly buy my book and read my stuff.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Cal Newport, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Cal Newport: All right. Thanks, Brett.

Brett McKay: Our guest today was Cal Newport. Cal is the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. One of my favorite books I have read so far this year. I definitely recommend you go pick it up especially if you are in college or are at the beginning of your career. Even if you are in the middle of your career go pick up a copy you sure are going to get something from it, really great stuff.

You can also check out Cal’s website or Cal’s blog, Again, lots of great information especially about studying and deliberate practice and deep thinking and deep learning, really, really great stuff. So go check it out

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at And again, if you enjoy this free podcast, I would really appreciate if you go to iTunes or Stitcher or whatever it is you used to listen to your podcast give us a review. I don’t care what it is just a review of some sort. And also if you like it, please tell your friends about us that would help us out a lot. So, until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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