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Four rules to cultivate your career passion

Special to The Globe and Mail

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

By Cal Newport

(Business Plus, 273 pages, $28.99)

One of the most common bits of career advice is to follow your passion. Career coaches repeat it endlessly, even though for many of us it can be discomfiting. After all, there aren’t enough jobs in sports management for the many kids with a passion for sports or in fashion design for those who love that field – and even 14-year-olds know that.

But what are those 14-year-olds – and 44-year-olds unhappy in a job – to do when they aren’t quite sure what their career passion is, or how to turn it into a financially acceptable as well as passionately liberating job?

Cal Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University and a provocative blogger at the Study Hacks website, argues that the notion you should follow your own passion is bunk.

He notes that Steve Jobs urged Stanford University graduates in a celebrated 2005 convocation address to follow their passion, but at their age he did the opposite. The late Apple co-founder didn’t study business or electronics in university, but instead probed Western history, dance, and Eastern mysticism – his passions, but not obvious career material. In time his path of discovery led to business and electronics, and he could be passionate about that.

“Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion,” Mr. Newport writes in So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

So he offers four career guidelines:

1. Realize career passion is rare

Feeling passion about a career is uncommon, Mr. Newport says. He cites a study by University of Quebec psychologist Robert Vallerand that found the top five passions of university students were dance, hockey, skiing, reading, and swimming, none of which point to careers for most people. Indeed, less that 4 per cent of the sample identified any passions related to work or education; most were hobbies. “How can we follow our passions if we don’t have any relevant passions to follow?” Mr. Newport wonders.

Passion is also dangerous, he argues: “Telling someone to ‘follow their passion’ is not just an act of innocent optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.”

2. Become a craftsman

Instead, in his second rule, he tells you to develop a skill, becoming a craftsman at something, until you are so good you can’t be ignored. He contrasts the craftsmen mindset, where the focus is on what value you’re producing in your job, with the passion mindset, where the focus is on what value the job offers you.

“There’s something liberating about the craftsman mindset: It asks you to leave behind self-centred concerns about whether your job is ‘just right,’ and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great job, it argues; you need to earn it – and the process won’t be easy,” Mr. Newport advises.

The best work tends to be rare and valuable. So to secure it, you need exceptional skills – what he calls career capital. By focusing relentless on building your skills through deliberate practice, stretching yourself and improving continually, you will become so good those jobs can be attained.

He notes that musicians, athletes and chess players know all about deliberate practice. They don’t simply play, they hone their skills. Once you develop this craftsman approach, he argues, the passion will follow. But you must ensure you don’t squander it or give up before it’s fully flowing.

3. Seek the elixir of control

He notes that people who love what they do seek control over their careers and – here’s his third rule – turn down a promotion when it leads away from what they now cherish and have mastery at. He calls control the dream-job elixir: “Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfilment.”

He also warns of two control traps. The first is to pursue more control in your working life before you have built up the career capital in exchange to offer your bosses or customers. (Example: Someone who quits university and keeps switching freelance career paths so quickly that he never becomes good enough to be in demand.) The second control trap is that once you have enough skills to acquire more control in your working life, your employer will fight your attempts for more autonomy.

4. Develop a mission

His fourth rule is that once you have the skills and control, develop a mission in what he calls the “adjacent possible” – the region just beyond the current cutting edge – where you can be remarkable and highly sought. He urges you to take small steps to accomplish this. Think small, act big.

The book is neatly framed, with Mr. Newport, as guide, taking you through his own career story and that of others, drawing lessons, relating it to research, and stitching it into the four rules. It’s a strong book, offering another slant on the notion of career passion.

Postscript

A variety of leaders and academics offer thoughts about meeting the corporate governance issues of today’s world in The Future of Boards (Harvard Business School Press, 193 pages, $35), edited by Harvard Professor Jay Lorsch.

Entrepreneur Keith Cameron Smith highlights the essential characteristics for success in The Top 10 Distinctions Between Entrepreneurs and Employees (Ballantine, 118 pages, $18).

Professional speaker Lenny Laskowski offers what he claims to be a stress-free approach to public speaking in Painless Presentations (John Wiley, 197 pages, $23.95).

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter