“Work hard” may be far wiser advice to give college grads than “Follow your passion.”

Interesting piece in The New York Times today by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown, about the oft-repeated advice to young people to follow their passions.

In the column, Newport talks about his dilemma in 2004 when, as a Dartmouth College senior, he faced three options, a job offer from Microsoft, an acceptance letter from MIT’s doctoral program and the possibility of becoming a full-time writer. (Clearly, Newport is not the average college grad as his resume will verify. Among this three books, he wrote “How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out).”

He writes in the Times about making his career decision. Please try to read the full piece before commenting. And suggest that your college-age children read it as well. Also, please note the lines that I emboldened as they speak to the reasons many teachers cite for leaving the profession.

For many of my peers, this decision would have been fraught with anxiety. Growing up, we were told by guidance counselors, career advice books, the news media and others to “follow our passion.” This advice assumes that we all have a pre-existing passion waiting to be discovered. If we have the courage to discover this calling and to match it to our livelihood, the thinking goes, we’ll end up happy. If we lack this courage, we’ll end up bored and unfulfilled — or, worse, in law school.

To a small group of people, this advice makes sense, because they have a clear passion. 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.

As I considered my options during my senior year of college, I knew all about this Cult of Passion and its demands. But I chose to ignore it. The alternative career philosophy that drove me is based on this simple premise: The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job’s specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world. Decades of research on workplace motivation back this up. (Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” offers a nice summary of this literature.)

These traits can be found in many jobs, but they have to be earned. Building valuable skills is hard and takes time. For someone in a new position, the right question is not, “What is this job offering me?” but, instead, “What am I offering this job?”

Returning to my story, I decided after only minimal deliberation to go to M.I.T.  Had I subscribed to the “follow our passion” orthodoxy, I probably would have left during those first years, worried that I didn’t feel love for my work every day. But I knew that my sense of fulfillment would grow over time, as I became better at my job. So I worked hard, and, as my competence grew, so did my engagement.

The most important lesson I can draw from my experience is that this love has nothing to do with figuring out at an early age that I was meant to be a professor. There’s nothing special about my choosing this particular path. What mattered is what I did once I made my choice.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

62 comments Add your comment


October 3rd, 2012
11:19 am

I think most of the bloggers on here are living in the past. Lou’s experience is more typical of today’s recent grads. Can’t get a job with fast food, Walmart, etc. because they’ll leave as soon as something better comes along. (Can you imagine how demoralizing it is to be rejected by McDonald’s and Walmart? Jeesh!) Can’t get hired for a legitimate position because they don’t have experience. Telling a grad to get an internship is a joke. Internships are reserved for current students, not grads. Most of the advice given on this blog may have worked 10-15-25 years ago, but today’s economy and today’s employers are different. Maybe college isn’t a jobs training program but employers don’t want to train you either, they want someone already trained by somebody else.Today’s grads really are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I feel for them.

Just A Teacher

October 3rd, 2012
11:41 am

Get your foot in the door any way you can. I spent a semester right out of college substitute teaching for 3 school systems. Sub pay is substandard, but the experience helped me land a teaching position eventually.


October 3rd, 2012
11:47 am

“Telling a grad to get an internship is a joke. Internships are reserved for current students, not grads.”

Depends on the company. My company has had college seniors, college graduates, and grad students as interns.


October 3rd, 2012
11:59 am

@redweather & whirled peas. I am so sorry you found it so hard to read what I said. I now realize that without grammar all life is lost. All understanding is gone and nothing in the world matters. Thank you for showing me the light. (Seriously, I do apologize for the bad grammar).


October 3rd, 2012
1:03 pm

A few comments/questions here.

I think Catherine is absolutely right, except that I would say that any advice about today’s job-market that’s from pre-2008 is outdated.

Lee, has your company had those interns who were graduates since 2008?

Lou, I think that redweather and Whirled Peas are right. Your earlier ungrammatical posts suggested that perhaps the reason why you couldn’t land any of those “kiddie jobs” was staring you in the face. Using grammatical constructions like that even on a blog suggests to the reader–rightly or wrongly– that perhaps you didn’t get an adequate high school education, never mind a college one.


October 3rd, 2012
1:42 pm

I agree that some of the advise (mine included) would have worked better in the past. However, I have also seen first hand how personality and determination can go far in helping land a job. I know people who sit home all day submitting applications via the internet and complain that they have applied for hundreds of jobs. Well of course, those applications are getting lost in cyber space. I know others (college and post college students) who seem to be able to land a job at the drop of a hat. The difference I’ve seen is the kids/young adults with extremely outgoing and friendly personalities just seem to naturally put themselves out there. I don’t know the answer for those who are generally introverted. Being very reserved myself I could have never “sold” myself in the job market had I needed to. Still I would encourage others to do everything you can to get your name out there. Don’t just apply for jobs, mention to everyone, everywhere that you are looking for a job. Network in person, on social media etc..

Just A Teacher

October 3rd, 2012
2:17 pm

I would also recommend that you refuse to take no for an answer. Several years ago, when I first moved to Georgia, I wanted to work in a certain factory. I turned in an application and was told they were not hiring at that time. I read the HR person’s name tag when he was telling me that. I called him personally the next morning at 8:15 and asked to update my application. I did that every day for 10 days. On the 10th day, he told me that they were hiring some entry level employees and asked if i could report for first shift the next day. I worked there for nearly 4 years.

Truth in Moderation

October 3rd, 2012
2:27 pm

A key to getting a future full-time job is getting a part-time one in high school. Home schoolers have a definite advantage because they can work more flexible hours and they aren’t limited to summers and holidays. Many will continue their part-time job through college while living at home. This way they graduate with little debt and already have work experience. GSMST has required internships for Juniors and Seniors. Many colleges, including Georgia Tech, have co-op programs where the student graduates with job experience and perhaps an offer for a full-time job. Unless you are looking for a sports scholarship, an after school job might be a better time investment.


October 3rd, 2012
3:46 pm

I think it’s important to note that Mr. Newport isn’t saying don’t follow your passions, he’s saying we place to much emphasis on these passions and it can make decisions more difficult then they need to be for kids these days. I grew up with a mother who always knew she wanted to be a nurse and a father who always knew he wanted to be a pilot, and they did because that was what they wanted. I, on the other hand, had no clue what I wanted to do with my life and drifted for a long time. I now have by bachelors, am currently in an unpaid internship, and working on my masters. Finding a job is proving difficult, but I’m not going to be picky. I know what I want to do, I want to be an auditor, but I am willing take any job in the accounting field and work hard at it. I may not love it, but it will be a job and it will give me the experience I need so that one day I can get the job that I really want.
As someone who didn’t have a “passion” so to speak, I appreciate this article. There are a lot of people like me that don’t quite know what they want to do, and I think this article is really speaking to them. Work hard and chose the path that keeps moving you forward and eventual you will find your place, even if it takes a while.

Ole Guy

October 4th, 2012
5:17 pm

Just exactly what is…passion? To be sure, we all have our “would like to do” list, as well as our “this is what I always wanted to do” list. There’s a third type of…passion…if you will. It’s a passion borne of discovery; borne of finding challenge and opportunity where one might least expect. In short, this generation would be wise to learn to adapt to their “offerings” in life; make your own “parachute”, or be prepared to hit the ground…hard. It’s all up to you, young scholar.


October 5th, 2012
10:22 am

For those of you harping on proper grammar, lay off of Lou. As is common among the younger generations today, Lou is using informal grammar in an informal setting (this blog). I am pretty sure that he expresses himself in a more correct fashion when the circumstances warrant. Most of your more intelligent youngsters have figured out which type of communication to use when.


October 5th, 2012
3:25 pm

Three of us bloggers read Lou’s 5 posts and had the same thought: uh, oh. Better say something. His posts show more than “informal grammar.”

He states that he’s sent out 100+ resumes (with letters of application, I presume) and hasn’t gotten a nibble. I suggest he ask someone to check the resume and letter to be sure everything is absolutely perfect: no typos, colloquialisms, or lazy grammar.