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