“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 2nd, 2012
12:42 pm

But it seems to me that he probably had a passion for computer science out of high school, and that he did follow his passion into computer science.

I don’t take the “Follow Your Passion” philosophy to mean change jobs at a whim. I take it to mean that if you are more interested in math and science than literature, to pursue a career in science or engineering. It should not dictate any immediate decisions, rather a general direction.

No matter what path you start on, you should work hard.


October 2nd, 2012
12:55 pm

I think this advice is spot on. I never found the follow your passion advice particularly useful or practical. One may have a passion for books or tea, but running a bookstore or tea shop requires a very specific skill set that most people don’t possess. I believe the point is to do what your good at, but the paradox is that it takes a while to get good enough at something to really enjoy doing it. Some things I would never enjoy doing because they do not match my personality. I am far too introverted to ever make a good salesman although this is a skill set that one can develop to a certain degree. The best career advice is likely a combination of do what you are and do what you are good at.

I read Cal Newport’s book “How to be a High School Superstar” and am looking forward to reading his new book “So Good That They Can’t Ignore You.” He is truly an out-of-the box thinker.

Mortimer Collins

October 2nd, 2012
1:01 pm

You mean we can t all be movie stars, rock Gods, dancers, ball players? Wow.
Seems common sense just isnt all that common, these days.

Mortimer Collins

October 2nd, 2012
1:03 pm

Emilia Earhardt followed her passion strait to the bottom of the Pacific.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

October 2nd, 2012
1:28 pm

Work wisely. Of course, an essential element in wise working is WORKING HARD, not hardly working.

bootney farnsworth

October 2nd, 2012
1:44 pm

pursue your passion, but have a choice behind door number 2 – just in case.


October 2nd, 2012
1:57 pm

sorry but i thought that article was dumb. He DID follow his passion. In his article he states how he always knew from childhood that he wanted to be a professor and he is doing something he loves. Which is what everyone who follows their passion wants to do, be in love with thier job. He can still write books while being a professor AND if he truly wanted he would have taken the job.
I too am following my passion by going back to school and getting my MAT in School Library Media. Books and school…I can’t be happier. Following your passion to me works best is working with your strengths in a field that you can get a salary. I am always going to be a liberal arts kid so I am being taking my strengths (working with children & love of books) and making a salary of out it. (Not everyone is cut out for STEM majors). I figure with the new Amendment that seems destined to pass all these new charter schools that are going to be made are going to need school librarians. :)


October 2nd, 2012
2:00 pm

oh yeah and working hard is just common sense unless your super rich or win the lottery unless you work hard no matter your passion you really won’t go anywhere.

John Konop

October 2nd, 2012
2:03 pm

So true……………

………..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………


October 2nd, 2012
2:14 pm

Morty, Ameila is believed to have landed on an island in the Pacific and starved to death. She turned north instead of south and ran out of fuel.

William Casey

October 2nd, 2012
2:25 pm

Whenever asked (and sometimes when I’m not) I tell “follow my passion” youngsters: don’t confuse liking something with being willing and ABLE to do the jobs associated with it. Most jobs require preparation of some sort.

Sometimes the “follow your passion” path gets even more complicated as it did for me: I had TWO passions, history and basketball. I wanted BOTH. This resulted in compromise for me. I had to teach and coach at the high school level rather than in college as I wanted. Eventually it worked out as I got to teach A.P. which is close to college. I had to earn that, though. I don’t regret my compromise. Who gets paid to do TWO hobbies? LOL

Just Sayin.....

October 2nd, 2012
2:26 pm

My advice: find something you like to do and that pays a decent wage. There is no sense falling in love with a minimum wage job, or in taking a 6 figure job that you absolutely hate.

Mortimer Collins

October 2nd, 2012
2:31 pm

“oh yeah and working hard is just common sense unless your super rich or win the lottery unless you work hard no matter your passion you really won’t go anywhere.”

And with that attitude you are correct.

As one of my teachers so often stated…Your attitude determines your altitude.

Inman Parker

October 2nd, 2012
2:37 pm

I have had two careers in two widely different fields, neither of which would have held any interest for me whatsoever when I began college. My first career was suggested to me by my parents, and being a dutiful son I followed their advice into an eighteen year career that I hated. So, after much prodding from my wife, who knew I hated doing what I was doing, I changed careers in my late thirties. But had you suggested to me when I was 21 that I do what I am now doing, I would have laughed. The lesson to be learned by many people is that you DON’T have to be stuck in a career you do not like. The days when a person went to work for a company and stayed there until retirement are over.

Hillbilly D

October 2nd, 2012
2:49 pm

Just Sayin @ 2:27

That’s about the best, common sense approach. It’s a decision that everybody has to make for themselves and life has a way of changing the best laid plans. There’s no “one size fits all”. You also have to factor in that some folks need more money to “get along”, than others. That needs to go into the decision, too. If a person needs a lot of “toys”, they’re going to have to focus more on the money side of the equation than those who don’t.

Just saying.....

October 2nd, 2012
3:26 pm

Following your passion? Rather than plan for a viable career (or just employment)? Like what, poetry, snorkeling, kick-boxing? Bogus for sure. 99% of people work so they CAN pursue their passion–and very few ‘life passions’ lend themselves to meaningful employment. Kids need to understand they can be happy earning a living–You are what you are, NOT what you do. Pick a career and be good at it. Pursue your passion after hours.


October 2nd, 2012
3:26 pm

I grew poor. My passion was never to be poor again. I went to business school to be a buyer, allowing me to do world travel and at the same time make great money. Ended up in law school through dumb luck, but law school proved just the right thing to stimulate my intellectual curiosity and I ended up pursuing a great career in the law for the rest of my working life, and loving every minute of the law. (Not to say, however, that some of the people you have to work with, or the environments you are placed in are always going to be perfect). BTW: I never was poor again.

Just saying, Part II

October 2nd, 2012
3:28 pm

Sorry, Just Sayin…. Didn’t see your handle before I chose mine. Just saying….


October 2nd, 2012
4:16 pm

My passion is following me, and so far I have refused to look back at it. I know it is back there though.


October 2nd, 2012
5:50 pm

Did the unemployed follow their passions during the Great Depression, or did they take any job offered? The youth of today are lazy and spoiled. I just read a biography of a 19 year old radio operator flying in B-17’s over Germany in 1943-44, no roof over the radio station, temps of 50 below, 170 mph winds, and they still had to do their jobs! Life expectancy was 11 missions, but 25 missions were required before one could go home. The author left college to enlist in 1942, was told he would go to OCS, but because he could understand and send code, he was diverted to bombers, against his will.


October 2nd, 2012
6:01 pm

My passion was being a rock drummer. I became an engineer. Still, I’m very glad some people did follow their passions and become rock drummers, comedians, artists, environmentalists, etc.

Another Comment

October 2nd, 2012
6:15 pm

I have told my daughter, she can only expect financial support for her college degree if it is for a career that has a demand and a payback for the degree. Otherwise, she will need to find to a husband to pay for her degree first.

Sports Agent is one of her dreams. I told her you need a business degree and law school. Even with that it will be a long tough hall for a female. So your best chance is to find your self a player that is capable of going Pro in College. Be is agent, and then add other players. I believe the Braves had a Picture whose wife did this. She thought I was being mean. I told her I was being realistic.

mountain man

October 2nd, 2012
6:18 pm

“I believe the Braves had a Picture whose wife did this.”

Picture of what? The picture was married!!!


October 2nd, 2012
6:25 pm

Dude the youth of the day can’t fight ppl with more years of experience than we have been alive on this planet…i have sent 100+ resumes, bin to 10+ job fairs, and i have yet to even get an interview. I was always told i needed more experience or no response at all. Also, i refuse to go and get blown up in Afghanistan just so ppl like u won’t call me lazy. This isn’t just me…most of my friends who also graduated with me are in the same situation. I would love to have a job and actually get the hell outa my house and into something of my own, but hard to do that when even Wal-Mart said no. Pretty much everyone i know is going back to school to get another degree and more debt. Shit i wouldn’t even mind workin in a factory like they did during WW2, BUT all those factories done shipped to China.


October 2nd, 2012
6:33 pm

@Solutions – so bc the kids that graduated between 2008-2010 have the worst off we’re lazy & spoiled??? Im confused after sending out 100+ resumes, going to 10+ job fairs, you would think i would at least get an interview. I was told on the ONLY interview i have gotten in 3 years that i needed more experience…how am i to get that?? The experience fairy? Like many other kids, i am now in grad school going into a really specific field in hopes that this field has jobs in it. I would love to get out in the world and not live at home. I can’t even get the kiddie jobs (fast food, retail, Target/Wal-Mart). We’re not lazy we just can’t work in factories anymore cuz they all went to China.


October 2nd, 2012
6:58 pm

Lou – You start at the bottom, even if it is sweep out a fast food place, work your way up, show them what you can do.

Poor Boy from Alabama

October 2nd, 2012
7:08 pm

There’s an old proverb that sums things up nicely: “A vision without a plan is just a dream. A plan without a dream is just drudgery. But a vision with a plan can change the world”

It’s important for students to use both their heads and their hearts when the costs of an undergraduate education can exceed $250,000 at many colleges and universities. Too few parents and faculty advisers are helping young people work their way through these issues at a time when the stakes are so high.

It’s one thing to be a debt-free starving artist. You life may not be full of material riches, but you can probably make a go of it. It’s quite another to be a starving artist with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of student loans hanging over your head. In this case, your life is going to be difficult and whatever passion you initially had will be crushed by the burdens of debt.


October 2nd, 2012
7:20 pm

@Lou, one suggestion – look into Intern positions. I would guess that 9 of 10 of new hires in my department were current or former interns. It’s a good way to get experience and more importantly, name/face recognition. I’ve been on selection committees and every resume from one of our interns got put on the short stack.

Old timer

October 2nd, 2012
8:14 pm

I too told a daughter that a dance major was not a good choice…..15 years later, a degree in marketing…she is teaching dance as a part time job and markets a home healthcare group for money…at least she has good insurance.

Truth in Moderation

October 2nd, 2012
8:16 pm

I think Marva Collins would have fun editing/spell checking this blog…..
She defines “passion” as well as hard work and dedication!


October 2nd, 2012
8:19 pm

@Lee have been an intern, but when I was interning nobody was hiring (height of recession ‘09-’10). Most of the places when i wanted to apply required interns to be students and at the time i wasn’t. Now im just waiting until January to move on campus (currently takin classes online)


October 2nd, 2012
8:24 pm

@Solutions…i have tried to start out at the bottom…apparently i am too overqualified even though i applied. I am too overqualified for jobs that usually high schoolers have and not qualified enough for a job for someone with 5+ years of experience. I am between a rock and a hard place.


October 2nd, 2012
8:28 pm

Passion means suffering. When you follow you passion you are pursuing a destination you are willing to suffer to reach. Passion has been dumbed down to mean excitement or interest. When you area really following a passion, you are of course willing to work hard and do without to achieve the goal. Most people just want work to be easy.

Nice try.

Hillbilly D

October 2nd, 2012
10:00 pm

So your best chance is to find your self a player that is capable of going Pro in College. Be is agent, and then add other players.

Isn’t making a deal with a player still in college a violation of NCAA rules? Just asking.

Mark Smith

October 3rd, 2012
4:53 am

Follow your passion. If you don’t, you will be at worst miserable, or at least bored with life. That is no way to live. If you get up in the morning with a desire to go to work, you are living your life instead of biding your time waiting for a paycheck.

another ole fashioned

October 3rd, 2012
5:00 am

Passion, often leads to poor choices! I’ve worked with college students for years. College isn’t job training, but it is life training. My experience is that young people must learn by “doing”. Years ago by 16 almost every young person had a part-time job in addition to there chores at home. Unfortunately, much of this generation did neither as youth, followed their passion, went to college (on someone else’s dime) and now feel entitled to a job.

Internships and co-ops work. Over the 90% of the students I’ve advised that have done internships had jobs when they graduated from college.

The old saying that one can get a job if they have a job is true. It is also true about internships. Get one.


October 3rd, 2012
6:28 am

@Lou, get in the habit of expressing yourself in standard English.


October 3rd, 2012
7:09 am

go to trade school and get into a union

Whirled Peas

October 3rd, 2012
7:22 am

Correct, redweather. Lou, having done some hiring for The Big Phone Co., I would not hire someone who could not write a grammatically correct sentence for any job where one would need to express himself/herself in writing. Many of Georgia’s schools do a poor job with grammar. Perhaps you should consider taking a course at some community college. Or else go to the library and get a copy of “Elements of Syle” by Strunk and White. Written in 1918, it remains unbeatable in its simplicity.


October 3rd, 2012
8:10 am

I worked in a number of corporate offices for many long years. Not ONCE did I ever hear anyone, including myself, ever say they loved their job or had a “passion” for their work. However, “I hate my job”, “I hate this place” and “I hate my boss” were heard many times over the years.

The brutal truth is that most of us work because we have to, don’t love or even like our work, and only a lucky few have a “calling” and a “passion” and actually enjoy their working life.


October 3rd, 2012
8:21 am

Education expands opportunities. The more you have, the greater the diversity of opportunities to choose from. Dr. Newport chose wisely. Too many people want to “follow their passion” and expect to make 6 figures doing it. While it might happen once in a Blue Moon, it is certainly not the norm. Hard work is the engine to success. Anything worth having in life will require an investment, either time, money, education, or a combination of the three. Otherwise everyone would have it…and then it wouldn’t be worth anything.


October 3rd, 2012
8:22 am

I thought working hard was a given..oh wait..I forgot, this is the U.S. Nevermind.


October 3rd, 2012
8:28 am

My oldest is a music major and I encourage her to follow her passion. She has no interest in teaching. Good for her. Some people question why I don’t tell her to major in business. Because she loves what she does and she’s already making money at it. For some people, you are born with your passion. It almost defines you. She is one of those people. Again, good for her.

Good article. While I never planned on being a teacher, I get to teach my passion and still do it on the side.


October 3rd, 2012
8:47 am

I know a secretary who works for the state. She loves her job and is awesome at it. She once told me. “Find a job you like and you will never work a day in your life”. I totally agree. I have days that I hate my job but most of the time I love it and it doesn’t feel like work. However, I put a lot of time and energy into getting there.
When I got out of college I took a job with my agency as a temp worker. It paid 5.50 an hour in 1994. I could have refused to work for that amount of money and could have taken the attitude that I had a college degree and deserved more but I took the job knowing it would open more doors and it did. A lot of hard work and a little bit of luck and I ended up doing a job I love. IMO you work hard first and then things seem to fall into place and you can find your way to being successful and doing something you love.
I feel for people who are miserable in jobs their whole lives. I couldn’t survive like that. But then I think, I’ve pretty much liked every job I’ve ever had so how much does it have to do with the job and how much is about attitude. “Happiness is not getting what you want it’s wanting what you’ve got”.


October 3rd, 2012
9:03 am

I thought college graduates wanted a position and not a job! I dont know many college graduates that work hard but some do stay on the job for long hours.


October 3rd, 2012
9:09 am

Seems to me that “passion” should be finding what skills you’re good at and make you happy to use, not to pick one job title. Most skills are transferable to many jobs. And jobs that don’t exist now may be widespread in twenty years (how many 1985 graduates set out to become web developers?).

I think having early job experiences to start narrowing down what you do best, and like best, is really important – high school onward. Even fast food or retail jobs help toward that. Young adults try out work styles, work environments, skills, communication, etc. Parents who push only academics for their kids until they leave college are leaving big holes in their development. Creating a well functioning adult doesn’t happen only in classrooms.


October 3rd, 2012
9:21 am

Here’s the best advice to give a budding college student…
1. Life can kick your arse, I can barely remember when it wasn’t kicking mine.
2. Get a degree in a marketable skill, you can always pursue other interests outside of work. You need to be able to earn a living.
3. If you think you are one in a million, that means there are 6,000 other people just like you on the planet. (6B population, divded by 1M = 6K).


October 3rd, 2012
9:24 am

Solutions: What is the title of that biography? I’d like to read it, as my father was a B-17 ball turret gunner (and yes, he made it back after 25 missions.)

Truth in Moderation

October 3rd, 2012
9:30 am

Creating your own job is the ultimate in following your passion and is guaranteed to require hard work to get there. I have been blessed to do this twice. I agree that home chores and part time jobs in high school are invaluable training for future employment.


October 3rd, 2012
10:31 am

My take-away from this? “If you like your job most (not all) days, you’re probably in the right job. If you don’t like your job most days, you probably need to find another line of work, even if you’re ‘building mastery’ during those unlikable days.” One could simply use this as advocacy for internship-based education to “try out” a job in a meaningful sense.

“But what if someone doesn’t like their job at first because they’re not good at it, but they’ll like it once they are?” Okay, let’s just create an arbitrary time limit to differentiate between “bad days because someone hasn’t mastered their job skills” and “bad days because they really don’t like their job no matter how good at it they are”. Including the internship, let’s make it two years. Done. You’re welcome, teachers and guidance counselors.