Career Advice that Transformed my Thinking

Writers need career advice too. The problem is that there are too many sources out there that trumpet the same theory—regardless of how many times that theory fails.

How many of us have heard career advice that goes like this?

“Follow your passion and success will follow.”

“Just follow your heart.”

“Your passion will lead you where you need to be.”

“Pursue your dreams first.”

How nice that sounds… but what does it look like in real life?

Often this kind of chuck-everything-to-the-wind career advice leads people with otherwise stable situations to hastily sacrifice their current job and location in order to chase their dream. For many of us creative types, this means moving to L.A. or New York. It means trading a steady source of income for an audition slot. It means aborting whatever skills you were learning at your current job because you think you can make enough money off of a different set of skills—even if those skills aren’t exactly in demand.

“Follow your passion.”

How often does it work out as poetically as they make it sound? Well, there’s a reason we have the term “starving artist.” Not to say that success never happens this way, but those cases tend to be the exception. Although you wouldn’t know it based on how often you hear the mantra.

As a creative type, I can’t count the number of times people have echoed this advice. So when I picked up Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I was in for a shock.

Newport first gives this mantra about passion a name: he calls it “the passion hypothesis.” The hypothesis, as he explains it, is the idea that unlocking your one true passion is the key to finding meaningful work. As soon as you identify what you’re passionate about, all you have to do is chase that dream—even if that means giving everything up in the meantime. Oh yeah, and you’ll be miserable until you acquire that dream job.

Here’s what Newport has to say about this idea:

“The passion hypothesis is not just wrong, it’s also dangerous. 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.”

So Good They Can’t Ignore You, p. 24

Even though I had subscribed to the passion hypothesis for many years, this statement resonated with me deeply.

How often do I question whether my current job is valuable? How often do I assume that every hour spent outside of my creative projects is an hour wasted? How often do I lament the fact that I’m not yet living my “dream?”

The fact is, believing your job satisfaction rides on your ability to achieve that one dream job that satisfies your one true passion is a recipe for frustration when either

  • a) you haven’t gotten that job yet, or
  • b) you landed the job and it’s not as fulfilling as you expected.

While there’s so much more career advice in Newport’s book that I can’t go into now, the main takeaway I want to share with my fellow creators is this:

Rather than suddenly chucking my current position and “going for the gold,” I should learn as many relevant skills as possible from my current job—skills that can take me to the next stepping stone, and eventually toward my dream.

As much as I sometimes want to give everything else up and be a full-time freelance writer, that will not pay bills. What’s more, is it will deprive me of the kind of resume-worthy experiences that might someday impress a gatekeeper in my desired industry. As glamorous as it sounds, the expression “going for the gold” often means entering a competitive environment for which you are unprepared—because your inventory of skills is not yet thoroughly developed. Cal Newport does not suggest you forget about your existing passions and just stay complacent wherever you are now. Instead, he suggests that the best thing you can do to advance your passion is to invest in acquiring relevant skills wherever you are now—skills that will help get you closer to where you want to be. Then, when you strike out for something new, you have fine-tuned skills that will make you an asset to the folks you want to impress.

Think about it: in the world of networking, no one is just out looking to do free favors. Everyone wants something in return—especially gatekeepers. It logically follows that if you have a set of well-developed skills from one of your previous jobs, you have a chance to cash those skills in when you find someone in your field of interest who needs those skills. In other words, you should focus on becoming so good at something that no gatekeeper can ignore you.

I’ll use myself as an example:

Right now I work in marketing/communications.

Where I want to work is in the film industry—specifically as a screenwriter.

So my approach, following Newport’s advice, is to grow my communications skills to the point where someone in the film industry might actually have use for me. And that is exactly what I am working on.

In the meantime, I highly recommend that everyone looking for direction in their careers pick up a copy of So Good they Can’t Ignore You. I was blown away by how practical and relatable the material in this book was, and I’m sure you will be too.

What do you think?

Do you have one specific passion that you’re looking to fulfill in a dream job?

What is that dream job for you? What are you doing now to work towards it?

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7 Comments on “Career Advice that Transformed my Thinking

  1. That’s some great advice! My dream has always been to become a fiction writer, but as it turns out, most people can’t live from just that. So for now, I’ve settled for content writing — it’s still writing, plus, the job forces me to keep honing my skills every day. And of course, it pays the bills!

    • Good for you! That’s so true, that even just writing for more commercial purposes keeps your verbal skills sharp. And it’s encouraging to hear how some of the best actors or novelists started out as lawyers or doctors or something else “normal.” Whatever we do in our current jobs could very well give us subject material for a story!
      Thanks for sharing!

  2. Really great advice! I think the whole going for your dreams and dropping everything else attitude is super toxic and something you see everywhere especially on social media. It’s not always possible for everyone to give up what they are currently doing and they may not have enough experience in the field they really want to be in.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective! I think you especially can attest to the value of gradual work on something, since your blogging empire has been built while still in school, right? You’re living proof that you don’t have to abandon the practical steps of education and normal jobs in order to create something exceptional!

      • Lol I would not call it an empire but yeah I’ve been blogging and doing Instagram since I was a teenager and it’s always been kind of a side thing for me but at the same time it’s also steps in the right direction.

  3. And my comment got an error before it could post… I’m having tech issues all day, so I will just take a deep breath and choose not to smash this computer just yet.

    I’m not in my dream job, but it pays for the roof over my head under which I can write my stories during my off hours. So, in a way, I am still pursuing my dream. Some say that you need to be in all or nothing, though. Meh, like you, even though I like to dream, I choose to keep both of my feet on the ground.

    Your tip regarding learning things that will help you in the future is a good one and I am actively doing exactly that.

    On a flip note, sometimes you discover that what you thought you wanted to do might actually not be “the one” after all. Sometimes I wonder if I wrote for work, would I still enjoy it? Of course there is a difference between being world famous having sold millions of books and doing copy work.

    • So relatable. I’m glad you didn’t smash your computer because then I wouldn’t have gotten to read this. 😉
      Yes, how many people finally do get that dream job and then find out it’s not as rewarding as they’d hoped? Lots, sadly. Part of our satisfaction is definitely in what we do, but another component is why and how we do it– something Cal Newport really digs into in this book. As much as our goal-driven and passion-driven society glorifies career life, no job is going to give us the fulfillment we are ultimately looking for.

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