I enjoy singing.
Seriously. Ask my girlfriend. Ask my best friends from college. Ask my co-workers, who witnessed my “abilities” first hand when I led a quartet of copybloggers in the best damn karaoke version of “I Want It That Way” that you’ve ever heard. (Tell me why-ee!)
Which is why it ain’t nothing but a heartache for me that I am a terrible singer.
Granted, all of the aforementioned are nice to me about it. Which I appreciate. They placate me with niceties like, “No, that sounded really good!” Or, “Wow, impressive,” when I hit a note that is literally in every breathing human’s vocal range.
But the truth is that, despite my best efforts in the moment, I’m very poor at carrying a tune. So it would be foolish for me to ever think I could launch a career as a singer.
Yet, secretly, I want to.
But here’s why I won’t …
No joke: I’ve gone so far as to tell people that in another life I believe I’m the lead singer of a rock and roll band. I’ve even looked up what it would cost to take some voice lessons.
And I really feel like I would love and could handle most aspects of the job — interacting with fans, working the stage, giving energetic performances. But then there’s that damn singing part …
Okay, so why am I admitting this to you?
Because you could read all of what I have written and come to the conclusion that singing is a passion of mine — an as-yet unrequited passion, but a passion nonetheless.
You’d be wrong. And so would I if I ever said, “I’m passionate about singing.”
Singing is a pipe dream for me. Which is why I’ve never pursued it, and why I’d surely fail miserably if I ever did.
And understanding the difference between the two — passions and pipe dreams — just may be the ultimate key for long-term fulfillment.
Why I think Cal Newport is wrong
In the June 22nd Primility subscriber-only Sunday newsletter (join here — you get a free wristband too), I mentioned that a reader, Vincent Messina, suggested that Cal Newport would likely not agree with my assertions in this post.
Matching your job to a preexisting passion does not matter, he reveals. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.
I said in the newsletter that I did not agree with Newport, but that I would reserve final judgment until I read his book: So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
I’ve read the book. And I still don’t agree with Newport’s stance.
In fact, I disagree with him even more — but I think in some cases it’s more of a semantic disagreement than a fundamental one. Because as I read through Newport’s book, I kept saying to myself, and writing in the margins, that it seems like he’s using the word “passion” where he really means “pipe dream.”
In going back through my notes, here is what I wrote at the end of what Newport calls “Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion.”
I’ll be open-minded in seeing if our differences are more semantic than real. But you keep arguing that an underlying expectation of the “passion hypothesis” is immediate and sustained happiness. This is false. Any career choice will lead to strife, stress, conflict, doubt. But if the foundation of your job is work or a skill or a subject you are passionate about, that strong emotion is what will carry you through the tough times to reach the mastery you claim is the basis for satisfaction. But the passion came first — then the mastery.
[Quick aside: As you can see, I like to carry on a conversation with the author when I read a book. It’s a relatively new habit for me. My thanks to Demian Farnworth for inspiring me to better absorb books into my bloodstream.]
Now, let me include a line from Newport’s book that illustrates what I was getting at with that end-of-chapter note. On page 19, Newport says (emphasis mine, not his):
Competence and autonomy, for example, are achievable by most people in a wide variety of jobs — assuming they’re willing to put in the hard work required for mastery.“
This assumption is at the heart of his theory, yet he dismisses the role that passion plays in driving someone to “put in the hard work required for mastery.”
I will note here that Robert Greene, in his book Mastery, claims that finding your “Life’s Task” is “the first move toward mastery.” From the intro to Section I on page 19:
The first move toward mastery is always inward — learning who you really are and reconnecting with that innate force. Knowing it with clarity, you will find your way to the proper career path and everything else will fall into place. It is never to late to start this process.
That seems like a pretty clear contradiction — not that Greene is necessarily right, just that his viewpoint illustrates the counter to what Newport is arguing.
And I really struggled to understand what, exactly, Newport was arguing. To me, it seemed like he was indeed arguing for the importance of passion, yet was stubbornly refusing to use the word.
In a statement that floored me, Newport even says this (page 32):
Let me be clear about something: I really don’t care if Jordan Tice loves what he does. I also don’t care why he decided to become a musician or whether he sees guitar playing as his ‘passion.’ … (The fact that Jordan’s parents are both bluegrass musicians, for example, obviously played a big role in his early dedication to guitar.)
Here’s what I wrote in the margins next to this passage: “Troubling.”
First of all, “dedication” is literally a synonym for “passion.” And second, Newport is essentially saying that he doesn’t care about what underlies Tice’s willingness to practice so diligently every day … even though throughout the book Newport cites this notion that people have to “be willing to put in the hard work required for mastery” if they want to succeed and then find their passion.
It all started to make my head spin. This surprised me as someone who subscribes to Study Hacks and appreciates Newport’s work.
But if he was trying to convince me that “following your passion” is flawed advice, he failed. In fact, his arguments proved exactly why passion is so important.
Perhaps Newport just chose his words poorly
Let me be clear about something: I am not recommending that you ignore So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
There are some terrific stories in the book that highlight successful people and why they are successful. And the through-line of the success stories is that there is no substitute for hard work and diligence. You have to work to get so good at your skill that it cannot be ignored.
I agree wholeheartedly.
But Newport dismisses the importance of passion in driving hard work and diligence. I believe it’s the fundamental driver of both. This is why I think Newport simply chose his words poorly.
When he was referring to “passion” he really meant “pipe dream.” He suggests that adherents of the “passion hypothesis” want to believe that they are “a few personality tests away” from identifying their dream job, and that the passion hypothesis is simply an excuse for people to eschew “cubicle jobs” and strike out on their own in search of something easy and comfortable.
Those are pipe dreams.
A personality test might help you identify a range of interests you may have — but you identify true passion by examining your history and your actions, and by listening to your inner self. What makes your heart sing as you’re doing it? What subjects drive you to persevere even when the going gets tough?
And anyone searching for something that is always easy and comfortable is not on a path to mastering anything. They are in search of a pipe dream. No occupation is going to deliver worthwhile rewards in the long term without requiring that you work hard for them.
But Newport describes person after person who is driven by a passion for their subject and a passion to improve. Time and time again Newport uses synonyms for passion — “obsessed” (page 35), “my quest” and “obsessive focus” (page 36), “drive” (page 46), and on and on — yet for some reason refuses to acknowledge passion’s importance in his formula for success.
I’ll give him a break. Because if he’d simply substituted “pipe dream” in for “passion,” and acknowledged that each person’s why is important, then we’d have been on the same page.
So, about that singing career …
Requiem for a pipe dream
I can enjoy singing all that I want.
I can even have flights of fancy where I think about what might be possible if I dedicated myself to becoming a better singer, even at this late stage of my life. I’d surely improve. Heck, why couldn’t I still fulfill that latent dream of making a career out of it?
Because it’s a pipe dream.
Because I only enjoy it. I don’t love it. I’m not passionate about it.
Were I, then it wouldn’t be a latent dream. It would be bursting to get out of me. It would be an “obsessive focus” and I’d be “driven” to pursue it, and I’d persevere through periods of failure and self-doubt.
And I almost certainly would have acted on it already, even just a small step, not just sat around and thought about it — actions, it’s important to note, that would have taken me in the opposite direction of the passion I’m already pursuing with great satisfaction.
This is why understanding the difference between a passion and a pipe dream is so important.
A pipe dream is unlikely to ever happen, and you’ll be in for a whole lot of disappointment if you try to talk yourself into it. (With one caveat, which we’ll get to in a minute.)
You don’t have to talk yourself into your passion. It speaks for you.
Actually, it sings.
But what if you don’t know what you’re passionate about?
This an essential question. It would be unfair for me to ignore it simply because I know what I’m passionate about.
If you don’t, then I would suggest you read through the first section of Mastery by Robert Greene and see if that delivers any inspiration about what you should be doing.
If not, then you just have to start experimenting. I assume you at least have some decent guesses as to what you might be passionate about. Pick one and try it.
- Are you not excited when you wake up?
- When you reach an obstacle, do you lack the motivation to power through it?
- When you reach a fork in the road, are you eager to move in another direction?
If so, then Cal Newport would suggest you’ll never develop that passion. (Or, confoundingly, that you just need to persevere and stay committed to it even though you don’t have the passion that would compel you to do so.)
I would suggest that you didn’t have the passion for it in the first place. You followed a pipe dream, it didn’t become your reality, and you need to cut your losses.
But at least now you know more about yourself, and your next decision will likely be a better one. So stay positive. Keep making educated guesses about your next direction. And eventually, I believe, you’ll find what you’re looking for:
The passion that leads to mastery (otherwise known as achieving of what you love and are capable of) and, ultimately, fulfillment.
What are your passions and pipe dreams?
So tell me:
Do you know what you’re passionate about? If not, do you have any educated guesses?
And have you ever mistaken a pipe dream for a passion, and acted on it? What happened?
Let’s discuss below …
Steve Perry image credit: Michael Ochs Archives