Alumnus stresses skills over passion
By Stephanie Mc Feeters, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, October 11, 2012
Students should disregard advice to follow their passions and instead focus on developing a specific set of skills in order to have successful careers, according to Cal Newport ’04, author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work you Love.” Developing a sense of autonomy, mastery, competence and impact in one’s job produces career satisfaction, Newport said. While common career advice suggests that you should follow your passion, there is no evidence that matching one’s interest to an occupation leads to fulfillment, according to Newport.
“It has nothing to do with, ‘Oh I was interested in this when I was 19,’” he said.
Newport gained national attention recently when he wrote a Sept. 29 opinion column for The New York Times.
Instead, building a gratifying career involves developing “rare and valuable skills” and becoming accomplished at one’s job, he said, citing the examples of a computer programmer mastering a valuable type of database design and a farmer excelling at organic vegetable horticulture.
Additionally, the advice to pursue personal interests is irrelevant to many people who do not have passions on which they can base careers, he said.
Students, alumni and staff at the College expressed mixed views on the role of passion in career choice and the source of career satisfaction.
Personality fit, cultural fit, geographic location, the reputation of the potential employer and potential for growth are factors that many Dartmouth students consider when conducting a job search, according to Acting Co-Director of Career Services Monica Wilson.
As a lawyer, Chad Silverman ’02 said he believes passion is crucial for career satisfaction. The high burnout rate in his line of work is largely due to the fact that many people choose to go to law school without a clear motivation for pursuing a career in law, he said.
“If you don’t start out with that, you’re setting yourself up for an unfulfilling career,” Silverman said.
While developing specific skills may help graduates find employment in today’s tough job market, skills need to be coupled with an interest in the field, Silverman said.
“People who maximize their potential, in my experience, love what they do,” Silverman said. “For them it’s not work, it’s something they enjoy. They’re able to work harder and longer at it because they love it.”
Justine Cormier ’06 said she believes that job satisfaction is linked strongly to individual attitude and perception.
“People put too much focus on their external circumstances,” she said. “You’re not going to love your job every single day. I think how happy someone is is much more a function of the type of person they are.”
Finding one’s passion is not always a straightforward process, and advice to pursue it in a career search can be stressful for those who are ambivalent, Cormier said. Cormier, who is currently a medical student, said she also considered pursuing art or theater.
“I think I could be equally happy doing lots of different things,” she said.
BreAnna Houss ’13 said friends and family have warned her not to become an art major or a social worker due to a belief that these fields are not profitable. It is important to choose a major that provides practical skills, Houss said.
“I have seen the consequences of someone blindly following their passions,” Houss said.
Newport wrote his book during a time of personal transition in order to determine why some people love what they do for a living when many others do not, he said. The book draws on interviews with numerous satisfied professionals.
Newport is the author of three other advice books. He said that his first — “How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students” — encourages students to cultivate methodical study habits and takes the form of a “no-nonsense” student advice book modeled after business advice books.
After quitting crew his sophomore year, Newport began focusing on his major courses and writing for the opinion section of The Dartmouth and the Jack-o-Lantern, he said. The intersection of his studies and his extracurriculars served as a catalyst for his writing career, and Newport was inspired to write his first book upon realizing that his experience was more systematic and successful than those of many other students.
“You see on a Sunday night hordes in Berry and they have the hoodies on and you know they’re going to be there all night,” he said. “You don’t have to do that.”
Newport’s other books include “How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out)” and “How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less.”