Why skills don’t trump passion

Published by Lori Pickert on October 5, 2012 at 11:12 AM

I recently finished reading Cal Newport’s new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

There is a kick-back against “finding your passion” and if you want to understand it, read this book. 

Many years ago, my husband and I watched a 60 Minutes segment about an automobile plant closing in Michigan and the effect on its workers, who had previously been making very nice salaries as union autoworkers.

They focused on a few workers and their post-layoff plans, and one woman they interviewed had settled on her new plan: to open a hot-dog restaurant. Selling only hot dogs — no burgers. They followed her around and asked her questions and the subtext was, “Brace yourself for the train wreck to come.”

Ever since then, our family code for an ill-thought-out plan is “hot-dog restaurant.”

In Newport’s book, the people who chase their passions are all would-be hot-dog restauranteurs. Meanwhile, his advice is to forget about passion and just settle down to acquire serious skills.  Stay where you are; keep doing what you’re doing right now. Be “so good they can’t ignore you.” You’ll build career capital and eventually earn more freedom and autonomy. That is where true career happiness lies, he says.

The problem is, by the end of the book, the examples given all blur together and people’s choices seem terribly similar except for how they are sorted: losers who failed were passion-chasers and winners who succeeded were craftsmen. The only thing that really separates them is the language Newport uses to describe their choices.

Lisa moved from an advertising career to start a yoga studio.

When Feuer left her advertising career to start a yoga studio, not only did she discard her career capital acquired over many years in the marketing industry, but she transitioned into an unrelated field where she had almost no capital. Given yoga’s popularity, a one-month training program places Feuer pretty near the bottom of the skill hierarchy of yoga practitioners, making her a long way from being so good she can’t be ignored. According to career capital theory, she therefore has very little leverage in her yoga-working life. It’s unlikely, therefore, that things will go well for Feuer — which, unfortunately, is exactly what ended up happening.

Giles moved from a successful programming career to pursue “a longstanding interest in filmmaking.”

“It’s not that the money was great … but just that it sounded like a lot of fun — one of Giles’ most important criteria for his working life. … Not long after I met Giles, after he had successfully scratched his Hollywood itch, he once again moved on. A publisher had asked him to write a book, and he had agreed — and why not? It seemed like an interesting thing to do.

“I talked to the recruiter about finding something I liked better, and he said I should be thrilled to have a job.” Giles being Giles, however, he ignored the recruiter, quit his job, and moved back to Santa Fe.

On the surface, both Lisa and Giles chased an interest — but whereas Lisa was described as “enthralled” and her choice as “ill-fated,” Giles’ choices were described as “remarkable” as he searched for his “mission” in life. Newport also made the point that Giles made use of his career capital — he incorporated computer programming into various jobs as he hopped around looking for something “interesting” to do. Lisa, on the other hand, was seen as losing all her career capital by moving from marketing to owning her own business — even though it seems like marketing skills would be an excellent base for a competitive small business. If her yoga business had been a success, that’s how her story would have been interpreted. If you fail, you were chasing passion; if you succeed, you just wanted to keep things interesting and be remarkable. A reviewer on Goodreads taught me the term for this type of convenient reasoning: retrospective coherence.

What does all this have to do with project-based homeschooling?

When educators take full control of curricula and leave kids entirely out of it — no self-directed learning, no long-term projects, no choice — they are building learning around 100% skills.

There are educators who say that project-based learning — or “child-led,” “interest-led,” or “passion-driven” learning — is too heavy on hot-dog restaurant emotion and weak on skills. This is the same argument Newport makes in his book: it’s not that skills trump passion (his subtitle!) but that skills are everything and passion should be entirely discarded.

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.

Keep in mind, it’s okay to do things that seem interesting to you (see Giles above) — just don’t go crazy and feel passionate about it.

Can you teach kids skills without tapping into their interests (or passions)? Sure. That’s how it’s usually done. Does it work well? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

What happens when we couple deep interests (cough — passions — cough) and learning? Are skills thrown out the window? “Skills — who needs skills when I have passion?!” This is how a lot of people view this kind of learning: they think that when you let kids direct their own learning, they’ll be lazy. They won’t challenge themselves. They’ll stop acquiring and practicing real skills.

This is, of course, completely false. In order to do anything you want to do, you need skills. And children who have some say in what they learn are self-motivated; they want skills because they want to meet their own goals.

I heard an educator say the problem with allowing kids to learn through projects is that they won’t acquire any knowledge. “What happens to content coverage? These kids aren’t going to know anything!” As if you could spend months digging deeply into a topic and not acquire knowledge. Or skills. When they hear “interest,” educators like these imagine Newport’s version of passion: a fantasy that floats above your head in a pink dream bubble.

To really learn something, you need both knowledge and skills. You have to gather the knowledge and then you have to work with it. To discard passion (or authentic interest) is to drain the life force from the learner and therefore from the work. Am I going to bring my best efforts to something that holds no interest for me? Am I going to achieve flow? Am I going to strive to challenge myself?

The real issue, in the end, is interests. Teaching works best when you teach students who agree that they really want to learn whatever it is you have to teach. This means making sure that students are preparing to do things they want to do and actually will do. That makes teaching much easier for all involved. The one-size-fits-all curriculum doesn’t work because one size doesn’t fit all. Let detail-oriented people learn detailed kinds of things. Let artistic people learn artistic kinds of things. Let logical people learn logical kinds of things. Everyone would be much happier and all would enjoy learning a lot more if we simply let people be themselves.” — Roger Schank, Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Project-based homeschooling combines interests (or passions) with long-term, deep, complex learning. Learning means knowledge and skills. Doing interesting work that is meaningful to you motivates you to bring your best effort. The difference between kids who manage and direct their own learning and kids doing work that, and I’m quoting something I saw on Pinterest the other day, “doesn’t even require your kids to have ideas” is, to borrow Newport’s word, remarkable.

Newport wanted to write a manifesto (he says so in the book), so he strayed away from the simple message that passion must be coupled with real skills. That is project-based homeschooling. They aren’t pipe dreams if you have the skills to turn them into reality. You aren’t a fool if you know how to fuse what you enjoy doing with what the world needs.

Here’s my takeaway after reading this book: Career advice tomes like this are not written for project-based homeschoolers — or for other homeschoolers/unschoolers who have already had years to deeply explore their interests.

Newport’s book has some good advice for 18-25-year-olds who have been pushed toward achievement their whole lives and who have a non-reality-based, pipe-dreamy idea of what they’d really like to do, which they call their “passion.”

It’s advice for people whose interests have never been connected with their work in any meaningful way.

This advice doesn’t work for kids who are experienced at coupling their interests with real-world experience, knowledge, and skills. These kids have already deeply explored their interests. They already know what it means to get beyond the honeymoon period to the place where real, challenging work is required. They have experienced the deep pleasure of having real skills and doing meaningful work.

These kids have shared what they know with others. They’ve connected with their community. Their experiences have firmly planted them in reality. Their interests aren’t pipe dreams and fantasies — they are gateways to the nexus of “what I like to do,” “what I have to give,” and “what people will pay for.”

Most career advice is for kids who came up through the regular system. It won’t help kids who were educated via an alternate path. These books are aimed at kids who haven’t initiated their own projects, haven’t explored their interests deeply, and haven’t learned how to find their place in the world. A project-based homeschooler is already way ahead of the game. They don’t need to be told to dump their passions and buckle down to sharpen their skills at whatever job they find themselves in after graduation. They already know how to combine interests, knowledge, skills, and hard work to build something the world needs. They’ve already moved on to asking deeper questions about their purpose. They have experience finding their place in the world and figuring out what they can contribute.

Skills don’t trump passion. Skills are what you know how to do. Passion is where you start finding out who you are, what you’re good at, and what the world needs.

People who are in touch with their soul know what they’re supposed to be doing in the world and what their way of contributing to life is, in the same way that people know what music they love and food they enjoy — not just life-sustaining food, but food that has flavor, that makes you feel nourished, even inspired. — Michael Meade

Everyone needs some help learning who they already are. That’s the root of genuine education and the task of real culture. — Michael Meade


Comment by Deirdre on October 5, 2012 at 01:59 PM

A new favorite post of mine:) You nailed it: "for 18-25-year-olds who have been pushed toward achievement their whole lives and who have a non-reality-based, pipe-dreamy idea of what they’d really like to do, which they call their “passion.”

Sadly, there seem to be a lot of them so the book might have a great market, but I hate to see passion getting the bad rep instead of their own lack of experience in seeing anything to fruition.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 5, 2012 at 02:44 PM


thank you, deirdre. ;o)

I hate to see passion getting the bad rep instead of their own lack of experience in seeing anything to fruition.

exactly! this is yet another “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” situation — the grown-up version of “it doesn’t matter what interests you — just buckle down and learn your skills.”

if you don’t have time to explore your interests when you’re a kid .. and you don’t have time to explore your interests in high school or college .. and then you can’t explore them as a young adult because you need to buckle down and build MORE skills (useful ones, this time) .. when DO you get to explore what calls to you? evidently never.

one point i didn’t manage to quash into this XXL post:

PBH prepares kids to tell whether their ideas are viable, how to test their ideas, and how to follow the required steps to meet a goal. if you’re in your 30s and you have no idea how to realistically and competently pursue your ambitions, what the heck kind of education did you have?

Comment by Jenn on December 9, 2012 at 10:17 PM


[if you’re in your 30s and you have no idea how to realistically and competently pursue your ambitions, what the heck kind of education did you have?]

this. So many kids (me included) are sent through an assembly-line education with little time to explore and no chance to find about about career opportunities beyond the usual "secretary, nurse, teacher, police officer" and at 30 don't know how to complete anything as a self-starter.

Comment by TxMom on February 7, 2014 at 12:57 PM

To underscore your comment: "if you’re in your 30s and you have no idea how to realistically and competently pursue your ambitions, what the heck kind of education did you have?"
My daughter has two passions: fashion design and horses. She has spent SO MUCH time studying/developing both. Additionally, over the past couple years, we have talked about pricing options, profit/loss, small business start-ups etc. (She is 10 years old, but these things have meaning to her, so she understands the basics.) We recently discussed how incredibly hard it is to break out as a top haute couture designer and if she was willing to settle for a job in merchandising, etc. and hope the stars aligned for the ultimate job. She is rethinking her plans and deciding vet school may be the best route to get her to her ultimate destination: breeding horses and competing with them in the Olympics :) As said, homeschooling allows her the time to indulge in passions at a young age and figure out before she's 25 - 30 (!) whether she can realistically pursue them or move on to something else. Thanks for the post.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 7, 2014 at 03:46 PM

wonderful! and thank you! :)

Comment by kort on October 5, 2012 at 02:49 PM

hot dog restaurant? in Michigan?

believe it!


Comment by Lori Pickert on October 5, 2012 at 03:54 PM


yeah, i almost addressed the fact that there are, obviously, successful hot-dog restaurants. it was pretty clear, though, that this particular woman had no hot-dog restaurant talents to bring to bear on the situation. she wasn’t going to be able to pull off a yesterdog.

(and now i want to eat there asap!)

Comment by Stacey B on October 5, 2012 at 04:26 PM

Thank you for reading and reviewing the book so I don't have to go anywhere near it. I am so tired of listening to people try to tell other people to stop trying to be amazing, or creative, or passionate. Or for that matter find examples and quotes only to serve their purpose without keeping them in the original context.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 5, 2012 at 07:41 PM


no problem. :)

I am so tired of listening to people try to tell other people to stop trying to be amazing, or creative, or passionate.

twice in the last week i’ve read that it’s important to be remarkable — but that your interests and passions aren’t needed. i don’t know if i believe that you can be truly remarkable without tapping into these things, but even if you can — being “remarkable” in the eyes of other people isn’t as important as being able to find and appreciate what’s truly remarkable in the world. and i’m not talking about a paycheck and a promotion.

Comment by janet on October 7, 2012 at 10:34 AM

"This advice doesn’t work for kids who are experienced at coupling their interests with real-world experience, knowledge, and skills. These kids have already deeply explored their interests. They already know what it means to get beyond the honeymoon period to the place where real, challenging work is required. They have experienced the deep pleasure of having real skills and doing meaningful work."

and these kids already know that failure isn't the end of the world. i'm thinking that if you rely only on skills and fail, you will think you need more skills. and if you have no passion of your own, you will probably always work for someone else who does.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 7, 2012 at 12:58 PM


if you have no passion of your own, you will probably always work for someone else who does.

boom! nailed it.

the idea that you should just randomly apply your efforts to whatever job you happen to have sounds *remarkably* like what they tell you in school. never mind what you’d *like* to do, just focus on the task in front of you, please.

re: failure, see this & tell me what you think —


Comment by janet on October 7, 2012 at 08:25 PM

re: failure -- alfie kohn article

yikes. the type of failure he's addressing is completely different from what i imagine. i'm not talking about demoralizing failure imposed by someone else.

"A second explanation for students’ not rebounding from failure at what they were asked to do is that they weren’t really “asked” to do it — they were told to do it:  deprived of any say about the content or context of the curriculum. People of all ages are more likely to persevere when they have a chance to make decisions about things that affect them."

that last sentence...self-chosen challenges vs. imposed challenges.

"In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure.  (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they’re doing.)"

: ( geez. my guess is that whatever they are doing is school-imposed, externally judged. if it is a true passion of theirs, i don't think they will lose interest. when my son decied he wanted to learn to ride his bike without training wheels he tried over and over until he could do it. it took him fifteen minutes. he didn't feel helpless because he chose to do it.

we need an article about children and their self-imposed challenges. i suspect they do not walk away helpless.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 8, 2012 at 08:31 AM

i thought kohn’s article was so similar to cal newport’s book in that they BOTH assumed a certain setting for all of their conclusions — one where children have no control.

what they’re saying just doesn’t apply to kids who are coming up via a nontraditional path.

Comment by Dixie Darr on October 7, 2012 at 06:57 PM

My reaction to Newport's book was similar. Obviously, one must develop skills, but we are most likely to persist in the work necessary to develop exceptional skills when we are passionate about it. Both skills and passion are necessary, but neither alone is sufficient for success.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 8, 2012 at 08:38 AM

here he is in his own words:

“[A]s with any disruptive idea, it needs to make a splashy entrance. This is why I wrote this book in a manifesto style. I divided the content into four “rules,” each given a deliberately provocative title. I also tried to make this book short and punchy: I want to introduce a new way of looking at the world, but I don’t want to belabor the insights with excessive examples and discussions.”

i feel like he just flat-out says he is being provocative to sell books. should you “follow your passion” blindly, with no money and no experience, and be assured of success? obviously not. but newport’s argument and examples are weak. he’s just trying to sell books by saying the opposite of what is currently the fashionable trend. when you boil it all down and toss the hyperbole, it’s just “develop real skills and build career capital for autonomy.”

the real lesson here is between the lines: how to sell a book with almost no content based on just a title, bucking a trend, and a provocative (flawed) premise.

Comment by annethrallnash on October 8, 2012 at 03:35 PM

Isn't this the argument that produces a million lawyers who don't practice law? They have a lot of skills that they paid a lot of money for, but they get all the way through law school and then realize they have no passion for it and quit. And maybe they wanted to quit in law school, or before, but they'd spent so much time and money getting there they felt they couldn't quit and lose all that "education capital"

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 8, 2012 at 06:46 PM


yes! and i know so many people like this — who got one degree and then went back to school for a second degree because by then 1, they had some say in what they did (their parents were no longer calling the shots) or 2, classes had given them enough experience to realize they didn’t want to do that after all.

instead of saying all “passion” = pipe dreamy fantasy, we should be helping kids have real-world experiences earlier in life, so they can make informed choices up front!

Comment by dawn suzette on October 15, 2012 at 07:45 PM

It is interesting to me that when my kids do stall a bit in the following of their passions, their project work, a few new skills tend to kick-start their drive. While sometimes they just need time to process all they have been learning (oh... my... did I just say LEARNING while following passion!) other times they need help identifying skills they need to move forward. That is all part of this learning process they will take with them through life.
"Skills don't trump passion." I feel they do help drive passion to amazing places.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2012 at 09:30 PM

you have to have skills! :)

Comment by Evelyn Krieger on November 15, 2012 at 02:21 PM

Your rebuttal and analysis is outstanding. I would add that many of the young adults the author is talking about were raised on popular culture and television ideas of instant success and stardom like American Idol. They think they are going to get modeling contracts, recruited for sports teams, and become the next You Tube star. There are so many stories of young (and old) people who followed their passions by doing the work, finding mentors, making sacrifices, and learning what they needed to know. My daughter became a publisher of a girls magazine at age 13. She is now 21 and still at it. The adults told her to start small with a newsletter instead.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 16, 2012 at 10:27 AM


thank you, evelyn — i love how adults told your daughter to set her sights smaller! that seems so typical to me. adults like to tell kids to carve their dreams/ideas/ambitions down to something “more manageable.” i’ve seen this with project work as well — kids have huge ideas and adults set out to whittle them down to size rather than letting the kids figure it out on their own. adults almost always set the bar too low.

your daughter’s story is a perfect example, too, of how you don’t have to sacrifice passion if you start earlier. she obviously has acquired a whole raft of real skills while she worked. thank you so much for sharing her inspiring story!

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