Cal Newport

The Skills to Pay the Bills

Proficiency—not passion—is the key for young workers at the start of their careers.

by Kate Pavao, January 2012

Millennial workers trying to follow their passions may be walking into disappointment, says Dr. Cal Newport, author of the blog Study Hacks: Decoding Patters of Success and the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Newport, who is 30 years old, argues it’s exactly because his generation grew up with the instruction to follow their passions that so many young employees have unexpected expectations of their career—and have become disappointed workers. In his book, he points to a 2010 study that showed 64 percent of young workers actively unhappy at work, the worst score ever measured for any age group in the survey’s 20-year history.

“We need a more complicated conversation about what really is involved in building a career that you’re passionate about,” he tells Profit. His advice to Millennial workers? Developing valuable skills is the true key to finding fulfilling work. Here, Newport explains strategies to help managers work better with a new generation of workers, and how to use his research to drive innovation throughout their companies.

Profit: What do you want Millennial workers to understand about work?

Newport: I want Millennials to think about passion as something you cultivate over time, something that you discover. Passion is not something that you follow, passion is something that follows you as you become really good at things rare and valuable and use those skills as leverage to take control of your career.

What you do for a living is much less important than you think. What leads people to love what they do are more general things—like having a sense of autonomy, a sense of mastery, a sense of impact in the world, a sense of creativity and connections with people. You can build these traits in any number of different fields. So really the pressure is on how you work, not what work you choose.

Profit: How do they know if they are in a dead end job or on the wrong path?

Newport: There are wrong paths, but the good news is there are only a few you have to be worried about. It’s going to be almost impossible for you to build a passionate career when you don’t like the people you’re working with. Or if the work itself is against any sort of deeply held value. And, finally, if it’s a rigid organization where you’re not going to be able to buy yourself more control or autonomy no matter how good you are.

Profit: How can managers and other mentors prepare Millennials?

Newport: From a management point of view, what seems to be useful is clarity. The Millennials are a pretty ambitious bunch, but they are not necessarily clear on how to succeed. So it’s helpful if you can sit down and say, “Let me draw you a path of how you can end up really in charge of something, engaged in something, having autonomy.” Tell them how long it will take, what milestones they need to reach along the way, and how they can distinguish themselves.

What you’re doing is replacing one paradigm — you have to match your work to your passion — with a new way of thinking: You have to be good at something and leverage that. When they understand the reality, they have something they can put their energy into.

Also, workers need feedback so they can develop rare and valuable skills. It’s not just enough to for them to show up and work each day. If they do that, they’ll hit a plateau. Workers need to stretch the skill they are trying to build up and this almost always requires feedback from people who are better at the skill than they are. Did their work improve or get worse? Where do they need to put their attention next time? Getting feedback can feel harsh, but it’s really accelerates the speed at which workers get better.

Profit: How can executives use what you’ve learned to drive innovation in their lines of business?

Newport: There are huge overlaps between how innovations happen in business, technology and science, and how people make innovative turns in their careers. The constant seems to be that new discoveries are visible from the cutting edge. Until you actually at the cutting edge of a field, you are not going to see these novel new combinations of what’s possible. And therefore real innovation isn’t possible. Until you get really good at what you do, you are not going to see that new angle, that new thing to do.

Peter Sims coined the phrase “little bets” in his book of the same name. And I found it a useful idea to describe how people discovered cool ideas or directions for their careers. First they got really good at things. Then they would systematically try little experiments. They would try things that were small enough that it wasn’t going to make them stop everything they were doing and dominate their life, but substantial enough that they could get feedback and see if it was catching people’s attention. They were feeling out this space, this adjacent possible, just beyond the cutting edge. Then they knew where to invest and what opportunities to pursue.