Why “pursuing your dream” is wrong (1/2)

In 2005, the late Steve Jobs delivered a memorable speech to graduates of Stanford University partly on the theme of career dreams.  “If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle,” said him, adding that “Money will come.”  After the housing bubble burst and lots of dream-chasers their lost jobs in 2007, I stumbled upon a 2008 Business Week article titled “Personality and the Perfect Job.”  Books titled along the same themes, such as Do What You Are follow a similar paradigm as well.  For those who needed a faster fix, the internet offered solutions too.  Stuck in life?  Oprah has a 28-question quiz to find who you really want to be!

The implication is clear: if you failed, it’s because that was not your real passion; pick another dream.

Over the past year, I began to wonder whether the endless pursuit for pre-existing passions is missing the mark altogether.

Photo Credit: Urbanesia.com

Post in Brief:

  • Passion-based career pursuits sound aspirational but can be dangerous.
  • Sometimes we love a career only after we spend the time to develop proficiency.
  • Proficiency must accompany passion for a career to be sustainable.
  • Developing expertise around an interest takes time, but breaking it down to integral components can expedite the process.

Books Discussed:

  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
  • So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport
  • The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman

The Paradox of Passion-Based Career Search

Precisely one year ago today, I started residency training.

I graduated from medical school with an appreciation for medicine and its complexities, but I did not love it.  I dreaded medicine.  The hours are long, the work demanding, and the reimbursements heavily regulated.  To top it off, internship started off being every bit as tough as I was afraid it would be.

But then something happened.  A year after I started residency training and after investing the time and energy to obtain the skills of reviewing patient x-ray and placing life-sustaining lines, I found myself fully excited about the craft of diagnosis.  The magic was subtle but unmistakable.

What if the passion for our careers was not carved into our DNA at birth, waiting to be unearthed by a clever quiz?  What if we had it upside down all along, that true love for a life’s work happens not at first sight but, instead, blossoms only after a marriage of gentle appreciation and hard training?

The Passion for Success

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell catalogues several examples of so-called geniuses whose successes trace back to the “10,000 hour” rule – an old concept made popular in modern day through Gladwell’s book.  To become an expert in anything, he argues that the practitioner must invest at least 10,000 hours of effortful learning to refining the craft. The late Steve Jobs – who famously urged his Stanford graduating audience to pursue their passion and “don’t settle” – did not starting Apple Computers to pursue his passion of selling computers.  After dropping out from Reed College, Mr. Jobs himself pursued his own passion: liberal arts and calligraphy.

Although these typography and artful design became key inspirations for his computers, they were not the most important reasons why Mr. Jobs became successful.  Instead, Outliers points out that Mr. Jobs worked in computer assembly lines, visited spare electronic flea markets in Mountain View, the “epicenter of Silicon Valley,” and essentially “[breathed] the air of the very business he would later dominate.”

The problem with blindly pursuing passions is that it does not always plan out.  The reason why we only hear about the success stories is probably because of selection bias – we rarely hear from those who quit their day jobs, pursued their passions, and went bankrupt.  In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport explores several cases of people who pursued their passions and failed, and several who did the same and succeeded.  In comparing the two groups, he finds that those who built set of relevant competencies allowed people to transition into their passion successfully.  He highlights one story of a carbon credit trader who had amassed such a profound knowledge-base on clean energy that his transition to green technology ventures – the dream job of many fresh-out-of-school young men and women – was a natural next step rather than a blind pursuit.

It is noteworthy that Newport’s case evaluations were not always consistent.  For example, someone who quit medical residency training to become an entrepreneur is lauded as leveraging his career capital, but a story of someone who quit marketing for entrepreneurship – a narrower leap than that of the doctor-turned-startup – bears the title “From Courage to Food Stamps.”  However, he successfully delivers the book’s central point that despite the necessity of both, expertise should trump love for a career to be sustainable.  That is, financial viability is a necessary although not sufficient component for a fulfilling career.

[ Par 1 | Part 2 ]

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

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