Why Skills Trump Passion: 3 Stories That Explain

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "So Good They Can't Ignore You" by Cal Newport. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you heard that ability matters more than passion when it comes to finding work you love? Do you know why skills trump passion?

Cal Newport believes that it’s easier for highly skilled people to write their own tickets when it comes to job choice, ultimately allowing them to do work they love. He shares three stories that illustrate why skills trump passion. One story is his own.

Read more to learn why skills trump passion.

Why Skills Trump Passion

Cal Newport describes four rules to loving your work. Rule #1 is “Don’t concern yourself with passion.” In this rule, we’ll look at the “passion hypothesis”—the idea that a job that lets you exercise a pre-existing passion will be enjoyable.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You contains many case studies. For each rule, we’ll look at an example of someone who failed to apply the rule, someone who successfully applied the rule, and the author’s personal application of the rule.

Failed Application of Rule #1: Thomas the Monk

The story of Thomas the Monk illustrates why skills trump passion. Thomas decided on his passion—discovering the meaning of life—early in his life and committed to it. He earned two bachelor’s degrees, one in theology and the other in philosophy, and then completed a master’s degree in comparative religion. After graduating, he decided that he wanted to become a practicing lay monk and live in a Zen monastery.

However, Thomas needed to earn money first, so he worked a variety of jobs including teaching English overseas. He was so enraptured with his passion that he didn’t enjoy any other jobs because he was constantly comparing them to his dream job.

When Thomas learned about the Zen Mountain Monastery, he applied and was accepted. He spent months working on the Mu koan, which is a word puzzle designed to inspire enlightenment. Passing the Mu koan is the first step to becoming a serious student. One day, Thomas solved the koan. He was exactly where he wanted to be—he’d followed and officially achieved his passion to become a Zen practitioner—but this didn’t magically make him happy. He was still the same person he’d been before—a person who was never satisfied with reality because his expectations, based on the passion hypothesis, were so unrealistic.

Successful Application of Rule #1: Steve Jobs

The story of Steve Jobs also illustrates why skills trump passion. But, unlike Thomas, Steve Jobs’ passion wasn’t his focus. Like many people who end up loving what they do, Jobs’s route to a satisfying career was messy and complex.

Initially, Steve Jobs’ passion wasn’t technology or business. After graduating from high school, Jobs went to Reed College, where he studied dance, Western history, and a little bit of Eastern mysticism. After a year, he dropped out of college and eventually moved back in with his parents. He got a job with Atari because he needed money, it was convenient, and the ad said it would be fun. 

While working for Atari, Jobs spent his free time at a commune near San Francisco. He went to India and when he returned, he trained at the Los Altos Zen Center. If Steve Jobs’ passion had been his focus, he probably would have become a teacher at the Zen Center.

Instead, Jobs took opportunities as they came. Jobs’s friend Steve Wozniak hooked him up with a job at a computer company, which went well until he went to the commune for a season without telling his boss. Jobs clearly wasn’t that committed to business or electronics at this point. He was only interested in technology when it made him money.

Less than a year later, Jobs came up with the idea to sell computer circuit board kits to hobbyists and asked Wozniak to work with him. The plan was to sell 100 kits and make $1,000, not to create a major technology company. The project scaled only when Jobs approached a computer store about selling the kits and the store asked for computers instead. This break resulted in the founding of Apple, which ultimately provided Jobs with work he was passionate about—work he would never have found if he’d tried to follow his pre-existing passion.

Author’s Application of Rule #1

The author’s own story illustrates why skills trump passion. He learned that passion isn’t a prerequisite for a desirable job in high school, when he and his friend Michael started a web design company. Neither boy was passionate about designing websites, but they couldn’t think of a better idea. They weren’t passionate about entrepreneurship either—they just thought starting a company would be more fun than a regular summer job.

The company did well in spite of its owners’ lack of passion and the experience helped the boys get into good colleges.

These stories help explain why skills trump passion, which is central to the first rule of this book.

Why Skills Trump Passion: 3 Stories That Explain

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Cal Newport's "So Good They Can't Ignore You" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full So Good They Can't Ignore You summary:

  • What makes people love their work
  • Why following your passion is not the path to loving your work
  • The four rules for loving your work

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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