Cal Newport Was Wrong About Steve Jobs

The passion of Steve Jobs at Stanford.

Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson and an iPhone 11. (Photo by AB on Unsplash)

his article is based on Cal Newport’s 2012 book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You — Why skills trump passion in the quest for work you love”.

For the most part, it’s a good book that I agree with. Except for one part: Cal Newport‘s treatment of Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University.

The Speech

In the first chapter, Newport uses Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford as an anchor example and, while drawing on examples from Jobs’ life, attempts to debunk the passion hypothesis which he claims Jobs advocated for in his speech.

So I watched the speech on Youtube and followed along with the transcript.

However, after watching the speech and reading Newport’s arguments against it, it seems that he isn’t being entirely fair in his treatment of Jobs’ commencement address. Particularly, Newport seemed to think that Jobs was implying that:

  1. The path to success is straightforward so long as you follow your passion.
  2. Success will come to you as long as you do what you love (minus hard-work and skills).

The Misunderstanding

Newport gives a brief account of Jobs’ early life from the time he dropped out of college up till the time Apple Computer was born. He titled this section “Do What Steve Jobs Did, Not What He Said”, implying that Jobs had not practiced his own advice.

So what did Jobs do? In Newport’s brief account, we read of a young Jobs who seemed to not know what he really wanted out of life, splitting his time between dabbling with computer related work (when it seemed to be able to give him a quick buck) and seeking spiritual enlightenment.

It was a messy ordeal and not in the least straightforward.

At the end of the chapter, Newport criticised Jobs for apparently not taking his own advice to “only pursue work he loved”, claiming that he would have chosen Zen Buddhism over computers if he had done so.

“Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.” (page 13, emphasis mine)

— Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You

From the above, it seems to me that Newport had this idea that Jobs was advocating for a quick fix to occupational happiness. I.e. Do what you love, and everything will fall into place, you will end up happy and satisfied. However, this wasn’t what Jobs advised.

Steve Jobs in Stanford, 2005. (Retrieved from: https://news.stanford.edu)

The Truth

Let’s look at what Steve Jobs actually said in the speech:

Speaking of when he was fired from Apple:
“…Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.”

Speaking of work:
“…and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

Speaking of living intentionally:
“…for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

— Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

When read in context, nothing in his speech suggested that “you just have to do what you love and everything will be rosy” as Newport seems to imply in his book. Newport used Jobs’ commencement speech as a prime example, but then attacks a version of the passion hypothesis which were propounded by others.

The Conclusion

To me, Job’s messy start in life was consistent with what he advised (as well as the example given by Newport on Ira Glass).The act of pursuing something isn’t straightforward because life is unpredictable for all of us. Job’s seemingly unfocused attention on calligraphy, Zen Buddhism and computers early on in life was indeed him pursuing things which he was interested in.

The journey was messy and difficult, but because it was something he loved, he found meaning to continue doing it even in the face of death.

Jobs’ advice was taken out of context and misconstrued by Newport.

So What Does this Mean for Me?

Following your passion is more about living intentionally than gaining occupational happiness. As elaborated by Newport in the rest of his book, there are other factors which contributes to workplace satisfaction.

However, we shouldn’t use the word passion narrowly here. Not passion as Newport puts it (i.e. career passions. He doesn’t think that having a passion in dance, swimming or skating will provide good career options).

Also, it’s worth noting that most people don’t think they are passionate about something. Most of us have a few things which we feel strongly about (or at least, strong-er than others).

I think those are things worth pursuing.

Some people are passionate about helping others, and so they build a career in that. Some like music or film and pursues a career in that (no, not everyone will be a famous singer or actor, but those aren’t the only music or film related jobs out there).

The world is so diverse and wide, there are many ways to pursue an interest in something.

Yes, it may result in you trying out a couple of things and finding that it’s not going to work. But here is where I think you have to be careful. One of the arguments against pursuing your passion is that it creates chronic job hopping and I agree that job hopping is bad.

The key, I think is in pursuing your interest as a side hustle and building up your competence in it.

In the mean time, don’t quit your day job.

Pursuing your passion involves hard work and getting good at what you do. Steve Jobs exhibited that. Far from being discredited, it seems that he could have been one of the key examples for this book.

Ira Glass (Retrieved from: https://longwoodgardens.org)

Epilogue: Enter Ira Glass

One of the examples used by Newport in the book is of Ira Glass, an American radio personality. Glass was quoted as saying, “…in the movies there is this idea that you should just go after your dreams. But don’t believe that. things happen in stages.”

Quick search on Google reveals that Glass was studying medicine while looking for jobs in “television, radio and advertising”. However, he did not have much success in it. Eventually, he would find himself working as an “unpaid intern editing promotional announcements.” “At the end of the summer, he chose to stay with NPR and abandon medicine.” It was his parents idea for him to do medicine.

Sounds like following a passion to me.

Creative Lead by day, writer by night, husband and dad throughout. I write about things that interest me and lessons I’ve learnt. My views are my own. Check out other things I’ve written.