Cal Newport of Study Hacks put forward a hypothesis that passion isn’t discovered, but cultivated and that passion can be defined as mastery that earns respect and recognition.

I think he’s just about dead wrong, but first let’s talk about what I agree with:

[The misconception is that] passions exist a priori of any serious engagement with a pursuit; they’re some mysterious Platonic form waiting for you to discover. This is a dangerous fiction.

This is true. Ca’s rightly points out that fumbling through life in search of an underlying “passion” is a recipe for failure, and it assumes passions are waiting to be discovered rather than something one is responsible for nurturing. Other than that, I reject his hypothesis.

He may have over generalized from his experience. For Cal, a blogger of some repute, I have no doubt that recognition is an important component of the subjective feeling of the passion he feels for public writing. That’s a simple fact of self selection: a successful blogger will be predisposed to enjoying public recognition. That doesn’t prove that passion is fundamentally about recognition.


First, I want to question Cal’s definition:

He defines passion as:

Passion: The feeling that arises from having mastered a skill that earns you recognition and rewards.

Which has two basic components:

  1. Passion requires mastery
  2. Passion requires rewards

The first part is plainly wrong, but maybe that fact doesn’t doom the hypothesis.

Princeton defines mastery as “great skillfulness and knowledge of some subject or activity,” which I’m comfortable with. That definition implies some objective standard of excellence. All it takes is a stroll through a local arts market to see a lot of passionate people producing work that doesn’t even hint of traditional “mastery.”

The reason that’s not damning is that “mastery” in this context can be defined as “good enough to earn rewards.” When among people who don’t know any better, you’ll earn great rewards with subpar work. Even if you are aware of your shortcomings, the rewards can come from those who are not. Mastery so defined can stand up to that critique.

The critique it can’t stand up to is that rewards are not a prerequisite for passion. How many people come home from their office jobs to rock out on their electric guitar? How many people have an eisel and oil paints tucked quietly in the corner of our houses?

The existence of people with quiet passions makes the claim that passion requires rewards self evidently flawed.

Reductio ad Absurdum

Let’s assume for a moment that passion, as Cal says, really is a mixture of mastery and reward. I don’t have to look any farther than the mirror to see the absurd conclusion. By any reasonable measure, I am personally a good software developer. I feel confident and comfortable with the concepts and tools of the trade, and in a wide array of specific domains.

Further, I have been rewarded (handsomely) for my mastery. I have the respect of my colleagues and employers, who regularly tapped me for technical advice. I have enjoyed the luxury of jobs that are inaccessible to most people, and indeed even most developers. Truly, I can claim to have reaped rewards for my mastery.

Cal thinks software development, then, must be a passion of mine. Cal is wrong — software development is something I enjoy, but it doesn’t get me up in the morning. It doesn’t suck the wind out of me, it doesn’t give me butterflies. I am passionate about people, about beauty, but not about the development of software. That’s just fun, which isn’t the same as passion.

Even if my arguments against the definition fails, and mastery and rewards are proven to be necessary components of passion, my case alone proves that those aren’t entirely sufficient to define passion.

Bias Fraught

The most dangerous pitfalls in the hypothesis are in the definitions. They are murky enough to lend themselves to equivocation and historical revision.

For example, a hypothetical Cal who is much less intelligent and even handed than the real one could say that I haven’t attained a sufficient level of mastery so my example doesn’t count. He could do the same for any counter example to his claim.

Similarly, he could argue that the people who quietly paint are rewarded in some more abstract way that I didn’t consider, like inner satisfaction. He could continue to redefine “reward” for any given example of a person pursuing passion without reward, until he arrived at the tautology: “a person pursing a passion, must be getting some reward (even if we can’t see it), because rewards are necessary for passion.” If that line became too absurd, he could switch tacks and claim that a person pursuing a passion without reward is actually not passionate at all, but a hobbyist.

Those lines of reasoning are dangerous. If Cal (the real Cal, who wouldn’t argue such nonsense) wants to create a useful hypothesis, the first thing he must do is establish the criteria ahead of time of what constitutes reward, and what constitutes mastery. Once he establishes those, we are free to find counter examples that violate the criteria. If we can, then we reject his hypothesis. If not, maybe there’s something to it.

But then comes the question for any promising hypothesis: what useful predictions can it make? How can we use the information to make our lives better?