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Skill Trumps Passion Every Time

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates had a passion for writing software as a kid. So he kept at it, even dropping out of Harvard to start a software company. Last I checked, Gates made the right career choice.

Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks and Shark Tank star, had several passions growing up, but he didn’t follow any of them because he wasn’t any good at any of the things he was passionate about. Instead, Cuban pursued the things he was good at, and he worked hard to get better. Last I checked, things have worked out for Mark Cuban.

Here you have two billionaires, Bill Gates and Mark Cuban, who took different approaches to their career. One followed his passion, and the other followed his skill. So whose path to career success is better?

Turns out Cuban’s path is better, and that’s not just an opinion. It’s what the experts are saying. A well-publicized study by Carol Dweck and Greg Walton, two psychology professors at Stanford University, concludes with this sobering assessment: “Follow your passion” is terrible advice.

You can read about the study for yourself, but here’s the gist of it. When people say they want to follow their passion about something, most of the time they do so because they like doing it, not because they are good at it.

This kind of thinking follows a mindset that says passions are “found” rather than “developed.” The problem is that found passions are ethereal. They have no “stickiness.” At the first sign of struggle or failure, people tend to abandon their passion.

Developing a passion for something takes a different path. It doesn’t follow an emotional desire or gut feeling. This kind of passion follows effort, and it takes time to develop. But as you put in the time and the effort to get good at something, guess what happens? You are less likely to quit and more likely to become passionate about what you are good at.

“If you put in enough time, and you get really good,” says Cuban, “I will give you a little secret: Nobody quits anything they are good at because it’s fun to be good. It’s fun to be one of the best.”

Cal Newport, the author of the excellent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, puts it this way:

Skill trumps passion every time

Even the Bill Gates example embraces this advice. While Gates was passionate about software, he invested the time required to develop his skill. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell estimates that Gates put in 10,000 hours of writing software before he attempted to start a company.

In my profession, writing and publishing, I see this principle lived out over and over again. At any given moment, tens of thousands of people have a passion to write a book—a novel, a memoir, or the ever-popular children’s book. But rare is the person who has the desire to put in the time and effort to develop the skills needed to become a good writer. That’s the primary reason why only a small fraction of aspiring writers ever get published.

By comparison, bestselling author Mark Batterson put in the time and effort to gain the skill he needed to write. Speaking at a conference produced by ECPA, the association I lead, Batterson said he spent two years reading hundreds of books before even attempting to write his first book. Now Batterson is very good at what he does, and he is passionate about the power of books to change lives.

Mark Batterson’s example puts a little spin on Cal Newport’s advice, and I think it has merit:

Passion follows skill

If you have a passion to do something, and you’d like to make a career out of it, find out what is required to develop the skills you need to excel. And then map out a plan to develop those skills. If you become “one of the best” (to quote Cuban), then you can almost be assured that your passion will follow.

And you will be in a very good place.

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Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.