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Close up of Cal Newport.

When it comes to finding a social-impact career, many of us spend time trying to answer big questions: What’s my passion? What kind of work do I want to do? What cause am I interested in?

But are these the kind of questions we should be asking?

To explore this a bit further, we interviewed Cal Newport, a Washington, DC-based writer and assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He is the author of Study Hacks, a blog that dishes up thoughtful commentary on the themes of success and leading a meaningful life. In this interview he addresses the importance of expertise, the difference between mission-driven and passion, and how to make the best use of your time to increase your impact.

Idealist: Is there a difference between pursuing a mission driven career (i.e. committed to a cause or impact) and pursuing a passion? If so, how would you make that distinction?

Cal Newport: There is an important difference between pursuing a mission-driven career and pursuing a passion. The former doesn’t require you to figure out in advance what kind of mission will drive you. It is, instead, a commitment toward pushing your work toward something purposeful and important. The latter, by contrast, requires that you have figured out something in advance that you really want to do — which is rarely effective, especially for young people who don’t yet have much exposure to the world.

Idealist: A common thread in your writing is the importance of simplifying and focusing work to achieve excellence and impact. Do you think people and organizations tackling big social issues like poverty, for example, can apply the same methods?

Cal Newport: Absolutely. The best ideas tend to come from people with the most specialized expertise in the problem. This argues that if you want to make an impact, don’t start with the big idea, but instead start with the big commitment to immerse yourself in a problem you think needs solving. Don’t force the idea. Force yourself instead to develop your skills.

Idealist: You’ve written about psuedo-striving/busyness and how this actually stops people from being productive and successful. Why do you think people get caught up in this and how can people break through it, especially if we are trying to address issues that seem insurmountable?

Cal Newport: Pseudo-striving is that state you get in when you fill your whole day doing *stuff*, usually on the computer, that isn’t really pushing yourself to get better at your core skills. As a writer, for example, I could easily spend a full day monkeying around on twitter, and launching web projects, and tweaking WordPress. What really matters, however, is the longer term work of carefully researching and crafting prose — trying to make each project better than the last.

Cal’s latest book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love,” is arriving on bookshelves on September 18th. Learn more and order your copy.

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