Our most dangerous ideas are the ones we “know” so deeply that we forget to question them. We constantly kill ideas that have the potential to be great by worshiping them in their current form. Our blind faith in “following one’s passion” as sound career advice is one such idea.
Cal Newport wrote a stunningly great book and named it after a Steve Martin quote: So Good They Can’t Ignore You is perhaps the most important career book you could read. The gist is simple:
Working right trumps finding the right work.
I have had a fishy feeling about the swaths of unhappy people running around yelling about following your passion and money and infinite happiness will find you. At a certain point I began to believe them and I also began to trumpet the same bull shit to people desperate for exhilarating advice on how to live the good life. Even as I saw friends lose their passions when they attempted to cash them in I didn’t for a moment stop and question the advice that has become more and more universal since the days of What Color is Your Parachute? I felt something was off and, even in my quest to see things as honestly as possible, I was blind to it.
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
Thank you, Cal, for showing me what I’ve been unable to see for years.
The only sustained passions I have ever had are ones that I developed. I was drawn to day trading because it resembled a computer game and when I got good I could make a bunch of money – it became a passion. I had a job in internet marketing and the harder I tried to become a master the more I liked it until one day I looked at my computer screen and realized I had become passionate about it. I used to play semi-professional paintball with Will and found myself, after six months or so of training hard, to be truly passionate about the sport. I began writing years ago because I had some ideas I needed to tell more people than I could talk to – now you and I get to share in this particular passion. If I skip a day of writing I don’t feel full when I go to bed at night. I am passionate about Eastern ideas and the present moment – but I developed this passion after a severe depression drove me to read everything I could find on the subject. I love movies but it isn’t until I began directing short films that I really developed a passion for creating them. I love thinking about difficult things. I love solving problems.
While these passions developed there were a million other things that I thought I was passionate about. I day dreamed about them then started them and then stopped caring. Over and over. I’ve done this s0 many times it’s embarrassing. We all have. We wait for the instant spark of passion. The excitement and romance that will drive our lives forward into the fairytale sunset.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You has forced me to look at the things that I’ve really loved in life and the things I had a puppy-love crush on and see the difference. The answer is liberating: the only things I’ve truly loved in my life are the things that I’ve put the most effort into (that I didn’t resent).
When we put our earnest effort into something we’re respecting it and what we respect we love.
Newport’s message may sound negative at first but once understood it’s inspiring. There are swaths of coaches and advice-yellers telling people the only reason they are in a 9-5 job that they don’t like is their lack of courage. Because, essentially, they’re being pussies. A lot of this advice comes from people trying to get paid for no other reason than being excited about that message. Finally someone has come along and told them to shut the fuck up.
There is a chance, a good chance, that you’re in your job right now because you should be, not because you’re a pussy. If you’re unhappy in your work you may need to start working differently instead of just leaving everything behind. Of course there are a lot of people who should leave their jobs. There are a ton of people who hate their work. I wonder, though, how many people hate their work because they fantasize about traveling the world with their laptop and writing about it.
I am not defending bad jobs. This site’s very mission is to demonstrate that anyone can survive outside of a standard job. What I am saying is that the way we work deserves a lot more attention.
I am not saying you shouldn’t do something you’re passionate about. You need to! What I am saying – and what Newport is saying – is that pre-existing passions do not often lead to long-time life satisfaction. When we work patiently and diligently we fall in love – we develop passion. This idea can be seen in the great book Flow as well – the people who are most satisfied in life are often the ones who have mastered their craft.
Do not feel scared if you don’t have some great passion tugging at you. Our society has lied about the importance of pre-existing passion and made us all doubt any job that isn’t in line with some mystical force that we may not see.
If you have passion in life and you can see a career path that lets you tap into it then, by all means, attack! But don’t tell others they need your life.
If you don’t feel a clear passion in your life then work to become as good as you can be in the thing you’re doing. And don’t listen to anybody yelling at you for not conforming to their ‘non-conformist’ ideals.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You is broken down into four sections:
- The myth of pre-existing passion
- The importance of skill
- The importance of control
- The importance of mission
The rest of this blog article will summarize these sections. After you’re done reading this blog you need to go to Amazon and buy this book – even if what is here doesn’t resonate with you. Cal provides an inspiring alternative to the helpless reliance on an unfelt passion many experience. Remember, this book is not about killing passion – it’s about creating a passion that is true and sustainable throughout your life!
Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion
You need to get the book to read the referenced story below, but not to understand the point:
I tell this story because these are hardly the actions of someone passionate about technology and entrepreneurship, yet this was less than a year before Jobs started Apple Computer. In other words, in the months leading up to the start of his visionary company, Steve Jobs was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.
Newport goes on to show the rarity of true pre-existing passion:
“In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream,” Glass tells them. “But don’t believe that. Things happen in stages.”
Glass emphasizes that it takes time to get good at anything, recounting the many years it took him to master radio to the point where he had interesting options. “The key thing is to force yoruself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase,” he says.
Noticing the stricken faces of his interviewers, who were perhaps hoping to hear something more uplifting than work is hard, so suck it up, Glass continues: “I feel like your problem is that you’re trying to judge all things in the abstract before you do them. That’s your tragic mistake.
It turns out that oftentimes passion is a side-effect of mastery. Think in your life about anything that you’ve excelled at – I bet you enjoyed it.
The worship of passion can be dangerous when it drives people to constantly question they’re current position.
The more we focused on loving what we do, the less we ended up loving it.
We like to hold onto the stories of people who knew exactly what they wanted their whole lives and held onto that passion even though we know it’s so rare. We look around and see a vast majority of people who didn’t have one single passion identified their entire lives. Just because that’s right for somebody doesn’t mean it’s right for you. When you stop worrying about what your passion is then it’s much more likely to surface.
Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Or, the Importance of Skill)
Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.
There are two reasons he dislikes the passion mindset:
First, when you gocus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness…
Second, and more serious, the deep questions driving the passion mindset – “Who am I?” and “What do I truly love?” – are essentially impossible to confirm. “Is this who I really am?” and “Do I love this?” rarely reduce to clear yes-or-no responses.
He also does a great job at calling out those people fostering a “courage culture” which is…
a growing community of authors and online commentators pushing the following idea: The biggest obstacle between you and work you love is a lack of courage – the courage required to step away from “other people’s definition of success” and to follow your dream. It’s an idea that makes perfect sense when presented against the backdrop of the passion mindset: If there’s some perfect job waiting for us out there, every day we’re not following this passion is a wasted day.
Newport later talks about the importance of courage in different areas of managing your career, specifically when others tell you to take a promotion with less control when you need to fight to maintain autonomy. The courage culture he’s railing against here is the one that just yells at anybody unhappy that they’re being a pussy and need to drop everything to chase a passion that’s not there (if it was it would have already pulled them where they need to be).
There are Three Disqualifiers for Applying the Craftsman Mindset:
- The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
- The job focuses on something you think is useless or even actively bad for the world.
- The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.
To become great requires more than just hours of practice, it requires hours of deliberate practice which is
…focuse[d] on difficult activities, carefully chosen to stretch your abilities where they most need stretching and that provide immediate feedback.
There are Five Habits of a Craftsman:
- Decide What Capital Market You’re In. Winner-take-all versus auction. A winner-take-all market is one where you have one skill that you must master. He uses the example of writing – the only thing that matters is your ability to write. “An auction market, by contrast, is less structured: There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection. The clean-tech space is an auction market. Mike Jackson’s capital, for example, included expertise in renewable energy markets and entrepreneurship, but there are a variety of other types of relevant skills that also could have led to a job in this field.”
- Identify Your Capital Type. This is an automatic answer if you are in a winner-take-all market like writing – your capital is your writing! However, if you are in an auction market then you need to decide where to focus your energies. “A useful heuristic in this situation is to seek open gates – opportunities to build capital that are already open to you.”
- Define “Good”. Without a clear goal (or, definition of what “good” means) then it is nearly impossible to sustain deliberate practice. You may need to define your skill by “good enough to get this job with this company” or “good enough to be noticed by this person” or something similar. Define how good your skill must get to progress.
- Stretch and Destroy. It’s difficult to maintain deliberate practice because it’s “often the opposite of enjoyable.” This, however, is the key to becoming great. It comes naturally for athletes because it’s so in their face but is easy to shirk for knowledge workers. Later in the book he recommends measuring the time you spend in deliberate practice each month.
- Be Patient. It’s hard and takes a while. Be deliberate, be diligent, and trust that you’re hard work will be worth something.
Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion (Or, the Importance of Control)
…if your goal is to love what you do, your first step is to acquire career capital. Your next step is to invest this capital in the traits that define great work. Control is one of the morst important targets you can choose for this investment.
He then describes how so many people that try to grab control of their career without any capital end up losing. Without career capital, control is often unsustainable.
When you get enough career capital to take control you will also be hitting the point where your boss never wants you to leave. They and those around you will pressure you into staying or moving into a situation that may have less control but more pay.
He quotes Derek Sivers to describe The Law of Financial Viability, “I have this principle about money that overrides my other life rules… Do what people are willing to pay for.“
Newport uses this to decide whether or not to “follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life…”
Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big (Or, the Importance of Mission)
A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough – it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered int he adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore you must first get to the cutting edge – the only place where these missions become visible.
This switches the order most of us like to attack the idea of a mission. We feel we must first have a mission to energize our work. Newport’s finding liberates us from this perceived need and shows us that most of the time people find their missions when they have already become skilled in their field.
Advancing to the cutting edge in a field is an act of “small” thinking”, requiring you to focus on a narrow collection of subjects for a potentially long time. Once you get to the cutting edge, however, and discover a mission in the adjacent possible, you must go after it with zeal: a “big” action.
Newport quotes Peter Sims:
“Rather than believing they [Steve Jobs, Chris Rock, Frank Gehry] have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance,” he writes, “they make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction, and from small but significant wins” [emphasis mine[Newport’s!]]. This rapid and frequent feedback, Sims argues, “allows them to find unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes.”
He goes on about little bets later on:
These bets allow you to tentatively explore the specific avenues surrounding your general mission, looking for those with the highest likelihood of leading to outstanding results.
If career capital makes it possible to identify a compelling mission, then it’s a strategy of a little bets that gives you a good shot of succeeding in this mission.
In his section “Missions Require Marketing” he introduces The Law of Remarkability:
For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.
Well, there are some good things Cal Newport wrote. Most business books aren’t worth anything more than a summary can provide – this one is, though, so get it!
Working right trumps finding the right work.