Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

newportI suspect I would have enjoyed Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You more if it had been written by a grumpy armchair economist. Newport’s advice is just what you would expect that economist to give:

  • Get good at what you do (build human capital), then someone might be willing to pay you for it. If you simply follow your passion but you don’t offer anything of value, you likely won’t succeed.
  • If you become valuable, you might be able to leverage that value into control of your career and a mission. Control without value is dangerous – ask anyone who tries to set up their own business or passive income website without having something that people are willing to pay for.

Since we have Newport’s version and not the grumpy economist’s, the advice is framed somewhat less bluntly and Newport tells us a series of stories about people who became good (through deliberate practice) and leveraged that skill into a great career. It’s not easy to connect with many of the examples – TV hosts, script writers, organic farmers, a programmer working at the boundary of programming and music – but I suppose they are more interesting than stories of those in dreary jobs who simply bite the bullet, skill up and get promoted.

In TED / self-help style, Newport introduces us to a new set of buzzwords (“career capital”, “craftsman mindset” etc.) and “laws”. I’m glad Newport independently discovered of the “law of financial viability” –  do what people are willing to pay for – but at many points of the book we are left witnessing a battle between common sense and “conventional wisdom” rather than the discovery of new deep insights.

One piece of advice that the economist might not have given was how to find a mission. Newport’s advice is that you should become so skilled that you are the frontier of your field. You then might be able to see new possibilities in the “adjacent possible” that you can turn into a mission. And not only does the approach need to be cutting edge, it should also be “remarkable”, defined as being so compelling that people remark on it and it can be launched in a venue that compels remarking (luckily Newport has the venue of peer review….). I suspect this might be interesting advice for a few people, but I suspect not a lot of help for the average person stuck behind a desk.

Despite entering the book with a high degree of mood affiliation – I believe the basic argument is right – there was little in the book that convinced me either way. The storytelling and buzzwords were accompanied by little data. Threads such as those on the 10,000 hours rule and the unimportance of innate ability were somewhat off-putting.

That said, some points were usefully framed. Entering the workplace expecting to follow your passion will likely lead to chronic unhappiness and job shifting. Instead, suck it up and get good. There are a lot of books and blogs encouraging you to follow your passion, and most of them are garbage. So if more people follow Newport’s fluffed up way of giving some basic economic advice, that seems like a good thing.

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