Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

So Good They Can't Ignore YouThe popular career advice that is presented by many career coaches these days is you need to discover your passion. You will be most successful when you discover what you are most passionate about and find work that fits within that passion.

I recently heard an interesting interview with Cal Newport, the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Newport’s message is this passion message is totally wrong. He proposes that if you get good enough at what you currently do, it will turn into your passion.

The title of the book comes from an interview that Charlie Rose did a few years ago with comedian, Steve Martin. Rose asked Martin to describe how he got his big breakthrough. Martin indicated that there was nothing special about it. To be successful you simply need to practice and practice and practice your craft until you become so good they can’t ignore you.

Finding Work You Love

Newport proposes 4 rules for finding the work you love.

1. Don’t follow your passions.

He contrasts what he calls the passion mindset with the craftsman mindset. The passion mindset is focused on what the world can offer you, whereas the craftsman mindset looks at what you can offer the world.

He indicates that he feels this “passion” focus really started with Richard Bolles, famous book What Color Is Your Parachute?. Bolles basic premise is to find what you love doing and then find a career that matches that skill. Many other career coaches have since built on Bolles work and finding your passion has become a key part of many people’s job search.

The problem is, according to Newport, that we still have millions of people who report getting little satisfaction from their work. Clearly, few people are successful at “finding their passion”. Of course, there are exceptions, but as a rule finding your passion has not been a very successful path toward finding fulfilling work for most people. In fact, Newport actually considers the passion teaching to be rather dangerous because it leads to unfulfilled expectations that just increase the dissatisfaction that many feel.

2. Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You

So if passion isn’t the answer, what is? Newport says we need to follow Steve Martin’s example and become real craftsmen at the work we are currently doing. Now clearly this requires that you are not doing work you find morally objectionable, but presuming that is not the case the first step toward finding work you love is to become really good at what you are doing now.

Newport calls this building career capital. The more career capital you can build, the more options you will have.

This requires more than just repetition. Those who become truly great at what they do find ways to stretch themselves to build greater skills.

3. The importance of control

Newport proposes that what most people really desire is control over their lives. When you have obtained a sufficient amount of career capital, you gain the flexibility to have the control you desire.

There are two control traps that you need to be aware of. The first is seeking that flexibility when you really haven’t developed enough career capital to be able to demand it. The second is when you have the career capital and are truly great at what you do, you will may face resistance from your employer if you try to exercise this control because of your value to the organization.

4. The importance of mission

The last key he has found in people who truly love their jobs is they have found a sense of mission. They have taken the skills they have practiced and refined over the years and found a way to apply it in a way that gives meaning to their work.

This mission often comes through a series of smaller experiments. Over the years you find different way to apply the skills you have developed. You refine and develop those skills until you eventually settle into your mission.

Some may say mission sounds a lot like passion doesn’t it? I think Newport would agree, but his point is that the career coaches have it backwards. The answer is not in finding your passion, then trying to find work to match it. The answer comes in becoming great at what you do and your passion will then come in how you learn to apply those skills.

So is the search for passion misguided?

Personally I think the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. As a Christian, I do believe that God has gifted each person with unique skills and abilities. I believe we were each created for a purpose as well. That purpose and those skills can come together in the passion that God has given us.

By the same token though a focus purely on passion can be misguided and lead to failure. If we are to be successful we must be able to do what we do with excellence and there must be a legitimate market for our skills. Some people chasing after their “passions” forget this and it leads to discouragement.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You provides an interesting counterpoint to the passion focus that is put forth by many career coaches. If you are struggling with a job that you don’t really enjoy it is worth reading to balance against the advice given by many career coaches.

What do you think? Do skills trump passion when it comes to finding work we love?

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