So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

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“Follow your passion!” is common career advice. Cal Newport thinks that is a terrible idea, and explains why in this book.

He observes that following your passion will not succeed as a career move unless you have something that will differentiate you from everybody else following their passion. As he puts it,

The things that make great work great are rare and valuable. If you want them in your career, you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. In other words, if you’re not putting in the effort to become, as Steve Martin put it, “so good they can’t ignore you”, you’re not likely to end up loving your work – regardless of whether or not you believe it’s your true calling.

Developing rare and valuable skills requires a lot of focused, effortful work aka deliberate practice – those that don’t put in focused effort will never be able to achieve the skill level where they can differentiate themselves and take control of their careers.

Deliberate practice is not just spending time on the activity. It is seeking out where you need to improve, and designing exercises to push yourself beyond your current limitations. This work is painful and effortful – Anders Ericsson, whose research was misinterpreted by Malcolm Gladwell as the 10,000 hour rule, suggests that people can only handle 3-4 hours of deliberate practice a day, even world-class athletes or musicians. That kind of deliberate practice enables one to improve far more rapidly, which is necessary to develop rare and valuable skills.

Once you have developed those rare and valuable skills, then what? Newport suggests that “control over what you do and how you do it is such a powerful force …that it could rightly be called a dream-job elixir”. Therefore, you should use your rare and valuable skills to seize control over your job.

Newport identifies two traps associated with pursuing control in one’s career. The first is pursuing control and autonomy without having rare and valuable skills to differentiate oneself. He tells the story of a woman who followed her passion, quit her job, took out a loan, and opened a yoga studio because she loved doing yoga. However, she didn’t have anything to differentiate herself as a yoga instructor, and she quickly found herself facing bankruptcy. He suggests that the same thing would happen to anybody who followed their passion without accumulating skill to differentiate themselves; they will quickly learn that they can not make a living at their passion.

The second control trap is more insidious – if you have followed Newport’s advice and developed rare and valuable skills, you are more valuable to your organization, and they want to keep you under their control. They will pay you more or let you choose your team, which gives you some control but keeps you working for them. They will paint a nightmare picture of what will happen if you leave the comfortable embrace of your job and take control of your life. What’s worse is that you may have internalized these nightmares to the point where you won’t even consider the possibility of striking out on your own.

The tricky part is that both of these control traps are expressed as resistance to you exerting control over your working life. In the first trap, you should listen to that resistance, and go back to work while developing the rare and valuable skills you need to differentiate yourself. In the second trap, though, you should ignore that resistance and take control for yourself. How can you tell the difference between the two control traps? Newport suggests that money is the way to do so – if you can get paid for pursuing your passion, you have developed the rare and valuable skills to differentiate yourself.

Newport’s last point is the importance of mission in unifying your work and providing meaning to what you do. Even after you develop rare and valuable skills, and use those skills to achieve more control over your working life, what do you do with that autonomy? A mission helps to guide that independence and provide meaning to your work and life. However, Newport cautions against starting with the mission; he suggests that the mission will reveal itself as you develop your skills and experiment with what you can do with those skills. He has several examples in the book of people who started down one path, and ended up on pursuing a quite different mission after exploring several dead ends.

I don’t think Newport is the final answer on these sorts of career questions, but I appreciated his framework for thinking about career development. I particularly like the framing of the control traps, as understanding when to go independent is an increasingly common dilemma in a free agent economy. It’s a short book, but I wouldn’t recommend it; by reading this post, you’ve gotten most of the content, other than a few mini-biographies of interesting people that he uses to illustrate his points.

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