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

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport takes one of the common American ideals that ‘following your passion’ will make you happy and completely blasts it out of the water.  The quote, ‘be so good that they can’t ignore you,’ was taken from Steve Martin who is truly one of the hardest working comedians in the business.  Martin’s point,  and Newport’s point throughout the book is that passion is actually a side effect of becoming really good at your job.  If you can develop a skill set that is rare and valuable, you are going to find that passion will become a side effect of being really good.  However, if you just follow a passion without developing any skills, you are in for a life of disappointment.  This is an excellent study into an American mythos that has caused so many people so much pain and discontent.  Newport asks and answers the questions of why is following my passion a bad idea?  If I shouldn’t follow my passion, what should I do?  How do you actually get so good they can’t ignore you?

The author takes a clinical, scientific approach to bringing his points across.  He starts with some stats that poke a serious hole in the follow your passion.  He cites a 2002 study that states that, “Less than 4% of the total identified passions had any relation to work or education, with the remaining 96% describing hobby-style interests such as sports and art.”  This bursts the passion bubble pretty quickly because if your passions are not relevant to making a living, the passion advice can rapidly become a one way ticket to destitution.  However, another survey showed that, “the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job.  In other words, the more experience and assistant had, the more likely she was to love her work.”  This was obviously just a subset of workers in the world, but this seems to touch on a universal truth, as Newport states, “Passion is a side effect of mastery”.

As he dives deeper into the issue he finds that, “the more I noticed that the passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic ‘right’ job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do.  The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.”  He does a great job of articulating the ‘quick and easy magic pill’ zeitgeist that is rampant in our 21st century culture and goes on to show how it is slowly crushing our youth as they enter the workplace.  He argues that, “The passion hypothesis is not just wrong, it’s also dangerous.  Telling someone to ‘follow their passion’ is not just an act of innocent optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.”

Up to this point, it sounds like a Shakespearean tragedy, right?  This is not true though, because there is plenty of passion to be found, it just takes hard work.  Throughout the book, Newport introduces us to a number of different successful people and asks the questions of, how did it work for you?  Universally, the answer is almost always the same, become really good at what you do, or in Martin’s quote, “Become so good they can’t ignore you,”.  Newport calls the hard work approach the craftsman mindset.  This is in strict contrast to the passion mindset.  The “craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.”  One focuses on the value you bring, where the other is a sense of first world entitlement.  Or as Newport puts it, “No one owes you a great career…you need to earn it – and the process won’t be easy.”

So how do you earn it?  This is where Newport introduces the idea of career capital.  You build career capital by tons and tons of deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice goes back to the 10,000 hours magic number that Malcolm Gladwell made the focus of his book Outliers.  The problem is that deliberate practice is very different from just showing up and working hard, “if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better.”  Deliberate practice is not the fun stuff that you are comfortable with, it is getting outside of your comfort zone and stretching yourself to get better.  That’s why people hate to do it because it is not fun but it is also the key to becoming excellent.

Newport moves into other concepts in the book, like the importance of having a mission but I derived the most value out of the career capital idea.  This concept of deliberate practice is not new.  What I’ve always struggled with is how to actually put it into practice.  If you are learning an instrument or picking up a new sport, the blueprints of practice are somewhat obvious especially if you have a good teacher.  But what if you’re a VP of a software development firm, or a manager of a sales organization?  How do you deliberately practice those skills?

The author provides some tips here too by sharing his practice routines: “Once a week I require myself to summarize in my ‘research bible’ a paper I think might be relevant to my research.  This summary must include a description of the result, how it compares to previous work, and the main strategies used to obtain it.”  He also shares his Hour-Tally Routine. “Another deliberate-practice routine was the introduction of my hour tally – a sheet of paper I mounted behind my desk at MIT…The sheet has a row for each month on which I keep a tally of the total number of hours I’ve spent that month in a state of deliberate practice.”  He also spends a good amount of time brainstorming new theory results, “at the end of each of these brainstorming sessions I require myself to formally record the results, by hand, on a dated page.”

The conclusion I drew is that deliberate practice techniques can be found no matter what your discipline, but you do need to define them for yourself.  I plan on doing that very thing and seeing if I can bring more deliberate practice into my day to day work to continue to become ‘so good they can’t ignore me.’

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