A review of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You
Live your passion and the money will follow. It’s a popular notion in many self-help and new age tomes. The idea has been around a long time. Thoreau famously put it this way:
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
This conception, increasingly popular since the 1990s, often implies that the most important factors in living your “dream” are to identify what you are passionate about and then have the courage to take the leap of faith and turn it into a career.
I’ve written about this idea in some of my own books, so I was very interested to hear what Newport has to say about the matter. Newport approaches the issue somewhat differently from me. He openly rejects introspection and implores readers to experiment with life and discover what really moves them via trial and error. Let your passion follow you, rather than the other way around.
Perhaps I should mention that I am not opposed to Newport’s approach. I believe all those embarking on the adventure of creating career with passion should do all the things Newport suggests. As I will explain below, the main way I differ from Newport is that I do not consider introspection to be incompatible with “rational” approaches to the problem. Human beings possess both rational and intuitive faculties, and I believe both should be employed when “living your bliss”. But this is a review of Newport’s book, so I shall not labour long on my personal philosophy.
I will first list what I consider to be the most important insights that Newport brings forward. These understandings are powerful and highly relevant for people building passionate careers.
In the final part of this review I will list a small number of significant shortcomings of Newport’s approach.
Career passions are rare
The first insight that Newport relates is that career passions are uncommon. Newport says that people are not born with an innate passion that easily translates into a fulfilling working life. He cites a survey of Canadian university students who were asked to list their life passions. Some ninety six percent of their responses involved hobby-style interests such as ice hockey, dancing, singing, reading and swimming. Only four percent were career or education-related. Quite rightly, Newport finds that such passions don’t readily convert into career options. Newport thus rejects the idea that we all have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered. “How can we follow our passions when we don’t have any relevant passions to follow?”, he asks.
A related point that Newport makes is that we should not try to avoid the anxiety of uncertainty which often underpins the search for a great career. He argues that the anxiety felt by many successful people like Steve Martin suggests that early in their lives they were not sure they had found their passion.
Newport seems to imply that if a person has really found their true calling that they would not feel such anxiety. Yet is this a sound conclusion? Surely all people experience doubt and anxiety, even if they believe they have found their passion. The creative process tends to create inner tension for even the most successful people.
Newport’s claim that we may not have innate passions is something all of us should heed when building a career. Nnonetheless, there are clearly some exceptions. Certain people have a very pronounced passion for at least a general skill or activity. Gandhi had an genuine enthusiasm for politics, spirituality and social transformation. Jim Carey was always the attention-seeking class “clown”. And despite Newport’s angle that Mozart was a product of his environment (having a highly ambitious musician-father), it is clear that he had an exceptional genius for music at a very young age.
Thus Newport often fails to develop the subtleties within the points that he brings forward. And some of these subtleties are incredibly important when embarking on career paths.
Passion takes time
A second key point that Newport develops is that it typically takes time and a certain degree of life experience to identify what you are truly passionate about. This finding is probably Newport’s most important, and is very strongly supported with relevant case studies.
Citing academic surveys, Newport finds that the greatest single factor which determines passion on the job is not innate skill or ability, but the number of years spent on the job. When people feel competent, have independence and have good relationships with colleagues, they feel much happier with what they are doing. When you develop skills and great relationships your work feels more passionate.
We should all keep this in mind when thinking about our work options.
This leads Newport onto his third conclusion: that passion is a side-effect of mastery. Citing author Daniel Pink and self-determination theory, Newport argues that autonomy, competence and relatedness are what creates motivation in people. Clearly this contradicts “the passion hypothesis”, as Newport calls it.
Newport is also particularly savage on what he calls “the courage culture”, the naive idea that it’s just getting started that’s the hard part of creating successful work you love, and that the rest will just fall into place.
Passion is dangerous
In his third chapter Newport states – in something of an hyperbole – that “passion is dangerous”.
In fact, Newport blames increasing job dissatisfaction in the past two decades on the corresponding rise in popularity of the passion hypothesis. Naively following your passion can lead to chronic job shifting and career confusion. Fully sixty four per cent of young people now say they don’t like their jobs, Newport reports. He thus concludes that the more we seek what we love, the less we tend to love what we do. Therefore the passion hypothesis can create a career path riddled with confusion and angst. Although the term “dangerous” might be an overstatement, it is hard to argue that many workers today are afflicted by this restlessness.
Patience is mother factor that Newport identifies as being important. Simply rushing headlong into your new career by quitting your job is most likely a foolish move.
Be so good they can’t ignore you
A workable alternative to the passion mindset is the “craftsman mindset “, says Newport. He states that this should be the foundation for creating work you love. In a nutshell, this means working at becoming great at what you do. A person must adopt the craftsman mindset first, and then the passion – and money – will follow.
It is developing rare and valuable skills, Newport believes, which makes a person an invaluable member of a community or organisation. Such talents are what create a demand for his or her expertise.
Again, Newport is relating common sense, and again he is surely correct. Yet many naive individuals quit their jobs with little or no career capital in their desired new field and expect immediate success simply because they are passionate about it. As many of Newport’s case studies show, such enthusiasm is often short-lived and turns to anger and despair when the individual experiences immediate failure and ongoing rejection. The person is then left with nothing, not even the passion that they initially had for their “calling”. Newport cites the case of a woman named Lisa who quit her job in advertising and marketing to set up a business as a yoga instructor. Lisa had no experience and had spent a mere 200 hours completing a yoga training course. She soon found herself on food stamps, unable to even earn enough money to support herself.
The need for deliberate practice
The strategy of building “career capital” is but common sense. Newport is right to criticise certain self-help philosophies, many of which seem to profess that hard work and thousands of hours of “deliberate practice” are not required to be successful in most fields. While many naive new agers insist on the delusion that all you need is the right “energy”, Newport implores people to work hard and develop great skills.
Deliberate practice requires developing a smart, systematic regime for rehearsing the exceptional skills that you want to develop. Newport refers to the common adage that many great artists and human-change agents put in at least 10 000 hours of practice in their chosen fields before they become outstanding practitioners. Newport suggests that such practice must be carefully designed so that the individual pushes themselves ever-further beyond their comfort zone.
A central part of this approach lies is in identifying what skills you need to build, and what goals you wish to attain. Such deliberate practice is often not enjoyable, something that those who advocate the passion hypothesis may refuse to entertain. Yet again, Newport is correct. It’s not all fun and games on the way to the top. It is naive to believe that one can become exceptionally good at anything without placing great emphasis on deliberate and mundane practice.
An important critique that Newport makes is that the craftsman mindset encourages an attitude which asks “What can I offer the world?”; whereas the passion mindset can promote the narcissistic question, “What can the world do for me?”
Newport convincingly argues that “control requires capital”. Again, this is common sense, but something that many passionate individuals fail to fully heed. Control that is acquired without career capital is not sustainable. This is Newport’s “first control trap”.
Perhaps the most common delusion widely seen in this domain belongs to those who believe that they can set up a money-making blog to sustain their transition away from the grind of nine-to-five work. In particular, bloggers who write about lifestyle design without having established any career capital are the most foolish. As Newport points out, having enthusiasm alone isn’t of much value. Any financially successful blog must provide readers something they are willing to pay for.
The second control trap occurs when employers realise an employee’s value and seeks to reduce your autonomy. In other words, control generates resistance. The key for the employee seeking greater autonomy is therefore to establish enough value for the employer that she has the power to negotiate greater freedom and control.
It is thus true, Newport argues, that you should only seek more control (freedom) when you think you have something people will pay for.
This is where Newport brings in another valuable distinction: “the law of financial viability”. This maxim dictates that you should focus your creative energies upon offering services that people will remunerate you for. Notably, this is not the same thing as doing something just for the sake of money. The author writes that if you can’t make money from something, then it is clearly not of value. Therefore – if after scanning the world around you – you can find no evidence that people are willing to pay for a particular skill or service, it is probably unwise to seek a career in it.
The power of mission
Mission statements have been popular for some time, and Newport identifies a few important distinctions here. His advice is of particular value to those wishing to express their genuine passion as a “calling”. But unlike some enthusiasts, Newport states that we must first develop mastery, then develop our mission statement.
Newport suggests that we should not start out with grandiose designs on changing the world. We need to think small, but act big. We have to postpone our paradigm-smashing visions and first develop experience and career capital.
A mission is necessary, mostly to focus. Too much diversity – not having a clear vision – is not good because we cannot channel our efforts in a sustainable way.
The law of remarkability
Another piece of useful advice that Cal Newport offers is that we should pursue projects that are remarkable. He makes the analogy with purple cows. Nobody notices a brown cow. But a purple one…?
Your projects should be remarkable in two ways. Firstly, they should be remarkable in the literal sense – unusual. Choose something that people will talk about. Secondly, you should be able to spread the word yourself, via social media, blogging or other low-cost means of promotion. Crucial also is that you must launch your project in a venue which supports such articulation. Projects don’t speak about themselves. You must adopt the mindset of a marketer.
In my next blog post I will continue this review of So Good They Cant Ignore You, putting forward several key weaknesses of the book and its approach to living your bliss… Feel free to add your own insights, below. Do you agree with Newport?