So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport
August 16, 2016
This edition of Kathy’s CliffNotes is another Cal Newport booked called So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Really great read with good (and possibly surprising) advice when thinking about:
1) Finding work you love (which hopefully you’ve done already), and
2) Advising mentees, your kids, nieces/nephews, etc. on how to find work they’ll love
There are a number of references to the material that was in the Deep Work CliffNotes (incorporating some of the same concepts). This summary is a brief 4 pages and comes with a BONUS image of Titanic cats (you're welcome).
Working Right Trumps Finding The Right Work.
This book debunks the long-held belief that “follow your passion” is good advice. Not only is the cliché flawed—preexisting passions are rare and have little to do with how most people end up loving their work—but it can also be dangerous, leading to anxiety, dissatisfaction and chronic job hopping.
Matching your job to a preexisting passion does not matter. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it. This book provides an evidence-based blueprint for creating work you love. So Good They Can’t Ignore You will change the way we think about our careers, happiness, and the crafting of a remarkable life.
Rule #1: Don’t follow your passion
Passion hypothesis assumes that there is a pre-existing passion and the key to occupational happiness is to find a job that matches that passion. If Steve Jobs continued onto his passion, he might have lived a life as a Buddhist monk. But he pursued building PCs which (at least for an initial period of his life) was not his passion.
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
Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is to follow your passion.
The path to happiness—at least as it concerns what you do for a living—is more complicated than simply answering the classic question “What should I do with my life?”. When it comes to creating work you love, following your passion is not particularly useful advice. You need to be good at something before you can expect a good job. It takes time to get good at anything. The happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.
Don’t follow your passion; rather, let it follow you in your quest to become, in the words of my favorite Steve Martin quote, “so good that they can’t ignore you.”
Self Determination Theory tells us that motivation, in the workplace or elsewhere, requires that you fulfill three basic psychological needs—factors described as the “nutriments” required to feel intrinsically motivated for your work:
Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important
Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do
Relatedness: the feeling of connection to others
Rule #2: Importance of Skill (Be so good they can’t ignore you)
Three traits that make people love their work: impact, creativity, and control.
The traits that define great work are rare. To have a rare work opportunity, one has to offer “career capital” in return. Career capital is defined as a set of rare and valuable skills pertaining to one’s career which one has developed over time. Career capital is developed over time by doing hours (10,000-hour rule) of practice.
Craftsman mindset, a focus on what value you’re producing in your job, and the passion mindset, a focus on what value your job offers you. Most people adopt the passion mindset, but the craftsman mindset is the foundation for creating work you love.
There’s something liberating about the craftsman mindset: It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.
There are some jobs that won’t be able to be turned into work you love through a craftsman mindset. These disqualifiers are:
The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself through developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.
Study of Chess Players: Hours spent in serious study of the game was not just the most important factor in predicting chess skill, it dominated the other factors. The researchers discovered that the players who became grand masters spent five times more hours dedicated to serious study than those who plateaued at an intermediate level.
Researchers have failed to find much evidence of natural abilities explaining experts’ successes. It is a lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice that again and again ends up explaining excellence. But this learning is not done in isolation: “You need to be constantly soliciting feedback from colleagues and professionals,”
Mike’s goal with his spreadsheet is to become more “intentional” about how his workday unfolds. “The easiest thing to do is to show up to work in the morning and just respond to e-mail the whole day,” he explained. “But that is not the most strategic way to spend your time. I want to spend time on what’s important, instead of what’s immediate,”
The Five Habits of a Craftsman
Step 1: Decide What Capital Market You’re In
Step 2: Identify Your Capital Type. Once you’ve identified your market, you must then identify the specific type of capital to pursue. If you’re in a winner-take-all market, this is trivial: By definition, there’s only one type of capital that matters. For an auction market, however, you have flexibility. A useful heuristic in this situation is to seek open gates—opportunities to build capital that are already open to you . The advantage of open gates is that they get you farther faster, in terms of career capital acquisition, than starting from scratch.
Step 3: Define “Good”. The first thing this literature tells us is that you need clear goals. If you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, then it’s hard to take effective action.
Step 4: Stretch and Destroy. Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands…. Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of “good.” If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.” Pushing past what’s comfortable, however, is only one part of the deliberate-practice story; the other part is embracing honest feedback—even if it destroys what you thought was good
Kathy’s Note: For more on deliberate practice reference the Deep Work cliffnotes
Step 5: Be Patient. It’s less about paying attention to your main pursuit, and more about your willingness to ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you. Without this patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your efforts before you acquire the capital you need.
Even with the craftsman mindset, however, becoming “so good they can’t ignore you” is not trivial. To help these efforts I introduced the well-studied concept of deliberate practice, an approach to work where you deliberately stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance. Musicians, athletes, and chess players know all about deliberate practice. Knowledge workers, however, do not. This is great news for knowledge workers: If you can introduce this strategy into your working life you can vault past your peers in your acquisition of career capital
Rule #3: Importance of control
More control leads to better grades, better sports performance, better productivity, and more happiness.
Case Study: If you want to observe the power of control up close in the workplace, look toward companies embracing a radical new philosophy called Results-Only Work Environment (or, ROWE, for short). In a ROWE company, all that matters is your results. When you show up to work and when you leave, when you take vacations, and how often you check e-mail are all irrelevant. They leave it to the employee to figure out whatever works best for getting the important things done. “No results, no job: It’s that simple,” as ROWE supporters like to say. If you read the business case for ROWE, available online, you find example after example of employees liberated by control. At Best Buy’s corporate headquarters, for example, the teams that implemented ROWE saw the rate at which people left plummet by up to 90 percent. “I love the ROWE environment…. It makes me feel like I’m in control of my destiny,” said one Best Buy employee. Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment. It’s no wonder, then, that when you flip through your mental Rolodex of dream jobs, control is often at the core of their appeal.
To summarize, if your goal is to love what you do, your first step is to acquire career capital. Your next step is to invest this capital in the traits that define great work. Control is one of the most important targets you can choose for this investment.
The Law of Financial Viability When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on. “ Do what people are willing to pay for. Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable. If you’re struggling to raise money for an idea, or are thinking that you will support your idea with unrelated work, then you need to rethink the idea.”
When you study the type of careers that make others remark, “That’s the type of job I want,” having control almost always plays a central role. Once you understand this value of control, it changes the way you evaluate opportunities, leading you to consider a position’s potential autonomy as being as important as its offered salary or the institution’s reputation.
Rule #4: Importance of mission (Think small, act big)
What should I do with my life? Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on your world—a crucial factor in loving what you do. People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.
A mission is one of these desirable traits, and like any such desirable trait, it too requires that you first build career capital—a mission launched without this expertise is likely doomed to sputter and die. A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough—it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge—the only place where these missions become visible.
Lots of different things can, at different times, seem compelling…therefore you should make Little Bets.
The the book Little Bets, written by a former venture capitalist named Peter Sims, studied a variety of successful innovators, from Steve Jobs to Chris Rock to Frank Gehry, as well as innovative companies, such as Amazon and Pixar, he found a strategy common to all. “Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance,” he writes, “they make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant wins”. This rapid and frequent feedback, Sims argues, “allows them to find unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes.”
The important thing about little bets is that they’re bite-sized. You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of choosing a bold plan and making one big bet on its success.
Great missions are transformed into great successes as the result of finding projects that satisfy the law of remarkability, which requires that an idea inspires people to remark about it, and is launched in a venue where such remarking is made easy. “You’re either remarkable or invisible,” says Seth Godin in his 2002 bestseller, Purple Cow.
True missions, it turns out, require two things. First you need career capital, which requires patience. Second, you need to be ceaselessly scanning your always-changing view of the adjacent possible in your field, looking for the next big idea. This requires a dedication to brainstorming and exposure to new ideas.
Building Career Capital Though Deliberate Practice & Finding the Adjacent Possible
According to popular legend, Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize–winning theoretical physicist, scored only a slightly above-average IQ of 125 when he was tested in high school. In his memoirs, however, we find hints of how he rose from modest intelligence to genius, when he talks about his compulsion to tear down important papers and mathematical concepts until he could understand the concepts from the bottom up. It’s possible, in other words, that his amazing intellect was less about a gift from God and more about a dedication to deliberate practice. Motivated by my research and examples such as Feynman, I decided that focusing my attention on a bottom-up understanding of my own field’s most difficult results would be a good first step toward revitalizing my career capital stores.
The idea of deliberate practice fundamentally changed the way I approach my work. If I had to describe my previous way of thinking, I would probably use the phrase “productivity-centric.” Getting things done was my priority. When you adopt a productivity mindset, however, deliberate practice-inducing tasks are often sidestepped, as the ambiguous path toward their completion, when combined with the discomfort of the mental strain they require, makes them an unpopular choice in scheduling decisions. Getting better and better at what I did became what mattered most, and getting better required the strain of deliberate practice
My dedication to background research. Here’s my rule: Every week, I expose myself to something new about my field. I can read a paper or attend a talk, that might be relevant to my research. To ensure that I really understand the new idea, I require myself to add a summary, in my own words, to my growing “research bible”. This summary must include a description of the result, how it compares to previous work, and the main strategies used to obtain it.
I also try to carve out one walk each day for free-form thinking about the ideas turned up by this background research. This background-research process, which combines exposure to potentially relevant material with free-form re-combination of ideas, comes straight out of Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, which I introduced when talking about his notion of the adjacent possible. According to Johnson, access to new ideas and to the “liquid networks” that facilitate their mixing and matching often provides the catalyst for breakthrough new ideas