As the subtitle indicates, his central argument is that if you want to love what you do, you should stop focusing on "finding your passion" and focus instead on getting really, really good at something. He cites research that shows that what makes people love their jobs are things like flexibility and autonomy, and argues that to get those rare and valuable attributes in a job, you need to have something rare and valuable to offer in return- i.e., some kickass skills. He also looks at a third attribute that makes people love their work, which is the feeling that the work is part of a larger mission. He uses case studies to argue that you are more likely to find a mission from building up skills and expertise and then discovering a mission that uses those rather than identifying a burning passion de novo and dropping everything to pursue it.
I have long felt about the idea of having one true career passion what I feel about the idea of having one true soulmate- i.e., that it is a load of hooey and that there are multiple good fits out there for every person. So I am sympathetic to his arguments. It is also clear that he feels his generation (he is in his early 30s) has been done a great disservice by the "follow your passion" advice, and opens the book with a chapter blasting that advice as dangerous. He writes passionately and persuasively about this topic, and I found him convincing... to a point.
But the book has some limitations, and one of them is the fact that he glosses over the obvious counter-argument that it is easier to put in the effort required to build kickass skills in some field if you feel passionate about that field- or at least if you have a strong interest. While I agree that just telling people to find their passion and then find a job that lets them do that is incomplete career advice at best, I found myself frustrated by the fact that Newport's career advice is incomplete, too, but he didn't seem to want to admit that. Yes, building skills is important. But so is deciding which skills to build. Some skills go obsolete. Entire industries can go under, or at least move offshore. Not all skills are equally valuable (something he hints at but doesn't really tackle head on). Furthermore, someone can be really, really good at something and still hate to do it. I, for instance, am really, really good at most of the skills required to be a great administrative assistant. But I would hate that job. (Which, incidentally, is one reason why I have great respect for good admins- it is a tough job that I could not stand to do.)
Just saying "go out and get really, really good at something rare and valuable" is just as incomplete as saying "go out and identify your passion and follow it." If you ask me, the full career advice package has both pieces in it: figure out what sorts of things you like to do, figure out which of those things are valued by other people who will pay you to do them, and then get really good at doing those things.
I was also frustrated that the book didn't even offer a nod of acknowledgement to the fact that not everyone is treated equally in the workplace. Sexism and racism (and several other forms of discrimination) are alive and well, and can have a huge impact on a career. I think it would have made the book stronger to acknowledge that equal amounts of skill will not necessarily be rewarded equally. I particularly wanted this when he was telling the story of two different advertising executives. One quit and, as Newport tells it, followed her passion and opened a yoga business that ultimately floundered during the recession. The other doubled-down and build his skills and eventually was able to parlay those into an awesome career and life. In Newport's view, the difference is that the first was taken in by the bad advice to follow her passion, and the second wasn't. But another explanation could be that the first got so fed up with the subtle (and from what I hear, not so subtle) sexism in her industry that she decided she would rather work elsewhere. I don't know which explanation is right- and given the insidious, self-doubt inducing nature of the impact of subtle sexism, the woman who quit and started the yoga business might not even know.
Of course, addressing sexism and racism and the like is well outside the scope of the book, so I can't really blame Newport for ignoring them. But it exposes what I think is the central flaw of the book: it is written by a relatively privileged, young white man whose chosen profession (computer science professor) rewards people for focusing on growing their skills more than most. There is a lot in the book that is applicable to other situations, but generalizing to them is an exercise that is left entirely to the reader.
|For this to count as deliberate practice, the hoop needs to be higher|
Reading the section about deliberate practice made me think of how I've stopped investing in growing my skills. I have three core areas in my job- science, technology, and project management. I have stretched myself in the technology and project management recently, but not in the science. And even the growth I have achieved in technology and project management has been haphazard- due to the luck of what the job needed rather than any deliberate effort on my part. Earlier in my career, I was much more systematic about growing my skills, and I think that perhaps it is time I get back to that.
Thinking about this has also helped me better explain the impact of having kids on my career. Simply put, since becoming a mother I have been cashing in my career capital rather than building it up. I have used the fact that I was already reasonably good at what I do to get the flexibility I need to make my work and mothering fit together relatively well. I think this is perfectly fine, and I'm glad I had the career capital to spend. But I can't stay in the career capital spending mode forever- eventually, I'll need to replenish my skills bank account.
Now that my kids are getting older (and I am less sleep-deprived), I can see the space to start building up some career capital again, albeit at a slower pace than I built it when I was younger. Newport's book gave me some ideas for how I might focus more on building skills and expertise again, and that makes it worth the price for me. Despite its flaws, I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who is trying to figure out how to have a great career. You might not agree with everything he says, but unless you've already read extensively on this topic, I guarantee you'll get some new ideas to ponder.