Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You

I've enjoyed reading Cal Newport's Study Hacks blog for awhile. He and I are interested in similar things when it comes to productivity- I focus more on how to get your important work done in a reasonable amount of time so that your job doesn't take over your life and he focuses more on how to build a successful career and life that you'll love. I think that doing the first is usually part of doing the second, and from what I've read, I suspect Newport would agree. So when I saw that he had written a book about building a great career, I was intrigued, and ended up buying So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

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
Despite that weakness, though, I liked the book, and found many useful ideas in there, even though I am an oldish- but still relatively privileged and definitely white- woman whose chosen profession requires a substantial amount of work that doesn't fit neatly into Newport's advice about how to build skills. In fact, it was his advice about how to build skills that may end up being most useful to me. He summarizes research that indicates that the best way to get better at something is to engage in a specific type of activity called deliberate practice. It is easiest to explain this by referencing the example of a musician: just playing tunes is not deliberate practice, but practicing scales, etudes, or even tunes in a more focused way (playing just a little faster than is comfortable, for instance) is deliberate practice. The former is fun, but only the latter will actually make you a better musician.

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.


  1. I haven't read Cal's book, but I am also of the same generation (mid 30's) taught to follow my passions. I was also brought up in a home with the opposite attitude; while my parents tried to dictate my career choices, I was also taught to work hard after what I want to do. Being told from the outside world to follow my passion gave me the strength to say no to my parents. The discipline I learned from my parents gave me the strength to be where I am now. I really think both sides are needed (that may be what Cal is saying).

    I also worry, just from reading your post, about relying too much on anecdata. I can counter with stories of several people I knew in college, touted as the best and the brightest in highschool, excellent math/science/coding skills, who hated their major in college, and left to become circus acrobats or science museum curators , or something else that would surprise you if you just looked at their academic profile. They have a less lucrative and less stable careers, but they have few regrets. What I haven't told you is that some sort of mental health issue played a role in almost all these decisions.

    On the other hand I can give you anecdotes about friends who didn't go to college, or never finished who struggled for a long time and are now happy in their own business or freelancing in the movie industry.

    Both sets of anecdata are from extreme cases. I'm only playing devil's advocate here, not suggesting that passion over skills is the key to happiness. I'm just advocating care in drawing conclusions.

    1. He actually relies heavily on research that has been done on what actually makes people happy in their jobs and what makes people good at what they do. The anecdotes are mostly to illustrate the research. I think the section on mission is the one that relies most heavily on case studies.

      His examples aren't all from academia- in fact, only one is. One is actually a writer in Hollywood- so maybe like your friend.

      His advice is definitely incomplete, but I think it is worth reading, particularly for people trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

      I've been trying to think back to what I was told when I was young- and I honestly can't remember. I suspect I got a mix of "follow your passion" and "good Lord, that won't pay- pick something practical."

    2. Anonymous6:16 AM

      ' I suspect I got a mix of "follow your passion" and "good Lord, that won't pay- pick something practical."'

      Hahaha! Yes, my childhood was full of, "Do what you love and the money will follow," and "It is important to love math and science." It worked!

  2. I'm also a believer in the idea that you can be happy in your work in you put effort into doing it well, no matter how uninteresting it might be to you. For example, I used to be a receptionist. Answering the phone and typing memos were not my passion. There was little flexibility in the job, zero passion, and no specialized skills. Yet being a good administrative assistant is not easy. Like being a teacher, people often dismiss admin work as easy or unskilled, but it is neither (though it is not intellectually stimulating to me). In any event, I put effort every day into doing my work well, and derived satisfaction out of THAT. I've never liked the "follow your passion" advice because not all of us have passion, or amazing skills, or access to high powered careers. Most people work in jobs they find dull, understimulating, or uninteresting. But there are still ways to have work that feels meaningful. Like most things, it mostly means putting the meaning or satisfaction into the work yourself. Does that make sense?

    @nicoleandmaggie- my mom tried her a$$ off to get one of her kids to be an engineer, but she got a sociologist and a historian instead. Two academics. Yikes! (And of course she was a teacher from a family of teacher, so she only has herself to blame that she produced two teachers/researchers.)

    1. Anonymous7:09 AM

      She never said we had to be scientists or engineers, she just pushed math and science opportunities at us, read us biographies of women in math and science, and so on. She ended up with a social scientist academic and an engineer, both making more money than a scientist or mathematician would be making. But love of math and science was key. (We also had to learn to write well.)

      re: office work I never did figure out how to transfer people without cutting them off the summer I did office work. It was ridiculous how it was two guys and me doing the office work and they always put me on reception even though I was the worst of the three at it. Admittedly, the other work required some heavy lifting but I was the same size as the guy who was best at using the phones, possibly a little stronger. (He is now a lawyer.) I found the job completely exhausting.

    2. @nicoleandmaggie - my very first post-college job, as a scientist in industry, was in a small office with about 12 professionals and one admin. When the admin was on lunch, phone duty fell to the manager-level female. When she was out, phone duty fell to either me or the other entry-level female.

      @Cloud - thank you for this review. I think I might look into this book. Being in a career transition point, it may help me come up with a backup plan (Dear Mr. President, it's really not enough to say we need *more* teachers, it's about *where* these teachers are needed. And they don't seem to be needed where I am.) Husband and I are also of the age-range/generation where we were taught to "follow our passion" and "achieve our full potential" which can be really frustrating when the most practical life choices we make lead us on paths that do not obviously accomplish either. (Or, maybe it's a matter of shifting our perspective.)

    3. mom2boy10:01 AM

      I never feel so incompetent as when I have to handle administrative tasks. But those skills are so useful, if under-appreciated, in an office setting. (I'm job hunting and it's not amazing for my self esteem right now.)
      What do you do though if you aren't dynamic, innovative or a leader? All of those industry (and it doesn't matter the specific "industry") buzzwords make me want to stab myself in the eye.
      I like the idea of deliberate practice, though. I'm going to apply that to specific tasks for the next six months and see where I'm at then.

    4. Anonymous10:57 AM

      Dynamic you can fake, innovative is unnecessary for many things, and responsibility can be substituted for leadership.

      I went to a talk a few years back about what makes a leader. Turns out the #1 predictor of who is a leader is who *wants* to be a leader. By far the majority of people don't want to lead and are willing to be lead instead.

    5. @mom2boy- I think @Nicoleandmaggie's comment is spot on. Not everyone has to lead, and there are some awesome jobs that require no leadership, just responsibility and strong skills.

    6. Also, organization and attention to detail can get you *far*, even if you don't feel innovative or creativity or full of skill. Many people lack those qualities - they are rarer than leadership skills. Okay, maybe as rare as. . . In some circles, people think you are a genius who should be promoted for figuring out a simple way of streamlining the content for a meeting so it's easier to move through the material quickly.

    7. Anonymous8:47 AM

      OMG, yes on ATTENTION TO DETAIL. I was spoiled with RAs who had it for several years and have recently had a few without it. Pattern-matching is another skill that will get you far.

      I'm not worried that DH or I will ever be unemployed for long because we have these what I used to think were basic skills (responsibility, attention to detail, pattern matching, growth attitude, etc.) And I swear showing up ready to work is like 80%.

  3. Sounds like an interesting book, and I admire that you found the time to read it despite how busy you've been lately. Right now, I keep choosing to read glossy magazines over career books.

    At many offices, I've noticed that admin-like tasks fall to the female, even among equals. There is definitely a bias in that area and I've experienced at least 3 times where the male boss felt uncomfortable having a male receptionist even though in 2 of those cases, the male employees were fine with reception/admin work. They were eventually mentored away from that and climbed higher up the career ladder.

    1. I often read for a few minutes before bed, and sometimes non-fiction is better than fiction for that, because I don't get sucked in and end up staying up an hour too late!

  4. the milliner9:07 PM

    "since becoming a mother I have been cashing in my career capital rather than building it up"...this is brilliant and exactly it. Well, for me right now anyhow. I'm on the verge of starting to build up my skills again as luckily a few projects are now crossing my desk where it makes it easy (and a priority) to focus on building up existing skills or acquiring skills in new areas.

    I like the idea of deliberate practice as well and may read the book to read more about that specifically.

    And, ITA that the key to building a great career is a combination of both the 'passion' side and the 'skills' side. And I think it is possible to discover a passion while acquiring great skills. Often, I think the key in defining your passion is not necessarily figuring out what job or career you are passionate for, but rather what set of skills you are passionate about. Once you know that you can build upon it and let it lead you to whatever job/career or industry you want. Much more flexible than pinning yourself down to a specific job or career.

    1. Thanks! Some people I know are really uncomfortable with the idea of cashing in career capital to provide flexibility for parenting. I find it interesting that those people are generally more comfortable with people cashing in career capital to do things like travel or be a super serious amateur sports person than to balance work and motherhood. But that is the subject of another post.

    2. Cloud, I did the same. But alas! now my pot is empty and I have to start paying back in. But it's a good time - I feel more focused and energized than ever. I was pretty surprised that no one commented on my work slow down ( I even got a new, better job), but hopefully it will all work out.

    3. @Erin and Cloud - that would be an interesting post, on how one goes about paying back the pot after emptying it.

    4. I think it will mainly be changing my focus at work from the survival mode I was in when I was deeply sleep deprived back to a focus on growth- basically relearning some habits that helped me grow my skills. I've had the time/energy to do this for awhile, I'd just fallen out of the habit. I've got some ideas of things I'll do- I'll see how they work and then maybe I'll write a post.

  5. I tend to think this passion vs. skills thing is not really a dichotomy. You get better at things by practicing a lot. The reason you practice a lot is because you find the work intrinsically interesting -- worthwhile for its own sake. Some might call that a passion.
    Another thing to keep in mind with passion: there are also multiple jobs that might involve some aspect of said passion. Some pay better than others. We often think that passion and pay are trade-offs, but that implies that people have optimized on one of these dimensions. Most people haven't, which means that if you aren't passionate about your current job, it's always possible that you could find a better-paying one you'd enjoy more.

    1. Exactly- it isn't either/or, I think you need both to have a happy career. I'm not sure Newport wouldn't agree- he clearly loves what he does. I think he was reacting to the glib "follow your passion" advice that gets doled out these days.

  6. I intermittently cash in capital in small chunks for health reasons but then make it up as soon as I can. It's all a short term thing at the moment because I'm at a new gig now and it's all about the skills and developing new ones on the fly.

    I remember lamenting, 10? 13? years ago, thinking, why on EARTH didn't my parents tell me to do something practical to earn money instead of doing something I'd enjoy like good PROPER Asian parents do, for the love of all that's holy??

    Me and my stupid English major... Heh. I didn't exactly graduate making the big bucks, as you may have predicted and I was incredibly peeved at myself for not thinking that one through more carefully. But I determined I'd make the best of it and it only took me ten or twelve years to nearly catch up in earning power to my computer science major friends. I'm pretty good at what I do and rather enjoy it, too. Except for the damned Excel. And bratty whiny people ;) but that would have been the case anywhere.

  7. I really value your insights on this book. I like the book, and I agree with the points you made about it, for example it's easier to to put the time in to get really good at a job you feel passion about/like. Also your observation about equality (not always) in the work place. Thanks!

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  9. It's a quick read and worth your time if you are young and you don't know what to do with yourself. Hopefully you will come away from it inspired like I was.


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