I first came across So Good They Can’t Ignore You by a recommendation from YouTuber and podcasting extraordinaire CGP Grey, on the podcast Cortex. It came in a discussion concerning how Grey and his co-host Myke Hurley had ended up in their respective careers. Hurley found something that he was intensely passionate about, podcasting, and had therefore been able to work tirelessly to turn his hobby into a side-project and ultimately into his successful podcast network Relay.fm.
Grey’s story was very different. He talked of how he had a single aim, to be self employed. This had lead him to conducted a series experiments in pursuit of this aim. This was a more systematic approach, where the specifics of what the side-projects actually involved were of little importance as long as they could ultimately lead to his goal. To this end Grey mentioned the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport as a good springboard to understanding of this mentality. With my interest sufficiently piqued, I decided to dive in.
Newport’s Thesis is a simply one
When it comes to creating work you love, following your passion is not particularly useful advice
He argues that for the most part, people don’t have a career worthy passion and even if they did it may well be better suited as a hobby.
This is definitely something that I have come across in my own life. With the most common career advice that I’ve heard being something along the lines of “find something you love and figure out how to make money from it”. Now I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this advice is invalid (it obviously isn’t see my example of Myke Hurley above), but it definitely falls short as a one size fits all solution.
Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You
One idea that Newport is very keen the drive home is that “skills trump passion”. While passion is a wonderful trait, passion without skills means a poor output – which in the real world is the only metric that matters. You can be the most passionate person in the world, if you don’t have the skills required to work to a high standard then that passion is worthless.
Newport also shed some light on why some jobs are outwardly so much more desirable than others. Hinging on factors such as control and autonomy.
Note the use of the word creating. This particularly struck me as it eludes to the fact the the career path is not something to find, it is a process, something that requires molding. Though daunting, this is also liberating in that you path is in your own control. It in not predestined.
This simply put is a new way of thinking. In my own life so far I have come up against this problem again and again. Finding your passion seems to be part of career advisory 101 and it’s just not helpful. This quote shows well Newport’s motivation for this book – If the common wisdom is useless, what should we do instead?.
Focus on the value you’re producing in your job, [as apposed to], a focus on what your job offers you.
This is a key mindset shift. Instead of saying “what does this job have to offer me”, stepping back and thinking ” what do I bring to the table”. This immediately shines the light on the most important factor, skills. Do you have the skills to do the job well? If not, you should probably work on that. Skills lead to results which lead to progression. Passion alone will not suffice.
No one owes you a great career, […]; you need to earn it – and the process won’t be easy
Probably the hardest truth, is that the world doesn’t owe you anything. Advice of finding your passion smack of wondering through the dessert passing by oasis after oasis as they aren’t quite right for you. The truth is these oasis are scarce, and when you do find one it is your job to make the most of whatever opportunity has presented itself.
To maximize your chances of success, you should deploy small, concrete experiments that return concrete feedback.
This advocates strongly for the side-project mindset. Dipping a toe and gauging response is the most sustainable way to see if a venture will last. With a side-project you still have time to learn and adapt. A more passion-centric view would have you quit your job and follow your dreams; regardless of whether you have the skills to progress.
Embrace honest feedback – even if it destroys what you thought was good.
So how do you actually develop the necessary skills? This is a task which is especially difficult in some job roles which can particularly nebulous. The key is deliberate practice. This is the practice of setting intelligent and measurable goals and relentlessly pursuing them. This involves a process of incrementally increasing difficulty as your skills improve so that practice is never comfortable and remains practice.
Deliberate practice is touched on as the only way to get good at any particular skill. Taking the time to meticulously hone your skill of choice by systematically stretching yourself to improve, as opposed to hoping to improve by osmosis. The simplest example of this is sitting down with guitar and “practicing” all of the songs you already know verses practicing new and challenging material.
This is actually a very interesting concept that may be of use to many. This is to say that career capital are all the skills that you must develop and accumulate. This combined with the idea that for you to advance in any career you have to offer something compelling to your employer. Build your career capital, your skill-set, and in return you will be offered with career advancement. This is equally true in a entrepreneurial situation.
This is possibly one of the most compelling ideas to take from this book. The idea that you shouldn’t go all in on a simple idea. Placing small bets with a means for regular feedback will allow you to course-correct or even kill a project if necessary. This fits in very nicely with the idea of the side-project.
With the entrepreneurial spirit particularly strong in this generation and the advent of the internet, the idea of dropping everything to pursue your billion dollar idea has been changed from fairy-tale to a feasible option for some. “If Bill Gates could drop out of college and become such a success then so can I”. While this makes a great story, even with the correct skills, dropping everything for an idea is always a huge risk. Side-projects are a great way to pursue your idea with the safety-net of knowing you still have your job or degree etc. to fall back on.
The Big Finish
While I don’t agree with everything that Newport presents there are definitely a lot of ideas that not only make sense but provide a different viewpoint that will be reassuring for many. You don’t have to love your job from day one. Do your best to advance your skills, become valuable and the responsibility, autonomy and passion will come.
I leave you with this:
Hardness scares off the daydreamers and the timid, leaving more opportunities for those like us who are willing to take the time to carefully work out the best path forward and confidently take action.
Buy The Book
Want more peoples advice on how to go after an extraordinary career.
Scott Adams – Career Advice – a short piece by Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, on how he feels extraordinary careers are reached. This also has an emphasis on systems and skill development, themes which he reiterates in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.
Wait But Why – How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You) – this is a fascinating piece which takes you through Tim Urban’s philosophy on how to find a career path that you will find fulfilling. The piece is filled with exercises, thought experiments and as always is brilliantly written.