Russell and Duenes

Cal Newport: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

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That’s the title of Cal Newport’s fantastic little book, and it comes from a quote Newport picked up from the comedian, Steve Martin. Martin was asked by Charlie Rose what advice Martin would give to aspiring entertainers, to which Martin replied: “Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear . . . but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.'”

Newport puts the lie to the oversubscribed theory that young people should try to figure out what they’re “passionate about,” and then doggedly pursue a career that matches up with this pre-existing passion. Rather, Newport advances the sensible thesis that vocational satisfaction comes from “working right” rather than “finding the right work.” Working right means that what job you happen to take is relatively unimportant. Rather, it means placing an emphasis on pursuing a “craftsman mindset,” no matter what job one takes. This entails focusing on skill and mastery in a job, for the benefit of others, to the point where one is “so good they can’t ignore you.” Skill trumps passion, says Newport, and further, most people don’t have some kind of pre-existing “passion” for a particular career, and even when they think they do, they’re often wrong about it.

Once one discards the “passion mindset,” it does not mean that passion regarding one’s job is out the window. Instead, Newport says that job satisfaction comes much more from gaining mastery in a particular area; that is, from attaining “rare and valuable” skills. Attaining such skills is very hard work, usually requiring a good number of years. But put in the hard work, engage in “deliberate practice” in order to stretch yourself, and you will then have “career capital.” It’s this career capital that will enable you to control and direct your career path to a degree that is impossible when you just “follow your passion” with nothing to back it up, at least nothing others are willing to pay for (e.g., starting up a blog so you can have source of passive income by which to finance your “dream job.” This almost never works.)

Of course, “career capital” with no vocational mission, will generally leave people unsatisfied as well. Newport is big on the missional component of a career, it’s just that he thinks people should come by their vocational mission in a more sure-fire way. He argues that mission in your job, i.e., the ability to add value to the world and the good of others, comes not by trying to figure out your passion, but by getting to the point where you have enough expertise and skill in a particular area such that fruitful career paths in that area become visible to you. Such fruitful vocational paths are most often invisible to us until we build up a good amount of skill and competence. The built-up skill and knowledge throw light on areas that need work, and we are then in a position to find happiness in pursuing them.

Newport’s book is largely practical. He spends most of his time letting us in on the lives of various people who have discarded the “passion” idea, and have pursued the craftsman mindset to great results. Everyone’s experience is different, of course, and Newport acknowledges this, which is why he finds the passion idea overly simplistic. Finding work you love is rarely pursued in a straight line, and has complex roots. The people Newport talked to for this book bear this out. What runs through all of their experiences, however, is that “passion” was of very little value in finding work they loved. Showing up, working hard, being persistent in stretching themselves through challenging practice, keeping track of their progress, making “little bets” with themselves, and ultimately, acquiring rare and valuable skills . . . these are the things that allowed them to direct and control their own career paths, which is perhaps the prime basis for happiness in one’s career.

As a new lawyer in a new field, I found Newport’s book to be invigorating. It jibes with what I discovered during my ten years of teaching high school, and it motivates me to work doggedly to become “so good they can’t ignore me.” My hoped-for goal in doing so is to honor our Lord Jesus and to open up avenues for directing my career in ways that will honor Him and advance his saving cause among the nations.

I heartily recommend Newport’s book, which can be read in several hours. If you’re not inclined to run out and get it, you can get a flavor by checking out Newport’s “Study Hacks” blog here.





Written by Michael Duenes

September 21, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Posted in Duenes, Literature, Work

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