Book Review: So Good They Can't Ignore You

The phrase "walk a mile in a man's shoes" exists to make the argument that one never truly knows an experience until they live the reality themselves.

Now, Cal Newport doesn't use this phrase in his newest book So Good They Can't Ignore You, but at the crux of his argument is the discrepancy between the ever popular "follow your passion" platitudes tossed around at a graduation ceremony and the day-in, day-out realities of what living your passion actually feels like. Sure, you might think that becoming a zen buddhist will fulfill your life's passion, as Newport describes in one of his examples. But what happens when you quickly realize three months into your zen buddhism practice that this life isn't what it's all cracked up to be? 

Newport's thesis strongly denounces this "follow your passion doctrine." His reasoning? Most of the time, passion doesn't precede the job, as the conventional wisdom suggests. In fact, the process usually happens the other way around - passion follows you, and proclaiming the idea that workers are able to pursue a passion and succeed only promotes incorrect expectations. Newport finds in his research that people who love their jobs more often feel so because they are really really good at what they do. Sure, it's a much less sexy thing to hear when thinking about how to create a successful career, but this kind of hard, tactical advice, believe it or not, was less than popular during my last semester of college. 

In Newport's most recent Harvard Business Review Blog article he calls out the need for more accurate and specific career building tactics:

We need a more nuanced conversation surrounding the quest for a compelling career. We currently lack, for example, a good phrase for describing those tough first years on a job where you grind away at building up skills while being shoveled less-than-inspiring entry-level work. This tough skill-building phase can provide the foundation for a wonderful career, but in this common scenario the "follow your passion" dogma would tell you that this work is not immediately enjoyable and therefore is not your passion. We need a deeper way to discuss the value of this early period in a long working life.

As a recent grad myself, I don't feel too far removed from the dozens of "you just gotta go out there and do it" nuggets of wisdom. While I'm happy to say that I'm loving my current job, I also believe there was a certain gap between what I expected my life to be as a new grad in the working world, and what my life actually is as a new grad in the working world. The notion of isolating a skill and honing a craft are much more granular bits of advice compared to questions like "How do you want to change the world?", which are often asked at liberal arts schools like the one I matriculated at. Since I've started working, I've shifted my thinking to a much more micro level by focusing on performing the tasks on my plate as excellent as I possibly can and building the skills associated with those tasks. The plan is to revisit in a couple of years the "How do you want to change the world" question based on the more tactical tools under my belt. 

Newport's approach to career building is similar to the trains of thought coming from Roy Baumstien and John Tierney, which I've mentioned in a previous post. Newport's emphasis on building transferrable skills and gaining what he calls "career capital" emerges only as a function of the "genius is patience" mantra lauded by Baumstein and Tierney. In other words, the two books I'm discussing here provide the insight that passion for your job doesn't come instantly and it only comes after patiently uncovering skills and tasks that one can perform really well.