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Cal Newport is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He’s written a number of advice books for students at different levels (How to Be a High School Superstar, How to Become a Straight-A Student, and How to Win at College) and writes a nice blog called Study Hacks Blog. While it will certainly give many people a “self help” vibe (it is), I appreciate the meta analysis of successful strategies he presents, and I’ve read through a couple of his older books and thought they gave good advice for high school and college students.
More recently, he has written So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, which came out of his grappling with career choices towards the end of his PhD studies at MIT. He interviewed a number of people who had achieved success in their careers about how they accomplished it and what was most important to them. These successes ranged from a Harvard professor to a Hollywood screenwriter to a bluegrass musician to a software developer to an organic farmer.
The central theme of the book is debunking the passion hypothesis, which he describes as the advice that you should do what you love for a living and you’ll become happy and successful doing so. As he makes a case for in the book, many people who advocate this – such as Steve Jobs – absolutely *DIDN’T* follow this approach in their own career.
Instead, he advises that you work hard to get good at what you do – he calls this adopting a craftsman’s mindset – then you use this career capital (the skills you’ve developed) to leverage your way into more interesting work. He details the qualities that make work interesting, which are based on self-determination theory as I detailed in a previous post, Qualities of a Good Job & Life.
He discusses how he applied the framework developing his own career, as well as providing tactical advice on how people can apply this approach to their own careers and lives. He also details examples of people who have misapplied related techniques and how it has caused them problems. One amusing anecdote was about a woman who was clearly following Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Workweek (which I do NOT recommend) approach and had dropped out of university, planning to build a set of automated websites that would earn enough money for her to pursue adventure tourism across the globe. When the author talked to her she was having trouble earning enough to eat. Dr. Newport’s critique was that she sought control, which is good, but she hadn’t acquired the career capital to earn it and it therefore wasn’t sustainable.
I’ve actually read through his book 3 times now, finding different things interesting each time I read through. He has an engaging style, it isn’t a dense read at all, with many interesting and engaging concepts. If you’re at all grappling with a possible career change, or even just an existential crisis trying to make sense of your life I think this is worth checking out.
After I read this, I also read Scott Adams How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, which covers very similar ideas and also calls passion “bullshit”.
You can buy So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love at Amazon.com or at book sellers everywhere.
Have you read this book? What did you think?