I’ve mentioned Cal Newsport’s Study Hacks blog on here previously. The blog focuses on finding meaningful work, as well as chronicling Newport’s own attempts to create a fulfilling career for himself. It’s a great blog and one of the few that I instantly read when there’s a new post up. Last week, after reading the latest Study Hacks blog post and feeling particularly inspired, I decided to finally get round to downloading Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, onto my Kindle and giving it a read.
The full title of the book is So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. If I didn’t know better I’d think it was just another cheesy self-help book, but So Good is far from your average career advice book. Cal Newport is a Computer Scientist and he brings this rigorous approach to his attempts to uncover the secret to a fulfilling career. He begins with a hypothesis and then sets out to prove or decode it, bringing in examples from the wider literature, from scientific research and from interviews he has conducted with people who are both dissatisfied with their work and those who love their jobs. What’s more, within the first chapter of the book, Newport debunks what he calls the passion hypothesis, which states that: The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.
This is an idea I have always bought into. I have always felt that passion is integral to my work and is part of why I love what I do. But, argues Newport, the passion hypothesis is actually damaging because most people don’t have pre-existing passions that they can then match to a job and that anyway, it is hard to know in advance what sort of job you will grow to love. By believing in the passion hypothesis, people often end up hopping from job to job, in search of one that fulfils their ‘dream’ criteria.
So, if passion isn’t the key to a fulfilling career, what is? Newport outlines the Self-Determination Theory (a theory that comes from the scientific literature on workplace satisfaction), which argues that three basic psychological needs must to be met first before a person can feel motivated by their work: autonomy (the feeling that you have control over your work), competence (the feeling that you are good at what you do), and relatedness (feeling connected to those around you).
Before you can acquire a job that fulfils these needs, however, you first have to have something to offer in return. Newport refers to this as career capital; that is, in order to acquire highly valued job attributes, you first have to acquire valuable skills that can then be traded in for greater autonomy or a higher salary. In other words, Newport argues, you have to adopt a craftsman mindset. Whilst a lot of people adopt the passion mindset, which focuses on what your job can offer you, the craftsman mindset focuses instead on what you can offer your job. Whereas the passion mindset is about finding your dream job, the craftsman focuses on being so good they can’t ignore you.
In order to become so good they can’t ignore you, Newport advocates deliberate practice, which involves performing difficult activities that stretch ones abilities. Deliberate practice is about more than just showing up, putting in the hours and working hard. Whilst this might initially bring about an improvement in ones job performance, eventually you will hit a performance plateau. The problem, Newport points out, is that most jobs do not have an obvious training path. It is not clear how exactly one can overcome these performance plateaus and practice deliberately. If you can figure that out, then you will be in with a chance of getting ahead of your peers and co-workers and standing out.
Newport offers a few tips for incorporating deliberate practice into one’s career, these include defining what it means to be good in your field, which allows you to create goals, and then stretching and destroying those goals.
Once you’ve built up a store of career capital, this can then be traded in for some of the important qualities that will make for an enjoyable job, such as greater control over your work schedule. In fact, Newport thinks that control is such an important element of job satisfaction that he dedicates an entire section of the book to it. Newport then goes on to spend the last section of the book discussing the importance of shaping a meaningful mission for one’s work.
I didn’t approaching Newport’s book feeling unfulfilled by my work and wanting to figure out how to find a job I love. I am already doing a job I love. Instead, I wanted to try and decode why I love my job. I’ve always simply put it down to good fortune, but I wondered if there might be more to it and whether I could unpick the steps that had led me to this point, so that I can continue to build a fulfilling career for myself in the future.
As I mentioned, I have always felt that passion is an important element in my career. I would say that I am passionate about what I do. I’m passionate about writing and communications and I’m passionate about nature, all of which are elements that I get to combine in my current job. But as I read So Good, I began to see that there might be more to why I love my job than just a pre-existing passion.
When the career’s adviser asked me at 16 what career I wanted to pursue, I didn’t tell him that I wanted to do communications for an environmental nonprofit. Instead, I told him I wanted to be a writer (though I also harboured a desire to be a rock star), to which he replied that I would need a back-up plan because I wouldn’t be able to support myself on writing alone. I dismissed his advice, believing that my passion for writing would be enough to feed and cloth me and pay the bills (or rather, I didn’t yet have a concrete notion of what it meant to support myself).
So, how did I go from being a 16 year-old with a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer (or a rock star), to now, doing a job that I love. Well, it turned out that my passion for writing didn’t translate into hours and hours of deliberate practice. Instead, I did a degree in Philosophy, and then, because I wasn’t really sure what to do next, I did an MA in Nature Writing. Since then, I have worked various jobs, gradually building up the experience that has led to my current role.
It seems like a fairly standard career trajectory, but I think the crucial thing is that without knowingly doing so, I have always adopted Cal Newport’s craftsman mindset. No matter what the job is (whether it’s working as a cleaner in a hotel, serving fish and chips or copywriting), I always approach it with the mentality of wanting to do the best work I possibly can.
When reading the chapter on deliberate practice, I also realised that this is something I have, again unknowingly, applied in my own career. I have said yes to work that I wasn’t quite confident I could do, but that I knew would stretch me in some way, and I’ve always been keen to take up opportunities to develop new skills. I realised, along the way, that saying yes to things that scare me, often has a positive outcome.
Reading So Good helped me to decode some of the patterns that have led me to my current career position – the craftsman mindset and deliberate practice – and has also made me more determined than ever to keep pushing and working harder, to stretch and destroy what I previously thought defined good. Along the way, I plan to blog about my experiences on here. I’m also hoping to apply some of what I’ve learnt to my writing life, which I blog about over on my other blog Blacktop Rain.
N.B. I actually wrote this blog post in August 2014, but it has, for some reason, remained in my drafts ever since. You can read a follow up to this post soon.