“Follow your passion” is not really good advice. Instead, get really good at something rare and valuable. Skills trump passion. This is what Cal Newport’s new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is all about.
I came across Newport’s blog, Study Hacks, a few years ago when I was looking into articles about “deliberate practice.” His blog is one of the few that I’ve regularly followed over the past few years.
As a computer scientist on track to becoming a professor, Newport blogged consistently about his process, and that’s something that I’m always interested in hearing, no matter what the profession. Even though I’m not a computer scientist (I’m a musician), I could relate to a lot of the problems and questions that pushed Newport toward ultimately writing this book.
The big question for him, the one that became an obsession, was this: “Why do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal?”
I think that’s a really interesting question. And the answer is even more interesting.
This isn’t meant to be a full and formal review, but I want to give you a sense of what this book is about. I’ll divide this post into 3 parts:
- Passion vs. Craft
- Deliberate Practice
- Why You Should Read This Book
PASSION VS. CRAFT
Many would have you believe that if you can just find the right job, the one that matches up perfectly with your true passion in life, then you’ll be happy in your work. This, Newport argues, is not accurate. The truth is: passion is a pleasant side effect of becoming really good at what you do. He discovered this truth through studying successful people in different fields of work.
He does admit that there are exceptions to this rule. Artists and professional athletes often truly did follow their passion (I certainly did). But even for someone who followed their passion and ended up with a job in the field of that passion, it’s important to understand that passion is not enough. Passion without skills to back it up just leads to frustration or, worse, delusion. So, if “follow your passion” is bad advice, what’s the good advice? What should you do instead of following your passion?
Newport found the answer to this in an interview with Steve Martin. When Martin was asked to give advice to aspiring artists, his advice wasn’t to “follow your dreams” or “do what you love.” Instead, he offered the real secret to his success. His answer was to “be so good they can’t ignore you.”
To emphasize why skill trumps passion, Newport presents two mindsets:
Craftsman Mindset – you’re focused on what you can offer the world through your skills
Passion Mindset – you’re focused on what the world can offer you
Of course, Newport suggests that we should all adopt a “craftsman mindset” about our work. I was happy to see that two of the people he used as examples of this craftsman approach were guitarists. One, Jordan Tice, is a young bluegrass player from Boston. The other, Mark Casstevens, is a Nashville session musician. These two musicians help to support Newport’s suggestion that deliberate practice is essential in order to love what you do.
Without deliberate practice, you can stagnate. “If you just show up and work hard,” he writes, “you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get better.”
The only way to progress beyond these plateaus is to stretch yourself and seek feedback along the way. These are the two main components of deliberate practice.
It’s easy to see that musicians must practice just as athletes must train. Deliberate practice is a concept and tradition that is built into these professions. But what would Newport do as a computer scientist to incorporate deliberate practice into his life? Here are a few of the routines in which Newport applies deliberate practice:
- Research Bible Routine – Once a week, Newport writes a summary of a scientific paper and collects these summaries in one big file on his computer that he refers to as his research bible.
- Hour-Tally Routine – For the past few years, Newport has kept a tally of the hours he spends doing hard thinking about a subject.
- Theory Notebook Routine – He bought an expensive notebook to formally record results. “The expense of the notebook helps to signify the importance of what I’m supposed to write inside it, and this, in turn, forces me into the strain required to collect and organize my thinking.”
WHY YOU SHOULD READ THIS BOOK
First, this is a refreshing book because it contains absolutely zero fluff. Newport is totally clear about the points he wants to make and he does a fantastic job of bringing it all together.
If you are an artist, as I suspect you might be if you read this blog, this book will articulate and confirm for you what you are sometimes vague about in your work – understanding what it takes to enjoy your work.
If you work in another type of profession, this book might seriously change the way you think about work and life.