Thoughts on So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Cal Newport)

Recently I read So Good They Can’t Ignore You.  I have well known trouble distinguishing “things the book said” from “thoughts I had while reading it”, so I’m just going to tell you what I thought and if you’re interested you can track down the book and see how original this was.

The book’s official tagline is “Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work” and it frames itself as anti-passion, but Newport eventually admits that’s a marketing hook.  Mostly his thesis is that passion alone will not make you happy, and skill can be used to extract concessions from your employer that make life more pleasant, so you should focus on skill.  Passion is a great driver for developing skills so that seems like a weak criticism of passion (he puts all the positive aspects of passion under “mission”), but he also suggests that it’s impossible to find something you’re really passionate about until you have a certain amount of skill, so still focus on that.  Given the essentially infinite number of skills available it seems like there’s room for your interests to have input earlier in the process.  I think what he’s really attacking is the idea that your job should be a source of entertainment.  That has given me severe clarity in what I’m looking for job-wise.

The epitome of the jobs-as-entertainment model is “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”.  That is neither true nor desirable, unless you use a very specific definition of work.  Let’s take this blog.  No one is forcing me to write it.  For the first year I had something like five readers, most of whom I regularly talked to in person.  Obviously it was motivated entirely internally, which is another way of saying “powered by love.”  And yet, it was still work.  Even if you discount all the reading I did as “things I would have read for fun anyway”*, and the thought I put into it as “a thing I can’t stop my brain from doing”, I have to organize my thoughts and translate them to things other people can understand.  I had to configure the page layout so it was neither hideous nor generic.  I had to proofread and correct mistakes.  I had to retype entries from scratch after WordPress broke again.  I had to correct all the typos Beth pointed out to me after I published.  Nothing past writing the first draft could be considered entertaining the way playing Twenty is entertaining, and even the reading, thinking, and first drafts took considerable time and effort.  That sounds like work to me.  And yet obviously I was doing something I loved because there was no other reason to do it. **

Love doesn’t erase the fact that something is work.  It can motivate the work, it can cushion the annoyances of work, it can give you the incentive to continue when you would otherwise give up, but it can’t erase it.  And I kind of resent attempts to try.  I am a grown up human, I do not need swings or field trips to chocolate factories to trick me into swallowing a pill showing up.

How I feel about office scavenger hunts
The canine equivalent of the company picnic

What I do need is a good working environment, clarity around my goals, and the tools to achieve them.   Those are what let me accomplish things, which is the reward I want from work.  An occasional morale event when I we’re all producing really good work together can be really rewarding, but frequent events (like my job has) when I’m unhappy with my productivity feels like… like eating too much dessert when what I really need is a nutritious meal.  My taste buds notice the sugar but I don’t get any of the associated psychological rewards, and it turns into queasiness.  Speaking of which: office candy counts as entertainment but the nutritious-organic-local-cuddled meals at work are productivity aids.  Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Like 80,000 hours, So Good They Can’t Ignore You has a large emphasis on building career capital.  This section isn’t perfect. A lot of the case studies are opportunistic (in the positive sense of the word), and serendipity is not repeatable.   I feel like it’s skipping a critical step without acknowledging it.  It’s also a little too “be a good worker bee until you’re called up to the the big leagues” for me; traditional corporate or academic paths work for a lot of people and the whole “the only thing holding you back is fear” narrative is stupid, but there’s a lot of other paths to success that get a lot less publicity.  But this was still useful.

I have some topics I find both interesting and skills that would be useful in an associated career.  But as you may have noticed, I have a lot of interests, many of which require expensive, brittle credentials to pursue.  It would suck to spend years in school only to get bored with the field. I highly suspect interests are a better predictor of what will be entertaining than what will be rewarding.  What SGTCIY suggests in this situation (actually all situations, but I think it applies to me more than most) is to build capital in things that will be useful in service to lots of interests/goals.  Like, say, programming, a skill and job I already have but really always skated through on raw intelligence and a willingness to do low status work.  Between this book and not getting a job I really wanted I’ve started make deliberate choices and investing.

It’s also really nice to read a career guide by someone with a career that is not writing career guides (Newport wrote the book in between finishing a computer science PhD and starting a professorship), and one with writing skills to boot.  I finished the book in two days because it was just that readable.

*I used to read things with the explicit goal of blogging about them; they were worth blogging about so rarely I stopped.

**I was planning on using the blog as a portfolio for job purposes, but one of the reasons blogging works as a signal of interest and skill is that it’s so costly and low-reward no one would do it unless they loved it.