So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport


so-goodSo Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, by Cal Newport. New York: Business Plus, 2012. 304 pp. $26 (hardcover).

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Cal Newport challenges (among other things) the idea 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” (p. 4).

This is a widespread idea with the full backing of American pop culture and of many successful people. But is it true? Newport doesn’t think so, and, in arguing that it is not, he observes (for starters) that passions rarely match up with specific jobs.

In a 2002 study he cites, for example, 539 Canadian university students were asked if they had passions and, if so, what they were. Eighty-four percent replied that they did have passions, but the top five listed were dance, hockey, skiing, reading, and swimming. Newport sums up this list by concluding what the students themselves likely have found out by now—that “these passions don’t have much to offer when it comes to choosing a job” (p. 14).

Newport also observes that passions take time to develop. Here he cites a paper by Amy Wrzesniewski, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, that explores the differences between a job, a career, and a calling.

A job, in Wrzesniewski’s formulation, is a way to pay the bills, a career is a path toward increasingly better work, and a calling is work that’s an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity.

Wrzesniewski surveyed employees from a variety of occupations, from doctors to computer programmers to clerical workers, and found that most people strongly identify their work with one of these three categories. A possible explanation for these different classifications is that some occupations are better than others. The passion hypothesis, for example, predicts that occupations that match common passions, such as being a doctor or a teacher, should have a high proportion of people who experience the work as a true calling, while less flashy occupations—the type that no one daydreams about—should have almost no one experiencing the work as a calling.

To test this explanation, Wrzesniewski looked at a group of employees who all had the same position and nearly identical work responsibilities: college administrative assistants. She found, to her admitted surprise, that these employees were roughly evenly split between seeing their position as a job, a career, or a calling. In other words, it seems that the type of work alone does not necessarily predict how much people enjoy it.

Supporters of the passion hypothesis, however, might reply that a position like a college administrative assistant will attract a wide variety of employees. Some might arrive at the position because they have a passion for higher education and will therefore love the work, while others might stumble into the job for other reasons, perhaps because it’s stable and has good benefits, and therefore will have a less exalted experience.

But Wrzesniewski wasn’t done. She surveyed the assistants to figure out why they saw their work so differently, and discovered that the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job. In other words, the more experience an assistant had, the more likely she was to love her work.

This result deals another blow to the passion hypothesis. In Wrzesniewski’s research, the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do. (pp. 15–17)

Newport next examines research showing that people love jobs they feel competent at, that offer them control over what they do each day, and that are done with people they relate to or enjoy being around. The last of these Newport finds unsurprising and not worthy of further comment. Of the first two he writes:

It’s clear . . . that autonomy and competence are related. In most jobs, as you become better at what you do, not only do you get the sense of accomplishment that comes from being good, but you’re typically also rewarded with more control over your responsibilities. (p. 18)

This is obviously related to the above research by Wrzesniewski—and Newport makes the connection: “Perhaps one reason that more experienced assistants enjoyed their work was because it takes time to build the competence and autonomy that generates this enjoyment.” (p. 18)

There is much more to Newport’s case against “the passion hypothesis.” For example, he looks at the histories of people such as Steve Jobs and Ira Glass and observes that “compelling careers often have complex origins,” that they are not necessarily the result of someone having an insight about what he loves to do and then pursuing it.

The purpose of So Good They Can’t Ignore You is to answer the question, “How do we find work that we’ll eventually love?” (p. 10). The title of the book is a clue to Newport’s answer—as is the inclusion of “eventually” in that question.

Regarding the title, it comes from an interview with Steve Martin on the Charlie Rose show about his memoir, Born Standing Up.

They talked about the realities of Martin’s rise. “I read autobiographies in general,” Martin said. “[And I often get frustrated] . . . and say, ‘You left out that one part here, how did you get that audition for that one thing where suddenly you’re working at the Copa? How did that happen?’” Martin wrote his book to answer the “how” question, at least with respect to his own success in stand-up. It was in this explanation of the “how” that Martin introduced a simple idea that floored me when I first heard it. The quote comes in the last five minutes of the interview, when Rose asks Martin his advice for aspiring performers.

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ . . . but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”

In response to Rose’s trademark ambiguous grunt, Martin defended his advice: “If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’ people are going to come to you.”

This is exactly the philosophy that catapulted Martin into stardom. He was only twenty years old when he decided to innovate his act into something too good to be ignored. “Comedy at the time was all setup and punch line . . . the clichéd nightclub comedian, rat-a-tat-tat,” Martin explained to Rose. He thought it could be something more sophisticated. Here’s how Martin explained his evolution in an article he published around the time of his Charlie Rose interview: “What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anti-climax?” In one famous bit, Martin tells the audience that it’s time for his famous nose-on-the-microphone routine. He then leans in and puts his nose on the microphone for several seconds, steps back, takes a long bow, and with gravitas thanks the crowd. “The laugh came not then,” he explains, “but only after they realized I had already moved on to the next bit.”

It took Martin, by his own estimation, ten years for his new act to cohere, but when it did, he became a monster success. It’s clear in his telling that there was no real shortcut to his eventual fame. “[Eventually] you are so experienced [that] there’s a confidence that comes out,” Martin exclaimed. “I think it’s something the audience smells.” (pp. 33–34)

There is that word “eventually” again, and it is no accident that Newport uses it here. He argues that great careers and occupational happiness take time to develop, require tough choices, and are earned by acquiring marketable skills. In a near-perfect application of Say’s Law, Newport writes:

The things that make a great job great . . . are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job. (p. xvii)

That is probably not the advice many young people want to hear. As Newport observes, much of American culture promotes “the idea that the only thing standing between you and a dream job is building the courage to step off the expected path” (p. 132). Even so, what a person needs in order to eventually achieve a dream job is “career capital”—Newport’s term for rare and valuable skills—which, in turn, requires “deliberate practice,” honesty about one’s progress, and a relentless quest for improvement.

Newport emphasizes that the work required to become “so good they can’t ignore you” may be grueling and that success may take substantial time to achieve. Again, he cites Martin’s interview with Rose.

[H]ere’s how Steve Martin explained his strategy for learning the banjo: “[I thought], if I stay with it, then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it.”

To me, this is a phenomenal display of patience. Learning clawhammer banjo is hard, and because of this, Martin was willing to look forty years into the future for the payoff—a recognition of the frustrating months of hard work and mediocre playing ahead. In his memoir, Martin expounds on this idea when he discusses the importance of “diligence” for his success in the entertainment business. What’s interesting is that Martin redefines the word so that it’s less about paying attention to your main pursuit, and more about your willingness to ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you. . . .

The logic works as follows: Acquiring capital can take time. . . . Without this patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your efforts before you acquire the capital you need. I think the image of Martin returning to his banjo, day after day, for forty years, is poignant. It captures well the feel of how career capital is actually acquired: You stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.” (pp. 98–99)

Newport next addresses what to do as you gain “career capital.” He considers, for example, which career traits to invest in first, how to know whether you are pushing your skills in the right direction, what traps are easy to fall into, and how to develop “a unifying focus for your career” (p. 152).

He also details how in his own career (as a professor in computer science at Georgetown) he executes the ideas he has presented. For example, he discusses his effort to tackle a notoriously difficult paper in his field:

When I got to the first tricky gap in the paper’s main proof argument, I faced immediate internal resistance. It was as if my mind realized the effort I was about to expend, and in response it unleashed a wave of neuronal protest, distant at first, but then as I persisted increasingly tremendous, crashing over my concentration with mounting intensity.

To combat this resistance, I deployed two types of structure. The first type was time structure: “I am going to work on this for one hour,” I would tell myself. “I don’t care if I faint from the effort, or make no progress, for the next hour this is my whole world.” But of course I wouldn’t faint and eventually I would make progress. It took, on average, ten minutes for the waves of resistance to die down. Those ten minutes were always difficult, but knowing that my efforts had a time limit helped ensure that the difficulty was manageable.

The second type of structure I deployed was information structure—a way of capturing the results of my hard focus in a useful form. I started by building a proof map that captured the dependencies between the different pieces of the proof. This was hard, but not too hard, and it got me warmed up in my efforts to understand the result. I then advanced from the maps to short self-administered quizzes that forced me to memorize the key definitions the proof used. Again, this was a relatively easy task, but it still took concentration, and the result was an understanding that was crucial for parsing the detailed math that came next.

After these first two steps, emboldened by my initial successes in deploying hard focus, I moved on to the big guns: proof summaries. This is where I forced myself to take each lemma and walk through each step of its proofs—filling in missing steps. (pp. 210–11)

At the end of this process, Newport understood this paper as well as “whole swaths of related work that had previously been mysterious” (p. 211). The undertaking also opened up new opportunities for his career, in part because of a new result he was able to prove at a top conference of thinkers in his field.

If you want to succeed in the quest for work you love—or to love the work you love now even more—read So Good They Can’t Ignore You. It’s too good to ignore.

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