Book review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

“Follow your passion is dangerous advice.”

Cal Newport’s newest book opens with an interesting and controversial piece of advice. That’s perhaps not surprising given how interesting Cal Newport himself is. He’s a new professor at Georgetown University and a Computer Science PhD out of MIT. He’s also the author of a popular blog and a number of books on student life, acheivement and productivity. “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” is his most recent creation and this book might just change the way you look at your career and your life in general.

But first, let me tell you a little about myself. If you follow this blog regularly (and I hope you do) you’ll know that I’m a second year graduate student at Cornell University’s Computer Science program. I’m no longer a “new” graduate student but I’m certainly not a veteran of the research trenches yet. I’m still pretty early in my career and I’ve been grappling with some of the issues that come with the territory. In particular I’ve been thinking about what sort of projects I should be pursuing, what to do about projects I’m interested in but not 100% excited about and how to balance getting published with working on fun stuff (the two don’t always overlap). Newport’s new book has given me some good perspective on these matters.

The central thesis of this book is that the common wisdom of “follow your passion” is dangerously flawed. We shouldn’t be waiting for our dream job or our life purpose to fall into our laps. Instead we should be building “career capital” – valuable skills and expertise that we can exchange for jobs that are fulfilling and interesting.

The book opens by digging into the idea that passion is a basis for a remarkable life and bringing forth evidence that passion is rarer and less useful than we are led to believe. Newport then goes on to show that the alternative to passion is to become so good that they can’t ignore you. Concretely this translates to cultivating skills that are rare and valuable and that will let you negotiate your work and working conditions on your own terms. Newport cites studies that show that the actual determinant of career satisfaction is not “passion” but a trio of competence, control and relationships. The jobs we like are the ones that require skills, give us control over our work and life and bring us into contact with good coworkers. Finally we are shown how we can go about generating the career capital that we need in order to get these things in our work lives. In particular the book talks about deliberate practice, making small but continuous improvements in your skills and doing work that will make others sit up and notice.

Throughout the book Newport shares stories of both people who have followed the “passion hypothesis” and his proposed “career craftsman philosophy”. The examples are carefully examined and include a large group of people including venture capitalists, developers, farmers and professors. Instead of simply providing them as proof, Newport walks us through how his experiences with these people changed his own views on the matter and brought him to his current ideas on what makes a remarkable career.

While I’m generally skeptical of self-help books and books that claim to help you “follow your path”, this one is different. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Newport’s examples (and their discussion) are “scientific” but they are thorough and well researched. Furthermore, he acknowledges that the exact path will be different from person to person and that he is still figuring things out.

Personally, I found this book very helpful. It put to rest any worries I had about working on the “wrong” project. I’m still very much in the stage of my career where I’m earning career capital and most projects will be full of chances to learn and prove myself. But that doesn’t mean I should sign up for any project that walks in the door. The best projects are the ones that force me to learn something new and don’t require huge up front investments of time and energy (with little chance of results). As this book shows, excellent careers aren’t just by-products of luck, nor is it enough to just follow your interests. The best careers are crafted and take large investments of energy and effort over long periods of time. It helps that I love my job, but I don’t need to worry about picking the perfect project and being passionate about it, as long as I’m learning and gaining capital, I’m good (and getting better).

If you’re just starting out in a career, looking to switch or just want to give your career a jumpstart this is definitely a book worth reading. It’s never too late (or too early) to start improving. You don’t need to have a life mission set in stone before you get started either. Long story short, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is better life advice than “follow your passion”. Thanks to this book it’s probably easier to implement too.

On reading, writing and taking breaks

I’ve been taking a break from writing for a while. For the last few weeks I’ve been taking a break from this blog (and my tumblelog) as an experiment to see what life would be like without a regular writing commitment. The good news (at least I think it’s good news) is that I prefer having writing a staple part of my daily routine. Writing has a strange way of concentrating your focus and your direction. It encourages you to calm down and concentrate your thoughts into a single coherent narrative. In some ways, I think daily (or at least regular) writing is almost a form of meditation. It’s perhaps not quite as relaxing and focusing (especially if you’re on a deadline or you need to constantly look things up) but having a daily discipline is beneficial.

While I was on break from writing I did some more reading to fill up the time. I read more books and I read more blogs on the Internet. In particular I subscribed to a friend’s blog and to the excellent Brain Pickings. I’ve always loved reading, perhaps even more than I love writing. But the interesting thing is that on this break I grew just a little bit afraid of reading. Sites like Brain Pickings are ostensibly “curation” sites, their purpose is to gather the best content fitting a certain (often loose) theme and gather it in one place. In an age of abundant, often overwhelming information, curation and filtering are important services and we need them. One could say we desperately need them. But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if maybe we’re missing something. In the rush to curate, to collect, to filter and gather I wonder if we forget to create. One thing I felt during my break from writing is that when you’re reading (or watching a lot) your head tends to fill up with ideas and thoughts and arguments (at least mine does). It’s good to have an outlet, a way to organize and then clean out everything that’s in your mind. That’s part of the reason that this break isn’t lasting any longer. There’s too much stuff in my head and I need to get it out.

I think there is a danger in always reading and collecting and never writing. Each piece of writing is a thought, no matter how brief, no matter how hastily formed. As we read we fill our heads with other people’s thoughts, with their experiences and emotions and worldviews. And that’s a good thing, something to be cherished and encouraged. But all that reading and curation and collection, all that absorption of other people’s thoughts only really make sense if we then put those thoughts to good use. For me at least, reading is incomplete without writing. It doesn’t have to be for an audience, it doesn’t have to be perfect or polished or presentable, but it has to be there. While reading gives me access to other peoples’ thoughts, writing gives space for my own, a little breathing space for my mind. And that is very important. Writing is how I take a break from the world, even if the ultimate goal is to put something out into the world.

On a related note, I’m starting to think that it’s a good idea to take regular breaks from things, including (especially?) things that we enjoy or are important to our lives. This includes breaks from work but also breaks from play. Now that my break from writing is over, I wonder what to take from next. I’ve been thinking it should be television. I don’t watch actual television, but I do spend a fair amount of time in front of Netflix, not a lot, but more than I’d like to. Netflix is great, of course, and I love a good story as much as the next guy. But television tends to fill your head with other people thoughts’, much more so than reading. And while I don’t mind good writers like Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who and Sherlock) filling my head, I don’t want it happening all the time and I certainly don’t want to be watching the same thing over and over.

And now that I’m writing again, I know just how to spend all the time that I do save from not watching TV. Stay tuned (pun intended).

Sunday Selection 2012-09-16

Around the Web

There is something magical about Firefox OS

As much as I love my Android phone and think that Windows phone UI is pretty interesting I’m starting to wonder if the phone software ecosystems aren’t starting to get a bit stale. Especially with the iPhone 5 release it looks like we’re getting to the point where manufacturers only make small incremental updates to their systems instead of really improving. I’m hoping Firefox OS for mobile devices will shake things up in much the same way that Firefox did for the desktop

The Joy of Quiet

I love the Internet. I love being connected. I love being able to talk to my parents across the world for virtually nothing every day. I love being able to exchange snarky quips with friends I haven’t seen in years ( and writing that sentence made me feel really old). But I sometimes I can’t help wonder if it isn’t all getting just a bit out of hand. I’m not at the point where I’m willing to pay money to get disconnected (and I went without Internet for a week in the summer with no withdrawal symptoms). But I am starting to tone things down a bit, watching less TV, unsubscribing from RSS feeds and trying to spend some time each day reading good old dead tree books and just hearing myself think.

Why I write: George Orwell’s Four Motives for Creation

The flip side of consumption is creation. Part of the reason I want to tone down my connectivity is so that I can consume less and create more. George Orwell has a somewhat unusual take on the reasons behind creativity: it’s less Zen and passion and more a combination of ego, pride and simple pragmatism. It’s useful to realize that not all creative types are driven by some diving inspiration by way of a capricious muse. Some people just want to be heard.

Web services

Findings

The Internet is a great medium for sharing, even better than a soapbox in a park or a podium at a forum. Findings in an interesting service for sharing text either from your Kindle or from the Web. They also place emphasis on proper attribution. I don’t know how they plan on making money but it’s well put-designed and I hope they add support for sharing from other reading platforms like Instapaper and Readmill.

Sunday Selection 2012-09-09

With a paper deadline in about ten days I find myself in the all too familiar position of too much to do and too little time to do it in. So today’s installment is focused on productivity and getting things done (in general, not the actual method).

Around the Web

Want to Publish More? Then Train Like an Athlete

For better or for worse, writing is a significant part of an academic career. Like all such things becoming a good writer requires practice and part of the reason I write this blog is to get regular practice (though perhaps I do that less often than I should). This article talks about both why and how you can practice writing.

The Ultimate Productivity Tool

In the quest to do more things and do them fast we often forget to the most important question of all: what’s worth doing? This article is only a half-joking look at what might happen if you really start asking that question.

 Get Disciplined Not Motivated

Haruki Murakami tells us that talent is nothing without focus and endurance. Along the same lines, enthusiasm and motivation is nothing if not channeled and focused.  And the best way to channel that energy is to develop the discipline and routines such that the channeling happens automatically without a battle with ourselves every single time.

Upgrading to Ice Cream Sandwich

I’m about six months behind the rest of the world when it comes to phone software, but I finally upgraded my Nexus S  to Ice Cream Sandwich. Unfortunately the process was not as smooth as I would have liked: even though I have an unlocked stock phone from Google I still couldn’t get the OTA upgrade and had to find and manually download it. However, the upgrade basically destroyed my phone. Everything was slow and laggy, apps crashed all the time and battery life was down to a few hours. After a few days of trying to troubleshoot I gave up and did a “factory reset”. The reset removed all apps and reset to just the base OS (the upgraded ICS version in this case). Luckily this seemed to fix everything. Now that I’ve re-installed the apps that I did regularly use my phone is better than ever.

I really the look and feel of ICS. It’s close enough to Gingerbread that I don’t feel lost but it’s different enough to feel like I’m using something new. I like the blue and black theme much better than the previous orange (though I wish there was a selection of color themes). The more 2D feel of the interface (at least for the native Android apps) is really nice too. It’s different enough from iOS but not as different as Metro (or whatever it’s supposed to be called now). Some apps like the music player, the  contacts app and Gmail have had significant redesigns and are a quite a bit nicer to use. I don’t know what changes they have made to the keyboard but it seems much more natural to type on and more accurate. However the caps lock feature seems to be gone which is a bit annoying at times. Most third party apps seem to be unchanged by the design changes. The whole phone seems much snappier and faster. Battery life during actual use seems about the same, though it does seem longer on standby ( I haven’t made any scientific measurements).

I’ve been pretty happy with the Android platform and this phone in particular since I got it. It was not quite as polished as iOS but it wasn’t significantly deficient either. With the ICS update I feel like Android has made small but steady improvements to the whole experience. Since I mostly use the stock Android apps and popular ones like Facebook and Twitter I haven’t explored the ecosystem much. That being said, I have no complaints about the apps and services I do use. I use my phone basically as a quick lookup and occasional texting and calling device — I much prefer a proper computer when it comes to doing work. For those purposes the phone is great. With the improved keyboard I’ve been using it for quick emails and IM as well. If I was in the habit of keeping a shorter blog I think I could use the phone to write for that as well.

I don’t plan on switching phones any time soon and I’m glad to say that it looks like I won’t be forced to. The Nexus S is a solid device (not perfect, but solid). I wish it had a better camera and I’d be happy to pay for an OmniFocus app (even if it was just read only) but apart from that I’m happy with it. The ICS update made it better than it was and there doesn’t seem to have been any unnecessary superfluous changes. I hope the Jelly Bean update (when it comes) will keep going in the right direction.