Career Center Blog

September 20, 2012

First be good at what you do and the passion will follow


Follow your dreams? Just child's play. Discover your true calling? An impossible fantasy. Work your way up the company ladder? Sucker!

While never stated quite this bluntly, these are some of the harsh admonitions that author Cal Newport aims at today's starry-eyed job seekers in his new book, So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

Newport is a born contrarian and seems to relish his role as iconoclast, gleefully debunking career-advice assumptions that he considers cliché or ineffective. A computer scientist and assistant professor of at Georgetown University, Newport naturally prefers hard data and outcome-based approaches in the determination of career satisfaction rather than angling for savvy network connections or finding shortcuts to success.

Last week, I delved back into the 41st edition of Richard Bolles' seminal "What Color is Your Parachute?" — the granddaddy of all career manuals — which encourages job seekers to first determine what makes them happy and then go about finding a job that allows that passion to thrive. Newport's book, however, could be considered the "anti-Parachute" of career-advice books. For everyone who has been told to "follow their dreams" but don't quite know what those dreams are telling them, this book might provide a breakthrough. "Get good and the passion will follow, not the other way around," Newport contends, citing several real-world examples.

Newport never quite convinced me that the "passion" he dismisses so frequently is any different than the mental and emotional fortitude needed to complete the hard work he says is essential to building career skills. But he does make some insightful, practical points about how success cannot be created overnight and doesn't come from merely wanting it enough. The philosophy of his book boils down to four main rules:

Rule 1: Don't Follow Your Passion. This rule may be the toughest to swallow, since it runs counter to so much conventional wisdom about job satisfaction. Blindly doing what you want and expecting the money to follow later, Newport writes, will only set people up for "failure and confusion when they discover that, in the real world, creating a career you love is more complicated."

Newport singles out the myth behind the late Steve Jobs as one of the main perpetrators of the false "follow your passion" strategy. Although Jobs, in his final years, was famous for challenging young college graduates to let their passions guide them in their careers, his own story tells a very different tale. Jobs was a college dropout who never showed much evidence of a passion for engineering, technology or even entrepreneurship—he was far more interested in exploring Zen Buddhism and living on communes than inventing the personal computer. It wasn't until the mid-1970s, when he met electronics genius Steve Wozniak, that Jobs' knack for business emerged and he realized that he could make money in a brand new field.

As the Jobs story illustrates, "there is no 'right' job our there waiting for you to find," Newport says. "Pre-existing passions are rare and have little to do with how most people end up loving their work. They can even be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job-hopping."

Rule 2: Be So Good They Can't Ignore You. This rule (and the book's title) comes from a quote by comedian Steve Martin, who used this phrase as advice for aspiring comics. In other words, instead of looking for tricks and a fast-track to success, work on developing valuable, in-demand skills first and construct a reputation so that employers will come to you, not vice versa.

He calls this results-oriented approach "the craftsman mindset," which involves building "career capital" in the form of hard work at acquiring expert knowledge in any given field. "No one owes you a great career," he says. "You need to earn it, and the process won't be easy."

Rule 3: Turn Down a Promotion. For many job seekers, success is often measured via a series of promotions up the chain of command at one or several companies. Newport contends that this track never addresses most important factor in achieving happiness in one's career: control.

By accepting promotions as you continue to acquire career capital under Rule 2, you will have a harder time acquiring autonomy and investing this capital the way you want to, i.e., setting your own hours, working at your own pace, choosing projects that interest you. "[Career] capital makes you valuable enough to your employers that they will likely keep you on a more traditional path," he writes. "They realize that gaining more control is good for you but not for their bottom line."

Rule 4: Think Small, Act Big. Choosing skill development over passion on your way to career happiness does not necessarily mean giving up on making an emotional connection with your work, Newport says. In this last rule, he encourages readers that have crafted enough career capital and leveraged a sufficient amount of autonomy to sustain their satisfaction by giving their careers an overall "mission."

"People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they're also more resistant to the strain of hard work," he adds. "Staying up late to save your corporate litigation client a few million dollars can be draining, but staying up late to cure an ancient disease can leave you more energized than when you started."

Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

Read more
, , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Follow NWjobs: Twitter Facebook LinkedIn


More posts


Karen Burns Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.

Kristen Fife Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.

Lisa Quast Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.

Randy Woods Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

Former contributors

Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.

Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."


See all topics

Subscribe to NWjobs

Career Center Blog Events