Transitions: The World of Work

Book Review 

[Newport, C. (2012). So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Business Plus Press.]

[Key Words: Passion Hypothesis; craftsman mindset; career capital; control; mission; Cal Newport]

[This article marks the second in a series on Transitions I will be developing for this blog. The first essay in this series addressed Age and Retirement. The transition to be explored here involves entering the world of work or transitioning into a new career. The article takes the form of a book review of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I believe what he says in this thought-provoking book is wise counsel for anyone entering the market or transitioning to a new career path.]


In our culture work or career forms a major important aspect of our identity. Likewise, there is no shortage of advice from various career consultants, counselors, and coaches on how to choose a career, how to match one’s personality to a particular job, and how to find fulfillment and happiness in one’s chosen field of endeavor. Many times these discussions focus on personality types, work environments, market niches, and a myriad of other details that can produce information overload for those seeking meaningful work. But rarely do we come across information that emphasizes the importance of job seekers taking stock of the skills they bring to their career quest. One particular work I read recently is an exception: Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Newport’s Thesis: “Skills Trump Passion”

Newport’s work deconstructs a highly accepted and admired myth in our culture that has developed over the past several decades. As though it is wisdom flowing from an oracle, a common truism regarding pursuing a career has remained unchallenged and unquestioned for some time now.  We are told time and again that the only way we will find fulfilling and meaningful work is to follow our passion. Newport designates this idea as the passion hypothesis, which states that people possess a hidden, preexisting passion that they must discover and match to the work world so as to find work they will love. Once we discover our passion, fulfilling work ensues, and we become successful because we have hit upon the work we were meant to do. Newport turns this notion on its head. In order to corral the kind of job we desire, skill development must come first. Fulfilling work, rather than emerging from a given passion, comes from possessing skills and being good at what we do. Newport challenges people, rather than to seek a preexisting passion, to develop skills so as to become good at something. Such skills open the the door to job opportunities not heretofore considered. Good work skills are a springboard into avenues we wouldn’t recognize otherwise without having developed our skills.

We might be tempted to ask: If Newport is right, how do we decide which skills to develop? Many times people fall into modes of work by simply pursuing jobs they need to pay bills, and then discover they are good at performing in certain areas. Other times, we might indeed have an interest, but mere interest in a particular type of work does not mean that we possess the skills to succeed in what we’re interested. If we are interested in a particular field of endeavor, rather than focusing on whether or not it’s a match to some inner passion we possess, we should instead focus on what skills it takes to pursue our field of interest. Then we should develop the skills necessary to excel in that field. Too many people give up on their so-called “passion” because they lacked the skills to carry it out, believing that passion rather than effort would bring about their desired success.

Exploding the “Passion Hypothesis”: Newport’s Four Rules

Rule # 1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, indeed turns common advice regarding the job hunt on its head by challenging what he calls the passion hypothesis. He organizes his thought around his four rules for finding work one loves. Rule # 1 states simply, don’t follow your passion. Within the framework of this rule, he discusses several people who appeared to be products of the passion hypothesis, yet on further investigation, he demonstrates that they obtained their success through a series of tasks by which they developed rare and valuable skills. Likewise, he presented cases where people followed their passion, but lacked the important skills to reach their goals of doing what they love. We might counter – what about those who have followed their passion and succeeded? Newport does not deny that there are cases where a preexisting passion my have served a person well, but he claims that such cases are rare. What is not rare is the necessity of skill development so that people become exceptional at what they do, which, in turn, opens a channel into satisfying and fulfilling endeavors.

Rule # 2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You

If we don’t possess a given passion to which we must match certain work, then what do we do to find work fulfillment? Newport answers with Rule # 2, the core of his book: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You. And how do we accomplish that? It is here where Newport’s discussion resonates strongly with what I believe. We accomplish Rule # 2 the only way it can be accomplished – by developing skills that are valuable to the world of work. Skill development, however, does not come about by wishing for it or discovering hidden jewels within. It comes about through effort. Newport discusses the importance of what he calls the craftsman mindset. People must develop the habits of building their craft. Constructing one’s craft means exploring all the necessary skills required to become, not only good at what one does, but also as accomplished as one possibly can. Skill development not only takes effort, but it also requires time, perhaps mentoring, and hit-and-miss failures that are valuable learning lessons. It is here that we may balk at finding the work we love. We can talk about our passion to accomplish something grand, but when we have to face the time, effort, and hard work that skill development requires, then we find out if we’re willing to do what it takes to accomplish our tasks. Skill-building involves effort and time that is not necessarily fun, and quite frankly can be boring at times. But the payoff comes with the opportunities skills provide. The more skills we develop, the more opportunities we have available. Such skills Newport designates as career capital, which are descriptions of rare and valuable skills one possesses for the working world. This important capital transforms into currency for creating the kind of work we will find fulfilling. Newport is emphatic that the craftsman mindset and career capital are created, not simply discovered as already existing. We must build our skills and create our career capital.

Rules 3 & 4 Build On Rule # 2

Newport’s Rule # 3 & Rule #4 address other characteristics important for  pursuing the kind of work people love. However, they cannot be accomplished without valuable skills and the career capital generated by those skills. In other words, Rule # 2 is foundational to Rules 3 & 4. Rule # 3 speaks to the importance of control for finding work we love. Newport straightforwardly defines control as having a say in what you do and how you do it. He views control as one of the key characteristics of fulfilling work. But it comes about on the basis of our career capital. In other words, we obtain control – purchase it if you will – via the career capital one has built. If we try to obtain control in our work world without a well-developed skill set, we’ll most likely miss the mark. Newport warns his readers about two types of control traps. One trap involves our trying to obtain control without the necessary career capital to pull it off. Risk taking and going for something worthwhile are indeed courageous acts of the will, but wisdom must also accompany courage. Even with a well-developed skill set, control is a risky endeavor with unseen obstacles. A second control trap is laid when we possess solid career capital. It is at this point that companies or corporations may influence us to stay on with them rather than go out on our own so as to gain more control over our work lives. Newport applies a simple rule here: Turn down the promotion. And move on.

A fourth rule that contributes to our creating the work we love is what Newport calls a mission. A mission provides a unifying goal for one’s career. Newport recognizes here that it’s important that people find their work meaningful on some level. However, again, a mission does not preexist; it can only come about via career capital that we have built up so that a mission becomes definable via our knowledge and skill set.

Transitioning into the World of Work

From the counseling perspective, the work world falls primarily into the personal dimension. But as with most endeavors, it can touch, influence, and be influenced by all four dimensions [physical, social, personal, spiritual]. As one who enjoys counseling people who are trying to find their way in the world of work, reading Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, led me to recognize mistakes I have made regarding my own work pursuits, as well as the way I have worked with clients in the past. I too have fallen victim to the passion hypothesis during my life. Yet simultaneously, I recognize how strongly I resonate with Newport’s emphasis on the craftsman mindset. I think it is here where we can answer the question regarding how much effort we’re willing to put into our pursuit of fulfilling work. The rubber meets the road in terms of the amount of time and effort required for skill development. I recognize in myself, as well as my clients, that I would prefer to be at Point A – the top of my game. But the real question is: Am I willing to do what is required to reach Point A? We must become craftsmen.  Before making a major move regarding work and career, we must assess the career capital we presently possess; we must take stock of the skills we lack as well, and begin building them.

There is one important fact we must recognize about Newport’s work. He does not claim that passion about our work is unimportant. He claims that for most of us, rather than preexisting, we develop our passion through becoming skilled at what we do. Secondly, and equally important, Newport is not defining success merely by wealth. Although there may be other questions I have regarding Newport’s thesis, I firmly believe that there is no escaping the need to build one’s craft. The necessity of the craftsman mindset touches on all fields of endeavor – writers, musicians, actors, entrepreneurs, or cognitive scientists. It is equally important that we honestly take stock of the skills we both possess and lack. And in doing so, it’s imperative that we find those people we trust to provide honest, harsh – yet constructive – feedback regarding our work.

Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You is an important work that has reshaped the way I think about the world of work for myself and for my clients. If you haven’t read it yet, pick it up. You will be challenged on several levels.

John V. Jones, Jr. Ph.D., LPC-S/February 14, 2014


THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review

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