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.]

Introduction

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

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING: Transitions

THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review

Transitions: Age and Retirement

[Key Words: age, retirement, transitions, four dimensions, time, finitude]

[This is the first of a series of articles I intend to write regarding various transitions we face in our lives. Besides Age & Retirement, other transitions include such experiences as marriage/divorce, changing/losing jobs, entering/exiting the job market for the first time, and then facing our own finitude, be it through the death of a loved one, or staring in the face of our remaining years. I will discuss how an existential approach to life can address transitions in living.]

Introduction: Transitions in the Flow of Life

At 65 years old, I’m beginning to understand the full force of what it means when people say, “Life is about transitions.” Fortunately, or unfortunately (perhaps both), I’m also beginning to understand what people mean when they talk about how they now realize what lessons for living they have missed along the way. And finally, rather than getting stuck on the fact that I have missed lessons along life’s path, I’m beginning to understand the potency of the statement, “Time starts now.” I wish it hadn’t taken me so many years to realize some  of the things I will discuss in this article, but I have a feeling that such time-learned lessons are part of living. So it has taken me years to realize some things. To accept such facts rather than deny them is another important lesson for living.

We all face transitions in life and continual opportunities to learn lessons about living, particularly lessons about pursuing and carving out the kind of life we desire for ourselves. As a counselor, I have come to believe that the thrust of counseling is about helping people come to grips with who they are, determining how they want to live, and finding ways to navigate the many transitions they face in life, learning lessons and making meaning of all these experiences along the way. In short, I view counseling as a journey with clients as they figure out for themselves how to achieve a fulfilling life.

Transitions in our lives come about for a variety of reasons. We may choose them, or they may be thrust upon us through events out of our control. Even when we choose them, we may be thrown headlong into experiences we didn’t anticipate. How we make sense of these transitions and imbue them with meaning contribute to how well we will navigate them and work through them. These experiences represent the many struggles of living. Sometimes they are minor struggles; other times they are major ones. Without intending to delineate an objective list of transitions, I want to discuss how an existential approach to counseling can enable clients to work through some of the recurring transitions that people tend to encounter and bring into the counseling room. . This first article of an intended series that I have entitled, Transitions, focuses on age and retirement.

Exploring the Meaning of Age and Retirement

We value work in our culture. At a core level, many people view career as a major part of their identity. “I’m an accountant . . . a teacher . . . a doctor . . . etc,” are statements we hear constantly, and ones we have most likely said about ourselves to others. Productivity is a core value associated with work and career. [Although most of us would not distinguish work from career, for some people work is a way to get by and pay bills while they pursue other things in life more important to them. Their career may entail fulfilling activities for which they do not get paid.) No one likes to believe or feel on some level that he or she is unproductive. Moreover, many of us pursue a career in order to contribute , make a difference, or establish some kind of legacy. For others, work is a means to the end of pursuing more fulfilling experiences. Whatever the role work and career fulfill for us, when we face that time when we will no longer be working and producing as we have been, we cannot help but encounter a major transition in our lives. Some people navigate this transition rather seamlessly, having planned well along the way. Other people find that retirement and growing older is an event that they never saw as being just around the corner. They turn one of those many perceived endless corners of life, and there it is: I’m 65 years old.

What the hell happens to time? Time is a major theme in existential thought. What have I done with my time? How much time do I have left? Why is it that I never seem to have enough time? These are common questions or thoughts that people have about the ominous presence of time. We are not only ensconced in space, but we are embedded in time as well.  Consequently, individuals enter counseling to deal with the struggle of what this transition will mean for them. They may state their struggle in terms of, “If I’m not a productive person, then what good am I?” Or they may ponder the notion, “Since I’ve been working all these years, I have no idea what I’m going to do with my time now.”

Age, Retirement, and the Four Dimensions of Existential Psychotherapy

The experience of growing older and retiring from work can be conceptualized along all four dimensions of existential therapy, as delineated by Emmy van Deurzen. In the physical realm, age takes a toll on us in that we cannot do the things we used to do. At 65, I can vouch for that. Those pick-up touch football games ceased many years ago. Although I can still work a twelve-to-fourteen hour day, it takes much more out of me than it used to. I have always had a love for driving. I would drive to other cities in other states just to visit them, taking in a twelve to thirteen hour driving day. I no longer can do that, nor can I any longer go on four hours of sleep and get up and face the day full of energy. Moreover, as our fall and winter years approach, we will most likely face some health concerns. So the physical realm definitely raises its unwanted head as we age. Existential therapy helps people come to grips with this physical reality.

In the social arena, age and retirement impact us no less than in the physical dimension. Relationships change; some relationships, such as co-worker relations, might end altogether. Spending more time at home throws spouses or significant others into a different daily routine. Being together more hours of the day presents a transition that people must learn to navigate. If one member of a couple continues to work, that individual may have to deal with the emotional fallout experienced by the retired loved one. Tighter budgets mean that people may not be able to do all the activities they had previously enjoyed. Finances (another issue altogether, no matter what people’s age happens to be) are a constant point of concern and can threaten a family’s wellbeing during later years. Families change, friendships change, activities change, – life altogether changes as people age and retire from their pursued work or careers.

The arena of the personal dimension is the one that most likely takes the hardest hit during this transition. As I stated previously, people in our culture attach meaning, purpose, value, and personal fulfillment to their work or career. All of us have heard that damning phrase, out to pasture. No one likes or agrees that such an epitaph should, like an albatross, be hung around anyone’s neck who has reached retirement. The phrase is an insult. Nonetheless, on a personal level, many of us struggle with what our retirement years mean. And given the cultural value of work, we can’t help but question our personal value if we are no longer producing. Value, identity, and personal meaning can take a severe blow during this transition if we accept as paramount the cultural value placed on youth and productivity.

The spiritual dimension speaks more directly to meaning making, and trying to make sense of our lives as we approach retirement is a meaning-making activity. Indeed, much of therapy may revolve around the struggle of how clients will interpret this time of their lives. Many people, as in all areas of their lives, will bring their religious and/or spiritual values to bear on this experience to help them navigate it. Through counseling, clients can also draw on their spiritual beliefs to help them find strength during this time of their lives. They may, in fact, explore the question: How can I make this transition a time of opportunity rather than one of restricted living? Although age and retirement may mean an end to certain experiences, there is no reason that this transition should mean simply an end. People can view this time of life as a path to explore rather than an existence that has corralled them.

Moreover, this timeframe for our existence can be a fruitful time for people to take stock and reflect on their lives, the many lessons they have learned along the way, and how even the ones they missed have served them somehow. Such reflection may involve some pain and disappointment, but, as well, it can also bring about joy and fulfillment. Taking stock of our lives is a major theme in existential therapy. At times I personally experience the thought that I would like to go back to my younger years, knowing what I know now. Not only does such a fantasy rob life of its learning, but it also cheats life, as well, of living. Such a dream speaks to the age old desire to capture lost time, learning lessons at a time we would have preferred to learn them, or, even worse, wanting a life where there is no struggle, which is the very experience that generates our learning and personal growth. Such a desire misses the point that time starts now. The Christian mystic, Thomas A’ Kempis, in his renowned work, The Imitation of Christ, wisely stated, “When you think of those things you would have done earlier in life but didn’t do them, do them now.” Such an understanding of living does not mean that we do not have a past that impacts us. But it does mean that we can waste the remaining time we do have by thinking that somehow we can alter our past, or even worse, pining over how we wish our past would have been different.

Age, Retirement and the Specter of Death

And finally, coming to grips with this time of life brings us to the theme that is ever hauntingly present in our existence. Aging and diminishing capacities mean that we are approaching that mysterious experience that poses many questions but few answers. We are all going to die. And although this theme cuts across the various dimensions of existence, we tend to grapple with it along personal and spiritual means. At 65 years of age, and given the thrown-ness of my humanity, family history, and genetics, I realize that more than three-quarters of my life is done. This is not a transition that I relish to contemplate. Yet, though we would rather avoid the subject altogether, life calls on us to reflect on such realities. Paraphrasing the Logotherapist, Viktor Frankl, what matters is not what we demand of life, but what life demands of us. How do we want to approach these final years? Do we quail under the weight of our destinies? Or do we continue to live fully to the finish? These challenges, questions, and struggles are ones we face ourselves, and as therapists, we can sit with our clients as they face them as well.

Conclusion

There are many other ways to view and navigate the transition of age and retirement. First, who says one MUST retire? Some people may choose to work until they finish. Nor does retirement have to mean that productivity ceases. There are a multitude of ways to be productive in addition to one’s career. Moreover, there are a multitude of ways to understand productivity. As difficult as it may seem, a conversation about this transition is not merely for people approaching retirement age. Talking about this transition to younger people can help them begin to think about how they want to enter their autumn years. Although nothing can be perfectly predicted and planned for, there is a place for thinking about one’s latter years earlier in life. That is one of those lessons of life I wish I had learned at an earlier age. Yet at the same time, to excessively ruminate about such things can freeze people up rather than propelling them to live. How we come to grips with our final destiny can either weigh us down or enliven us. More importantly, the thought of coming to grips with our humanity and its finitude should free us to live NOW. To pine away and constantly commiserate on the fact that we’re going to die equates to a waste of time and living.

Age and retirement represent one of the many types of transitions that individuals face in life. People can engage a contemplative and reflective approach to counseling, such as an existential approach, to help them navigate this transition in more fulfilling ways. There are no guarantees that all people will face this transition in a healthy and fulfilling manner. But the opportunity for them to do so is there if they choose to explore and leave open the many options by which people can embrace life. Whether or not they retire from their career, people can choose to push on, the best way they can, to a fulfilling finish.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/September 14, 2013  

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING: Transitions