A Way of Living: Wendy McElroy’s The Art of Being Free

Book Review

[McElroy, W. (2012). The Art of Being Free: Politics versus the Everyman and Woman. Baltimore,MD: Laissez-Faire Books.]


As a person who is anti-politics, one thing I seek not to do on this site is write about politics, political events, and politicians. I neither belong to nor support any political party, I do not partake or involve myself in political events, nor contribute to political campaigns. I hold politics in disdain and, for the most part, to be antithetical to life. Rather than serving life, politics and politicians intrude upon and impede living on most levels. So this essay is the closest I’ll come to any political discussion. However, who I am discussing and her work that I’m reviewing are perfect for my purposes, which can be gleaned merely by looking at the title of Wendy McElroy’s book, The Art of Being Free: Politics versus Everyman and Woman. Inherent in the title is the idea that politics, rather than a necessity, if one wants to live freely, is something to abandon rather than embrace.

The Thrust of McElroy’s The Art of Being Free

Wendy McElroy’s The Art of Being Free is the application of a libertarian manifesto to the problems that people face in their day-to-day struggles in the arenas of politics, economics, and law. [Please note the small-case “l” in libertarian]. It is written for the person who faces those struggles on the streets of everyday living, hence the subtitle of the book: Politics versus Everyman and Woman. McElroy, a confessed Rothbardian, applies anarchical thought to the issues she discusses; however, she is her own thinker, not someone who merely restates what Rothbard advanced. Because the book both addresses the gritty issues of the day and does so in an appeal to the Everyman & Woman on the street, it is an intelligent, yet down-to-earth analysis, as well as an enjoyable read. Isn’t it about time that intelligence is once again defined as a discussion of issues where the rubber meets the road? Such an approach to living is called wisdom. One of the best things that can happen to a discussion about personal liberty is to remove the dialogue from the elitist, pedantic, and the academe, and bring it home to what McElroy describes as the working people. In addition to being a book on ideas, an arena where McElroy displays her passion, The Art of Being Free fulfills its title in addressing the art of living. And the art of living entails living out one’s passion, which, in turn means living as though the State is irrelevant.

Structure of the Book

Theoretical Footing

McElroy divides her work into four sections. Section I provides a “theoretical footing” that forms the thread that holds the work together. One encounters both an intelligent and a passionate love of ideas where McElroy describes her ideological framework within which her various discussions are set. She openly describes her theoretical perspective as classical liberal, libertarian, and radical individualism. Her discussion of Natural Law and natural rights set squarely on the history of ideas as witnessed in the writings of Lysander Spooner, Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Jay Nock, and Murray Rothbard. In classical liberal terms, she distinguishes the State from society and embraces spontaneous order in contrast to social design or social engineering. The right of an individual to his or her self – his or her body – forms her core value by which she examines all other concerns throughout the book.

Practical Application

Section II of McElroy’s work applies her theoretical foundations to the political, social, economic, and legal concerns of the day. These concerns are addressed in terms that everyday working people face as they struggle to carve out their lives for themselves in a free market. How are their businesses and fruits of their labor impacted by taxation and government spending policies? How are their daily lives restricted through mechanisms of social control? And how are their lives changed or devastated by legal sanctions that criminalize actions that would otherwise be considered harmless to others? The section addresses a wide variety of issues and concerns, including workers’ rights, public education , drug laws, issuing of passports, the post office, debtor’s prison, and constant militarism and war. Throughout McElroy’s discussions, the rights of the individual are upheld and her analysis of the State as contrasted to society is unrelenting.

An Historical Excursion

Section III of McElroy’s book provides an interesting historical excursion of ideas from individuals who have impacted the author’s libertarian journey. Moreover, the section highlights one of McElroy’s themes that ideas are not simply abstractions that exist apart from the day-to-day living of the Everyman & Woman. Ideas are not separate from people. And ideas have their impact through the passionate way that people live them out. The biographical sketches that the author produces in this section are both interesting and inspiring. Readers will become familiar with La Boetie, Voltaire, Thoreau, Garrison, and Hoiles. Several questions are addressed through the short discussions of these individuals’ lives. La Boetie addresses the question: Why should people obey unjust laws? Voltaire explores the question of how one navigates the relationship between freedom and tolerance. Although one hears the adage repeatedly that it takes the masses to change, or, you can’t fight city hall, a sketch of William Lloyd Garrison’s work addresses the question as to whether or not one person can truly make a difference. And furthering the theme of the work regarding the art of living, an inspiring discussion of R. C. Hoiles’ stance against the interment of Japanese in America during WW II, calls forth the idea of how an individual’s choice to live excellently might impact other people’s lives and become a shrine of how we should all strive to live out our passions and values. McElroy has a passion for ideas and readings in the history of ideas. And this section displays that passion in a manner that seamlessly fits the overall theme or her work.

Creating a Free Society

Having laid the theoretical foundations and discussed how to apply those foundations along with some historical examples of individuals who lived out ideas of liberty, Section IV deals with the how of bringing about free society. Rather than offering dictates to the masses, McElroy discusses the importance of various grassroots movements taking place in America, ranging from the fathers’ rights movements to advocates for homeschooling, and the growing public concern over the police state and abuse. She calls for us to ask what we can do in our own backyard in combating and eventually abolishing the State. Although as a libertarian, McElroy doesn’t have set rules for how everyone should live, there are some principles on which she stands and calls for us to consider. We must address the question of evil and banality of evil. What do we consider to be evil, and how do we stand against what we consider evil? We must confront the question of whether or not America is now a police state. If so, how did a supposedly free-loving people allow such a phenomenon to come into existence? Additionally, McElroy stands for an all-out abolition of the State as opposed to government by expedience and gradualism. Gradualism will only keep institutions of the State in tact. Because libertarians operate off the non-aggressive axiom, a call for an abolishment of the State is not a call for violent overthrow; but it is a call for individuals to stand against the State. Such actions as boycotts, refusing to support certain institutions financially, and not engaging in the political inanities of the day are some ways that people can diminish the State in their lives. The art of living free is not a project on the collective level, but one we each must strive to carve out in our own day-to-day lives and communities.


Libertarianism is a movement for working people. McElroy’s work stresses the importance of the Everyman & Woman. Her work speaks to me on several levels since I have been associated with academia now for some twenty-odd years. The Art of Being Free, rather than being some inane political rallying point, calls forth the question for me as to how I want to live. Where do I go from here? How do I live out my ideas and passions? I am not sure I can answer that question within the confines of academia. But regardless of where we work, I believe that the questions and concerns raised by Wendy McElroy are both inspiring and challenging. Although we are called to the challenges that life presents, especially today in terms of the State, we are also here to live. So as we face these challenges that power and State thrust upon us, how might each of us take these challenges on, while at the same time choosing to live in spite of the State? The art of living free – The Art of Being Free – is found in living out our passions and values, and living them out, at least from my perspective, as though the State – and politics – are irrelevant to our lives.

[Note: I first came across Wendy McElroy’s writings via her website IFeminist.com. Since then, I have followed her blog and various writings.]

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D./May 14, 2015



A Journey Through Time and Mind

Book Review

[Kaye, Alysha (2014): The Waiting Room: Published by Alysha Kaye


As I entered the narrative of Alysha Kaye’s The Waiting Room, I was immediately transported to my first viewing of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Steambath, with Tandy’s puzzlement and questions that develop throughout the play of why and how he ended up in a strange steamy room in the first place. And then there were those crazy doors, through which people exited to – well, who knows where? Similar to the ominous steam room in Friedman’s play, in Kaye’s novel people seemed to pop up and appear at a mysterious airport terminal. Likewise, the nonlinear structure of Kaye’s novel was reminiscent of Billy Pilgrim’s experience of coming “unstuck in time”, from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. But the similarities stop there. Alysha Kaye reveals in an interview that her inspiration for her novel came about due to a dream about an airport terminal. So rather than Tandy’s steam bath, Jude finds himself in an airport terminal waiting room, watching people appear and vanish, again through those mind bending side doors that lead us to ponder the destiny of those whose names are called to take their exit. With Friedman and Vonnegut, our questions about life were immersed in the experience of the absurd. But with The Waiting Room, our  hopes rest on a human quest of love, purpose, and meaning.

Love Stories & Philosophical Questions

People might look at me in a quizzical tone when I say romantic love stories can indeed embark upon important philosophical excursions. But why so? We have witnessed such literature from Tess d’urbervilles to The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And does not love itself open up all sorts of questions about our humanity, and, indeed, our raison d’être? Life, death, afterlife, identity, the existence of God, all come under discussion and scrutiny in The Waiting Room. And then there’s the ever-present haunting question: Do the strong passions people feel for living and for others truly matter in determining their destiny? The novel is indeed a journey through time and mindparticularly through the minds of Jude and Nina – and thereby a journey through our own minds as we reflect on the questions raised by these characters through their experiences. And then there is Ruth. Who is this character who appears as an anchor throughout the narrative, and what does she represent? For those readers who enjoy a work written in modernist tones, yet reflecting on traditional human questions, Kaye’s novel will be an enjoyable read indeed. Personally, I enjoy a short-story, novel, or movie that tells its tale in an unusual way. The Waiting Room, for sure, does that. As stated, its nonlinear use of narrative and the mysterious use of setting in the form of an airport terminal as a portal through time establish its mystical-realistic tone. Characters morph in front of our reading eyes, as does the narrative structure that drifts from prose to poetry, as in the exchanges between Alondra and Rosalio. The Waiting Room takes readers on a journey through a unique and creative style.

A Word about Self-Publishing

Recently, I read in another blog that Alysha had been looking at the possibility of having a publisher pick her her novel, but she decided to stay the independent route. Although I would say to anyonedo what is best for you to make a living in this crazy world of writing and publishing, I want to give a hardy hurrah for her decision. I thoroughly believe the future belongs to more independent self-publishers, or at least to those who take avenues counter to traditional publishing houses. I picked up my copy of The Waiting Room here in Austin at Book People. The internet, self-publishing, and alternative ways of getting people’s work out belong to this digital age. And I firmly believe it’s where cutting-edge works will come from, given that many publishing houses prefer formulas, not wanting to take risks. Likewise, even with a publishing house, unless a writer is well-known and popular already, writers still have to do their own marketing. So for sure, order your copy of The Waiting Room online, or find those places where you live that support independent writers and purchase a copy there. And spread the word about this enjoyable read.

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

THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review

The Highwayman

Book Review

[Pirsig, R. (1984). Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: William Morrow & Co.]

[Key Words: Zen; science; art; Church of Reason; tensions; Chautauqua; Phaedrus; values; highway]


During my life’s journey, over the past few decades, I have read Robert Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at least twice. And by now, people who are familiar with Pirsig’s popular and successful work know that the book is about much more than either Zen or motorcycle maintenance; yet, at the same time, that’s exactly what it is about. This review is not necessarily addressing those who have read, familiarized themselves with, and have admired and been provoked by this book as I do and have. Instead, I hope to pique the interest of those who have not read and know little to nothing about this work. But rather than merely your interest, I also want to prep your thinking cap, angst, and courage to engage this work of literature and a man’s story that will take you on a journey. The highway on which Pirsig, his son, and friends travel is an apt metaphor, for this book is indeed a journey, not only into the depths of a man’s mind, but perhaps into a culture’s mindset, as well as a journey into the world of ideas and the consequences that ideas hold.

What’s in a Title?

A good writer or storyteller possesses the ability to entitle his work. The full title and subtitle of this book is Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. The title itself is thought provoking in that on some level it combines Zen and the mechanical know-how of maintaining motorcycles. Moreover, rather than the science of, or the mechanics of,  or the engineering of  motorcycle maintenance, the title touts the Art of such an endeavor. And then to add to an already interesting juxtaposition of thoughts, somehow, the reader is informed in the subtitle, that the topics of Zen and motorcycle maintenance provide a path of inquiry and exploration into values. Yet this is a well-suited title for this work and the author’s personal experience. And as a reader, you enter that experience, traveling the highway of that inquiry.

An Inquiry into Values

Lessons from life about living life itself come in a variety of packages and experiences. And drawing on centuries of philosophical inquiry, it’s no mere accident that the lessons from Pirsig’s Zen are encountered and reflected upon along a highway; nor is mere academic epistemology at play given that the inquiries into which Pirsig takes us are about what we know, and how we know what we know. And struggles with such questions are not about writing textbooks, but about how one is to understand, value, and live life in its fullness. Along the highway traveled by Pirsig and company, lessons about living come in yet two other forms: in a dialogic form known as Chatauquas, and in the shadowy form of a person from the past, known as Phaedrus. The narrative is propelled by tensions that rise and subside in fortuitous events along the journey, drawn from memory of the dialectic established by the conflict between rationality and the passion for living that defies pure rationality. And through mystic memories from the past, triggered by the journey, Phaedrus waits, still haunting the traveler from the roadways, hallways, and classrooms in the Church of Reason.

Tensions within Existence

If one attends to even a casual reading of the history of thought, one might be struck by the various tensions in existence that different explorers of ideas over the centuries have sought to work out, clarify, and resolve. Some common polarities that come to mind are: idealism and realism, classicism and romanticism, objectivity and subjectivity, rationality and irrationality, transcendence (spirituality) and materialism. These tensions also surface in various fields of endeavor, for example, how science tends to be pitted against art in our culture. They surface, as well, in our take on living. The polarization of the contemplative life versus the active life is a common theme in literature and liturgy. It appears that we are always trying to navigate these polarities to find our place in living. Rather than seeking to rid life of such tensions, one wonders if it is not best to let them be what that are: tensions in living. But Phaedrus, too, struggled with these polarities, and in his desire to integrate and resolve them so as to align with the Church of Reason, he entered upon a highway that few travel.

Conclusion: Enter at Your Own Risk

Is it worth the struggle to engage the question of how each of us is to make sense of life? Are all the questions and explorations worth the trouble, isolation, and pain that may come with the questioning? St. John of the Cross traveled his Dark Night of the Soul before finding rest in God. Boethius discovered his Consolation upon the morning of his execution. Frankl found meaning via the horrific experiences of concentration camps. And Solzhenitsyn found his path for expression in a gulag. Not one of us desires to travel these seemingly extreme paths in order to more fully understand our lives. But such paths were all too real to the people just mentioned. And many more have traveled thus. No doubt, many can go through life without questioning its meaning, and be content to do so. Others cannot. I invite you to travel the highway with Pirsig. You may not like all you encounter there. But then again, the journey might be worth the effort.

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

THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review

Achieving Mastery in Life

Book Review

[Greene, Robert (2012): Mastery. Viking Press.]

[Key Words: Mastery; Dimensional Mind; apprenticeship; mentor; calling; Life Task; inclinations]


Consider the field of endeavor in which you are presently engaged. Then contemplate these questions. How do you assess your skill level at what you do? Would you claim that you have mastered the work in which you are involved? If not, do you desire to achieve a skill level by which you would be considered a master of your craft? On a further note, contemplate a diverse set of career paths and consider the following question: What common ground might exist among a professional musician, a boxing coach, a fighter pilot, a highly trained linguist, a robotics engineer, a Zen practitioner, and a sculptor, among others? Moreover, what do Lenardo da Vinci, Mozart, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Henry Ford, and Buckminister Fuller have in common? And if we set our mind to it, could we possibly have something in common with them? Robert Greene, in his thought-provoking book, Mastery, sets out to answer such questions. In doing so, as a Classical Studies major and writer who has devoted a lifetime to the study of power, he introduces readers to power’s ultimate manifestation: becoming a master at one’s chosen craft.

The Elusive Nature of Mastery

If we can come to understand, as Greene suggests, what it takes in our lifetime to master our field of endeavor, then why does mastery appear to elude so many of us? The biographies of those who have achieved mastery that Greene explicates ring a clarion bell that such achievement is open to all of us. The strategies toward a lifetime of mastery that he delineates provide a well-lighted path that we can follow. And the keys to mastery that he shares open a secret door for all of us to enter. Yet mastery slips through the fingertips of so many hands seeking to grasp it. Although achieving mastery is simple on one level, its apparent simplicity masquerades its thorny difficulties. And as we read through Greene’s detailed account, both the simplicity and complexity surrounding such achievement become clear.

The Structure of Mastery

Greene’s masterful work (pun intended) paints a thorough and comprehensive portrait of how people have acquired high levels of achievement in their lives. In do doing, he provides a pathway to mastery through six chapters. Each chapter delineates a necessary milestone along the road toward mastering one’s Life Task. Within each of the six chapters, Greene describes in biographical form the struggles that particular individuals endured to find their way to high levels of achievement in their chosen fields. Some of these people are indeed household names, while others may be unknown to most. But one common theme among the biographical details rings clear: mastery is available for any to pursue, whether one is a child protege like Mozart, or one of common intelligence, like Charles Darwin or Freddie Roach. Greene sets out to explode the myth that mastery is attainable only to the gifted, superior, or genius. Mastery can be accomplished by those who set their mind to it. But it requires deep commitment to long, hard work.

In addition to biographical data, each chapter contains what Greene designates as “Keys to Mastery” and “Strategies” for accomplishing the tasks set by each chapter. Finally, each chapter closes with a thematic discussion of what Greene calls “Reversal”. Reversal refers to the difficulties and obstacles that individuals had to overcome on their path toward mastery. Such difficulties may be personal, familial, or social. Once again, Greene explodes the common notion, and sometimes the excuse we may use, that achievement only happens to the highly gifted, privileged, and lucky.

Chapter titles depict the task or goal to be explored that one must navigate toward a life of achievement. In addition to the “Introduction”, Greene sets out six tasks for achieving mastery: 1) Discover Your Calling: The Life Task; 2) Submit to Reality: The Idea of Apprenticeship; 3) Absorb the Master’s Power: The Mentor Dynamic; 4) See People as They Are: Social Intelligence: 5) Awaken the Dimensional Mind: The Creative-Active; and 6) Fuse the Intuitive with the Rational: Mastery. Greene is a realist and addresses the fortuitous events that occur in people’s lives that aid their path toward achieving mastery. But the other side of the coin is that the individual accounts that Greene provides show that they were ready for, recognized, and seized upon any luck that came their way, and put it to use for their betterment.

Navigating the Tasks toward Mastery

As stated above, each chapter provides detailed strategies for how to achieve the six tasks that make up the book’s meat. What Greene finds common among those who achieve mastery is that they follow their inclinations. That is, they discover their Life Task and do not waiver from it regardless of internal or external pressures. Secondly, in pursuing their goals, masters find an apprenticeship that allows them to learn from others who are themselves masters. However, once the apprenticeship is complete, it is equally important for the apprentice to break from the influence of the mentor and move on and surpass the mentor through innovation and creativity. Likewise, those who achieve mastery must develop the ability to measure well their social contexts. Who is good support? Who might be an enemy? How does one navigate the social milieu in which one is immersed? What battles should be fought, and which ones should not be engaged so as not to waste valuable time and creative energy? As one moves past the apprenticeship, the dimensional mind becomes paramount for the person pursuing mastery to engage in active and creative endeavors. The dimensional mind seeks to make connections among diverse experiences and phenomena, broadening one’s perspective, in addition to the detailed perspective that comes through specialization. And finally, the one who achieves mastery synthesizes the intuitive and the rational. Masters tend to intuitively know how to choose, engage, and solve important problems. Masters appear to achieve their goals, conquer problems, and continually accomplish and produce in an effortless manner. However, such apparent ease, rather than being due to magic or genius, is drawn on a bank of countless hours of practice, apprenticeship, and pursuit of endeavors in which masters experience both failure and success.


Between the covers of Robert Greene’s book, Mastery, lies a wealth of information. And it is information that we should take to heart if we desire the fulfillment in life that comes with doing things well, accomplishing tasks that speak to our self-efficacy, and providing the kind of work that contributes to others’ well being. This book review comes on the heels of another review I did of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Both authors sound forth a clarion call for the necessity of developing and building skills, creating the craftsman’s mindset. One important contrast between the authors is Greene’s expressive  belief in a “calling”, or finding one’s Life Task. Such a concept may appear at odds with Newport’s negation of a “passion” that one must find, preceding one’s pursuit of mastery. Greene, however, likens a calling to those inclinations we have; moreover, he emphasizes that calling alone will not help one achieve mastery. Individuals must practice, apprentice, and develop their skills through thousands of hours of endeavor. Mastery provides a thorough study for anyone who wants to engage a field of endeavor and reach, through concerted effort, the level of being a master. I wish Greene would have addressed concerns for us who are older now, and how we can expect to achieve a level of mastery in our lives. However, he does state that although it’s beneficial to begin such quests early in life, the good news is that it’s never too late for anyone who sets his or her mind toward achieving mastery. And regardless of our age, background, or IQ, the path is the same: hard work. The road is clear on the one hand, but full of obstacles that we do not recognize on the other hand. We, along with proteges and geniuses, must travel the road that Greene lays out.

It’s not an easy road. But if it were that easy, there wouldn’t exist those whom we consider masters of their craft.

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

THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review

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