Thursday, June 20, 2013

To Find Work You Love, Don’t Follow Your Passion (with a Giveaway!)

(What I'm Reading, No. 3)
By Phoebe Farag Mikhail

In this post I’m reviewing Cal Newport’s compelling book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.” I will be giving away one free copy of the book; to enter the giveaway, all you need to do is subscribe via email to my blog. If you are a current subscriber and would like to enter the giveaway, send me an email at listenlearnactandreflect (at) gmail (dot) com with the subject, “June giveaway.” I will accept entries until June 30th, randomly select a winner, and notify the winner by email by July 6th. Unfortunately, at this time I can only ship to US addresses.

“So, what’s your dream job?” I remember being taken aback by this question when I first started my job search after college. Every informational interview, and even some full-fledged job interviews, included this question. How was I supposed to know what my dream job was? I had already changed my mind three times about the field I wanted to get into. I’m sure I came up with some passable answer, but my answer was definitely a dream because I don’t even remember it. In the year 2000, there were jobs galore in the US, and we graduates had the luxury and misfortune of believing that the perfect job was out there for us if we could dream it. It was the decade of start ups, so those who “followed their passion” could easily find an investor. Fast forward over a decade later, and many college graduates are dreaming just to have a job, any job. And yet, according to Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, the “follow your passion” advice is still common in career counseling—and it is bad advice.

I mention pursuing your passion as one possible direction to take while looking for work in my popular blog post, Unemployment Opportunity, but with a very important caveat – one must have the necessary skills and resources to make economic success out of it. In Newport’s book, he calls this “building career capital,” an essential element for finding work you love. Strengthening key skills does two things: it actually increases passion because passion for your work often comes with mastering your skills (not before); and it builds the “career capital” necessary to gain more resources and autonomy and lead the life you want to lead.

One of the most useful chapters I found in this book is the chapter “Becoming a Craftsman,” which discusses a type of discipline known as “deliberate practice.” Newport writes, “if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better … deliberate practice might provide the key to quickly becoming so good they can’t ignore you” (p. 85). Newport uses examples of master chess players, musicians, and screenwriters to explain how they used deliberate practice to excel in their fields and end up doing work they love. This involves not just setting aside enough time to practice, but eliciting sometimes painfully critical feedback to continue to improve their craft. The skill that these craftsmen needed to deliberately practice was very clear (chess, guitar playing, writing), but Newport provides steps for determining how all workers can actually determine for themselves what “craft” they need to deliberately practice in order to become “so good they can’t ignore you.” Newport himself schedules as much time as he can for deliberate practice in his own work as a computer science professor at Georgetown University. You can read more about his work on his blog Study Hacks.

Newport does not extensively address external factors that affect workers, such as other colleagues, and issues like workplace and hiring discrimination. In his quest to disprove the “passion mindset,” he also does not address enough how personal interests, abilities and talents do play a role in finding work you love. That being said, I found this book very empowering, challenging the reader to work rightly first, instead of looking for the “right work.”

I read the chapter on “mission” with great interest, since this is a common word used in non-profit work. Newport, however, uses this word in regard to individual careers: “To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career,” he writes. “It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions … 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” (p.152). In case you confuse “mission” with “passion,” Newport spends the rest of the chapter talking about how to make mission a reality in one’s working life, and his examples show that it takes some time building career capital in order to formulate that mission. Newport provides one example from the life of evolutionary biologist Pardis Sabeti, but I wish he would have included other examples, especially those of social entrepreneurs (David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas highlights some very inspiring stories).

Although Newport wrote this book for a US context, I found that it is actually quite applicable to people working in emerging markets like India, China, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, and Egypt. Emerging markets have smaller markets than the US and thus fewer available jobs, the advice in this book would help workers in these markets to stand out even more than they would in the US, where there is more competition. This is in stark contrast to the “passion” mindset, which can only be applied in larger markets where there are more job opportunities and more diversity of industries, thus lending more credence to the (bad) idea that your dream job is out there waiting for you if you can just figure out your passion.

Who should read this book? I find it a great resource for anyone wanting to improve their professional lives, anyone sensing a “plateau” in their careers, as well as anyone just starting out, making it an excellent gift for students graduating from college or graduate school.

Do you love your work? What about it makes you love it?