Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Cal Newport)

Sick of your current occupational path?  Looking to make a change?  Racking your brain trying to figure out what you’re passionate about, so you can build a successful career around it?

If so, I’ve got news for you — Georgetown University professor Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, thinks you’re going about things totally backwards.  And aside from one or two small caveats, I must confess I totally agree with him.

In this book, which I feel is a ground-breaking addition to the genre, Professor Newport debunks the notion that the best way for people to figure out their ideal career path is to focus primarily on exploring their passions, likes, and interests.  Rebelling against the conventional wisdom of the career counseling field, he argues that passion tends to be more of a byproduct of careers in many cases — not the initial source of direction — and that despite all the anecdotal stories we’ve heard about people who supposedly “find” their passion and make a living from it, this rarely happens in the real world.  Instead, he claims (and cites many powerful examples to support his argument) that most individuals tend to fall into various work roles either for random or pragmatic reasons — then become passionate about their careers, down the road, as a consequence of gaining further experience and mastery in their specific profession.

Frankly, I’m a pretty good example of this.  Growing up, I certainly had no aspirations of becoming a career counselor and really didn’t even know the field existed.  But once I got my feet wet in the industry, and committed to learning it inside and out, I found myself growing more and more enthusiastic about my work — to the point it’s now translated (as most people who know me would agree) into a “passion” I feel thankful to experience every day.  But the passion didn’t come first.  It came later, only after I fell into this field by accident, then adopted what Professor Newport calls the “craftsmanship” mindset and decided to work at getting better and better at it.

Trust me, the book does a much better job of making this argument than I’m doing here in a few short paragraphs.  And you certainly don’t have to agree with the author’s hypothesis.  But an awful lot of what he says rings true in my own experience  — and I believe this book has the potential to free many people from the burdensome and misplaced belief that there must be something “wrong with them” if they don’t have a burning, bright passion lighting their way to career nirvana.  As I wrote about in an earlier blog posting here, in fact, I routinely encounter people who don’t seem to have a particularly strong interest in much of anything beyond the normal pursuits of life, family, books, movies, and the like.  I’m not willing to abandon such people to career purgatory.  I don’t think it does much good to flog them endlessly with assessments and soul-searching exercises in the hopes of uncovering some hidden passion they somehow have failed to realize they ever had.

Instead, for best results, you work with a person’s existing mix of tangible skills and marketable experience, looking for an alternate and realistic path they can pursue that might lead to the greater work fulfillment they’re seeking, down the road.

And if a person DOES happen to arrive on scene with a crystal-clear idea of what they want to do for a living?  Or a passion they’re dead-set on building a career around?  That’s terrific.  And it makes things much easier, as long as the individual’s goals are realistic and they’re willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get there.  But as Professor Newport and I both seem to agree, this scenario is much more of the exception, versus the rule.  For example. if a person reports that their greatest passion in life involves gardening, working with kids, or climbing mountains, but then states that they aren’t willing to go back to school — or need to make at least $80,000 a year to maintain their lifestyle — market realities, like it or not, are going to intervene.

Long story short, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is a book I’d recommend to any would-be career changer, as it adds a very compelling, fresh, and modern point-of-view to a field of discussion that has grown extraordinarily stale over the years.  In fact, I’ll probably make it required reading for all of my own “career exploration” clients, going forward…

3 Responses to “Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Cal Newport)”

  1. What I feel you are commenting to, without having the read the book (just enough traction to be dangerous….), what I hear you pointing to is discernment. This is often a misunderstood word in that there is no guarantee that discernment is part of a pre-process to the process. Often, in fact, discernment is after the fact. It’s a reflective act that helps you learn from what you don’t want and guide you toward what you do want. Passion is not ignited by a series of intentional acts. It’s often times a process of discovering what pisses you off and what you don’t want to do EVER AGAIN…and then you realize after time, you actually have choice because of the knowledge and wisdom gained from having tried. Passion is not a one night stand, rather, a long term relationship that requires you investing in all the “warts” and all the beauty that awaits if you are willing to be tolerant and resilient in the process.

  2. Jeff: Thanks for the kind words — and despite my best efforts, I’m still not sure I gave this book and its ideas the review they actually deserve, since one really has to read the “full case” the author makes to appreciate his philosophy. In a nutshell, though, your point is well taken, and people need to take a balanced approach towards exploring their professional possibilities — giving proper weight not only to passions/interests, but to other important factors such as compensation, stability, growth potential, and future market demand. Most advice I’ve seen on the subject seems to imply you put on “passion blinders” and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge anything else, which I think is a very limited perspective of the issue, especially when you’re dealing with mid-career professionals. As always, thanks for chiming in!

  3. Matt, I am in awe of your talent to report and expand on an idea. Also, I am guilty of bloggers envy. Personally, i have developed a philosophy that compensated work is a part of the portfolio of things that are important in my life. It is non negotiable that I have to be jazzed about what I do. More importantly, does the work allow me to do other things that are under the titles of friendship, family, community, spirituality and legacy? I am more a guy of few words so I am probably nibbling around th wedge of your excellent review. If I have a takeaway, it is that we need to find ways of teaching people to define who they are, warts and all, and not just what they do. Keep up the good work.

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