“Do what you love” is often dished out as career advice, especially to young people in high school or college. But in the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, author Cal Newport argues that this advice is often impossible to follow and won’t necessarily lead to professional happiness.
After hooking the reader in the Introduction with a story about a Zen monk, Newport proceeds in Chapter One to use statistical data and survey results to disprove “the passion theory”, which is the idea that people can only find professional contentment if they get a job that matches their passion.
In the following chapters, he instead posits that it is possible to find happiness in any career by using a process of deliberate practice to build career capital (marketable skills) and becoming the best you can be in your field. Then, you can determine your mission and start trading in your career capital for the job traits you truly desire: great benefits, a flexible schedule, control, meaning, etc. Only when you have sufficient career capital will you be able to participate in work you find fulfilling. Throughout the book, Newport describes the career paths of a number of professionals who exemplify this process.
At first, I was really excited to get into this book. I was totally on board with the statements in “Rule #1”, where Newport defines the difference between a job, a career, and a calling, and asserts that most people don’t have a passion that translates to a livable salary. These are things I have found to be true in my own professional life. But it was in the last three rules that he lost my support a little bit.
When presenting his career profiles and defending his case in Rules 2, 3, and 4, Newport’s arguments often seem circular, and blind to other potentially influential factors. The shining examples of happy career people he provides were supposedly chosen because they prove his thesis; yet, one could argue they got to where they are by means of privilege, networking, and sheer luck. Not only that, but I felt that many of Newport’s career profiles actually do support the passion theory.
Nevertheless, I don’t think Newport is totally wrong. I just don’t think he’s totally right, either. If you consider people who are truly content with their jobs, they probably are employing a multi-pronged strategy of doing what they’re good at, working to become even better at it, and dealing with or simply ignoring the aspects of the job they don’t like. On the other hand, when you consider people who are miserable in their jobs, it is possible that they don’t have the advantages of extra time and money to invest in career capital. Newport’s assertion that if you just work hard at something, you’ll grow into opportunities you love simply doesn’t work in every case.
Overall, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is adequately written. The language is a bit bland and repetitive. The book starts out engaging enough, but becomes somewhat boring as it takes on the characteristics of a thesis. The book is painstakingly structured, but too much time is spent rehashing points the author already made, as if by repetition alone he strengthens his argument. And I can’t ignore how irritating Newport’s arguments sometimes were; it really chafed that the career profiles he selected to argue against passion in fact had passion as a prominent factor.
Still, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for clarification or guidance on how to start a career or improve the career they already have. It does offer many helpful takeaways.
I, myself, would read other works by this author. In fact, I am interested in reading one of Newport’s more recent books, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
I am giving this book 4 stars out of 5 based on readability and helpfulness.
By Emily Domedion
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