Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, by Cal Newport (Piatkus, 2016)

So Good They Can't Ignore You

This book is not strictly speaking about meaningful work, but I found that much of what Cal Newport has to say about how to maximize your chances of being successful in pursuing your ideal job resonates strongly with the ideals of meaningfulness.

Cal begins by debunking the myth that giving up everything to blindly follow your passion to become, say, a Buddhist priest, is the ideal way to achieve your dream job. Instead, he sends the more prosaic, but much more realistic, message that in order to achieve your ideal job you first have to roll up your sleeves, be prepared to make sacrifices, and show people that you can actually do it. This makes a lot of sense, and Cal has some powerful examples to share of people, including himself, who have managed to achieve their goals by doing just this.

The book is based around four ‘rules’. Rule 1 is ‘Don’t follow your passion’.  Cal shows how, contrary to popular perception, role models with a strong public profile such as Steve Jobs did not simply decide to focus on work they loved, with everything then just falling into place. Instead, Jobs was not sure what he really wanted to do, so he created options for himself by working hard to gain valuable experience in a range of fields before settling on one.  The passion emerged from the work, rather than vice versa.

Rule 2 is ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you’. Here, what matters is adopting a ‘craftsman mindset’ willing to put in the hours perfecting your skill through ‘deliberate practice’ so you have something useful to offer for which people are happy to pay you. This, in turn, will help you generate more career capital. Rule 3 is ‘Turn down a promotion’. This is because control and autonomy are more important than hierarchy when it comes to finding work you love. If you have sufficient career capital, then you are more likely to find employers are willing to allow you freedom and choice over how you work which will allow you the space to pursue work that you enjoy.

Rule 4 is ‘Think small, act big’.  Cal emphasizes the importance of having an overall mission driving your career decisions.  If you are at the cutting edge of your field, then incremental steps can make a significant difference. Testing these out on a small scale will enable you to see whether your ideas are viable without taking significant risks, so you can assess the situation carefully before taking the plunge.

This is a very enjoyable book to read with some fascinating examples of how people have put these ideas into practice in a wide range of fields. Cal himself is an impressive example of the benefits of his own advice! Underpinning the messages in the book is some sound academic research. There is no doubt that having a job that you are good at, that you enjoy and find rewarding is likely to lead to feelings of meaningfulness. However, some of the advice given in the book would be quite challenging for people in ordinary jobs to put into practice.  The message that, in order to get work you really love, you need to be at the cutting edge of your field would exclude many of us.

There is ample research which suggests that what we find meaningful about our work is highly subjective and personal, and meaningfulness can be found in many different types of occupation. We do not need to be a leader in our field in order to find meaning. However, the point that we need to be good at our work resonates strongly with what the participants in our research studies have said. Feelings of meaningfulness are closely bound up with feelings of accomplishment and of having made a contribution, so cultivating expertise in our work, whatever that happens to be, would seem sound advice.

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