So Good They Can’t Ignore You

So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport offers a very good model for creating a good career or prospering as an entrepreneur.

So Good They Can't Ignore YouRule 1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

“Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.”
Cal Newport in “So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Newport offers a survey of research that indicates:

  1. Career Passions are Rare–meaning a young person’s passions rarely translate well into careers.
  2. Passion Takes Time: Newport borrows a formulation from Amy Wrzesniewski‘s “Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People’s Relations to Their Work” [PDF]
    1. Job pays the bills.
    2. Career is a path to increasingly better work.
    3. Calling is work that’s important in your life and vital to your identity.
  3. Passion is a side effect of mastery. A good job–according to Self-Determination Theory–has these elements:
    1. Autonomy: you feel control over your time and that your actions are important.
    2. Competence: you are good at what you do.
    3. Relatedness: you feel connected to others.

The next time someone tells you to “do what you love no matter what,” ask to see their tax return.
Austin Kleon in “How Will I Pay The Bills?

Rule 2: Develop Your Skills Until You Are So Good They Can’t Ignore You

“Adopt a craftsman mindset and focus on the value you are producing in your job. […] Regardless of how you feel about your job right now, the craftsman mindset will be the foundation on which you’ll build a compelling career.”
Cal Newport “So Good They Can’t Ignore You

He contrasts the craftsman mindset–which I think maps pretty exactly to what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset (Dweck’s model predates the book by a decade and is mentioned in on his blog but nowhere in the book)–with the passion mindset, or “what can the world do for me.” I think this corresponds to Dweck’s fixed mindset.

It’s important to recognize that you need to tinker and experiment to determine what you are good at.

Q: How do you not only figure out what you want, but know that you’ll be good at it?

Ira Glass: Honestly, even the stuff you want you’re not necessarily good at right away…I started working at 19 at the network level, and from that point it took me years. The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come. That’s the hardest phase.”

Q: Do you think hard work can make you talented?

Ira Glass: Yes. I do. In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream, but I don’t believe that. Things happen in stages. I was a terrible reporter, but I was perfectly good at other parts of working in radio: I am a good editor…I feel like your problem is that you’re trying to judge all things in the abstract before you do them.  That’s your tragic mistake.”

Cal Newport’s summary of RoadTrip Nation’s Interview with Ira Glass in “The Pre-Med and Ira Glass: Complicated Career Advice from Compelling People.

Effectuation Models

In a July 2014 blog post “Do Goals Prevent Success?” he summarized Saras Sarasvathy’s effectuation model, derived from her research of expert entrepreneurs, as beginning with the means at hand and allowing new goals to emerge contingently over time. He offered this four step summary

  1. Start with what you already know how to do well.
  2. Filter your efforts to avoid big downsides not to select for big upsides.
  3. Work with other people who bring new abilities to the table.
  4. Take advantage of the unexpected.

Sarasavathy’s Effectuation site lists five principles:

  • bird in hand: work from means in hand to possibilities they enable
  • affordable loss: understand what you can afford to lose, pick courses of action with upside even in the worst case and avoid large all or nothing strategies.
  • co-creation: work with partners who want to work with you to enable a wider range of means and therefore possibilities.
  • leverage contingencies: look for the upside in bad news and poor outcomes, make lemonade from lemons.
  • control vs. prediction: focus on activities within your control to achieve desired outcomes: it’s not about predicting the future, it’s about making it.

As a side note Dave Snowden’s cynefin model includes a safe-fail probe approach to explore complex and chaotic environments that matches Sarasvathy’s approach of “affordable loss bets.”

Three Tests For a Dead End

Newport offers three tests for a job that’s a dead end–where even adopting a craftsman mindset won’t help:

  1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or even negative for the world.
  3. You are forced to work with people you really dislike.

When you are starting out it’s also best to avoid developing skills that have a very narrow applicability. I am reminded of the lesson from the heartbreaking documentary Hoop Dreams: high schoolers were encouraged to focus exclusively on developing their basketball skills; when they cannot get a spot in the NBA they are screwed unless they have developed other skills.

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Postscript: I bought “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport as a Christmas gift for my two boys who are in college. I read Dec-27 in one very enjoyable sitting when everyone was out of the house, making notes as I went to assemble this book review. The title is based on career advice by Steve Martin. The book offers a very good model for creating a great career or prospering as an entrepreneur. Then I set the 95% finished write-up aside and finished it today.


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