Prompted: So Good They Can't Ignore You
Developing marketable skills creates a bigger impact than following your passion.
The conventional wisdom on career success—follow your passion—is seriously flawed… for many people it can actually make things worse: leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst.
- Cal Newport
So Good They Can’t Ignore You
When young comics asked Steve Martin for advice he told them to “be so good they can’t ignore you”.
For many, I’m sure this answer was terribly deflating as they realized there is no trick or secret sauce. The only thing standing between them and a theater full of people eager to see them perform was mountains of mundane and difficult work.
Unfortunately, we can’t skip to the fun parts of life. We can pretend for short periods of time, but without a strong foundation, we usually have to pay a price for the fleeting feeling that we have it all figured out.
We all want to follow our passions, be in control of our lives, and make an impact in areas that are meaningful to us. Achieving all of this, like most good things, requires a fair amount of work upfront. Despite this, bright-eyed college graduates are hungry to “make an impact” without any experience or expertise.
In Cal Newport’s 2012 book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, he argues that following your passion is a bad strategy for finding work that you love.
Instead, he offers a 4 step process for creating a career you can’t get enough of:
Don’t follow your passion
Generate career capital
Develop control or agency
Find your mission
The end goal we’re chasing is a state where we can do what we want when we want it and we’re able to make an impact on something that is meaningful to us while doing it.
Newport suggests that many of us try to skip ahead by blindly following our passions and becoming frustrated that we don’t have the autonomy or impact we desire despite having no proven track record or expertise.
The missing piece is what Newport deems career capital. In other words, we have to get good at what we do and develop marketable skills.
Once we get so good that we can’t be ignored, we have leverage. We can use that leverage to develop more autonomy or control of our schedule (setting our work hours, traveling, working remotely, etc.). Once we have valuable skills and control over how we work, we can direct our expertise toward something that is meaningful to our personal mission. And because we’re highly skilled we’ll be able to make a bigger impact.
The unfortunate part of Newport’s framework is that it takes years to develop the career capital and autonomy necessary to achieve a true passion for our work.
For many young people (myself included) the idea of carefully crafting a career and developing marketable skills over multiple years sounds terribly dull when teenagers are making millions of dollars doing God knows what on Tik Tok.
Ultimately, we all know that those with the longest time horizon and the least to lose will win out in the end. Let’s set our sights on the future and focus on becoming the best at what we do.
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Would my employer panic if I quit tomorrow?
How can I become irreplaceably valuable to my firm?
When I become so good that I can’t be ignored how will I use my leverage to develop control of my work and create a meaningful impact?
So Good They Can’t Ignore You - Cal Newport
Newport debunks the belief that "follow your passion" is good advice and provides a framework for a new career path.
Thanks for reading! I’ll see you next Sunday.
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Kev, This is awesome advice and quite frankly something I definitely needed to hear. I like how it reminds us that success doesn't happen over night and building a strong foundation is vital to a successful career. Even if that means doing the boring stuff. Great article.