This book has influenced me greatly as I’ve developed as an attorney. As promised, it offers a thesis that is (or was) a significant departure from the then-dominant career advice – choose your work you love and happiness will follow. This is really a book about entrepreneurship. And while in some ways cultural developments have perhaps mitigated some of Newport’s objections or concerns, in other ways this book is prescient for capturing the Puritan counterculture zeitgeist in Silicon Valley.
As Newport puts it, the false god of our times is the Passion Hypothesis, which holds “The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.” Newport looks to the purported figurehead embodying the passion hypothesis, Steve Jobs, and shows that in fact his career reflects an immersion in technical skills initially, but reluctance to commit to using these until he noticed some surprising traction.
One distraction is that Newport tried to construct something of a strawman argument. In his view, many people subscribe to the passion hypothesis. Among the evidence he cites is that Google’s Ngram viewer shows the phrase “follow your passion”, apparently invented by What Color is Your Parachute, spiked upon publication and has steadily climbed ever since. “Parachute, in other words, helped introduce the baby boom generation to this passion-centric take on career, a lesson they have now passed down to their children.” Newport goes on to cite surveys that show workplace happiness is steadily decreasing. While Newport concedes that the statistics are not “clear-cut” and that he relies on anecdotal support, this connection is tenuous at best.
The thing is, to make the argument that the passion hypothesis is misguided doesn’t require you to show actually show that anyone uses it – it’s enough to say that it impairs honest conversation about what is effective career advice. The fact that young people say they want to follow their passion but go on to work at a bank or go to law school anyways shows that the passion hypothesis is not “dangerous” (in Newport’s words), but rather it’s useless. Because it takes a lot of courage to follow your passions! Not many people do it! Most things people are passionate about are not likely to earn them money or status or fame. By definition, those benefits are not motivating these people.
So what does Newport propose instead? Newport’s primary challenge to the Passion Hypothesis comes from Self-Determination Theory, which asserts that the components to feeling motivated at work are autonomy (“the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important”); competence (“the feeling that you are good at what you do”); and relatedness )”the feeling of connection to other people.) Oddly, later in the book Newport defines great work as being based on creativity, impact, and control. I don’t see how you could have creativity without control, and these three factors roughly map on to autonomy and competence.
How does one become competent and autonomous? The answer lies in the craftsman mindset – the deliberate practice and strategic, piecemeal approach to building skills and relationships that move you in the direction you want your career to go. The craftsman mindset is based on what you can offer the world. By contrast, the passion mindset is based on what the world can offer you. Apart from the obvious challenge to implementing the passion mindset, it has two major flaws: (1) it gets you fixated on what’s dissatisfying you, which is a negative mindset bound to leave you depressed, and (2) the question of what your nature is and what you love is ill-formed.
Ultimately, regardless of our passion, we can choose to adopt the craftman mindset (and therefore arguing over whether it was passion that lead someone to the craftsman approach is irrelevant). This approach inserts a knowledge worker into an economy: you must develop skills (and relationships) that are rare and valuable to develop career capital. This capital creates leverage to build the lifestyle you want. I’ll note that although Newport tacitly cites to the importance of building relationships throughout, that is not a subject effectively explored in this book, which would be a great book to write.
Newport has some vivid anecdotes that shows people with rare and valuable skills that chose to pursue their passions (marketing director to yoga instructor), only to realize those skills and relationships don’t transfer to their new domain, and they face massive competition (and end up on food stamps – dramatic). In contrast, others chose to leverage their career capital to gain more control over their work and lifestyle.
Newport also cites people who try to monetize the leap into passionate work itself, lifestyle influencers whose subject is the journey itself. We’ve had plenty of exposure to the influencers in debt trying to make it – that is a winner-take-all market. But you can see there are a number of people who have successfully built a path of transparency around their business ventures, and in doing so built significant audiences and influence (I think particularly of Patrick McKenzie for Bingo Card Creator). This was a popular technique when the book came out, and is still effective today.
So how do you apply the craftsman mindset? You first need to figure out what success in your current field looks like. This means consider whether you’re in a winner-take-all market, where there is a single quality that is being evaluated, or an auction market in which there are multiple segments that a person could dominate. My view is that in the wake of the Long Tail, while there are still winner-take-all markets, winners are creating new niches to dominate. The only truly winner-take-all markets that come to mind are being Hollywood blockbuster celebrities or national politicians. To dominate a niche, you probably want to develop a niche that is the intersection of about three areas where you can be in the top 25%, to lift from Scott Adams. And you probably want at least two of them to be what Naval Ravikant calls timeless skills.
Once you identify skills, it’s time for deliberate practice – regular work that is outside of your comfort zone, and for which you receive direct and immediate feedback. I find this concept challenging for my field – legal work at a large law firm is less susceptible to this sort of iteration. But regardless, I can do more to take on reach goals and solicit more regular feedback.
Back to control. Control is good. Don’t try to exercise control prematurely without career capital – you will wind up without any control. Here too, Newport has to make a concession that the “courage culture” he derided for those following the Passion Hypothesis (that the only barrier to achieving your dreams is the courage to do so) – you need courage to make the move for more control. The problem is, what criteria do you use to determine if you have sufficient career capital to make the leap to take control? If you have career capital, your employers will desire you and resist your attempts to take control (although since the book has been written, employees command more bargaining power here). But if you don’t have career capital, you’ll fall flat, which Newport also refers to as “resistance”, although I don’t see how someone without career capital will encounter much resistance – the employer will just say “there’s the door”. Likewise the terminology is a little confusing – it’s a “trap” to think you’re ready for control prematurely, and it’s a “trap” that once you have career capital you’ll encounter resistance. At any rate, the resolution to the dilemma is simple: be sure that people will pay you for your venture. This too gets a lot of support form the Lean Startup approach and its progeny.
Newport turns to the importance of mission, which The One Thing might describe as values. Like Keller, Newport discuses the focusing effect of a value-driven career. But it’s kind of disjointed in that this construct was not previously discussed (except that it arguably falls into autonomy). Newport says that mission is a desirable trait that must be paid for with career capital. This is a less compelling argument – I could see the argument that by realigning your work in terms of mission, you will focus on acquiring the rare and valuable skills that sustain that mission.
But there is a neat trick here. The mission thesis is that you can find your mission at the edges of your field. And you get to the edges of your field by nicheing into rare and valuable skills. You can look to scientific progress as an analogy; Leibniz and Newton simultaneously discovered calculus, many other inventions were made in simultaneous discovery. Those pioneering the edges of their field make the next breakthrough – it is inevitable. This connects Paul Graham’s findings that successful founders are living in the future and are mission driven. While Newport emphasizes the skills giving way to mission, it certainly seems to be a flywheel.
So let’s say you have career capital and have found yourself at the edge of a field. What principles do you use to apply this to find a mission? It’s easy to see the 2000’s version of Steve Jobs as an unstoppable force, but reading his biography by Walter Isaacson, I’m struck with how much putzing around he did to find traction in personal computing, and how disparate his influences are. And in reading The Everything Store, early in his career Jeff Bezos was really influenced by a dude who owned a bunch of Dominos franchises. You must be eclectic, and deploy little bets to see what sticks.
And how do you deploy these little bets? You must have a remarkable project, and you must have a distribution channel. Disseminating your projects for free (open source, blogging) is an effective way to build that audience. A little bet is a (1) project small enough to be completed in less than a month that (2) forces you to learn a new skill or produce new results that didn’t exist with (3) a concrete result that you can use to gather feedback.
The chapter on how Newport applied these findings to his own career has some great tactical advice. Schedule one hour of deliberate practice every day – push through the first ten minutes of resistance. Pick a single project that is a reach but discrete and generate work product around it. Publish and get feedback. Log your deliberate practice. This will teach you the mindset of deliberate practice. That strain and feedback is just like the strain at the gym – it means you’re on the right track. Take a walk one day a week to bounce around the analysis of your deliberate practice.
Puritan (Mormon?) ethic is now subversive – no caffeine, no alcohol? You can distill the book’s findings to “Working right trumps finding the right work.” Perhaps this is inevitable. As Joseph Campbell put it in The Power of Myth, the hero’s journey is to know and conquer his own nature – saving yourself is saving the world. The Passion Hypothesis is about saving the world, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is about saving yourself.