So Good They Can’t Ignore You:
Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love
By Cal Newport (2012)
Reviewed by Rev. Kerry Greenhill
As a minister, I regularly find myself probing at my vocational path – is this work the greatest fulfillment of what God has created me for? Am I being true to my deepest or highest calling? Would some other form of ministry call out more of my gifts, bring more fulfillment, or possibly pay any better?
The language of vocation and calling is central to ministry, and while it is helpful and accurate for many people to think in those terms, for some of us it creates a great deal of pressure to “get it right” in terms of understanding God’s will for our lives. Which is why I found Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You both challenging and refreshing in presenting a new way of thinking. Aimed primarily at “knowledge workers,” the book is applicable to ministry as well as many other helping professions and similar fields.
Newport starts by rejecting the folk wisdom about finding great work by following your passion. He claims that few people have clearly identifiable, pre-existing passions that can be pursued in a linear matter, and that worrying about finding the right path in your college years or early 20s creates too much pressure to choose one direction that may or may not work out. Rather, he claims, by studying people who love what they do, we find that people tend to become passionate about their work life after investing many years in developing skills and finding opportunities that maximize valuable traits, such as autonomy, creativity and impact.
After Rule #1, “Don’t follow your passion,” Newport identifies three other rules to reconstruct a path to a meaningful and fulfilling working life. Rule #2 is the title of the book, drawn from a Steve Martin quote, “Be so good they can’t ignore you,” which requires adopting the mindset of the craftsperson (think musicians and athletes), who know that they have to continually stretch their skills through deliberate practice in order to gain the kinds of “career capital” that will position them to have access to desirable employment opportunities.
Rule #3 encourages readers to “Turn down a promotion” when it does not enable greater autonomy or control over the kind of work you do and when or how you do it. However, Newport cautions that you must first make sure you have the career capital to make good use of greater autonomy, and that you should focus on pursuing ventures for which people are willing to pay you, rather than some abstract ideal that may not be financially viable.
Rule #4 identifies what some might see as a reframing of the “passion mindset,” identifying a sense of mission in one’s career as one of the desirable traits of meaningful work, developed and pursued after building enough career capital to gain some control over your path. A compelling mission is not only in tune with your values and interests, but also drives you to work in a direction that will continue to build your career capital, allowing you to excel in a unique area of your field. To focus and implement your developing sense of mission, Newport recommends small experiments, or “little bets,” relatively low-risk and short-term projects that will bring quick feedback about whether an initial hypothesis is the right direction to pursue. In addition, adopting the mindset of a marketer will help you become more successful in your mission, as you seek to develop projects that are remarkable, both in the sense of being unique or noteworthy, and in the sense of being promoted in a venue where others in your field can easily remark upon them.
I found the premise and “rules” intriguing and the writing easy to read, with frequent recaps of the points made so far. Newport concludes the book by describing how he has integrated his findings into his own (at the time, fledgling) career as a professor of computer science.
I was distracted midway through the book when I noticed a significant disparity in the proportion of positive examples of men vs. women (approximately 6:1). And, of course, as it is geared to knowledge workers, the focus is primarily on white-collar careers and those who have the financial means to take some risks as they explore different paths. This is a level of class privilege not accessible to all readers. However, though I initially skimmed a couple sections, I returned to read them more thoroughly later, so even when it was frustrating, it proved worth taking the time for.
As mentioned in my first paragraphs, I find the ideas intriguing for ministry, and freeing in a way. Much of my own angst over vocational clarity comes from early-life theology that God has planned one right path for each person, and it is up to us to figure out what that is. I no longer consciously believe in that, rather believing that God desires wholeness for all people, and desires that all people participate in and contribute to wholeness for creation as much as possible, in accordance with the gifts and quirks and experiences that God and life give us. But the passion mindset, with its suggestion that there is one perfect career path for each person, stirs up the old gut theology and causes anxiety from time to time. So this reminder that no, you can choose a path based on other factors, become proficient, and pursue that path until it becomes a passionate, meaningful life’s mission, is very encouraging.
Another interesting area of application to explore would be in considering the mission and work of individual churches. Can a local church specialize in ministry as individuals are expected to in career path? How does a local church develop skills that allow it to excel and pursue a unique and meaningful mission? Some congregations are pretty clear about a particular niche of ministry that is part of their identity and work in the world, while many others are generalists. I don’t have clear answers on this, but it could be a fruitful discussion.
Overall, I recommend this book, for anyone seeking meaningful work who is frustrated by the advice to “follow your passion” without further concrete instruction.