Over the past couple weeks I’ve been reading So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport on recommendation from Michael Griffiths.

In general I think the book has a valid message, but I really didn’t like reading it that much.

The bulk of the book is spent debunking a common career myth: “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Cal asserts that this advice, often given to young professionals or recent college graduates, is misguided and leads people to make poor career decisions.

Instead of following your passion, Cal suggests that those new to the workforce should focus on building their “career capital” and assembling skills that companies are willing to pay for. Only after working for a number of years and assembling a large amount of career capital should employees then use that capital to get more control over their work schedule and start to think about what they really love to do.

Cal cites success cases where employees gain valuable skills and then threaten to quit unless they get a flexible work schedule. Here Cal speaks highly of employees who negotiate to secure a working situation that is better for the employee, and worse for the employer (but the employer must accept because the employee is just too valuable to lose).

To really drive the point home about how doing what you love is a terrible idea, Cal gives plenty of examples of young professionals who left high paying jobs to pursue their passions (e.g. a banker who quit his job to become a farmer) and completely failed.

While I agree that a banker who leaves his job to start a farm is probably going to fail (as he has no farming experience), focusing on this anecdote really violates my inner belief that anyone should be able to do anything they want so long as they are motivated, work hard enough, and have access to the right resources.

After 10 years in the workforce, I now know that Cal is right. Even if people mostly look the same from the outside, they often have surprisingly different skills, capabilities and interests. However, there is something about the concept of negotiating your freedom against your employer as if it were some sort of zero-sum-game – that just rubs me the wrong way.

As a worker in the 21st century, I think you should be able to do something that you are interested in, that you enjoy, and something where you don’t have to have some sort of self-hostage negotiation with your employer to find balance that allows you to live a rich life.

That’s just my idealistic worldview though. Unfortunately in most cases, Cal’s probably right.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You
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  • Interesting we had such different reactions to each of the books —

    I agree that Cal’s praise of some rather dubious behavior (extortion — do this or I’ll leave) is a little irritating. The zero sum game that you mention is also a sore point of mine: in fact, the whole reason the examples that Cal cites work is because it’s *not* a zero-sum game.

    There are things you value highly that the company may not value much at all (e.g. working from home); there are things the company values highly (e.g. your work output) that you might not value at all (i.e. if you don’t enjoy doing it for its own sake).

    While I agree there’s a zero-sum component to how a lot of the material is presented, I think most of the outcomes are examples of “successful” negotiations where both parties are better off.

    I like the book because it’s one of the relatively few to differentiate between (a) being able to see your work and (b) spending time on what you enjoy. It can be hard to find examples.