Book Notes: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

This is the first of what will be an ongoing series of notes about books I’m reading. I read about fifty books a year, mostly related to leadership, organizational change, and adult development. Rather than write book reviews, I want to experiment with sharing what I do naturally when I read, which is to take notes about insights and questions that are relevant for my clients, colleagues, and friends. So rather than construct tidy and elegant reviews, I’ll present my reflections in raw form, unfiltered and unplugged.

We’ll call this Book Notes in homage to Brian Lamb’s long-running interview series on C-SPAN.

Key: My comments are in italics.

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So Good They Can't Ignore YouSo Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Question for Work You Love by Cal Newport (2012)

The Passion Hypothesis: The key to occupational happiness is to first find out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.

The passion hypothesis is both wrong and dangerous. Career passions are rare, passion takes times, and passion is a side effect of mastery.  Many people who follow their passions end up broke and/or unhappy. Books herald folks who achieve success by following their passion but rarely describe the majority who fail. Steve Jobs says he followed his passion, but actually he left his passion for spiritual life to make money and start a company. Do what he did, not what he says. Reminds me of Jeffrey Pfeffer‘s comment about how business executives become CEOs. Their autobiographies talk about everything except what really helped them rise: their ability to seize and harness power. So when learning from any leader, study what they do more than what they said they did. 

The Craftsman Mindset: focus on what you can offer the world rather than what the world can offer you. The value you bring rather than the value you get. Makes sense logically. But are we creating a false dichotomy here? If you want to offer the most value to the world, doesn’t it make sense to draw on your strengths, and doesn’t research show that when we regularly draw on our strengths, we enter a flow state free of thinking and feeling? 

Career Capital = rare and valuable skills you can offer. The craftsman mindset trumps the passion mindset at generating career capital. Therefore, follow the craftsman mindset. Agreed, and it’s almost self-evident. If you want to be perceived as providing unique value to others, then provide unique value to others. Yet, again, do we need to completely snuff out the passion hypothesis to do this? After all, isn’t it easier to get really good at skills that you at least moderately enjoy exercising? 

Deliberate Practice and the 10,000 Hour Rule. To successfully adopt the craftsman mindset, approach skills with a dedication to deliberate practice.  It’s just like becoming a master at guitar or chess. e.g. Mike Jackson, venture capitalist, who tracks his work-hour allocation. His goal: spend more time on activities that help him get better at what he does (raising money, vetting investments) and less time on required tasks like email that don’t improve his skill. Similar to the distinction in Lean thinking between value-added work and non-value-added work. We might call this skill-building work versus non-skill-building work. This is a fantastic insight! What might I learn if I tracked my own calendar with the intention of maximizing the amount of skill-building work, e.g. blog writing, speaking, coaching. What possibilities might open up for my clients if they did this? In fact, one of the creative challenges I experience in coaching executives is helping them create time in their calendars for deliberate practice. It’s counter to most work cultures outside of sports and the performing arts. 

Power of Control. People with more control over what they do and how they do it are happier and more engaged. Yes! As obvious as this may sound, many managers have a hard time putting it into practice with their teams. This is why it’s so important to distinguish between What and How. Get clear agreement on What and give others autonomy (with coaching and support as needed) to determine How. 

First Control Trap: control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable.  Stories of people who left stable jobs in search of control but lacked career capital and ended up on food stamps. I regularly get contacted from people considering leaving full-time jobs to pursue careers in professional and executive coaching. My standard line: test the water before you jump in. Do it part-time. Build your network. Make a grounded assessment of the risk/return. 

Second Control Trap: the point at which you’ve acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change.

Law of Financial Viability: pursue a bid for more control only if you have evidence that people are willing to pay for it. Feeling passionate about something does not constitute evidence! 

Develop career capital before you define your career or life mission. If you’re the kind of person who thinks that you should have a life purpose and judges yourself harshly for not, this principle may provide a feeling of relief and freedom. Conversely, if you’ve already developed mastery in a field, this is the perfect time to begin reflecting on your mission because you possess the resources to do something about it! 

Where do you find your mission? In the “adjacent possible,” the region just beyond the cutting edge of your field or industry. This aligns well with Howard Gardner’s study of Einstein, Freud, Martha Graham, Picasso, etc. in which he shows how each person masters the symbols and knowledge in their chosen domains before transforming those domains. 

To test and further your mission, map little bets and get feedback. To transform your mission into a great success, find projects that satisfy the Law of Remarkability: they inspire people to remark about them, and are launched in venues where such remarking is made easy. The projects are buzz-worthy! 

This is an important book I wish I had read twenty years ago. Although I got into the field of leadership development in my early 20s, I didn’t focus intentionally on developing career capital until I was in my early 30s. What prompted this focus was encountering Art Kleiner’s wonderful book, Who Really Matters. In advising change agents in big organizations, he makes the case for assessing and building multiple forms of capital: fungible financial equity, rainmaking equity, ownership equity, reputation equity, relationship equity, credential equity, and capability equity. He says that for each form of equity, there is a threshold of confidence (where you emotionally grasp what you’ve accumulated) and the threshold of sustainability (when your equity regenerates itself without effort). 

I will recommend So Good They Can’t Ignore You to people early in their careers or to those exploring a career change at mid-life—particularly someone who is captivated by the Passion Hypothesis.