Sunday, June 05, 2016

Skills trump passion

So good they can’t ignore you”, that is the title of Dr Cal Newport’s not so latest book (he wrote it around 2011 between his postdoctoral work and his present tenure), which I am planning to review here.

Book Cover
I normally avoid self-help or popular psychology and “how to” books unless the author's credentials, reviews, and recommendations suggest that it is grounded on solid peer-reviewed research. This is not a “research for laymen” book, it is a straightforward “how to” book of advocacy.  but I took the time to time reading more because of the subtitle than anything else “Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love”. There are other ‘Rules’, designed to help someone build a successful career based on work one loves, and I will cover them in brief later in this review. But if there is one take away from the book, one key aspect to remember if all else is forgotten, it is this - skills determine a sense of fulfillment and joy at work which passion alone cannot supply.

Cal Newport - The Author of "So Good They Can't Ignore You"
But to start with a  brief introduction about the author: Cal Newport is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, who specializes in the theory of distributed algorithms. He previously earned his Ph.D. from MIT in 2009 and graduated from Dartmouth College in 2004.

He is also the author of a series of popular  books of unconventional advice for students, which he wrote in part when he was a student himself! How to Be a High School Superstar (Random House, 2010), How to Become a Straight-A Student  (Random House, 2006), and How to Win at College (Random House, 2005).

Cal began his research for this book when he was completing his student life and was about to embark on an academic career, and he set out to answer for himself the question, “How do people end up loving what they do”?

The book is organised into Rules that Cal goes on to illustrate with anecdotes gathered from interviews with successful folk as well as those who had to face failures. Summarised briefly as below:

Rule #1: Do not follow your Passion.

Simply put, the passion hypothesis is wrong. Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion. But survey results, research and detailed interviews of successful people  gave rise to 3 interesting conclusions about the passion hypothesis.
Conclusion #1: Career passions are rare
Conclusion #2: Passion takes time to develop
Conclusion #3: Passion is a side effect of mastery
This ties in with research that shows that enjoyment and a sense of fulfillment at work - which leads to people loving their jobs derives from 3 basic psychological needs:
  • 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 
  • Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people
“matching work to pre-existing passions” did not come up as being important for motivation in scientific research. The traits they did find, by contrast, are more general and are agnostic to the specific type of work in question. Competence and autonomy, for example, are achievable by most people in a wide variety of jobs—assuming they’re willing to put in the hard work required for mastery. This message is not as inspiring as “follow your passion and you’ll immediately be happy,” but it certainly has a ring of truth. In other words, working right trumps finding the right work.

Cal goes on to argue that “following your passion” can be dangerous advice as it motivates people to keep searching and jumping jobs without applying themselves to develop skills and mastery required to truly enjoy work!

Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Or, the Importance of Skill)

The fulcrum of the book, in my opinion. There are no shortcuts, no magic wand called “passion”. Self-actualising work, cannot come about with prodigious skills and mastery. And this is precisely what makes the passion hypothesis dangerous because it gives the impression that work becomes ‘effortless’ if one only finds the right kind!

And to gain mastery what one must do is:

  • Adopt the craftsman mindset: focus on what value we are producing on your job, rather than thinking about on what value the job offers us. And this is not a call to selfless dedication to job slavery because, this is the only way to become valuable, to focus on becoming better, which leads one to
  • Develop career capital: that is, build up skills that are rare and valuable. Focus on capabilities over calling.
  • Deploy deliberate practice: the only way to develop skills leading to mastery is deliberate practice. This entails identifying the skills that are rare and valuable - defining what is good, the practicing those skills at the limit of one’s present abilities - stretching oneself. This requires effort of focus and concentration and is tiring and often not enjoyable, but it is the only way to expand one’s abilities. Actively seek feedback - quick, almost immediate feedback from those better than you - this is the only way to identify skill areas to practice on, the present limits of one’s abilities. And finally, to diligently and patiently continue to do so. In Cal’s words “You stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.”

Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion (Or, the Importance of Control)

A critical attribute of loving the work one performs is having control over what one does and how one does it.  In most traditional organisations, when one has put in the hard work in the early years, developed competence and reached senior levels in the hierarchy - that alone gives far greater autonomy and control. However, more and more organisations these days have come to realise that (in Cal’s words) “Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.” This has given rise to organisations that adopt Results Only Work Environments or ROWEs.

Investing the ‘career capital’ acquired from following Rule #2 in gaining greater control over one’s working life is the “cashing in” to love one’s work! However there are a couple of “control traps” to be wary of:
  1. it’s dangerous to pursue more control in your working life before you have career capital to offer in exchange. Control is seductive. Often people quit stable jobs to “follow my passion and start something of my own” - this obviously gives people the ultimate control over their work; however if the job quitter has not obtained the career capital, valuable skills before hand - the control afforded by independence is NOT sustainable. Enthusiasm alone is not rare or valuable and not worth much in terms of career capital.
  2. once you have enough career capital to acquire more control in your working life, you have become valuable enough to your employer that they will fight your efforts to gain more autonomy. This is largely self explanatory. And in fact, this becomes a key test of whether or not one has the right amount of career capital - do they try to retain you?
To avoid either of these control traps, Cal recommends applying what he calls the law of financial viability, which says “When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on”.

This is because, “money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.” While hobbies, leisure time and recreation are clearly exempt from this rule, it is critical “when it comes to decisions affecting your core career, money remains an effective judge of value”.

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big (Or, the Importance of Mission)

Building a career around a clear and compelling mission is a great source of happiness - this is self-actualisation realised. Mission provides a sense of purpose, energy, and enthusiasm which encourage one to persevere through disappointments and put in the hard work required! To summarise Cal’s words, “People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.  . . . can leave you more energized than when you started—”

Of course, finding a valuable mission worth dedicating a career to is not easy, so Cal recommends “systematically experimenting with different proto-missions to seek out a direction worth pursuing.” He also warns that. “Missions are hard. ( but also that) Hardness scares off the daydreamers and the timid, leaving more opportunity for those like us who are willing to take the time to carefully work out the best path forward and then confidently take action.” The key requirements for articulating a mission are:

  • Missions Require Capital; a mission chosen before one has relevant career capital is not likely to be sustainable
  • Missions are identifiable in the “adjacent possible” - the realm of ideas and innovations just beyond the present cutting edge of expertise in a field. This makes it clear why mission requires career capital - one cannot be at the cutting edge of one's profession without putting in the hard work, the deliberate practice and acquiring the knowledge and skills!
  • Missions Require Little Bets -  great missions leading to great success are identified by embarking on and delivering small and achievable projects—little bets—to explore the concrete possibilities surrounding a compelling idea, at the cutting edge of one’s profession. act. Many people have lots of career capital, and can therefore identify a variety of different potential missions for their work, but few actually build their career around such missions. Once you have the capital required to identify a mission, you must still figure out how to put the mission into practice. If you don’t have a trusted strategy for making altogether.
  • Missions Require Marketing  - great missions are transformed into great successes as the result of finding projects that satisfy the law of remarkability, which requires that an idea inspires people to remark about it, and is launched in a venue where such remarking is made easy. The venue where these remarkable projects have the visibility are often unique to a profession - in Cal’s examples they were the peer reviewed publications of a field and the message boards that programmers working on a specific technology use. Again none of the above is doable without career capital - in depth knowledge and skills in short mastery -  in one’s chosen profession


My thoughts on this thesis for career happiness? Some of it coheres with research that is over 20 years old. Specifically, the idea of happiness at work deriving from mastery brings to mind the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who created the psychological concept of flow, a mental state of completely focused motivation, a single-minded immersion in performing and learning, such that emotions are contained, channeled, positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.

Mastery and Flow
This ties best with the concept of mastery or deliberate practice that Cal talks about, this needs to happen in what Csikszentmihalyi has described as the “flow channel” (see image below), where skill improvement happens at the limit of one’s abilities by means of challenges (the stretch) accompanied by feedback that can lead to skill improvement.

Other ideas, around career capital, control and mission, seems intuitively right when one compares with the successful people who love their work that one sees around them.

The book does not quote sources or cite detailed research studies either way - and as an academic, this was something Cal could certainly have done if he so wished. No, this is intended as a “how to” book in the tradition of his students series. Something for readers to evaluate and adapt based on what works best for them. For this, I would encourage a reading of Dr Newport's book.

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