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Skill vs Passion? Why Simplistic Models Won't Help Your Career

We attribute Confucius with having said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”. It’s a brave man that takes on the famous philosopher.

Yet, author Cal Newport believes that doing what you love is not the secret to happiness in work and that conventional wisdom is flawed. In his Wall Street Journal best-selling book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, he sets out the case for dismantling what he calls “the passion hypothesis”, the idea that you should follow your passion. Instead, the author promises a more realistic take on the world of work and outlines the evidence for why hard work, and the mindset of a craftsman, offers the real path to career success.

The premise that uplifts

His argument is essentially an economic one: if happiness comes from having control of your life, you need to have “career capital”, skills and abilities described as “rare and valuable”. These let you call the shots. You develop career capital when you pursue a “craftsman’s mindset”, striving for excellence through deliberate practice, which the author explains. In this way, you become “so good they can’t ignore you”, in particular, when you are so good you get to leverage your skills in unique ways. Ways that get you noticed.

The book makes for easy reading. It presents the passion hypothesis then systematically debunks it. And as a reader, the alternative is compelling. If I work hard, I can be successful, command control over my life, and be happy. Thirty years of studying careers confirms to me that high performance is usually the foundation for opportunities, options, and possibilities. And it's hard to argue with the laws of supply and demand. The War for Talent, formulated over 20 years ago, was premised on the idea that there was a shortage of real talent and that talent could command a premium.

In this sense, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” is an excellent resource to the career-minded, particularly those early in a career who might benefit significantly from its message of hard work and focus as a foundation for success. The book’s style, rich in anecdotes, makes for easy listening.* And who doesn’t love a good Steve Jobs story?

...and the argumentation that disappoints

If part of its appeal is its simplicity, therein also lies my challenge with the book. The Passion Hypothesis and its accompanying mindset is a strawman. The dichotomy established between passion and hard work is a false one.

In my experience, it is AND. Not OR. And I would add FURTHER.

Greater success comes to those that are skilled. AND it is easier to build those skills if you do something that you are predisposed to be good at, or interested in.

For me, FURTHER is also essential. While the assertion that passion isn’t enough is all too true, there are many examples where excellent skills aren’t enough, either. The peer-reviewed evidence on the implication for highly skilled employees when they change roles or companies speaks to that. This body of work shows how context and environment also matter.

And FURTHER, while doing great work is vital, success can still be stifled when my work isn’t known or advocated. There is no doubt that relationships and networks make a difference.

And FURTHER, what about life constraints that impact our ability to take opportunities? Or the impact of my gender or the color of my skin? These affect outcomes despite hard work and even mastery.

“So Good They Can’t Ignore You” doesn’t unpack these considerations. Some lurk just under the surface. The book contains vivid, inspiring stories of individual careers. We hear stories of personalities who are competitive, of characters who work diligently, and others who have opportunistic meetings. The book focuses on the role of expertise in their success. Yet, what gives some drive to practice, but not others? How is it that some of us can leverage chance meetings, and others can’t?

Verdict: Proceed with caution

I loved the unadulterated message of this book. Being good at what you do makes a huge difference. Maybe the biggest difference. Yet there is a risk to understating the Rubik's Cube of determinants that impact careers. To do so means that we fail to share approaches that could provide some extra edge.

Success is an outcome of many factors. “Career capital” acquired through a “craftsman’s mindset” is one. I would go as far as to say it may be the most important. But the reality is that few of us will develop skills so “rare and valuable” that they alone will enable us to call the shots. This book motivates because we are drawn to exceptional individuals who chart their own path to success. Life proves - as well as statistics - that these are the exception, not the rule. Instead, I believe most of us would benefit from understanding the full range of factors that determine success, and from practical advice on how the average Jo, or Joann, can get the best from their career.

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