So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love
This is a summary of the key points mentioned in the book.
Don’t follow your passion
We are told to lionize those with the courage to follow their passion, and pity the conformist drones who cling to the safe path.
We often hear advice about following your passion and chasing your dreams. However, in actual fact, Career passions are rare. Eg, if you ask around, most people’s passions are likely activities (think of, fishing, kite flying or running) that don’t pay well unless you have an extraordinary talent or skills in it.
Even though Steve Jobs famously gave an advice during a Stanford University commencement speech for graduates to follow their passion, he himself did not follow this advice. If he did, he himself would not have started a technology company but remained as a practitioner in a zen center (as he was heavily immersed in the field of meditation in his early years).
Does this mean you are doomed to work in a job that you are not passionate about? No, Passion is a side effect of mastery. They can be developed over time. The longer you spend your time at a job and gain mastery in the skills required to help you to succeed in the position, the more likely you are to be happier and passionate about your work.
There are 2 approaches to thinking about your work:
- The craftsman mindset: focus on what value you’re producing in your job
- The passion mindset: focus on what value your job offers you.
The craftsman mindset tells you to focus on building the skills required for you to be good at your job. Nobody owes you a great career and you need to put in the hard work to earn it.
The passion mindset on the other hand, will leave you in a swamp of confusion. There is little evidence that most people have the one passion waiting to be discovered. Believing that there is a perfect job waiting for you can often result in misery and uncertainty when the working world’s reality doesn’t match this ideal.
Regardless of how you feel about your job right now, adopting the craftsman mindset will serve as the cornerstone for building a compelling career.
Acquiring Career Capital
With the craftsman mindset, the next follow up question is how do you acquire rare and valuable skills to maximise the value you are producing in your job?
Deliberate practice is the key strategy. You will need to have a clear training philosophy and be strategic on how you can obtain ruthless feedback that help you reflect and improve. This strategy is often adopted by musicians, athletes and chess players.
Step 1: Decide what capital market you are in.
There are 2 types of these markets: winner-take-all and auction.
- In a winner-take-all market, there is only one type of career capital available, and lots of different people competing for it. Television writing is a winner-take-all market because all that matters is your ability to write good scripts.
- An auction market, by contrast, is less structured: There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection. There’s a wide variety of relevant skills that also could lead to one succeeding in the field.
Step 2: Identify your capital type
Most of you find yourselves in an auction market. You need to seek open gates — opportunities to build capital that are open to you.
Step 3: Define good
Have goals about what skills you want to acquire.
Step 4: Stretch and destroy
Deliberately practice and push yourself to go out of your comfort zone. Stretch yourself and actively seek out feedback. If you just show up and work hard without a feedback loop, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better.
Step 4: Be patient
Results takes time. If you spend a long time doing something and constantly adjusting your actions according to the feedback received, you are bound to improve and become better.
Exchange your Career Capital for more Control
Once you have amassed enough career capital, you can exchange them as bargaining chips for more control in your career.
With your valuable skills, companies will be fighting to get you hired. This is because, you have something that not everyone in the market has. With this edge, you can negotiate for a higher pay, more flexible working hours or have more say in agreeing to the types of projects you want to work on.
This in turn, increases happiness and satisfaction with your work. Control is a trait that shows up in the lives of people who love what they do.
However, bear in mind that in the pursue for more control, there are 2 traps that we need to avoid.
First control trap: It’s dangerous to pursue more control in your working life before you have career capital to offer in exchange. Don’t assume that generating the courage to pursue control is what matters, while everything else is just a detail that is easily worked out.
Second control trap: Even if you have enough capital to back you up in your pursue for more control, you will definitely face resistance. To decide if the resistance is something to ignore or is something you should consider, use The law of financial viability. It says that you should only pursue a bid for more control if you have evidence that it’s something that people are willing to pay you for. If not, move on.
To summarize, if your goal is to love what you do, your first step is to acquire career capital. Your next step is to invest this capital in the traits that define great work. Control is one of the most important targets you can choose for this investment. Acquiring control, however, can be complicated.
Using your career capital to identify a Career Mission
The second trait of a satisfying career, apart from having control, is having a career mission to make you feel fulfilled and happy. However, you can only choose a mission after you have acquired the relevant career capital. Otherwise, it will not be sustainable.
Acquire capital control
A good career mission is akin to a scientific breakthrough — it’s an innovation waiting to be found in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge — the only place where these missions become visible.
“We do need passion to be happy. It’s just that we don’t know what that passion is. If you ask someone, they’ll tell you what they think they are passionate about, but they probably have it wrong. It’s a fool’s errand to try to figure out in advance what work will lead to this passion”.
To get to the cutting edge in a field, you need to focus and specialise in a field for a potentially long time. Once you get to the cutting edge, and discover a mission, you must go after it with a big action — to make it a reality.
The example raised in the book:
Pardis Sabeti thought small by focusing patiently for years on a narrow niche (the genetics of diseases in Africa), but then acting big once she acquired enough capital to identify a mission (using computational genetics to help understand and fight ancient diseases). Sarah and Jane, by contrast, reversed this order. They started by thinking big, looking for a world-changing mission, but without capital they could only match this big thinking with small, ineffectual acts. The art of mission, we can conclude, asks us to suppress the most grandiose of our work instincts and instead adopt the patience — the style of patience observed with Pardis Sabeti — required to get this ordering correct.
Place little bets
To make your mission a reality, you will then need to place little bets. Little bets that help you experiment and explore the feasibility of your idea. You gain feedback and decide whether you are in the right direction in achieving your mission.
For a mission driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in 2 ways.
- First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others.
- Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.
The idea must be interesting enough to garner attention such that people will be compelled to help you spread the word and share with their friends to popularise it.
You must also make the effort to market it. Example, attend conferences and events to spread the word of your project. This way, once your project is well-known, you will score a higher chance of succeeding in your project (perhaps increased funding to execute your project through the increased publicity). Your personal reputation and career capital will also accumulate along the way.