Cal Newport pops the passion bubble


Why review books everyone’s already read?

This is the start of a series where I will review some old and new books about productivity, self-help and self-optimization (David Allen, I’m coming for you too). I’ve made an effort in starting to read all the productivity books I’ve been avoiding. As I’ve written in self-help needs to be self focused I’ve been up and down when it comes to how I spend my time. Preparing for too much but then when it hits the fan finding that I had no skills what so ever to handle a time crunch.
But now I have so many things to do and very little time. I also have an urge to improve and get better at the things I enjoy. I want to be able to write and produce for a living and I can’t wish that into being. I need systems that help me when the passion from starting up a new venture ebbs out. This is why I read these books, and why I find value in sharing what I learn from them.

Maybe I shouldn’t call these posts reviews. You won’t find to much information about what happens on what page. Rather I want these posts to be about how I applied what I learnt from them on my own life. So these reviews are more about how an ordinary person applies the information on their own life, on their terms.

What book did I pick for my first review then?

I felt intrigued by Cal Newport and started reading “So good they can’t ignore you.” I felt this was an apt start for my review series.

This book is not written for me though, or people like me. It’s by no means a bad book, but looking back I wish I started my review series with something I could gush a bit more about.

I did enjoy it though and will explain how I applied some of it’s teaching to my own life further down. But the mistake a lot of us average, normal people do is believing that books made for stressed out developers, designers and business owners apply to us as well. But here we go.

So good they can’t ignore you.

This book punctures the “follow your passion” balloon and breaks away from the harmful stereotype that people who take the safe road now and again are cowardly conformists. Follow your passion is something I’ve felt in my gut to be unsustainable, without finding the words to explain why. This book made a great effort in putting words on my feelings. How passion is more about feeling entitled than working hard and how it can lead us astray.

But the book still caters to a group of people that want to be the best. I’m not one of those people. I know you’re not supposed to say that. But I’ve never wanted to be the best at anything. Middle of the road is where I’m the most comfortable. That’s a topic for another post though.

I believe most people that read this book want to climb to new heights in their careers. For those people I think this book can be a sobering read because as Newport writes, a lot of people are going about it in the wrong way.

Four rules for a fulfilling career

In the first part, about not following your passion I got a big surprise reading the story of Steve Jobs. I always assumed that the Apple company was his true passion. To find out that he only got into it to get a bit of cash was interesting and got me thinking about passion in a whole new light.

In part two, named after the title, Newport writes that a lot of people don’t build up enough career capital before trying to expand their lives. By career capital he means working hard and making yourself invaluable. You can then trade in this capital for better opportunities. Even if you don’t love your work right now, strive to work hard and try and find something that sets you apart from the rest.

The third part, about turning down promotions to keep control of your work was an interesting idea. If you keep getting promoted I guess you’ll soon find yourself in a position where you are far away from what you want to do. That the people above you want to give you other responsibilities is not always to your benefit. Be careful about moving upwards if it takes you to far away from where you truly want to be.

The fourth part focused on having a mission. What I struggled with in this part is seeing where he differentiated between having a passion and having a mission. He kept explaining it and I think that he wanted very much to not use the word passion even though it was the most fitting.

My thoughts

Newport is obviously a good writer. He knows how much he needs to repeat himself without it getting tiresome. You stick with him without feeling clubbed over the head with what he said a chapter ago. I find the summaries at the end to be very helpful for example and really brings the narrative together.

I did have a few kind of weird moments with some of the examples used. In the beginning Newport writes about a group of assistants at a college. The longer they had been employed, the happier they reported that they were. The quote is:

The strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job. In other words, the more experience an assistant had, the more likely she was to love her work.

Cal Newport 2012

I’m wondering if this could also be about self-justification. I see where he’s coming from and I believe it could be true. Feeling accomplished and sure of your self and what you do must feel good. But if you’ve stayed for a long time in a job you might not like that much I think there can be a big risk of people telling themselves that “hey, I stayed this long, I must really love it.”

There are just a few small instances like these where I would’ve liked some more discussions about some other possible reasoning for what people do what they do.

As always these books find the extremes of the spectrum to prove their point. But the more productivity books I read the more I can appreciate this trope. But the reader needs to be able to do their own extrapolation to fit their own personal narratives.

The lessons I learned

I did take some things from this book. Mostly it gave me a chance to explore what mindset I had when it comes to my work and my life.

Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you. This mindset is how most people approach their working lives.

Cal Newport 2012

I felt sure I had a craftsmans mindset. But when I actually think about it I have to be honest with myself. Even though I don’t have a true passion mindset, I put too much focus on what I believe I’m owed. Like I have a veneer of craftsmans mindset that would somehow entitle me to higher things. I’m working on having more of a true craftsmans mindset now, both in my working life but also in my day to day life. No matter how good we are, or think we are, no one really owes us anything.

I don’t believe that you can apply Newports four principles to all careers. I do still feel in the end that there were a lot to learn on how to feel about your own work. I’m also all for any sort of frame work that doesn’t rely on the old adage of following your passion. Passion, or the lack of it, can be a serious source of stress. But that too is for another post.

If you want to hear my audio version of my latest post self-esteem, productivity and how to change you can find it here.

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