So Good They Can’t Ignore You
First priority: become an expert
“Follow your passion” is the dogmatic advice for building a career. But it is woefully incomplete and even misleading for some people. Better advice is “Become so good they can’t ignore you”; that is, become expert in something, and the passion will follow. In other words, flip the mission from “find your passion so that you can be useful” to “be useful so you can find your passion.” Acquiring expertise is a lot of work, requiring deliberate practice, patience, shrewd acceptance of control of your time, and other meta skills. While this book changed my mind about how skills trump passion, I consider it the only first word in outlining how one goes about this. But it’s good enough for framing the question that I gave all my young adult kids a copy.
There is, however, a problem lurking here: When you look past the feel-good slogans and go deeper into the details of how passionate people like Steve Jobs really got started, or ask scientists about what actually predicts workplace happiness, the issue becomes much more complicated. You begin to find threads of nuance that, once pulled, unravel the tight certainty of the passion hypothesis, eventually leading to an unsettling recognition: "Follow your passion" might just be terrible advice.
If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, we would probably find him today as one of the Los Altos Zen Center's most popular teachers. But he didn't follow this simple advice. Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break -- a "small-time" scheme that unexpectedly took off.
How do we find work that we'll eventually love? Like Jobs, should we resist settling into one rigid career and instead try lots of small schemes, waiting for one to take off? Does it matter what general field we explore? How do we know when to stick with a project or when to move on? In other words, Jobs's story generates more questions than it answers. Perhaps the only thing it does make clear is that, at least for Jobs, "follow your passion" was not particularly useful advice.
To summarize, I've presented two different ways people think about their working life. The first is the craftsman mindset, which focuses on what you can offer the world. The second is the passion mindset, which instead focuses on what the world can offer you.
The Career Capital Theory of Great Work
- The traits that define great work are rare and valuable.
- Supply and demand says that if you want these traits you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. Think of these rare and valuable skills you can offer as your career capital.
- The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming "so good they can't ignore you," is a strategy well suited for acquiring career capital. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is to create work you love.
"Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands…Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it "deliberate," as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting tennis balls that most people engage in."
If you show up and do what you're told, you will, as Anders Ericsson explained earlier in this chapter, reach an "acceptable level" of ability before plateauing. The good news about deliberate practice is that it will push you past this plateau and into a realm where you have little competition. The bad news is that the reason so few people accomplish this feat is exactly because of the trait Colvin warned us about: Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.