The best book I have read on career advice is So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.

Follow your passion is bad advice.

This is the premise of the book and what first intrigued me.

Newport argues that instead of trying to find what you’re passionate about and do that for a living, you should instead focus on developing “career capital” which you can later exchange for more enjoyable work and better working conditions.

He breaks this process down into four rules.

Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

The reason he advises against following your passion is that passion is not only rare, but something that typically happens after you get really good at something, not the other way around.

He talks about Steve Jobs, who preached that you should do what you love, but followed a different path, himself. Before Jobs started Apple, he was a hippie college student who studied Eastern spirituality and traveled to India for several months.

It was only when he partnered with Steve Wozniak, who was the true computer geek of the two, that he got into the computer business. Even then, he was more interested in the money-making opportunity than the technology.

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

Instead of adopting the “passion mindset” where you focus on what value your job can provide you, adopt the “craftsman mindset” where you focus on what value you can provide your job.

This reminds me of the famous JFK quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

If you do this, then you will actually get a lot more value out of your job later down the line.

Newport first heard the advice “Be so good they can’t ignore you” from a Steve Martin interview.

Steve Martin didn’t become a massive success overnight. It took him ten years of honing his craft before anyone realized who he was. And by that time, he was literally so good that he couldn’t be ignored.

Instead of focusing on shallow tactics, he focused only on one thing: getting better, which requires deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is well-known among athletes and musicians, but is less common among knowledge workers.

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

In this rule, Newport talks about control, or what he calls “the dream job elixir.”

He gives an example of Ryan Voiland, who started Red Fire Farm. Ryan wasn’t passionate about farming when he started. He just wanted to earn some extra money.

But he kept leveling up his skills until he had created bigger and better opportunities for himself which culminated in Red Fire Farm, a job that gave him total control of his schedule and working environment.

Newport also warns of two “control traps” that people may encounter on their path towards more career control:

Trying to gain control without sufficient career capital

Overcoming employers who will try to prevent you from gaining more control when they recognize your value

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

Mission is another element like control that can dramatically enhance your work because it gives you a purpose that’s larger than your day-to-day job.

But like control, you can’t immediately have a purpose-filled job without the career capital to back it up.

I see this in my corporate job. I often think that VPs and executives who sit in these “war room” type meetings talking big-picture industry strategy and making million dollar moves have a much more interesting and purpose-filled job than someone doing data entry in a cubicle.

But the truth is they earned the right to do that type of work by becoming great at what they do, taking on more and bigger responsibilities, and getting great at those.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You is an excellent read no matter where you are in your career.

The reason I like this book is that it’s a totally unconventional and refreshing take on career advice.

More importantly, it’s advice that anyone, including myself, can apply in whatever job they are currently in.

You don’t have to find a new career or even like the one you have in order to significantly improve your work life.

First published on Quora.


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