I stumbled on an unusual book at the library this week and it has taken over my reading list until I wrap it up: Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Having recently left teaching for a school that hyped the “follow your passion” delusion (The school’s demented marketing chant is “It's time to do what you love. Music is your life. You want a music school that connects you to the industry, to your inner voice, and to new worlds of possibility.”), this book struck more than a few chords with me, maybe a whole song worth.
While my institutional educational mandate was “turn half-interested hobbyists into professional recording engineers,” my personal goal was always to broaden the perspective of my students so they could see other opportunities for themselves. In case they discovered they weren’t going to be among the tiny percentage of folks destined to be rock stars or the slightly greater group employed as servants of rock stars (recording engineers), I hoped to put the bug of alternative career universes into their ears. Having watched Searching for Sugar Man last night, what I read this morning was even more relevant.
This search for meaningful work is a fairly modern human pursuit. For most of our million-something years, our ancestors mostly struggled to live through the seasons. We white folks, in particular, had winter to contend with and the usual population die-off associated with that stark season with the occasional complete failure of spring-summer-fall due to climate catastrophes. If you were from one of the southern hemispheres, your mileage differed only in that you substituted vicious and insane plutocratic governments and a lot more warfaring to keep the populations under control. If winter didn’t kills us, we killed us and the search for meaning was reduced to searching for a safe, warm place for our families and friends. The industrial age and, later, more sane socialist governments, created the middle class and that led to people wanting work with meaning and job satisfaction. This is a BRAND NEW THING, so we aren’t good at it yet.
Most parents who spent their lives either as the idle rich children (with careers consisting of calling their money managers and asking “Am I still rich?”) of the robber barons or the lucky few who lived a significant portion of their lives during the tiny historic moment of middle class aspirations (asking themselves “How the hell did I luck into this life?”), understandably, have no idea how to guide their kids toward a meaningful, successful life. Being a parent has always been a hard, mostly thankless job, but with a rapidly evolving job market, economy, and technology it’s a lot harder. Academic marketing doesn’t help, either. With a butt-load of higher ed and bullshit vocational schools hustling the “you have to have a degree to get a job” garbage, it’s harder than it needs to be. Being hovering, genetically “old” parents adds more calories to the lard, too.
This is where So Good They Can’t Ignore You gets really valuable. The author’s three rules are #1 Don’t follow your passion, #2 Be so good they can’t ignore you, #3 Turn down a promotion, #4 Think small, act big. I am not going to summarize the big points, because there is a whole book that does that better than I can and really efficiently. Sticking with #1, the passion thing, a Canadian studio listed Canadian university students as picking “dance, hockey, skiing, reading, & swimming.” If that list doesn’t demonstrate how useless passions are as career guides, I have a list of bridges I’d like to see you. You are clearly dumb enough to buy all of them, if I price them right.
One of my personal rules for career planning is “Don’t become expert at something you hate. You’ll have to do it for the rest of your life.” It is kind of the polar opponent to Newport’s #2 and it flies in the face of the idea that we can become wonderfully skilled without passion for a career. Live with it. It’s possible and a problem if you are the kind of person who wants to do everything well.