Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In today’s day and age, when it comes to career happiness, the first and foremost platitude is “do what you love.” But is that enough? Cal Newport’s new book for surviving college, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, rejects this conventional wisdom of “following your passion,” arguing that this advice too simple and, at worst, dangerous. He profiles various people with fascinating, engaging careers to figure out how each of us can end up with a job that we love.
As college freshmen, my fellow peers are constantly exploring and defining their future paths. “What are you majoring in?” seems to be a question of cosmic weight, and answers range on the spectrum from no idea to those enviably certain. Why is it such a big decision? On some level, this choice signifies taking a first step of commitment down the path of our future lives. With that focus, we are simultaneously closing doors to other options, and therefore we are afraid of missing out on our true calling. The dominant idea in American culture is the “passion hypothesis,” which asks you to identify a passion and then try to find a job that matches it. We’re supposed to believe that as long as you follow your passion, the money and success will follow.
However, this never convinced me. I went through high school trying one activity after another hoping to find this elusive feeling of “passion,” but it never came. After some self-pity and frustration at not having that spark, I’ve become seriously disillusioned, and have come to question that the ideal match really exists.
That’s exactly the dilemma Newport’s work is trying to address. I was fortunate enough to recently receive an advance copy from the author. In So Good, he goes on a quest to discover what conditions create a fulfilling career. Along the way, Newport interviews organic farmers, venture capitalists, screenwriters, and freelance computer programmers to find out what makes their jobs so great and exactly how they got there. The central message of his book is that the “passion hypothesis” is false; true preexisting passions are rare and have little to do with people loving their work. Instead he takes the “craftsman mindset:” in place of asking what the world can offer you in enjoyment, ask what value you can offer the world. He discovers the key to loving your work is to become excellent at a rare and valuable skill, and then leverage that expertise to create your dream job. In other words, passion comes after you become good at something.
Newport’s straightforward method of using interesting stories to illustrate his points reminds of Malcolm Gladwell, yet he adds upon his theories by blending his Gladwell-esque storytelling with practical advice that can be applied to any field. He writes in a logical tone and clear structure, breaking down his insights into concise rules and theorems. In one particularly interesting chapter, he details the career path of a Harvard genetics professor, from high school to her breakout Nature article that made her a star researcher. It turns out she didn’t know what she wanted to do until very late in grad school. From her story, he extracts advice on not only how to identify a career direction, but how one can get to the “coolest” positions in a chosen field.
Like Gladwell, his book is so well-written that it is difficult to find holes in his logic. One of the few criticisms I have is that his evidence is mainly anecdotal-based. Although it makes for an engaging read, the lack of quantitative data can fail to convince some skeptic, scientifically-minded readers. Also, although the advice is tremendously useful to those well-educated and in the position to launch knowledge-based careers, it won’t help much those stuck in burger-flipping jobs of the working class, without much room for innovation.
This message of this book is very relevant, and answers many questions I’m having and I’m sure many fellow Swatties are having as well. It is addressed to young adults about to start their careers, and trying to choose which direction to pursue. His philosophy takes immense stress off, assuring you that as long as one picks an interesting direction, working right matters more than choosing the right work. I recommend this book to everyone who is having trouble identifying a “passion” or wondering how to craft the most satisfying job possible.
Photo courtesy of Hachett Book Group