Sunday 2016-09-04

So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport

Newport's written a polemic against the poverty-inducing Find-Your-Passion meme. To him, this fad is just another version of the Underwear Gnomes: Phase 1 = Quit your job, Phase 2 = ?, Phase 3 = Emotional Profit! And to top it off, he makes fun of Po Bronson. So how bad could it be?

Let me count the ways!

While he makes a reasonable case that Find-Your-Passion is this generation's Stupidity Vacuum, he's worried that many many people will be hoovered up by it. Is it really that damaging? Compare it to the previous generation's New-Age meme, was that really so painful?1

He fails to note that the pop culture espousal of Find-Your-Passion has a fixed-mindset view of passion, i.e. ohs noes! you have lost your one and only passion, and now you have to go find it like an unschooled Little Bo Peep. Of course, this is broken.2

And just as Clayton Christensen can't find his way to the Widener,3 Newport manages to completely avoid mentioning any prior art: e.g. vocation vs avocation vs otium, and that's just one part of Western thought.

He does obliquely reference one strand of Eastern thought in his introduction; however he fails to note its significance.4

Thomas' new life as a monk started well enough. He lived in a small cabin, set back in the woods from the main building. Early in his visit he asked a senior monk, who had been living in a similar cabin for over fifteen years, if he ever got tired of walking the trail connecting the residences to the main building. I'm only just starting to learn it, the monk replied mindfully.

Lots of thought says that passion is a cultivar; that everything is interesting, and you just have to apply yourself enough to see it -- with the emphasis on "apply yourself", whilst Newport counsels his readers to keep working, gain skills, gain autonomy, and try to find a mission in life.5

As the book ended, I expected Newport to circle back to the monk's "only just starting to learn it" quote, and point out that he had been somewhat tricksy: by doing these things, the reader couldn't help but come to understand themselves, and thereby reveal their passions. Instead, he just congratulates himself on his new job, and exits.

Now, there's a chance that Newport doesn't like the word "passion", and this book is just some over-done public pseudo-wrangling with one of his demons. However, failing to catch the monk's meaning is quite galling. So to make things clearer for Newport and Christensen, here's an easier-to-grok story:

The great monk Seng Youming lived on an even greater mountain. One day, a young monk paid Seng a visit, arriving as he was about to ascend the mountain. Upon hearing this, the young monk asked if he could join Seng. "Of course!", and up the twisty rock-strewn path they went.

80,000 steps later, the monks arrived at the summit. Seng turned around, and stared at the young monk.

After an appropriately respectful amount of waiting, the young monk said, "What next?" Seng look at the young monk curiously, "Now we walk back down. And you are in my way."

With a wounded look upon his face. the young monk moved quickly to the side. Seng sighed, and asked "What were you doing while we walked up?" "I was following you." replied the young monk.

"That's unfortunate. Because you are mis-guided and not terribly bright, I will give you a second chance. We are going to walk down now. This time, pay attention!"

While unstated, both the Find-Your-Passion meme and this book are the product of large changes. The world is becoming increasingly wealthier, with the percentage of people living in poverty falling.

When daily survival is no longer the dominant question, what we do with ourselves becomes an increasingly important question. Many people have dealt with this, and some of them have even built their own personal philosophies. Perhaps that will be Newport's next book.

Hopefully, he will take the time to derive from first principles, then actually conduct a literature review, and then write the damn thing.

  1. Excepting the collateral damage to our mass media, wherein the throwback-hippie became a central casting character, New-Age seems relatively harmless. There are lots worse....
  2. While we don't know a lot about our brains, we do know this.
  3. See HowWillYouMeasureYourLife
  4. We know that Newport failed his Zen 101 exam...
    Thomas struggled to pass this koan, focusing on it intensely for months. I worked and worked on that koan, he told me. I went to bed with it; I let it inhabit my whole body. Then he cracked it.
  5. Yes, his argument just went "turtles all the way down".

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and one traveler chose the path to mastery while the other was called toward passions glow. The former ended up celebrated in the industry, in control of his own livelihood, and weekending with his family in a forested retreat. The latter ended up on food stamps.
As mentioned, I didnt get far in my quest before I realized, as Thomas did before me, that the conventional wisdom on career successfollow your passionis seriously flawed. It not only fails to describe how most people actually end up with compelling careers, but for many people it can actually make things worse: leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst when, as it did for Thomas, ones reality inevitably falls short of the dream.
The Passion Hypothesis The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what youre passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.
I dont doubt that Jobs eventually grew passionate about his work: If youve watched one of his famous keynote addresses, youve seen a man who obviously loved what he did. But so what? All that tells us is that its good to enjoy what you do. This advice, though true, borders on the tautological and doesnt help us with the pressing question that we actually care about: How do we find work that well eventually love?
She surveyed the assistants to figure out why they saw their work so differently, and discovered that 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.

Ummm, Survivor bias?

Mark is a studio musician from Nashville who has certainly earned his stripes: Hes played on ninety-nine number one hit singles on the Billboard charts. When I told Mark about Jordan, he agreed that an obsessive focus on the quality of what you produce is the rule in professional music. It trumps your appearance, your equipment, your personality, and your connections, he explained. Studio musicians have this adage: The tape doesnt lie. Immediately after the recording comes the playback; your ability has no hiding place.
When I'm learning a new mathematical techniquea classic case of deliberate practicethe uncomfortable sensation in my head is best approximated as a physical strain, as if my neurons are physically re-forming into new configurations. As any mathematician will admit, this stretching feels much different than applying a technique youve already mastered, which can be quite enjoyable. But this stretching, as any mathematician will also admit, is the precondition to getting better.
in most jobs you should expect your employer to resist your move toward more control; they have every incentive to try to convince you to reinvest your career capital back into your career at their company, obtaining more money and prestige instead of more control, and this can be a hard argument to resist.
He decided to take a job with ENTP, one of the countrys top Ruby programming firms.