Thoughts on Cal Newport's "Too Good to be Ignored"

20 Oct 2012 // science

Cal Newport's book "Too Good to be Ignored" is a timely book that lays out a carefully thought-out guide to construct an extraordinary career. It is not a book for the faint of heart: the book offers no shortcuts at all. Indeed, what is left unspoken is that, ultimately, few people will end up benefiting from the advice in this book, but those who do will find new clarity and purpose in the way they approach one of the hard questions in life: what is the work I am meant to do in this life?

There is a roughness to the book that I found engaging. This roughness comes from the fact that Newport is figuring this all this out as he's going along. He would be the first to admit that he hasn't as yet reached the dizzying heights in his career that many of the interviewees in the book has reached. He's trying to figure out a useable blue-print for himself, and hopefully the rest of us as well. But this makes the book even better as the author has skin in the game, which results in a beguiling mix of uncertainty and bravado in his writing. On a side note, I love reading his blog where he discusses all the ways he has tweaked his own approach to research, collaboration and career management.

I see this book as a practical companion to books on talent like Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" or Geoff Colvin's "Talent is overrated". The reason is that Newport is not interested in the what, but in the how. In order to study the how, Newport makes a crucial distinction between two different types of talent. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to paraphrase physicist Marc Kac speaking about Richard Feynman. Kac states that there are two kinds of geniuses. There are the ones you can imagine that if you were much much smarter than you were, and worked a lot harder, then you could do what they do. Then there are the magicians. Newport is actually not talking about magicians, he is talking about the other bunch. And after having spent several years interviewing people with extraordiary careers, Newport has come to the conclusion that most people who achieved really interesting careers were not so much magicians but hard hard workers who stumbled into their ultimate career. That is great news, because while we can't emulate the magicians, we can emulate the hard workers.

This is particularly pertinent as one of the themes of the book is to shoot down the prevailing wisdom in many career books of something that Newport calls the Passion Hypothesis. This is the hypothesis that the only thing between you and your dream job is your lack of convinction. The idea is that courage is your only obstacle – if you only had the courage to pursue your "true" passion, then you would finally live the fantasy life you've always dreamed about. Newport argues that not only is the Passion Hypothesis ineffective but it is downright malignant. He gives various examples of people who have naively followed their Passion and switched careers into their fantasy and watched their lives fall apart.

A particularly amusing part of the book is where Newport shows that many great careers trotted out as examples of Great Passion, such as Steve Jobs and Derek Silvers, were instead the result of some kind of lucky accident. Life is more random and disorganized than we'd like to think and it's easy to understand though why a great career is often described as the end-result of some kind of Great Passion. Such an origin story lends a heroic aura to a life, making a career seem like the result of destiny. It's a post-facto narrative that make us feel like we are in the presence of modern day gods.

By working backwards from his case studies of interesting careers, Newport figured out that there was often a method to the stumbling. Such careers seem to progress in stages and each stage is marked by the accumulation of something that Newport calls Career Capital. Namely, Career Capital is a rare or valuable skill that you have mastered and that someone out there is willing to pay you money for. You know that you have career capital when employers don't want to let you go, or when people throw money at you for that skill. It is Career Capital that allows you to go forth and try out new career trajectories.

This concept may seem to be brutally economic but I think it is a profound insight that touches on the Heideggerean notion of authenticity as being-in-the-world. Heidegger argued that much of the philosophy of self, or authenticity, focused too much on interiority, whilst ignoring the context of the self in the rest of the world. The world constrains what the self is, and a sense of self that is sensitive to this is often translated as being-in-the-world. This problem with authenticity definitely infects the Passion Hypothesis where the secret to wordly success and self-fulfilment is supposedly locked up in your self as a frustrated passion. In contrast, Newport's much more prosaic concept of Career Capital argues that you have to figure out what you can do that matches what the world can provide. This is being-in-the-world.

So how does one obtain Career Capital? Newport argues there's no real alternative but to knuckle down and master a skill like a traditional craftsmen. This section echoes many of the books written on the topic (Gladwell's "Outliers"; Colvins "Talent is Overrated"). The additional insight that Newport provides is that brute mastery of skills is not nearly enough. Career Capital augments the classic notion of mastery in two principal ways. First, that is not just mastering one set of skills, but it is the steady accumulation of a conjoined set of skills that opens up the opportunity for building an interesting career. Second, this requires a kind of meta-analysis to decide what skills are worth learning, and which ones are worth perserving in.

To justify this, Newport invokes Stuart Kauffman's idea of the adjacent possible, which is a more prosaic way to think about Heidegger's Being-in-the-world. As the world progresses and new technologies are brought into being, opportunities open up which require only a short sideways hop for someone with the requisite skills to fill up. Interesting careers are made by filling up the space in the adjacent possible. Those who dream much further out than the adjacent possible will have no easy way to engage the world. This explanation echoes Richard Hamming's famous essay on "You and Your Research", where Hamming argues that one of the secrets to doing World-Class Research is the ability to appropriate new techniques and ideas from related research fields and use them to crack the fundamental problems in your own field. An interesting corollary to the adjacent possible argument is that if you do insist on working far from the adjacent possible in a well-established field, your skill level must be extraordinarily high to have traction in the world.

So, to summarize: if one has not reached the nirvana of self-fulfilling work, this means one must first search out new skills worth mastering, subject oneself to master these new skills, and then test the new skills out in the world to see if they stick. You keep going until your skill set reaches a critical mass. And only once you reach the crticial mass, will you be able to look back to see how the story unfolded. This is not the kumbiya advice of the Passion hypothesis where courage and self-discovery is all you need. It is pushing the self against the world and feeling the interconnect between the two.

Still, the book leaves many questions open. Namely, how does one go about mastering new skills? I mean if it takes supposedly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master any skill, there are only so many skills one can learn in a lifetime. As well, it seems to me that not anyone can learn any kind of skills. Different people are primed to learn different kind of skills. I think this is definitely an area that can be expanded on, which can draw insights from the growing field of positive psychology and concrete models of personality types. In terms of skill acquisition goes, one consequence is that you don't want to stray too far from your current skill set to choose a new one. Perhaps this might cut down the 10000 hours required to master the new skill. An example is learning languages. It's been said that once you start learning your 5th language, it gets a whole lot easier learning the next one. I've found this to be the case.

If we are to take Newport's argument seriously, then there are certain personality qualities required to construct an interesting career. You must have the doggedness required to sustain the effort to master a skill. You must have the openness to constantly explore new ones. You need the pragmaticism to figure out which skill actually fits the world as it is. Doggedness, openness, and pragmaticism. These are three rather peculiar traits required to become someone who is so good that they can't ignore you.