So Good They Can’t Ignore You

This is a post I wrote in 2013 that I recently revisited while touring universities with my daughter and reflecting on the best advice to give her as she ponders her future choices. This alternative viewpoint on following your passion is still contentious but I think worth considering.


For the first time in many years, my family got on a plane and flew somewhere else for Christmas.  As a result, I managed to read a book from cover to cover while flying to and from our destination, something I never get to do in my regular hectic life.  The book I chose was ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You‘ by Cal Newport.  I first heard about this book from Steve Hargadon’s Future Of Education podcast series, and was fascinated by the premise that encouraging people to follow their passion is bad advice.  In a nutshell, the book argues that:

Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

I found the book fascinating because it not only rejected the passion hypothesis but replaced it with a set of very distinct, actionable ideas that could be used to inform my classroom practice.

Over the holidays I mentioned this book to anyone that cared to listen and almost everyone had a knee-jerk, ‘that can’t be right, reaction.  It seems that the idea of following your passion is so ingrained in all of us that we find it hard to let go.  So I thought I would spend a few minutes trying to unpack this idea.  The book argues that passion ‘as a noun’ can be dangerous because not everyone has a passion that can be turned into a career.  This does not mean that passion is not important, only that it shouldn’t get centre stage.  Instead, Cal argues, everyone should approach whatever they choose to do passionately (an adverb), but what we choose to do isn’t as important as how we choose to do it.  In other words,

Working right trumps finding the right work.

Cal argues that the key to a happy work life is to build what he calls ‘career capital’, and the way to do this is to approach your occupation with a craftsman mindset.  To illustrate this mindset he tells the tale of a guitar player who is constantly pushing his abilities and practising at the boundary of what he is capable of, and by doing this he is well on his way to being a master of his craft.  This focus on stretching your ability and receiving immediate feedback is what Cal calls the craftsman mindset and it is different from the passion mindset because:

The craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.

The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming “so good they can’t ignore you,” is a strategy well suited for acquiring career capital. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is to create work you love.

This argument really makes sense to me, and has certainly played out in my own life.  By investing time and energy into becoming good at something you then build ‘career capital’ that you can leverage to take more control of your own working life.  Of course it makes sense to focus your energies in a direction that has interest to you and that you have some talent for, but if the case studies in the book are to be believed, this is less important than approaching every task with a passionate craftsman like attitude.

It helps to think about skill acquisition like a freight train: Getting it started requires a huge application of effort, but changing its track once it’s moving is easy.

In the examples in the book ‘it is a lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice that again and again ends up explaining excellence’.  And if one of the roles of schools is to inspire excellence and prepare our students to have happy working lives, then maybe we need to be doing more to promote the craftsman frame of mind.  The problem is that:

Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.  If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”

This has got me wondering how we can structure school so it does a better job encouraging the craftsman frame of mind (given that the process is not inherently enjoyable).  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Assessment and reporting has to change.  Students are not going to want to focus on the process of getting better if they are continually judged and compared on where they are in this process.  A reporting system that celebrates the process of improving has a better chance of supporting the development of a craftsman like attitude.
  • It is unreasonable to expect students to approach everything they do in school with this sort of attitude.  Maybe schools should expect all students to pick one or two things that they are interested in becoming really good at, so they can develop the habits of mind necessary for ‘working right’. The Inquiry Hub is an interesting model that seems to be doing something similar to this.
  • Schools can do a better job supporting students with the Approaches to Learning needed to deliberately practice something and work through the unenjoyable parts.
  • We need to be careful about trying to make all of school fun, if it comes at the expense of rigor and an understanding of the effort and application needed to truly become good at something.

4 Comments

  1. J.O. Eriksson

    How refreshing, Phil. You have put into words some of my misgivings about the “follow your passion” mantra that I fear often misleads down the garden path of wishful thinking. Thanks for sharing!

    • Phil Macoun

      Hi JO. Thanks for leaving a comment. It’s my first blog comment in a long time. After chatting with you about this the other day I realised that the problem with telling kids to pursue their passion is not so much the passion part but the unspoken implication that if you pursue your passion things will be easy for you. Like the saying that if you do what you love you will never work a day in your life.

  2. John Phillips

    Great reflective post Phil. The adage, “do what you love and never work a day in your life!” might be true but it certainly does not mean dismissing some pretty essential elements (like being able to pay a mortgage). I love the segway into A&E and the design of schools. One of the best things Independent Schools offer is the ability to creatively develop a curriculum that could match what you envision. Sometimes (sadly) the Public System bureaucracy makes it more difficult to pivot and support interesting new programs. I was proud to work for a school board that worked hard on supporting innovative programs but it was impossible to radically re-work the system in place. Good luck with the Uni process. A huge step.

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