Category Archives: passion

Sketched Book – So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love – Cal Newport

It seems almost given that you should follow your passion, but what if you don’t know what that is? Or what if following your passion prematurely can lead to failure?

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (2012), Cal Newport gives more practical advice: Instead of jumping into a completely unknown field to follow a passion which might turn out to be imaginary, look for ways to translate or grow your existing capabilities. Develop a craftsman’s mindset so that you can improve through deliberate practice. Often it’s not a lack of courage that holds you back, but a lack of skill. As you build career capital, you can develop your appreciation of a field, possibly leading to a clear passion or a mission. You also can make little bets that help you move closer to the cutting edge so that you can make something remarkable. This qualifies you to do greater work that involves creativity, positive impact, and good control.

I’ve sketched the key points of the book below to make it easier to remember and share. Click on the image for a larger version that you can print if you want.

2015-01-03 Sketched Book - So Good They Can't Ignore You - Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love - Cal Newport

I agree with many of the ideas in the book, although I’m not entirely sure about the dichotomy that Newport sets up between passion and craftsmanship. Many of the passion-oriented books I’ve read encourage you to try out your ideas before making major changes to your life – for example, by working on your own business on weekends or by taking a second job. Very few people advocate leaping into the unknown, and if they do, they recommend having plenty of savings and a network of mentors, potential clients, and supporters. So the book comes down a little harshly on a caricature of the other side rather than the strongest form of the opposing side’s argument.

Amusingly enough, although the book describes What Color is Your Parachute as “the birth of the passion hypothesis”, I remember coming across the idea of gradually transitioning to a new field by first exploring something more related to your current one in What Color is Your Parachute, which recommends it as a way of lowering risk and clarifying what you want. I also remember the What Color is Your Parachute book to be less about impulsively following your whims and more about identifying and exploring the skills that gave you feelings of accomplishment.

Anyway, I think you start with curiosity. Then you develop a little skill. This makes you more curious, which helps you learn more, and so on. That–combined with feedback and appreciation–helps fan a spark of interest into a flame. So it’s not really that you start with passion or that you spend many years developing your craft before you can enjoy it, but rather that you gradually figure out both. (I have a feeling this somewhat agrees with what the book would’ve been if it weren’t trying so hard to distinguish itself from advice about passion.)

We just don’t normally express ourselves that way, I guess. It’s almost as if people are expected to either have strong convictions about their life’s work, or to be lost at sea. If you say, “I’m still figuring things out,” it’s like you’re a drifter. If you say, “I’m not passionate about my work right now,” it’s like you’re just going through the motions. I don’t agree with this, which is why I like the book’s emphasis on forming hypotheses about what you want to do, and testing that with little bets that also develop your skills. (This is particularly apropos, since J- will be choosing a university or college course soon.)

Anyway, after reading this book, the specific take-away I’m looking forward to following up on is that of exploring adjacent possibilities more systematically. How can I move closer to the edge of discovery in myself and in the fields I’m interested in, and what new areas have been opened up? I’ve been thinking about designing more focused projects that result in things I can measure and share. That’s similar to the middle layer of the pyramid that Newport suggests:

  1. Tentative research mission – figuring out what you want
  2. One-month exploratory projects with concrete results
  3. Background results

On the whole, the book has a good message. You don’t have to love something to get good at it. Sometimes (often?) getting good at something will help you like it or even love it.

But the book feels a little… uneven, I guess? The anecdotes feel like they’re making too-similar points. The ones about failure feel unsympathetic and hand-picked for straw-man arguments. I imagine most businesses are not started out of the blue because of some grand passion. People prepare, they minimize risk, they work hard. Passion for something – either the work, the customers, or even just the life that’s afforded by the work – pulls them through the toughest parts and keeps them going. Sometimes they succeed for reasons unrelated to their skills; sometimes they fail for reasons unrelated to their passions. Sometimes things just happen. There are everyday businesses that don’t have the creativity, grand positive impact, or full control that are idealized in the book, but that still give people enjoyable lives. I think that the techniques and ingredients described by Newport in his book are good, but they are not essential to an awesome life.

On a somewhat related note, in the past few years, I’ve been learning to let go of the desire for either passion or mastery, Instead, I’m embracing uncertainty and beginner-ness, setting aside time for things I don’t quite love yet. It’s a challenging path, but it tickles my brain. =)

Anyway, if you’re looking for a counterpoint to the usual “Follow your passion!” advice and you want to check out So Good They Can’t Ignore You, you can get it from Amazon (affiliate link) or your favourite source for books. Like this sketch? Check out sketchedbooks.com for more. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog.

Enjoy!

Toolmaking

My first full day back at consulting after a month-long vacation, and it felt great. I started digging into the REST API for the system we were using, and I figured out how to build a simple command-line client to get data. I’d built a similar community analysis tool while at IBM, and that one saved lots of people hours and hours of work. Since we were starting to need similar reports, it made sense to build a tool instead of manually crunching the numbers. This time,

I decided to build the tool using Ruby instead of Java, packaging it into an .exe with Ocra. I found Ruby to be much easier to write in. The interactive mode made it easy to prototype my ideas. Gems meant that I didn’t have to hunt all over for packages and figure out how to make them work together. It was fun to come up with more ideas and add them to the tool.

I love making tools. I like digging into the wires behind web-based services and making up new ways to use stuff. The value isn’t as visible or as easy to appreciate as, say, web design work, but it’s much easier to build something quick and then tweak it to fit specific people. I like that part a lot – tailoring tools to specific ways of working.

I was thinking about the different things I might like to be really, really good at in twenty years’ time. My current shortlist: writing, drawing (mostly sketchnotes), and toolmaking. I think writing and drawing are like toolmaking for me too. They’re about making tools for the mind, helping people learn faster or more effectively or about more things. =) Maybe if I practise and learn more about writing and drawing — the way I’ve spent most of my life programming — I’ll be able to make wonderful little things too.

On Changing the World

Like Daniel at Young and Frugal, I am going to change the world.

I’m changing it already, and as I grow, I’ll do better and better. I won’t always succeed, but I’ll always learn. I’ll get better and better at finding better and better fits between what I’m passionate about, what I’m good at, and what the world needs.

It’s not because I can be anything I want to be, but because I’m becoming more of who I am. Let’s face it: I’m unlikely to become an Olympic swimming champion or the CEO of a wildly successful social networking platform. But there’s so much I can do right now, and there’s so much I want to grow into in the future.

There are amazing people around me who encourage me to keep following my passion, keep exploring new areas. They know you can’t train people to do what I do, and that I create a lot of value you can’t put into a job description. If people around me weren’t this supportive, I’d just look for a different environment. I would keep following my passions, because I can’t imagine living any other way.

I have what-am-I-doing moments. I have do-I-really-have-to-do-this moments. I have just-get-me-through-this-day moments. But I also have I-totally-rock moments and I-helped-someone-else-totally-rock moments, and I’m going to have more of those.

When people tell me I’m special, I tell them that I’m just like they are, and I ask them what it would take for them to live like I do. What would it take for people to live with passion and joy?

I’m Sacha Chua, and this is not just about Generation Y. =)

Networking for new hires

I gave a presentation on social networking for new hires to the GBS Application Services Foundations new hire network.12 people attended, and a few more dialed in, including one person from Poughkeepsie. (Yay international companies!) We had a lot of fun during the roundtable introductions. After things settled down, I gave my presentation.

The key thing I learned while preparing the presentation is that people can get by without paying special attention to social networking, but some effort can help people really transform their lives into extraordinary ones. I talked about the intersection of passion, knowledge and skills, and opportunities. If you learn more about what you’re passionate about, you’ll find or create or attract opportunities to learn more about and practice those passions or to use your knowledge and skills. The more you learn, the more you’ll be able to appreciate your passions, and the more opportunities will be open to you. It’s a beautiful cycle that makes things get better and better.

I also gave a number of quick tips on how to be more effective at social networking using events, conversations, notebooks, business cards, personal sites, blogs, articles, presentations, and other tools and opportunities. All these things can help you learn, reach out, and share what you’re learning.

The key thing I learned while giving this presentation was that although people could quickly identify passions outside work, job-related passions didn’t come to mind. I believe that it’s possible to love your work. My dad taught me this. I know that even if there are difficult days and boring days and lost days, if there’s that underlying passion, all those days will be worthwhile.

I’m glad to say that my work allows me to exercise some of my passions. So, what am I passionate about?

I’m passionate about helping people connect. I believe that interesting things happen when we bring different kinds of people together, and that’s why I love how blogging and other forms of social media allow people to bump into people outside their teams. I not only get to help people connect and collaborate, I even get to help companies figure out how to help their people do so.

I’m passionate about helping new hires connect with the rest of the organization and vice versa. I believe that a good social network can not only help new hires learn what they need to learn but also get opportunities to discover and make the most of their passions. I want to help new hire networks challenge and catalyze people’s growth in addition to providing basic social support. I want to help new hires get connected and share what they learn. Because I’ve been helping people connect using these new tools, new hire networks approach me to find out how I can help them. =)

I’m passionate about helping people share what they’re learning. I believe that teaching as you learn helps you learn more effectively. I want to help people share the tidbits that they’re learning and passing those tidbits along to others who are learning too. I not only get to lead by example, I also get to coach others.

I’m passionate about spreading enthusiasm, energy, and passion. I believe that people can be happy at work and in life. I want to learn from people who are happy and successful, I want to be an example to others, and I want to help others along the way. I not only get to share my passions with my coworkers and with other people outside the organization, I also get to encourage others when they need that extra burst of energy.

I’m passionate about communication skills, presentations, public speaking, and storytelling. I believe that presentations should be more than just bullet points and that communication should be more than just talking at people. I want to share what people are learning, inspire people to action, and help them inspire other people in turn. I not only get to learn more about communication skills and practice them by frequently giving presentations, I also get to share what I’m learning and influence the way other people communicate.

What are you passionate about? What knowledge or skills do you want to develop, and what opportunities would help you be even more effective?