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Is it all about passion?

So Good They Can't Ignore You
So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Passion makes for success. Without passion you’ll fail. If you don’t have passion about what you’re doing, you won’t do it for long. We’ve all heard these catch phrases, and while they sound good, I’ve had a niggling suspicion in the back of my mind that it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve seen salesmen with loads of passion fail in closing deals. I’ve seen actors with passion for their craft fail in getting work. I’ve seen speakers who are passionate about a cause fail to mount cogent arguments.

While I was growing up, my parents sent me to music lessons. Every week, I remember going to my piano teacher’s studio where she’d have me play scales and pieces I had practiced during the week. On weeks where I had slacked off, my teacher would ask if I had practiced. I’d say “yes”, to which she’d reply, “I can hear you haven’t practiced this week”. If, as a kid, you’d asked me whether I was passionate about music, I don’t think my answer would have been a resounding yes, but as the years of practice added up, I got better and better, and while I’m certainly no concert pianist, I now say I’m passionate about music in general, and piano music in particular.

Cal Newport’s recently released book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, deals with this very topic. He dispels the popular concept that you need to find your passion before you launch your career. Instead, he spells out the importance of following four simple rules that’ll put you on the right trajectory. Each of these rules isn’t revolutionary, but when combined, they make up a sensible and coherent action plan no matter what your career.

The first rule is don’t follow your passion. In this section, Cal strongly argues following your passion is bad advice, especially when you’re passionate about a field you have limited experience with.

The second rule is be so good that they can’t ignore you. Here, Cal puts forward a number of examples of successful individuals who have honed their skills through deliberate practice. He recalls the 10,000 hour rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, whereby those who are experts in the field, be it music, sport, or business have spent 10,000 hours developing their craft.

The third (slightly cryptic) rule is turn down a promotion. Cal argues it’s important for skilful people to be deliberate about how and where they direct their efforts. Control here is key, as is having the freedom to take little bets in exploring and experimenting with areas of interest. He also stresses the importance of continual improvement noting that so many people stop learning and stretching themselves once they’ve found a comfortable job.

The fourth rule is think small, act big. In this section, Cal provides examples of other successful people who have ‘discovered’ their big and challenging missions after they’ve developed a high level of domain knowledge and cultivated rare skills. One of my favourite quotes of this section is “working right trumps funding right work”.

After reading So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I can see parallels in my own life. My passion for music seems to have come about repeated and deliberate (at least on my parents’ part) exposure from a young age. I received ongoing encouragement with provided additional motivation to practice more, becoming more confident and playing (and enjoying) different genres. In other fields, I’m now more motivated to spend time deliberately practicing and developing my skills, applying some of the author’s other rules.