In a recent post I reviewed Cal Newport’s excellent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Newport adopts a well-researched, “rational” approach to the issue. His main findings are that:
• It is foolish to dash headlong into a new career without first establishing career capital (skills, knowledge and connections).
• Innate passions which can be transferred into paid work are rare and it is better to experiment with life to find work you can become passionate about.
• If you cannot see any pre-existing people being paid for your “passion”, don’t try to turn it into work.
• By developing rare and valuable skills, a person’s work will be in demand.
• It is necessary to use deliberate practice to develop such high-level skills in your area of work. This may not be fun at all, and mastery typically takes some 10 000 hours of practice.
• A person needs to develop a mission which helps them focus their work into a precise area, and to avoid scattering one’s energy.
• Patience is required. It takes time and a great deal of work to become great at something.
• Newport heavily criticises the popular self-help-book suggestion that the most important step in developing blissful work is having the courage to quit your job and begin your new, passionate career. This is foolish and likely to lead to failure and rejection if it is done before a person has established career capital in his new field.
These are all common sense, and very useful insights.
However, having mentioned so many positives in that previous post, let me now move onto several reservations I have about Newport’s approach to finding passionate, meaningful work.
Spinning the cherries
Newport cherry picks his case studies. The fact that he does not offer a single exceptional case – one that contradicts his thesis – suggests that his conclusions may be exaggerated. He also appears to “spin” these cases to ensure that they support his argument, highlighting those aspects which are affirmative, but explaining away those things which might potentially contravene his line of argumentation.
For example, he dismisses the case of Steve Jobs – whose Stanford graduation speech on following one’s passion has twenty million hits on YouTube – as evidence for the passion hypothesis. Newport points out that in his youth Jobs studied literature, physics and history at Reed College, a liberal Arts school, and not business or electronics. Jobs was also passionate about spirituality, consciousness expansion and Eastern mysticism. If he’d followed his own advice, writes Newport, Jobs would have become a zen teacher. Newport says that all the Jobs’ biography proves is that it’s good to be passionate about what you do.
But is this really a fair assessment of Jobs’ innate passions?
Newport appears to be playing a semantic game here. Can Newport’s term “electronics” really encapsulate the passion of Steve Jobs? And is not “business” what most self-starters do to turn anything into a successful career? Perhaps terms like “creative inspiration” or “design” are more appropriate descriptions for the innate passions of Steve Jobs. His work at Apple would then seem like an apt fit. And clearly Jobs felt he was living his passion. This is not something that can be so easily dismissed.
In my own life I have found that my passion centres around my work as a writer and explorer of consciousness and spirituality. I certainly didn’t know this when I was twenty. In fact, I never had any genuine spiritual understanding till I was about twenty-six – I was actually a sceptic before that time. I studied English and History at University and loved sport as a kid. Thus it may appear to an outsider that my life affirms Newport’s thesis.
But the truth is that I was always deeply introspective. I just needed life experience to bring that out. So in a sense Newport is both right and wrong. It did require the travails of life for me to discover my calling. But I do not feel that this passion was created by my life experience: that passion was always extant. It was a mere potential.
Therefore I am not in full agreement with Newport that we may as well stick a list of ten appealing pastimes on a wall and throw a dart at them to choose which one to explore as a great career (as he states on a Youtube video). I believe that we must also develop an inner wisdom, and use that intuitive intelligence to help us develop our calling in cooperation with life.
Another problematic case study brought forward by Newport involves the story of Ryan and Sarah’s highly successful organic farm at Red Fire, Grandby. Ryan is a former banker who quit his job to set up the farm. According to Newport, Ryan stumbled into his new profession – he literally “grew into it.” However, this is not a logical assessment. From Newport’s description of Ryan, it appears the man always had an innate enthusiasm for working in nature. The fact that he followed a path consistent with his inner world is therefore indication enough that he had a passion for it.
Such problematic interpretations are one of the key limitations of Newport’s thesis, as he regularly twists passion-positive case studies to ensure that the passion hypothesis is nullified.
To be more specific, Newport dismisses the idea of “passion” in relation to Ryan’s work because there were a series of steps over many years as Ryan discovered his “calling.” Such passion only ever develops over time, insists the author. Yet my sense is that Newport is playing word games again when he implies that any unfolding process that is not instantaneous cannot be called “passionate” in the same way that an innate enthusiasm can be.
Obviously it is true that a person’s life process can help reveal his deep passions, as has been true in my own life. Yet it is not simply the case that such passions are conditioned by the life process, which is what Newport suggests. Newport’s thesis is thus sometimes too black and white, adopting an unnecessarily strict dichotomy between careers sustained by passion versus those developed via craftsmanship.
Nonetheless, Newport’s statement that an individual has to acquire significant skills and career capital to succeed in new career directions remains very valid – and Ryan did just this over many years.
Out with introspection
Another significant shortcoming of Newport’s book is that he appears to have little practical understanding of introspection or human intuition. He is a successful university professor, and so his education has clearly valorised “rational” and scientific ways of knowing. He tends to dismiss personal insight and human intuition, often with subtle contempt or even ridicule.
A good example occurs very early in the book, when Newport begins with story of Thomas, a zen practitioner with a master’s degree in comparative religion.
In interview, Newport relates that Thomas, is reluctant to communicate the meaning of a specific zen koan. Newport gets around this by googling the koan. He then essentially treats it with contempt, apparently failing to consider the possibility that the Zen masters might be correct in suggesting that most people would have trouble truly understanding it with a standard analytical approach.
It is here that Newport is at his weakest. Sometimes he mirrors the arrogance of modern scientific “skepticism”, apparently believing that he does not need to undergo any introspective education or training in order to develop greater depth of intuitive perception. This attitude is epitomised when he announces that he has “debunked” the passion hypothesis. He contemptuously denounces the idea as an “occupational fairy tale.”
Newport appears to be on a kind of semi-religious quest to ensure that the passion hypothesis is killed off. Personally, I do not believe that things need to be taken that far.
Further, Newport does not entertain the possibility that science may be limited when it comes to understanding passion and innate human drive. A common criticism of modern brain science is that it is delimited. Empiricism and third-person approaches to dealing with human intention or consciousness cannot really get inside a person’s head. They can only map the correlates of consciousness. In short, science is incapable of truly understanding the spiritual dimensions of life.
To find the answers to the questions he asks, Newport consults academic journals and avoids introspective domains. Is it any surprise then that he completely dismisses and sometimes ridicules passion and introspection? Newport’s argument ultimately becomes circular. Introspection is inadequate, therefore introspection will be avoided as a means of insight into the problem of insight.
Is this shortcoming simply a lack of introspective intelligence on Newport’s behalf?
Newport’s analysis does not distinguish between passion and intuitive intelligence – what some might call spiritual guidance. Likewise, the Canadian college students who were surveyed about their “passions” were likely not introspective types in general, being mainstream-educated. The survey, and Newport, fails to discern the difference between the excitement of personal interests and the “excitement” which emerges from an inner sense of guidance.
There is no evidence in the book, nor in the public presentations that I have seen, that Newport has a well-developed inner world. Newport’s world is apparently random and the individual is soul agent of his life. Yet there are inner and mystical journeys where inner voice is crucial. The failure to address this is a prime shortcoming of Newport’s book. He seems to deny all inner guidance, seemingly completely ignorant of its existence. Founding his work only on science, it remains delimited by its boundaries. Modern science has actively denied intuition and introspection for centuries, and Newport unquestioningly follows in its footsteps.
My sense is that both the strengths and limitations of Newport’s book stem from his being an academic. He does a wonderful job in drawing attention to the pitfalls of blindly following your bliss. But he is singularly incapable of comprehending the subtleties of the inner intelligence of the wisdom traditions. By limiting his approach to academic analysis of research papers and personal case studies, Newport effectively silences many of the wisest men and women of history. Thus So Good They Can’t Ignore You remains very good, but limited; just as Newtonian physics was a wonderful approximation of an observable universe, but woefully inadequate once finer cosmic truths had been gleaned.
Excellent but flawed
So Good They Can’t Ignore You is an excellent book. I will be recommending this book to my own clients (I advise people on how to activate a broader range of human intelligence in developing an ideal life – especially intuitive intelligence). The book systematically addresses many of the common pitfalls that “life of passion” advocates experience (including my own). Given that these are very rarely addressed in self-help and new age philosophies, Newport’s book is an invaluable addition to those wishing to develop such a lifestyle. It’s conclusions remain strong, based as they are on science and relevant case studies. However, I would encourage readers to be mindful of Newport’s personal biases and limited understanding of introspection and human intuition.
Newport’s “complete rejection” of the passion hypothesis is understandable given his worldview, but nonetheless premature. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.