So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Most of the graduation speeches that we hear this time of year focus on “passion” and “doing what you love”. While that may be fine, there is another viewpoint, perhaps best articulated by Professor Cal Newport in his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. I had the opportunity to talk at length with Dr. Newport (a Computer Sciences Professor at Georgetown) a couple years ago and I found his approach innovative and refreshing.

The title of Dr. Newport’s book comes from comedian Steve Martin as he described his early career path. Remember that Martin was training and coming onto the comedy scene following a generation of comedy legends like Jack Benny, Don Rickles, Dean Martin and others. Newport uses Steve Martin’s journey as a starting point to explore the importance of skills, what he calls “career capital” in the quest for work that you love. In other words, the skills part precedes the love part. This is a critical point since pre-existing passion is rare and the expectation of this passion can lead to endless job dissatisfaction.

Of course, this is heresy in terms of the typical graduation theme but I think it makes good sense. While Professor Newport was working on his doctorate at M.I.T., he wrote three books aimed mostly at helping high school and college students attain academic success. Suggesting that individuals work towards “career capital” first always brings out the skeptics who usually point to contemporary figures that, in their view, had passion for their work. Steve Jobs is often among those on this list but as Newport points out, Jobs original passion was only to sell 50 computer motherboards to the hobby shop in his California hometown. What we as outsiders saw later as passion likely developed from the initial “career capital”.

Congratulations to all your family members who recently graduated. If you are looking for a somewhat different, thought-provoking gift, Cal Newport’s book might just be the one. Ready for a real conversation?

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