Writers who can only bring themselves to read one career management book, it should be Cal Newport’s So Good they Can’t Ignore You. It was published in 2012 and remains in print and relevant. This book has one central idea that really helps – how focusing on your skills to build career capital is the way to great work. He also demonstrates a couple of traps that can impede your career satisfaction.
The idea of career capital emerged from career theory in the late twentieth century. It remains a crucial way of understanding how to stay employable in the 2020’s. Even though Cal’s book has several flaws it remains the most important thing you can read today to keep your day job on track.
Newport uses a scriptwriter as an example that illustrates his thesis that building rare and valuable skills is the way to keep getting great work. Being an academic, Newport takes autonomy to be a central characteristic of anything that can be considered great work. A value close to any writers heart.
Cal’s passion problem
In the first three or four chapters Newport argues against the slogan “follow your passion” as good career advice. This is easily the weakest part of the book. If you find it is putting you off reading skip ahead. The argument against following your passion Cal demolishes takes on the weakest version of that theme so has no value, and you lose nothing by skipping them.
Cal’s first writing projects were study guides. He then started a blog. Whether it is part of his personality or the result of having written for the internet for so long, Cal has been unable to write books without having something to rail against. In So Good it is the advice to follow your passion. His approach to what he calls debunking this myth is a lazy piece of work. If you accept it as what a young writer needed to do in order to stay motivated in his project, it shouldn’t grate too much.
The idea that “follow your passion” qualifies as career advice is hard to accept. Three words sounds more like a slogan than advice. If that was the case “don’t follow your passion” would be equally bad advice. What matters is always how you follow your passion – Warren Buffett, Winston Churchill and Robert Oppenheimer all seemed to do well following their passions. Cal only uses one example to show why following your passion is a bad strategy, and it is one he read in the paper. His analysis of that case doesn’t support his position that following your passion is bad. What it shows is that starting a business at the peak of the economic cycle is fraught with danger when a correction like the GFC occurs. Unlike the examples he uses to support his preferred strategy, he has not interviewed anyone who “followed their passion.”
So what makes this book a great tool of career management for writers? The middle of the book, which articulates the strategy of building career capital. The academic theory about this way of insuring your career has been around for more than 20 years. The book provides a non-academic outline so you can think about how to proceed in your writing career and your day job. It is the best advice in the current circumstances. Cal also provides several case studies that help thinking how it can be applied to your work.
The basis of a good career is rare and valuable skills is Newport’s presupposition. He believes skills with those qualities need to be developed using deliberative practice. Which is a stretching practice – the sort of thing writers and musicians regularly do to get better. Deliberative practice aims to develop your skills in the same way working on unfamiliar maths problems stretch some people – numerate people I guess. Cal uses the example of a young musician practising to play much faster than before he started his program of deliberative practice.
Deliberative practice for Cal is a required component of the craftsman’s approach to knowledge work. Let’s call that a craftperson’s approach. The idea is that knowledge workers don’t have programs that stretch them in the way craftspeople and artists do. So what happens is many of them reach a certain level of competence and then cruise through their career doing their thing at that level. For Cal, the holy grail of great work is autonomy, and people who just cruise through with an acceptable level of competence rarely if ever get to have enough career capital to acquire autonomy.
Cal’s answer to that is to acquire enough career capital to negotiate more autonomy. The good news for developing your day job is that research shows career capital can be fashioned out of not so rare but still valuable skills. Many of these skills do not require the high intensity of deliberative practice to grow. A list of 25 forms of career capital and 25 ways of acquiring them were published in an article three years after So Good’s first release. The article interviewed 200 people across the four industries of Hi Tech research and development, Finance, Manufacturing and Public service. The top forms of career capital in each industry, and how people in those industries generally acquire it is listed below in two tables drawn from the article by Sutherland et al 2015.
Key forms of career capital
|Tech Industry||Finance Industry||Public Service||Manufacturing|
|1||Self-motivation and drive||Team player||Self-motivation and drive||Self-motivation and drive|
|2||Determination and perseverance||Self-motivation and drive||Known for delivery & execution||Known for delivery & execution|
|3||Technical ability know-how||Flexibility & adaptability||Industry acumen – understanding of the big picture||Team player|
|4||Comprehensive technical understanding||Passion for the industry environment||Flexibility & adaptability||Determination and perseverance|
|5||Practical & pragmatic understanding of the technical & work environment||Industry acumen – understanding of the big picture||Ability to lead||Relevant hands on knowledge|
|6||People skills||Multi-disciplinary either roles or disciplines||Determination and perseverance||Flexibility & adaptability|
|7||Team player||Know yourself, emotional intelligence||Personal reputation||People skills|
|8||Known for delivery & execution||Known for delivery & execution||Ability to influence motivate||Networking outside the company|
|9||Ability to influence motivate||Team player||Ability to influence motivate|
|10||Personal reputation||People skills||Know yourself emotional intelligence|
Cal’s Lulu case study
An interesting case study in So Good details Lulu’s career progression. She is a software developer who successfully acquired and deployed career capital. Lulu starts as a graduate with a Maths degree employed in low level quality testing role. In a few years she has become a highly remunerated project manager with almost total autonomy in her project selection and execution.
We can chart the career capital Lulu acquires by looking at the key skills high performers in the Tech industry value, as listed in the table above. She starts by demonstrating her self-motivation and technical ability when on her own initiative starts playing around with software and learning how to automate her quality assurance role. Doing that demonstrates she can deliver and execute. By working through being micro-managed by several managers she demonstrates she is determined and can persevere.
As she progresses in seniority Lulu acquires a comprehensive technical understanding of quality control. She also develops a pragmatic understanding of the technical and work environments which she uses to create more autonomy for herself. As she rose in seniority and her employers were desperate to retain her, we can assume she was a team player with people skills. She ticked the box on every key form of career capital valued in that industry.
In the table below we can track how Lulu developed her career capital. Firstly, she innovated in the way she worked. Then she continued to deliver on what she promised in quality assurance. Unfortunately Newport’s book does not provide enough information to guess what other ways she used to develop career capital.
How Key career capital is acquired
|1||Depending on original qualification||Willingness to learn||Willingness to learn||Willingness to learn|
|2||Ensuring you deliver on your promise||Ensuring you deliver on your promise||Ensuring you deliver on your promise||Ensuring you deliver on your promise|
|3||Innovation in the way you work||Eagerness to adopt new ways of working||Association with & learning from successful individuals in the organisation||Further training & development|
|4||Association with & learning from successful individuals in the organisation||Networking & relationship building in the organisation||Further training & development||Having a personal vision & development plan|
|5||Further training & development||Innovation in the way you work||Innovation in the way you work||Eagerness to adopt new ways of working|
|6||Networking & relationship building in the organisation||Further training & development||Networking & relationship building in the organisation||Networking & relationship building in the organisation|
|7||Having a personal vision & development plan||Developing a complete competence in your role before seeking new opportunities||Innovation in the way you work|
|8||Reading to keep up to date with current industry events & issues||Adding value by challenging the status quo||Developing a complete competence in your role before seeking new opportunities|
|9||Ensuring multi-disciplinary exposure||Ensuring multi-disciplinary exposure||Keeping to the rules of your organisation|
From data published in Sutherland et al. The components of career capital and how they are acquired… 2015
The impact of happenstance
Evaluating Lulu’s career reveals another flaw in Cal’s arguments. Career theorists would view Lulu’s career as the outcome of happenstance. Hers was not a planned career path to great work. Nor could she have planned the outcomes she achieved. It should also be noted that, like most cases studies in this book, Lulu did not start a program of deliberative practice, her skills were developed in an unplanned way. Musicians, actors and other artists can followed programs of deliberative practice to improve their skills and become so good they can’t be ignored. This is not the case with many knowledge workers, not least because introducing purposeful dynamics to choosing what skills to focus development on is very different from the arts and crafts. In the arts and crafts you choose from what has been worked out before you, this simply isn’t available in many knowledge fields. So there is no guarantee that what you choose to deliberately practice to improve your day job skills will eventually make you so good they can’t ignore you.
From a career management for writers point of view, the aim of career capital for knowledge workers is ongoing employability and career success. The research shows career capital is best developed in organisations. As we can see from the two tables above, what and how you acquire career capital for your day job is industry specific. How it contributes to career success and how it is acquired differs profoundly across the different industries. Although, we can see the career capital of “knowing why” is crucial. Self-motivation, drive, determination and perseverance are all things you get from knowing why you are doing something. It contributes to your commitment, and that contributes to your capacity to improve your performance – a key attribute for staying employable.
If you are reading Newport’s So good they can’t ignore you as career management advice for writers, here are a couple of things to keep in mind from other research conducted on career capital.
Most industries rate the “know why” of motivation and perseverance highly. These basic know whys contribute mightily to commitment, and commitment is seen as vital for improved performance.
The way to rate the effectiveness of training and development is to observe how it changes the way you work. How can knowing about career capital change the way a reader works?
Networking within your organisation has proven to be the most common highly rated means of acquiring career capital in all 4 industries – finance, public service, tech and manufacturing. Research found networking outside of your organisation i.e. networking in your industry or society more widely not valued as highly. Given the four industries studied this may not transfer to other industries. If you do not work in a large organisation it will be essential to network within your industry, or an industry you provide products or services to.
Newport. C So good they can’t ignore you: why skills trump passion in the quest for work you love. 2012. Piatkus.
M. Sutherland, G. Naidu, S. Seabela, S. Crosson and E. Nyembe. The components of career capital and how they are acquired by knowledge workers across different industries. South African Journal of Business Management. 2015,46(4)