Tag Archives: self

“So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love”: Book Review


My previous reads were “Biography of Steve Jobs: Walter Issacson“, ” Notes on Startups: Peter Thiel“, “Siddhartha : Herman Hesse”  and I can only wonder how this book connects with those.

I came across the author Cal Newport due to the Happy Schools Blog. This book arrives in style, for  a job hunter in USA. Yes, I am searching for positions in electrical engineering as I am approaching end of my studies.

Here is the talk by the author :-

In ” Notes on Startups: Peter Thiel”  the author argues that we have to provide something 10 times better than what is available to be a good start up. In Cal Newport‘s “ So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love“. This book tries to come up and blast it on the face as to ‘why passion is not what you are looking for. You are looking for expertise in the beginning of your career’.

As an engineer with some awesome experience in my field, I can say that I have met a couple of people who said the same. They never wrote a book or go to MIT. Great People. Here, was this great retired man who was called back to help serve the company and help the new fellows to catch up with the technologies. I have asked him if he had any passion for the things that he did and if there is any tips and tricks of career life that I can use. He said ” It is good to have your own ideas and developing knowledge to implement it. Even more important is to flow with the crowd till the time is reached; the time when you are confident and knowledgeable enough to have a separate direction of commute than the general flow.” And then the bus had arrived and those were probably the last words I heard from him. Since I left the company- for higher pursuits. The book reinforces this thought.

There was this amazing scientist, who was also called back from retirement the same way as the former. I had breakfast with this man very often when I was working there. I remember that I posed him the question ” Did you have any particular interest or great passion for what you are currently doing, when you were my age”. He replied ” Not really, I got the job, I learned the job. Now, I know some things, with which I can help new people”

And then I talked to a colleague in university very recently, asked him why he changed majors and what his interest is. He said ” I do not have any specific area of interest, But , I am not proud of it. I know jobs are in the computer science area, the number of jobs in software is more than electrical engineering. So I am where I am.” The last I heard from him he had an internship in this super big company in USA.

Very recently, I was speaking to a friend, he was really interested in this wonderful research and was in the process of starting his research. He has not started any job application and he is OK with that. I have this another friends who went from Bachelors to PhD straight and says ” I do what I do , what I like, what is interesting, I keep doing it, Job will come”.

In the beginning, I had this biased understanding of what these people told. It was naive of me in the thought process. Everyone has some attraction to say some colors, some food, some topics, some places. This could be yellow, pasta, history of Incas, Egypt for some. This could be anything. The rational mind of mine tries to normalize the bias whereby this is diluted to any color,, history, World. This rationality and dilution is for the world to see. This is a form of outlook, self-created outlook, banishing the old preferences and making life simpler. Categorization and division was a tool to tackle odd chunks of data, information or knowledge. This is never diluted, because it becomes hard to grasp. My understanding is that this is not representation of real world. It is not like there are land animals and water animals, there are amphibians. Elephant which swims is not amphibious. That sounds like blasphemy to categorical knowledge. 🙂


The book 

As per the book , there are only two kinds of people.

Passionate people and Craftsmen (people who work to achieve their greatness). Also, the book says that ‘passion is rare’.

I got this question from an interview 2 days back ” How much interest , do you have in the work or job description?”

I was lost for words since I was reading the book. I cannot say “I am a passionate worker”. I cannot claim that I am an expert , due to modesty and truth. I cannot suggest that I am a hardworker who  is a go-getter. Because, I am not there to be a self-proclaimed worker who is not interested in the subject , who can master any subject by hardwork, I am not  a machine. I see the blurring of the categories? There is a mix. This is not mutually exclusive, this is my understanding. If I am interested in something, it does not mean I will forget everything and focus only on that. If I am an expert in data entry ( actually I am !) and burrito making (too) that does not mean I am passionate about these. The point is, there are things that people do out of need and circumstances. This makes them experts of the field, in my case burrito making , I can do it blind-folded, I can do it in sleep, you can wake me up at 3 in the morning and I can make burrito. This by no logic means that I am passionate about it.

Passion is  a thing arousing enthusiasm. Work is generally perceived as a bad thing. Increasingly, I hear that job is the worst thing that you can get, who does not like freedom. Don’t  we all trade our freedom with someone else’s freedom !. I mean free as being free to do anything with the time they could have probably invested that in. Then we come to selectivity of fields in which one wants to work. some people like being mathematician, while some do music. There is math in music and music in math. There are people in the interdisciplinary-gray-blurred-line who work here. World is not a number of countries, each with boundaries and armies on either side. This is because everything is depended on everything else. Not just globalization/localization there is glocalization.  This is depicted by mentioning Alan Lightman who wrote Einstein’s Dreams  who made a career in combo of math and culture.

The religion of logic says : choose a field, focus, work hard – you become an expert.

How to choose a field ? – by gut feeling, and elimination process of uninteresting stuff can help shortlist the field.

There are many venues to connect with interest. It is easy to find that out, with what you do in your spare time.

I cannot do something which is not interesting or satisfying me. This can be termed passion. And then I go on to learn how to do these things, if I do not know how to, I learn. This is what Cal says as passion is side effect of mastery. You can start doing things you do not like, to test how broad you are in the mind. See for yourself, where , unintentionally we put limits for ourselves.


The Case of Incremental Improvement.

I got bowled over in one of my classes since I was to give a presentation on a new idea. I had this vision of myself as a visionary, going to change the world. After the presentation, I came to terms with what I have heard years back ” There is more than enough of technology available, your phone has tonnes of features, how much of the features do you use or know how to use ?”  This was before the advent of android!

I see myself as learning how to do stuff with existing technologies. Necessities will always push up the technologies to be innovated. That said. The knowledge of existing technologies would bring in the required mastery and formulating the exact requirements for improvement . In this sense, like  a big project, steps follow a waterfall model, the goal of which is a moving target, the field of which is the area of interest. Improvements happen in agile fashion. Continuous improvement! In the religion of science, this is a scientific improvement called innovation/invention(sometimes). In the religion of life , this is self-improvement and sharpening your saw (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey). Improve yourself, so that you can grab the opportunity as it comes, because you are prepared. I would combine Cal‘s mention of ‘exploring the adjacent possible’ with ‘little bets’ with incremental improvement. This is because on a personal side, when you make innovations, improvements these carry the risk of going beyond the comfort zone, this opens venues for exploratory work.

Key Take-aways

All said, with my opinions and Cal‘s opinions (what he calls ‘rules’). I would say I have to work get some career capital (that is expertise) so that I can create opportunities and may be ones that Peter mentions in Notes on Startups.

“Creating a research bible”:(here bible only means another book)

Cal gives good tips on how to go about research. He is a research professor going about his research. It makes sense to follow this path if you have not discovered your own. This involves

summarize a research paper  that you think is relevant for your work

keeping  a timesheet/schedule/calendar

maintain a research note for brainstorming ideas

do practice beyond the practice that we do that can be tagged as “productivity – oriented”. This involves

  • stretching one’s self beyond comfort zone.
  • read tough papers.
  • keep improving.
  • track your work , to see the improvement.


This includes provocative title such as “my job went to India“! Jobs are going everywhere.I have read that USA thrives on creating ideas. When new ideas stops getting generated USA job market is not going to be the same. Because this is were the ideas get exported and get adopted by the globe. The title could have been re-thought !

When it comes to bananas, the dwellers in USA get it from Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and other places. When it is jeans, it comes from Bangladesh and Vietnam. Belts comes from Thailand and China. Now, please do not tell that all these jobs went elsewhere. It was the market and policies of trade that led to this.


The references in the book that I would like to refer are as follows.  T


Writing Style

The style is lucid and easy to follow. The emotions are kept at neutral while the facts and references are cited. This is a good way to write making it an easy read. The book tries to number the ideas (written as ‘Rules’ in the book). This can be  a drawback to people who dislike rule book. But the count is very less, and it is manageable.

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Posted by on October 1, 2016 in Book Review


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