- Learn the role of passion in your career
- Find out how you can become a real craftsman
- Compare and contrast the passion mindset and the craftsman mindset
- Know when it is important to turn down promotions
- Find out when your managers block your progress in your career
- Learn the path leading towards discovering your mission
Career choices in software engineering are often hard to plan. On one hand, we all know where our talents lie. It is tempting for us to step into the shoes of our managers, or follow our passion, whatever it may be.
As you are reading this paragraph, you might be thinking about your own passion. You might be thinking whether it is worth for you to change your career. If this is the case, you are not alone. I was sometimes in the same shoes in my own career as you are now.
I have made many interesting, sometimes surprising choices throughout my career. Sometimes, I couldn’t even explain some of these choices myself. This is why I was happy that I stumbled upon the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, written by Cal Newport. Having read the book, I now know why I made all those choices that freaked out many of my peers at my university. At the same time, I now have an easier time understanding why some of my projects have been unsuccessful.
I challenge you to apply the principles of the book on your own career.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You starts with a story of Thomas. He left his professional career in favor of becoming a monk. After long, hard and tedious work, his efforts were finally acknowledged. Once he understood what it took him to be a monk, and what his future life would be about, he collapsed in tears. Thomas started asking himself, is this all there is? Did I leave my career to do this in the rest of my life?
The author argues that following your passion is dangerous. Steve Jobs mentioned this idea in his Stanford Commencement speech in 2005. According to Newport, this speech played a role in convincing people to follow their passion. He backed this claim up with keyword search statistics and some examples. Did Steve Jobs really convince some people to follow their heart in favor of abandoning their careers? I personally don’t think so, but I encourage you to make your own judgement by watching this video.
The passion hypothesis is then introduced as follows. “The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.”
A sizable chunk of the book is on proving that the passion hypothesis is wrong. According to Newport, passion is a side-effect of mastery. He refers to a framework called Self-Determination Theory. People are motivated in their job if they meet three of their psychological needs:
- autonomy, the feeling of control,
- competence, the feeling that you are good,
- relatedness, the feeling that you are connected to others.
In some sense, I have to both agree and disagree with the demonization of the passion hypothesis. When interpreted incorrectly, you can leave ten thousand hours of studies behind just to pursue a dream. As soon as you start living your dream, you often find out that your dream is actually a nightmare, especially if you don’t dream about creating a fulfilling career. Imagine abandoning ten thousands of hours of learning and software development practice. Sooner or later, emptiness and lack of fulfillment may find you. This emptiness is a direct consequence of not fulfilling our human needs.
Even Abraham Maslow placed self-actualization at the top of his hierarchy of human needs. Maslow also claims that unlocking our potential is our duty. Chasing a hobby we think we are passionate about is often far from the path of self-actualization.
Yet, following your passion is sometimes the right thing to do. Through hard work and deliberate practice, you can become a grand master in the field you are passionate about. This is how side-businesses grow and contribute to society.
In some sense, I have to defend the passion hypothesis. It is very hard to draw the line between following your passion, and following advice of Cal Newport. You can indeed become passionate by gaining career capital through deliberate practice. Yet, launching a side-project out of passion may even enrich your career. As the idea grows, you can determine if your passion is worth following.
Your passion as a side-project is often lucrative, and it may contribute to your main career. As Steve Jobs said in his speech cited above, you can never connect the dots in advance. He did not go to a typography class to build it in the Macintosh one day. The importance of seemingly random events can only be seen in hindsight.
Similarly, I have seen people who worked as software developers, then managers, then professional poker players, then stock traders. If you keep on changing careers, you may never become a master, and you may never connect the dots Steve Jobs talked about. Connecting your dots to form something meaningful requires a clear destination you are moving towards. The fourth quarter of the book also argues towards this direction, emphasizing the importance of a mission.
According to Newport, subscribing to passion hypothesis makes you less happy. The more you focus on loving what you do, the less you end up loving it. There are bad things about every dream-job, and therefore, motivation won’t always help you. This is when willpower is needed.
Some people tend to interpret these difficulties as a sign that they have to find a new shiny field to be passionate about. This is why people end up with a long list of jobs, as they start doubting themselves after a couple of months. If you keep asking yourself whether you are at the right place, chances are, you will eventually answer your question with a no.
I agree with the author, this conclusion is fully on the spot. I just want to emphasize that passion can be developed out of more than one source: passion is not always the side-effect of mastery.
In fact, Thomas became less and less passionate about being a monk as he collected deliberate practice. Had he practiced the principles of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he could have chosen the monk life. There is also a path towards mastery for monks, and his passion would just be a side-effect of mastery.
Craftsmanship and Passion
Throughout my life, I have always admired craftsmen, people ho take pride in delivering professionally engineered solutions.
Newport identifies the passion mindset as the mindset of people following their passion, and the craftsman mindset, as the mindset of people focusing on constant and never ending improvement.
People under the influence of passion mindset are often needy and greedy. They focus on what their job can give them to keep them motivated. I have also worked with many people who claimed, software development was their passion, yet, they were so passionate, that they failed to become productive. These people were far too passionate to understand that they serve a business instead of the business serving them.
Imagine an architect building your house, or your surgeon performing an operation on you out of passion, and not out of professionalism. Once your house collapses, or your surgery is turned into a risky experiment, you might not even have any time left to conclude that passion mindset is dangerous.
Many software engineers driven by passion, but not driven by professionalism, fail to live up to required engineering standards. These standards are there in other fields, where more lives are at stake.
Adopting the craftsman mindset is indeed a very fruitful decision for any software developer.
Many graduate software engineers already possess the craftsman mindset even before graduation. However, in order to have a successful career, there is one element missing. We will explore this element in the next section.
The author argues that a great job comes with opportunities, where you can be creative, your job impacts other people, and you have full control. These traits are very rare, and not everyone is capable of coping with the challenges of such a position.
“With great power comes great responsibility”. Creativity is often hard to control. If something goes wrong, there will be a negative impact on other peoples’ lives. Furthermore, the dark side of control is that you can easily crash-land in a situation, where you have no idea what to do.
It is not by accident that airline transport pilots collect 1500 hours of flight experience before they start working as a first officer. But what happens to a software developer? Who makes sure that we collect enough experience for becoming a reliable craftsperson?
You are often on your own when collecting experience, know-how, and connections that make you a professional software developer. Your experience, know-how, skill-set, and connections become your career capital.
Increasing your career capital qualifies you to become capable of coping with an opportunity that requires creativity, provides the opportunity of control, and has a high impact on other people.
Cal Newport points out that it is a lot easier to gain career capital under craftsman mindset, as under passion mindset. I fully agree with this statement, with the addition that if you apply the craftsman mindset, and you are passionate at the same time, you have the emotional backup of making an even bigger difference.
The main takeaway of the book for me was that following your passion makes little sense, if it comes at the expense of you giving up most of your career capital.
The Path to Craftsmanship
Leaving your comfort zone, continuous stretching, and proper feedback loops accelerate your growth as a craftsman. Just like in case of working out in the gym, your tacit skills grow after leaving your comfort zone and facing challenges.
This is the idea behind post-traumatic growth: going just a couple of percent beyond your comfort zone gives you a small trauma. Your body and mind will reorganize itself while resting. You will become more comfortable with the difficult situation you faced with.
Feedback is there in order to guide you whether you are growing in the right direction. Never underestimate the role of a good mentor or coach.
Malcom Gladwell, in his best selling book Outliers, emphasized that the path to mastery is through years of deliberate practice. Almost no chess grandmasters has become a grandmasters in less than ten years. When it comes to other fields, Gladwell introduced the ten thousand hour rule.
One aspect of gaining career capital is through time. However, while some people re-live the same one year of experience ten times, others gain more career capital in two years by stretching further.
Following Woody Allen’s quote is not enough for becoming a craftsman. Showing up is not 80% of the job, especially if you watch Facebook all day. Working hard is not enough either. Those who just show up and work hard reach a plateau. In order to break through that plateau, you need one more component in your professional life: the path to mastery is through deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice, means that you have to stretch towards your destination. This destination differs depending on the your career goals.
Turning Down Promotions
Chapters 8 to 11 of the book remind me of the Peter principle: selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role.
As a consequence, employees tend to rise to the level of their incompetence. Once you become incompetent, your self-esteem shrinks, and you just come in the office, acting as a mere ghost or marionette doll, pretending that your contribution is important on some level. At the same time, you tend to think back of the good old days when you could simply deal with code, and make a difference by solving problems you were competent in.
Obviously, the solution for accelerating your career is to avoid accepting promotions that are not good for you. You may think, thank you for nothing Zsolt, please define good! Although this definition is relative, these four chapters of the book refined my point of view on evaluating promotions.
These four chapters examine the importance of control. Whether you are a lead controlling processes and work of people, or you are an expert controlling technological solutions, more control is always better. Control increases happiness and makes people more fulfilled and engaged.
Yet, control is sometimes very dangerous. If you don’t have enough career capital to offer in exchange for control, your position will not be sustainable. In other words, you will either get fired due to incompetence, or you venture will most likely collapse.
Many people learn rapidly on the spot. In fact, rapid learning is a very valuable skill in the 21st century. However, please be honest upfront, and do not pretend that you are an expert of a topic you have no clue about.
In rare cases, more control is not good for you even if you have the career capital to give in exchange. Look at the role of people responsible for you. Who is managing your leave requests? Who is doing repetitive tasks such as resource administration for projects, and who is attending weekly meetings, where your department has to be represented, but nothing ever happens? Who is guarding budgets in your company? Who has no time to deal with coding or engineering problems anymore?
Imagine you are offered a chance to undertake some of the above duties, and you are aware that the company is not willing to pay for these skills. You also know that in the long run, you earn more by staying an expert. Would you accept this offer?
Newport’s law of financial viability states: “When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on.”
Sometimes Our Managers Block Our Progress
Some of my readers may feel that they are held back by their managers. After all, as you climb the corporate ladder, there are less and less lucrative positions. If you are good, your manager will often be interested in keeping you in your current position.
Once a software developer was told to put 20% extra effort on accelerating his life on all levels. He interpreted this advice by providing 20% unpaid overtime on the job. His manager obviously had all interest in keeping him in his position. The overtime itself didn’t contribute much to his skills, as even eight hours of work was enough to reach a plateau in his career capital. Miracles rarely happen on their own.
Whenever you feel you are stuck in your career, examine if it makes sense to go for a promotion internally, or you have to stretch elsewhere, targeting a new position.
Find Your Mission
Recall the speech of Steve Jobs. Cal Newport concluded from the speech that following your passion was a dangerous advice. My interpretation of the same speech was different.
First of all, my nature was never compatible with taking an abrupt decision leading me towards the unexpected, without thinking about career capital. I tend to follow my passion once I know the foundations are there. Until then, we are just talking about a mere hobby.
Second, my biggest aha moment during the speech was about connecting the dots in hindsight. In fact, this is the exact same thought as the last rule of the book: think small, act big, a.k.a. the importance of a mission.
The advice of Newport is that you should master a narrow collection of subjects for a long period of time. Through deliberate practice, focused deep work will get you to cutting edge. Once you climb to the top of the mountain, a new horizon arises, and new opportunities appear. This is the moment when Steve Jobs started connecting his dots.
Defining your own mission statement helps you see the mountains worth climbing. Thinking about your mission while taking your journey can be a source of great satisfaction. Watch the movie Peaceful Warrior. When the athlete and his mentor went on a trip to the mountains to uncover a mysterious goal, the following quote awaited the athlete at the end of the journey: “The journey is what brings us happiness not the destination” says everything. Especially if the destination of the journey was to pick up a small, uninteresting stone from the ground.
No-one is born with a mission. You can define your mission as you gain enough career capital to see the horizon. A good career mission is like a scientific breakthrough. In order to identify your mission, you have to become cutting edge in your field.
When I started blogging in 2015, I was very far from cutting edge. I had meaningful things to say, yet, my message could be summarized like this: “I learned a topic, I found it interesting, let me summarize it for you and illustrate it with examples”. Some of my blog posts got viral, resulting in tens of thousands of views. Yet, a unified direction was not formed.
One and a half years later, after reading more than a hundred books, working on my personality and leadership style, trying out and teaching a lot of tutorials, and participating in meaningful projects, I have more interesting things to say. This journey is forming my mission. Writing this article means a lot to me, as I know that it is in the path towards my goals.
Great missions are executed by placing little bets in the direction of your destination. Focus on one thing at a time. Even if your mission is big, break it down to small milestones that are small enough to focus on. Don’t forget to interpret feedback.
One example from the book highlighting the importance of little bets was the attitude of Mark Zuckerberg during his early years. In this interview for example, he was focused on making something cool for universities. Facebook unfolded to become something cool for the whole planet, as it became cutting edge in its original context. If Facebook was originally targeted for everyone, the authors might have lost focus, and might have created something less cool.
The last component in the puzzle of your mission is marketing. You may have an excellent mission, and you may reach cutting edge, but many other people are like you. The difference between those who appear as cutting edge and those who don’t is marketing. According to Seth Godin, “You’re either remarkable or invisible” (source: Purple Cow).
We will not get into details about marketing yourself. The book describes multiple examples, including Ruby rockstar Giles Bowkett. Be aware that marketing is essential in making others aware that you are cutting edge. Let it be your resume, your cover letter, your interview style, your blog, your side project, your freelance service, or your company, you need expertise in marketing to get jobs and clients reserved for cutting edge professionals.
We can see farther than our predecessors, because we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Having read So Good They Can’t Ignore You reminds me of this sentence. Even though I had slight disagreements with the contents of the book, the new perspective is worth experiencing. I can highly recommend reading the book to discover all the principles through decisions in the life of the author and at many other characters.
Rule 1 recommends not following your passion. Not following your passion makes you more determined, you will depend less on motivation, and you start thinking about what you have to offer to the outside world instead of what the job can offer you. While following your passion may create lack of motivation, according to the framework of self-determination theory, intrinsic motivation comes from autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Rule 2 describes the importance of skill. You should become so good they can’t ignore you by gaining career capital. In exchange for offering more career capital, you will sooner or later get jobs, where you can exercise your creativity, your job has a high impact on others, and you get a higher degree of control over what you do. Career capital is gained through deliberate practice, stretching beyond your comfort zone, exercising the mindset of a craftsman.
Rule 3 is about the importance of control. Control gives you happiness, engagement, and a sense of fulfillment. Avoid control traps: do not ask for more control before you can offer enough career capital, and realize when you are pushed back by your employer once you gain enough career capital to cope with more control. According to the law of financial viability, only pursue more control, if people are willing to pay for it.
Rule 4 emphasizes the importance of a mission in your life. Think small, act big! Your mission is shaped as you get to cutting edge in your field by gaining career capital. Execution of a mission is through placing little bets, small sprints with concrete feedback. Be unique, and know how to market your mission, so that others back you up.
If you have read the whole article, you have shown enough commitment to benefit from the principles. I encourage you not to leave the article without some action. Think about the four rules presented in the book, and determine how they can shape your future.
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