by Cal Newport

June 15, 2020

Usually my book posts are prefixed with “Recent Reading”. But I fell off that wagon about 3000 miles ago. Some books, just stick with me, though. And if that does’t merit a post, what does?

A few weeks ago, I decided to review my notes from So Good They Can’t Ignore You, because I just keep thinking back to it since I read it last year. This book isn't as well known as Cal Newport's more recent books…but it should be. It's older, but it seemed timely for this season of my life, and I want to re-capture some of Newport’s key points.

His core idea is that we need to make our pursuit of meaningful work to be craft-centric, rather than focused on pursing something we’re passionate about. When we focus on passion, we turn our ideal job into something that we are trying to consume. It’s all about what we can get out of the job — how can this job fulfill me or give me meaning. It’s an approach to your job or career that is oriented only on what you can get from it really for you own benefit. And when the passion isn’t there, then things start to fall apart.

His argument, instead, is that we should be ‘craft-centric’. We should base our work on what we can do well, and learn to do even better. When we know we are investing ourself in making something that is good, and of value to others, the focus turns to the value we bring others, rather than what we get out of the work. And ultimately, that becomes more fulfilling to us too.

In some of the final chapters, as he talked about putting this into practice, he talks about the trap of productivity. That’s a topic I’ve dabbled with a lot. My goal for productivity initially was to be so productive with the work that I have to do, that I can protect space for the work that I want to do. I still hold this idea, I think, and I wouldn’t dismiss it.

But his take is that the focus on productivity alone loses impact, because we start to measure all of our time merely based on what we can get done in that time. We see each block in the calendar as currency to invest in getting things done. And I can say this one is all the more true for me now as I’m working mostly hourly as a freelancer. Every hour not spent in work is missed opportunity to support my family. It’s both motivating and dangerous.

When we are craft-centric, there is a desire to keep improving that craft. Sometimes, the work of improving might feel in tension with being productive. There is a value from learning how to do that craft or work better that might not come when we just do the work in front of us. I know firsthand that in web development, there are new technologies or tools that I might not discover if I just keep doing the work I’ve been hired to do the same old way. And I certainly want to go to a doctor that is finding time to read medical journals of some kind and keep up with the latest discoveries in how to offer the best care for my family.

Of course there is more than this to the book, but that idea of craft-centric is central to the book, and my key takeaway.

I’m in a season of heavy reflection to determine my next steps. It’s helpful for me to think about what I already do well, but also can continue to improve how I do it, so that I can find the most fulfillment by offering that craft to others.

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