Becoming skilled at your work

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.

I have long maintained that using passion as a compass for career direction is a misguided (and unproductive) idea. This recalcitrance puts me on the opposite side of the fence from many of my colleagues, who counsel job seekers to “follow their bliss” or listen to their inner voice.

To my mind, this problematic advice is made worse for people of faith who await signals from a higher power. It’s not the faith that I quibble with — it’s the filter. Sometimes good ideas get jettisoned while the job seeker struggles to confirm their path.

In the end, both the faith-based job seeker and the worker searching for a passion must make the same decision: either hold out for the answer you seek — and hope you recognize it — or move forward as best you can and correct course as you go.

If you’d like to explore a different concept for developing a career path, the following two books will add to your thinking.

“So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love” by Cal Newport (Business Plus, 2012, $25.99).

Author Cal Newport isn’t a career counselor; actually, he is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. I found his book to be refreshing not only for the point he makes, which is stated clearly in the book’s subtitle, but most especially for the path he follows in making that point.

As Newport explains, he began an inquiry into what he calls the “passion hypothesis” when he realized that his own quest for the job of his dreams might end badly. How would he develop new career goals, he wondered, if his passions lie elsewhere?

Approaching the problem like a scientist, he began looking for evidence to prove or disprove the passion hypothesis. While some of his process brought him to the studies he quotes in the book, much of his analysis derives from personal insights, inspired research and conversations with others.

For example, in reflecting on the now famous commencement speech by Steve Jobs where he told 23,000 Stanford graduates to “find what you love…don’t settle,” Newport realized that Jobs had not done this himself in reaching his career pinnacle. Nor could Newport identify many others who had.

Instead, Newport says, he discovered that people truly engaged by their work had tended to first struggle for competence or excellence in that work, regardless of how they felt about it at the beginning. In other words, the development of excellence created vocational passion, not the other way around.

The spark for this insight came from comedian Steve Martin, who told television host Charlie Rose in a 2007 interview that the way to build a career is to “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” That is, build your skills, move up the ladder, then enjoy (passionately) the career you have just earned. Newport provides compelling arguments to support the thesis.

A quick but thought-provoking read, this book is well-suited for college students or others struggling with the question of vocation in a post-recessionary job market, where the luxury of following one’s passion may not be everyone’s lot.

“Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better” by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi (Jossey-Bass, 2012, $26.95).

While Newport beats the drum for building vocational excellence, these three authors take the concept further by providing steps for perfecting skills through practice. As it turns out, productive practice is so much more than simply repeating a process.

Although this book was written with teachers in mind — and is saturated with examples from sports — I found it to be a fascinating and informative look at the methods, thought processes and just plain hard work needed to get good at something. “Practice Perfect” pairs well with Newport’s book for anyone seeking another path for career building.