Notes on So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

Like a lot of books that purport to offer “rules,” this has the whiff of the self-appointed guru — then again, part of the message is about effective self-promotion, so at least Newport is modeling.

It should have been an long essay instead of a book, but the good parts are quite good. My main takeaways:

  1. He says that “follow your passion” is wrong advice — but considering the evidence he presents I would say that’s it’s not entirely wrong, just too vague. He’s right that people usually don’t start out with a pre-defined passion, or if they do it’s usually not their life’s work: Steve Jobs would have ended up a Buddhist calligrapher if he had followed his passion. But Newport also talks about the importance of deliberate practice, and that what separates those who reach a pinnacle from those who plateau is the ability to push past the discomfort of stretching oneself. (The difference between noodling on the guitar and practicing the difficult parts on a loop for hours.) He convinced me of that, but what does that ability to push consist of? It’s either masochism or passion. It seems to me having enough passion about something to put up with deliberate practice is a good evidence that you’re on the right track — the real distinction to make is between making your passion your master or your servant. (In Mike Rowe’s words: Don’t follow your passion, but always bring it with you.)

  2. There is a popular notion that the only thing preventing people from following their passion is a lack of courage, and Newport thoroughly debunks this idea. It may take courage to quit your banker job and open a yoga studio, but if you’ve never taught yoga before it’s also stupid. That’s not to say that courage isn’t important, though: It also takes courage to turn down a promotion in favor of negotiating for greater autonomy in your work, but from the point of view of job satisfaction that is usually smart.

  3. Small, achievable projects give you a chance to quickly iterate, get feedback, and course correct. (Cf. Darius Kazemi, Thoughts on small projects.)

  4. He has a refreshingly straightforward view on supply and demand, and the value of not just self-improvement but specifically building marketable skills. “Career capital” is the term he uses.

  5. Despite his musician examples, this book has mixed messages for those who want to have an artistic career. He claims that “the right work” is secondary to “working right,” with the implication being that as long as your position has the traits that lead to job satisfaction (autonomy, impact, a sense of competence, good relationships) you might as well find the position that will maximize your earning potential. Money is a “neutral indicator of value” and art is a “hobby-style interest.” Tell that to Lewis Hyde.

Transformers: The Premake and essay film form

Two days ago Kevin B. Lee released a 25-minute film called Transformers: The Premake. He calls it a “desktop documentary.” It’s brilliant.

There are already several good commentaries on the arguments and implications of the film, which weaves together fan footage of the blockbuster’s production, clips of written essays, and internet interactions, all within the frame of Lee’s own computer screen. (I’ve enjoyed the commentaries by Noel Murray and Vadim Rizov.)

But I haven’t seen anybody talk about how interesting the film is from a craft perspective. This could have been a “high production value” documentary, Netflix fodder. That would have been an awful idea, since the whole film is set up in opposition to a slick, mindless Hollywood production and its global distribution machine. But Lee would have also missed the chance to explore and expand the essay film form, which is what will stick with me long after the latest Transformers movie’s special, social, and global economic effects have died down. The essay film is in large part about exposing your own thought processes. Well, for better or worse, today we think with computers. By not just acknowledging but playfully demonstrating that, Lee holds a mirror up to the laptop-stylo.