Thursday, March 13, 2014

Small bets

Late last year, I found myself bleating in this space about how I was finding my day job unfulfilling but how unsure I was of taking the leap into the great unknown of self-employment, particularly freelance writing.

I received a number of really meaty and engaged responses to that post, including a book recommendation from the lovely Tracy Brisson, founder of The Opportunities Project. I duly ordered Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for the Work You Love) on Tracy's recommendation and dove right in. A title like that is pretty hard to resist, right?

Like Tracy, I can’t say I agree with everything the author said. I certainly found his tone pretty patronising in places. But his basic premise rang true for me: the zeitgeist of dropping everything and "just doing what you love" runs the danger of being a little naive and potentially irresponsible.

I'll confess to being vulnerable to the assumption that the truth of other people's lives can be extrapolated from a few happy, pretty photos and words on social media. The follow your passion mantra can look so easy... and can feel like a slippery slope to negative comparisons to my own skills and abilities and offerings.

I've done (and continue to do) a lot of work in this area, so I know that this is just one of my triggers. I can also see how most of the world’s bloggers, writers, artists and instagrammers are just good people doing the best they can: it’s like they’re putting their stuff out there with the specific intention of making me feel like crap about myself. And it’s not like they owe anyone to share their personal struggles or deepest darkest dreams, if that’s not what they feel called to do.

But I also see how so many of the affirmational books and artworks and personal blogs and soulful e-courses I feel drawn to are kinda predicated on "This is how I made it happen, you could too!" And, all good intentions aside, I feel that there is some danger in buying wholesale into this promise.

So I found it really refreshing how Cal Newport offers an alternative that he terms "the craftsman approach". He encourages readers to acknowledge, then invest in, the hours and hours of practice, research and refinement it actually takes to become a specialist in something. This bank of skills and knowledge he calls "career capital", without which identifying and developing a "dream job" would not be possible. He also points out that, for many, the need to maintain control and independence are crucial to this endeavour.

Once career capital has been established, Newport then recommends taking "small bets" i.e. putting stuff out there, making connections, seeing what it takes, following leads (even the less obvious ones), keeping an open mind.

I have to say, I really liked this idea. As someone who has spent almost twenty years building up career capital and investing in her craft, I don't see the point of spending time trying to become more credentialed or trying to mould my story to resemble someone else's. And I see how taking tiny risks by putting my stuff out there and seeing what happens is a feasible, safe and valid next step.

I also like the way this doesn't require an expectation that everything will automatically "fall into place" or that a lucrative and rewarding career opportunity will suddenly emerge. I have to say, though, this is also where the book falls down a little. By lampooning popular titles such as Pamela Slim’s Escape from Cubicle Nation (apparently on the basis of the title alone) and listing the failures of [almost exclusively] women who have been "sucked in" by the premise of following their dreams and ending up on food stamps, Newport effectively dismisses the reality for people like me who tend to oscillate between enthusiasm and discouragement and can ultimately sabotage their efforts by getting in their own way.

In order to arrive at the point where I can make small bets, I have had to do a lot of work that enables me to recognise that the stuff that I look for in other people's stories is the stuff that I choose to see.  It mightn't have much to do with reality but I am never going to be able to see it for what it is if I can't understand the stuff that clouds my own lens. It might seem pathetic to someone as confident and accomplished as Newport, but it's my stuff and it's real and I'll probably always have to work on it.

So, yeah, this is my work, as far as I see it. To fully inhabit my lovely, often messy, sometimes overwhelming life and to just keep chipping away at my creative dreams. To make small bets and keep trying. To put it out there that I'm here and I’m willing to have a go and that I’m open to where it takes me.

Sure, it’s not "overnight success" and it’s not a dramatic gesture of committing to The Life Creative.

So, in that respect, I reckon Cal Newport is really onto something.

What small bets might you take over the next few months?

1 comment:

  1. Kat-

    I love this and felt exactly the same way about the book! It really spoke to me and made me change some critical things in my professional life, but I could have done without Newport's tone and sexism, and even classism. The calling out of Pam Slim was done really poorly, even if he had a really valid point. Finally, I think that a lot of people do get in their own way based on confidence and not addressing the mindset stuff of successful people was also a flaw. There is credible scientific research on mindset and as a man of data, he should appreciate that. But again, the book is something everyone should read to challenge their expectations of what it means to have a meaningful professional life because different perspectives are important.

    I work a lot with teachers today and I get really mad when people as powerful as Barack Obama talk about the teaching career as a place for "people to follow their passion" and "as a calling" because I think it over-feminizes the profession and is ultimately a disservice. I am trying to use some of Newport's thesis to change that conversation.