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Suggested book titles might help you become skilled at your work

Friday, November 23, 2012 - 12:01 am

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, recruiter, clergy member or human resources professional. As an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, perhaps he is guided by one of his field's most basic mantras: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

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.

•“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.

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