Planning Your Career Based on Core Competencies

In the book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love”, Cal Newport defines and argues his perspective on planning your career: the craftsman’s mindset. With the craftsman’s mindset, you identify your core-competencies – skills that differentiate you from others and you have this almost innate understanding and commitment to develop. Moreover, he argues to focus on what value you produce in your job and become “so good they cannot ignore you”. As you develop these skills, he says you invest in your own “career capital” – something you can draw on for the rest of your life.

In most situations, a “craftsman’s mindset” is more logical than the “passion theory” because you increase your chances of success considerably; you put what you do best as the deciding factor in your career plans. There is clarity in planning how you build an expertise with your skill set; you know what courses and employment can build your “career capital”. However, there are no guarantees of success when you take on the passion approach; you can set yourself up for failure and disillusionment. And very few of us have a lifelong passion that guides us through difficult career decisions for the rest of our lives.

To build his argument, Cal Newport identifies three traits that define great work.

  • Creativity – show innovation
  • Impact – reach out to your audience and make a difference
  • Control – understand what needs to be done, and having the power to do it

None of these traits are rooted in passion, but rather in career capital – the results of practicing and nurturing your skill set over many years. You must develop a mastery of your skill set before really experiencing these traits.

When I was teenager I read the book “Drive”, where Larry Bird discusses how he used “deliberate practice” to take his basketball skills to another level. He started playing basketball because of his passion for the game, but early on understood that he had exceptional skill in shooting the basketball – so he invested in his “career capital”.  He practiced shooting a basketball at every possible opportunity, whether it was before and after team practices or at his home. Larry was exceptional in all facets of the game of basketball, but will be particularly remembered for his amazing free throw and three-point shooting accuracy (his lifetime free throw average in the NBA was 88.6% and he led the league 4 times according to his Wikipedia page); he incessantly practiced shooting a basketball his entire life. Larry Bird says:

A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals.

My problem with the craftsman’s mindset is that not everyone has core-competencies that can propel them through their career. In most of his examples, Cal Newport discusses situations of professionals who went to an Ivy League school or have this amazing talent. I do not think this discredits his basic premise, because I do think the craftsman’s mindset works for many careers. However, many of us are average and do not have the advantage of landing a position that fits nicely in advancing our skills and perhaps the only option is to find employment that satisfies our immediate lifestyle needs. In these cases, I think a “product to market” or “self-awareness” approach is more effective. With a “product to market” approach, you consider the employment market in an area you want or have to live and then market yourself the best possible way. With a “self-awareness” approach, you can build a much wider list of possible careers based on your personality traits and strengths.

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