The Craftsman Mentality & The Lifestyle Design Trap

January 17, 2014

UPDATE: My extensive notes on Cal Newport’s theories about career capital and becoming a craftsman can be found in my reading section.

Loving your work, if you’re anything like I am, is one of the most overarching desires in your life. Great work can permeate into all areas of growth and development. And, depending on its intensity, can help you make a dent in the world in the process.

If things don’t quite look like that for you right now it might be possible you’ve been listening to the wrong type of advice.

The idea of following your passion?

That’s the first place you’ve been going wrong.

It’s this contrary idea that Cal Newport suggests in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Arguing that throwing yourself into passion leads to all sort of complication further down the line, Newport’s theories are refreshing ones. In observation of my own experiences? They appear fairly accurate too.

Take the example of the lifestyle designers that Newport profiles. Quitting both their jobs and college, these young adults followed the ideal of living abroad thriving on muse businesses (which they expected to run fairly passively), only to end up broke, miserable and wondering where it all went wrong.

It’s the Ferrissian paradox at work. And another ugly example, in an old yet familiar, tale.

And while I arguably got lucky following this trend (coming out of it better off than I did going in), I understand just how the lifestyle design trap functions.

It thrives on allure and seduction. It concentrates the mind on the immediate satisfactions of environment and experience. Paradisiacal escape.

It rarely fails to point out how it usually leaves you hollower than when you first started.

Unable to enjoy the excitement of living abroad nor the work that enables you to do so.

It’s not that all people living this lifestyle don’t enjoy it. That’s not what I’m saying.

What I’m suggesting is simply agreement. Agreement with Newport’s assertion that following your passion is counterproductive and that focusing on getting good is a much better proposition.

This is especially the case for young people stuck in the initial phases of a career they don’t feel completely convinced by. People that don’t, to borrow Newport’s term, have sufficient ‘career capital’ to cash in. That haven’t developed the rare and valuable skills that would truly lead to them loving their work, in a more sustainable fashion, further down the line.

I see this a lot. Both in my own reflection and in the work of the bloggers and practitioners around me.

The truth is we have very little to offer the world but we still look to it to see what it can offer us.

This is very much flawed logic.

If we haven’t taken the time or effort to grow, develop and master certain skills and areas of work, what business do we have in thinking we can gain the traits of an alluring job in fast-track style fashion?

It’s surely unsustainable. Because it goes against the grain of mastery and true growth. Of becoming a thought leader or respected practitioner in a rare skill that grants true career autonomy (and allows us to work from a beach in the right fashion – after years accruing marketable and useful skill).

Knowing you’ve a team of virtual assistants spamming up the internet and that it didn’t take a whole lot of effort, nor real work, to get there can hardly be satisfying. Not in the long run anyway.

Those that say it is I’m still not convinced by.

Still I understand and empathise. Heck, I’ve even still got an investment in that game myself. But at least I feel as if I’m making progress. That I’ve managed to finally put my finger on why it’s strangely dissatisfying having shaped and moulded my life in this way.

For me it’s the result of vulnerability. Of not having had the inner strength to plug on through when the chips were down and the hard work was piling up. I got out of a startup just as the challenge was really heating up. When my learning curve was arching right up to the sky and way out of sight.

I got off that roller coaster to get on a steam train. And I’ve been wondering why I haven’t felt as if I’ve learned much ever since. Or at least not at the rate that I was before.

Which is why we should be careful with the decisions we make. Jumping from a job that’s tough, difficult and causing you a large amount of strain, might be liberating in that moment, but push on through and you’ll have conquered a mountain. Gaining serious career capital as a result.

Career capital that you can later cash in to work from home, the beach or anywhere else – feeling a lot more valued and deserving of it in the process.

Of course that’s not to say you can’t change your immediate situation if you have, as I have, ensnared yourself in that lifestyle trap without accruing sufficient experience and skill to deal with it.

You still have Newport’s main thesis available to you. The ability to work at becoming so good people can’t ignore you.

But it’s going to take a change in your perspective. A shift from this passion mindset to what Newport coins the craftsmen mindset. Of approaching your work with a meticulous “how can I do this better?” inquisition. And following through in the process.

It gets down to focus. To investing your time in solving the problems that pain you. To attempting to work them out and grow from the process.

Not jumping from the ship when the going gets tough. Not quitting your job because you feel miserable doing it (unless of course the ultimate end-line doesn’t fit your values or needs).

The craftsmen mentality is about looking at things like an artist. Of deliberately practicing through the pain to feel the joy of progress.

It’s not about cutting corners and following your passion.

That’s the lifestyle design trap in a nutshell.