Book Review: So Good They Can't Ignore You

"Follow your passion and the money will come."  How many people have been given this advice when deciding what to study in school, whether to take a job, and whether to quit a job to do something else?  It turns out that it's terrible advice.

That's the thesis of "So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love," by Cal Newport. The title comes from a quote by Steve Martin, that the secret to success is getting so good that they can't ignore you.  It's advice that's simple, but difficult, which is why most people don't want to take it.

The book examines the passion hypothesis and finds it lacking.  It turns out that the passions people have seldom correspond to a career.  It is true that people who are passionate love what they do, but that passion is developed over time through success.

Newport suggests building "career capital" by developing skills in your current work through deliberate practice.  That career capital can then be leveraged into work with more control, which is linked to job satisfaction.

At the end of the book, the author walks through the example of his own career path to an assistant professorship at Georgetown as an example of how the principles can be applied in practice.

It's a good read about how to focus energy away from daydreaming about other careers or the traditional "What Color Is Your Parachute?" type of career advice.


Drinking White Wine in the Sun

It's hard to be an atheist around Christmas sometimes. As we are reminded, often loudly, Jesus is the reason for the season. But I, like many atheists, enjoy Christmas for all of the beauty it brings unrelated to religion. Singing songs, spending time with family, loving each other.

Tim Minchin, whose work I have mentioned before, has a beautiful song that sums up the conflict of the unbeliever, but in a gentle, sentimental way. The bonds of love and family that come around this time of year are worth celebrating.

If you purchase White Wine In the Sun from iTunes in the month of November, December, or January, all the proceeds go to the National Autistic Society.

Merry Christmas to you, no matter why you celebrate or what you believe. Love each other.


The $1,000 Challenge

There are only two ways to improve your financial situation.  You can bring in more money or you can stop spending as much money.  In my quest to do the latter, I read The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheeseby Brian J. O'Connor.

Mr. O'Connor is a personal finance columnist at the Detroit News.  The book follows his quest to cut his monthly budget by $1,000 ($100 in each of ten categories). The prose is easy to read and humorous and the tips are broken up into three categories in each chapter, depending on where your personal financial situation is.

None of the recommendations are life-changing or that new to those of use familiar with Mr. Money Mustache or Early Retirement Extreme, but the book helps you with how to think about your budget and figure out where you can cut.

If you can cut $1,000/month from your budget, you can reduce the nest egg required to retire (or reach financial independence) by $300,000.  This is based on a 4% safe withdrawal rate and the amount of money required to support $1,000/month.  (1000 x 12 x 25 = 300000)

Check the book out from Amazon or your local library and let me know what you think.


Simple shelf from one hardwood plank

When you do "knowledge work" for a living, there's an inherent frustration in not creating something concrete from your efforts.  Negotiating a case, reading cases to prepare a brief or a motion, appearing in court, all of these things have value to a client, but the value does not manifest itself as a thing you can touch and feel.  Matthew B. Crawford explores this concept in eloquent detail in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, a book Mark Bennett recommended I read and I, in turn, recommend you read.

One of the ways to get that feeling of accomplishment, of making a "thing," is having a hobby where you make stuff.  I built a workbench so I could have a place to do woodworking.  The first project I wanted to build, a simple tic-tac-toe shelf from Spike Carlsen's book, Ridiculously Simple Furniture Projects: Great Looking Furniture Anyone Can Build, is done now.   

The completion of the project is shown in pictures below.  Total time was probably 3-4 hours, with gaps for the finish to dry.  All that was required was a 1" x 6" x 8' hardwood board (I used poplar).

The raw plank:

Cut down to four equal lengths:


Cut into arcs:

Ready for finishing:

Dry fit:

Finished with Medium Walnut Danish Oil:

Close up of the finish:

Mounted on the wall with picture hangers:

With a canister to give a sense of size on the wall:

Less than $30 worth of materials and about 4 hours of work and I have a very nice shelf for our dining room and a "thing" I can look at and think, "I built that."


Organize your shirts with the Army roll

I have a lot of t-shirts.  They're kind of like a scrapbook of places I've been and things I did over the last 20 years.  The problem with a lot of t-shirts is that they get crumpled and jammed in to make them fit, making it hard to find the right one, popping the hardboard bottoms out of the IKEA dresser drawers, and leaving a wrinkled t-shirt at the end.

The solution (other than getting rid of some of them) was to use the technique in this video:

To turn a drawer like this:

Into a drawer like this:


More thoughts on the Washington Redskins name controversy

Back in March, when the Washington Post was leading the preseason charge to pressure the Redskins to change their name, I wrote a short post suggesting the team shouldn't change the name, making two main points: (1) the word "redskin" is no longer commonly used to refer to Native American people at all, and (2) the linguistic origins of the term are not actually offensive, with the offensive usage taking hold for a much shorter period later. (See Ives Goddard, "'I am a red-skin': The Adoption of a Native American Expression (1769–1826)", Native American Studies 19:2, 2005)

It's October now and the Washington Redskins are visiting the Denver Broncos for the first time in eight years. My mother-in-law flew out for the game and we went downtown to the Redskins Rally at the Tavern last night. The organizers said it was the largest turnout for any event they had ever had in a visiting city; I guess waiting eight years will build up some excitement. Chris Cooley was there and took a picture with Joel. Valerie and Ruth took a picture with Dan Snyder. Several renditions of "Hail to the Redskins" were sung. There were also a couple of spontaneous chants of "keep the name."

That got me thinking about why I still don't support the name change, even though I try not to use other offensive words like "fag" or "retard" or "nigger."  I don't use those words because I love beer, freedom, and other people and see no value in hurting others.  (I do slip from time to time and use offensive terms like "Cowboys fan."  Mea culpa.) 

Many years ago, I read a book by Miss Manners, the etiquette columnist. I recall her suggesting that the polite thing to do is to refer to someone how they would like to be referred to. It came up in the example of someone named James who would be called Jim by strangers and really preferred to be called James. Since then, if I meet someone with a commonly shortened name or nickname, I always ask them which they prefer.

This situation came up more recently after the Manning trial. The Pfc. Manning was an Army soldier who leaked a number of videos and cables to Wikileaks and was court martialed. After the conviction, Manning came out as transgendered and asked to be referred to as Chelsea Manning (as opposed to Bradley, her male birth name). Having transgendered acquaintances in the past, this was just common sense and the polite thing to do. However, a number of journalists and commentators thought it was absurd.

The point that's often overlooked in the Redskins name debate is that the activists who want to team to change the name are not asking that people not refer to Native Americans as "redskins," they're asking that we not refer to a football team as "the Redskins." They are taking offense at the use of the word per se, not at use of the word as an offensive slur.

It's fine to have the opinion that some words are just offensive and not want them used at all. I have many friends who are on the other side of this issue and I respect their position. But there is a fundamental difference between campaigns like The R-Word that seek to stop the use of a term to disparage individuals and a campaign to change the name of a football team because you are offended by the word's use in any context.

In short, there's a difference between saying "you're a filthy redskin" to a person and singing "Hail to the Redskins" after a touchdown. I would never do the former; I hope to do the latter many times this afternoon when they beat the Broncos.


Build a $50 workbench and start woodworking

A few weeks ago, I picked up a book at the library with some furniture projects I wanted to build around the house, "Ridiculously Simple Furniture Projects: Great Looking Furniture Anyone Can Build."  Author Spike Carlsen breaks projects down into just one or two pages of instructions with beautiful pictures and minimal material and tool requirements.  The second project in the book is a Tic-Tac-Toe Shelf that looked nice and easy to tackle.  The author uploaded it to Pinterest if you want to take a look:

However, as I was contemplating cutting out a curved piece of wood with a jigsaw and notching it with a chisel, I remembered that I'd be doing it on the floor of my garage.  Since buying my first house back in 2001, I've collected a fair number of tools, but have never had a proper workbench to build things on.  So I decided I needed a workbench to build a tiny brick-a-brac shelf.

The bench I decided on was one I found on Family Handyman after a lot of web searching. Entitled "Super Simple $50 Bench," people were talking about it only taking 4 hours to build a very sturdy and practical bench.  The materials required are straightforward: 15 2" x 4" x 8' studs, cut to various lengths, one sheet of 1/2" plywood, lots (I used about 2 1/2 lbs) of 3" screws for framing, and some 1 5/8" screws to secure the plywood bench tops.

The nice guy in lumber at Home Depot did most of the long cuts on my studs and plywood for free.  The only downside is that some of the lengths were off by 1/2" or so, so my finished bench is not entirely square.

A couple of warnings: This project takes longer than 4 hours if you're working alone, especially if you're building on the garage floor because you don't have a proper workbench.  Also, $50 is low for current prices.  My final costs were about $100 for basic materials, and another $40 or so for a light, pegboard, and a power strip.

All that said, two weekends later, I have a completed workbench in my garage.

Finished workbench with pegboard and light

While it might not be exactly square, it's incredibly sturdy.  So sturdy that I had to have my neighbor come over to help me move it to the other side of the garage, since Valerie couldn't lift the other side of it up for more than a second.  I put on some pegboard, a light and a power strip, but still want to run pegboard all the way across and apply some polyurethane or Danish oil to the plywood tops to protect them.

Now I'm ready to tackle that shelf.  Next weekend.