So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport (2012) is a book that explores a fundamental question: “How do people end up loving what they do?” To answer this question, Newport offers a system based on four simple rules: 1) Don’t follow your passion; 2) Be so good they can’t ignore you; 3) Turn down a promotion (and maintain control); 4) Think small, act big (the importance of mission). The end goal is a life of satisfying and compelling work (something that eludes many of us). Newport makes no guarantees, but believes, based on his research of those who have found work satisfaction, that this approach is more pragmatic than the conventional wisdom for career planning.
According to Newport, compelling jobs are “rare and valuable.” Finding them requires a great deal more than mere passion; it requires a corresponding set of equally rare and valuable skills. If you want to obtain something special, you’re going to need extraordinary effort to get there. Newport calls the accumulation of these rare and valuable skills “career capital.” The adoption of a skills-first approach to domain mastery is something he coins “the craftsman's mindset.” Those who view work through this lens ask the question: “what can I offer the world?” This is in stark contrast to those holding to the passion mindset, who ask: “what does the world have to offer me?” To be fair, Newport doesn’t dismiss passion entirely; instead, he suggests that passion is a side-effect of mastery (but not the driving force behind it). That is to say that, in time, through a life dedicated to mastery of your craft, passion will follow. The mistake, he asserts, is when we lead with passion.
The accumulation of career capital—which can be accelerated through techniques such as deliberate practice, time blocking, focus and prioritization—ultimately unlocks greater personal control and opportunity. Obtain this level of mastery and, only then, is it possible to execute effectively on your career mission (a big, impactful idea that is supported by a strong foundation of career capital). It is this mission—obtained organically and through great effort and consideration—that ultimately delivers the promise to the opening question to the book: what should I do with my life and how can I find meaningful work?
I enjoy Newport’s books: his writing style is straight-forward and lacks pretense. The strength of Newport’s argument is the methodical and systematic approach he takes to combining simple ideas into a profound idea that’s bigger than its constituent parts. For instance, taken individually, none of his ideas are especially earth-shattering; many of the ideas are obvious at first glance. However, his attention to the sequencing and interdependency of these actions is certainly interesting to consider. And this, I think, is where many of us get it wrong: we often know 90% of what’s needed and what needs to be done, but we don’t quite have the sequencing down and are missing one or two critical pieces of the puzzle (or just need that extra bit of inspiration to get us to our objective). As Newport iterates throughout the book: sequencing is critical to success. Thankfully, Newport’s come up with a credible recipe for career success; it’s up to the reader to see if they can replicate it.
Pros: Newport is a systematic and organized thinker and it shows in the organization and progression of his thoughtful book.
Cons: Reliance anecdotal evidence might put off those who want more quantitative evidence for Newport’s assertions.
Notes & Highlights
“Follow your passion” is bad advice.
One flaw in the passion hypothesis is that it creates a fantasy that is supposed to magically imbue our lives with meaning.
“The path to happiness—at least as it concerns what you do for a living—is more complicated than simply answering the classic question “What should I do with my life?”
Author seeks to answer a fundamental question: How do people end up loving what they do?
4 Rules to find fulfillment (explored over the course of the book):
- Rule 1: Don’t follow your passion.
- Rule 2: Be so good they can’t ignore you.
- Rule 3: Turn down a promotion (and maintain control).
- Rule 4: Think small, act big (the importance of mission).
Ability is a core determinant of experiencing fulfilling work. You need to be good at something in order to have a good job; aim for something that is both rare and valuable.
- Mastery alone is not sufficient for happiness.
- Career capital is the investment and accumulation of skills and traits to drive your success.
“Don’t follow your passion; rather, let it follow you...”
Chapter One: The Passion of Steve Jobs
The Passion Hypothesis: Figure out what you enjoy or are interested in and then match a job to this passion. Often manifests as “Do what you love.”
Story of Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech vs. reality:
- Speech: Jobs urges the graduates to follow their passion.
- Reality: Jobs followed a circuitous path in which he dabbled in a wide range of activities before working in technology. In other words: arriving at his ultimate career was a messy and complicated process belied by simplistic advice like “follow your passion.”
Chapter Two: Passion Is Rare
Roadtrip Nation ([https://roadtripnation.com/]) is a website that maintains a video library of interviews exploring people’s career journeys.
- Ira Glass (radio/podcast host): “In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream, but I don’t believe that. Things happen in stages...the key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest part.”
- Key finding from the archive: It’s near impossible to predict what you’ll ultimately grow to love.
“Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.”
Research study findings on passion:
Career passions are rare: One study found that while individuals have many passions, most of those passions are not directly transferable to careers and can best be considered hobbies (e.g. art, sports, recreational activities, etc.).
Passion takes time: One academic distinguishes between jobs, careers, and callings. The type of work alone is not a sole predictor of job satisfaction; time is also an important predictor (i.e. more time at job means you are likely to be happier at the job). [Me: hard to say on the latter point how much self-selection is going on here, i.e. the dissatisfied have already filtered themselves out of the data pool by leaving to some other line of work.]
- Job: A way to pay the bills.
- Career: The path to increasingly better work.
- Calling: Important work that is part of individual identity.
Passion is a side effect of mastery.
Self Determination Theory (SDT): motivation requires the presence of three psychological factors:
- Autonomy: Feeling like you have control over your time and energy.
- Competence: Feeling like you are good at what you do.
- Relatedness: Feeling connection with other people.
Chapter Three: Passion Is Dangerous
- 1970 book What Color Is Your Parachute? “helped introduce the baby boom generation to this passion-centric take on career...now passed down to their children, the echo boom generation, which has since raised the bar on passion obsession. This young generation has ‘high expectations for work...they expect work to be not just a job but an adventure...a venue for self-development and self-expression...and something that provides a satisfying fit with their assessment of their talents.”
- The passion hypothesis results in the [erroneous] belief that there is a magical best-fit job waiting for you. Find what you were “meant to do.”
- The downside to the hypothesis is if you DON’T find this dream job, you will be dogged by self-doubt, job-hopping and a sense of failure.
- 2010 Conference Board survey of US job satisfaction saw only 45% of Americans were satisfied with their jobs. [Me: Recent surveys have shown rising satisfaction. Reference: [https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/poll-job-satisfaction-climbs-to-highest-level-in-over-two-decades-300909167.html]]
- Newport acknowledges that following your passion does work in some instances. However, it is not a universally applicable approach; his strategy offers a pragmatic alternative.
Chapter Four: The Clarity of the Craftsman
Passion mindset vs. craftsman mindset (a matter of focus/perspective):
- Passion mindset: “What value does this job/career offer to me?” Focus is on what the world can offer you.
- Craftsman mindset: “What is the value of the thing I’m producing?” Focus is on what you can offer the world.
Steve Martin on his advice to aspiring performers (from 2007 interview with Charlie Rose): “Nobody ever takes note of [my advice] because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’...but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you...If somebody’s thinking ‘How can i be really good?’ People are going to come to you.”
Martin’s axiom: Stop focusing on the little details. Focus on becoming better at the things that matter. Practice and progress on those things every day in a deliberate manner. Focus on the quality of your output.
This approach is deliberate and incremental.
Problems with the passion mindset:
- “When you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyper aware of what you don’t like about it...” For example: Your attitude towards entry-level positions will be poor: you might think you’re better than this job or fail to see the long-term benefits of starting at the ground floor.
- “Deep questions driving the passion mindset—‘Who am I? And ‘What do I truly love?’—are essentially impossible to confirm...the passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused.”
The craftsman mindset: “put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good.”
“Put aside the question of whether your job is your true passion, and instead turn your focus toward becoming so good they can’t ignore you.”
Adopt the craftsman mindset and passion will follow.
Chapter Five: The Power of Career Capital
To obtain a great job, build up rare and valuable skills (aka career capital) to offer in return.
Traits that define great work:
Ira Glass on the importance of hard work in the development of skill: “All of us who do creative work...you get into this thing, and there’s like a gap. What you’re making isn’t so good okay?...It’s trying to be good but...it’s just not that great. The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase.”
If you want to obtain a job that exhibits the traits of great work (creativity, impact, control) you need to possess rare and valuable skills. This is because the marketplace is challenging owing to supply and demand.
The craftsman mindset encompasses an action oriented approach to drive you towards your goal.
Career capital is cumulative and builds on itself. It creates more opportunity and options as you develop it. You can leverage your capital into new and interesting lines of work over time.
Traits that disqualify a job as a foundation for building work you love:
- The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
- The job focuses on something you think is useless or actively bad for the world.
- The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.
Chapter Six: The Career Capitalists
- Discover what it takes for people in your aspirational field to succeed. Example: Alex Berger (aspiring screenwriter) figured out that the critical capital is the quality of one’s writing. So he focused on writing good scripts and focused solely on generating tons of new scripts. This advice may seem overly obvious, but it’s surprising how infrequently it’s followed.
- Obtaining feedback and learning from that feedback is a critical part of effectively developing a skill.
Chapter Seven: Becoming a Craftsman
Having the right strategy for acquiring career capital is the difference between high performers and mediocre performers.
One winning strategy is to focus on stretching your abilities and using immediate feedback to improve (these are the core features of deliberate practice).
The 10,000 Hour Rule: “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice.”
- The type of practice is more important than the time spent.
- It’s possible to practice 10,000 with no appreciable performance gains if you practice in a way that fails to result in constant improvement.
K. Anders Ericsson (psychologist): “Most individuals who start as active professionals...change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work...is a poor predictor of attained performance.”
- Just putting in time is insufficient: you will hit a performance plateau.
Newport sees deliberate practice as an effective strategy for acquiring career capital and developing a craftsman mindset.
Time blocking is one strategy that ensures that you allocate sufficient time for important activities.
- Create a spreadsheet to track how your spend your time each day.
- Decide how much time you want to spend on different activities.
- Track and compare how close you come to your targets.
- Allocate more time to important activities and behaviors and aggressively limit the time you spend on low-value, bottomless pits like email, meetings, etc.
The Five Habits of a Craftsman:
Decide what career capital market you’re in. There are two types of capital markets: winner-take all and auction.
- Winner-take all markets care about a single type of career capital (example: screen-writing where the quality of your scripts is all that matters).
- Auction markets are less structured and value many types of capital or combinations of capital. Each participant may offer a unique collection. Venture capital is one type of auction market with respect to career capital.
Identify your capital type. Knowing which career market is critical since it allows you to focus your attention on which skills to develop.
- Winner-take all: Focus on the one type of capital that matters.
- Auction market: Seek opportunities to build capital organically.
Define “good” (aka have clear goals).
Stretch and Destroy (engage in deliberate practice).
Be patient; acquiring capital takes time.
Chapter Eight: The Dream-Job Elixir
- Remember: “You have to get good before you can expect good work.”
- Control is one of the most important traits of a satisfying career.
- Results-Only Work Environments (ROWE) is one way to empower workers with control (and create higher job satisfaction). ROWE is concerned with the output as a success measure. It’s up to the employee to determine how to achieve the outcome.
- “Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.”
Chapter Nine: The First Control Trap
- You can only obtain more control in your working life after you have obtained the necessary career capital.
- The First Control Trap: “Control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable.”
Chapter Ten: The Second Control Trap
Once you have sufficient career capital to obtain control, others oppose your attempts to gain more autonomy because you have become so valuable.
Some examples of way to gain greater control:
- Work fewer hours in the same role (e.g. work 30 hours/week instead of 40).
- Work as a contractor to gain greater time flexibility and independence.
“Acquiring more control in your working life is something that benefits you but likely has no direct benefit to your employer.”
Chapter Eleven: Avoiding the Control Traps
- The Law of Financial Viability: Only pursue more control if you have evidence that it’s something that people are willing to pay for.
- Derek Sivers (entrepreneur): “Do what people are wiling to pay for...money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.” (This heuristic is specifically for career advice and doesn’t apply to hobbies).
Chapter Twelve: The Meaningful Life of Pardis Sabeti
- Career satisfaction comes from having a clear and compelling mission.
- “To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career.”
- “People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.”
- A career mission requires an underlying foundation of career capital. That is, the mission (like passion) must grow organically from the process of creating career capital.
Chapter Thirteen: Missions Require Capital
Big ideas are often discovered in the “adjacent possible.” This is why innovation or breakthroughs frequently happen simultaneously via separate, independent parties.
“The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas.”
Many innovations are systematic: “we grind away to expand the cutting edge, opening up new problems in the adjacent possible to tackle and therefore expand the cutting edge some more, opening up more new problems...”
To find a good career, use the model of the “adjacent possible”: The good jobs are at the cutting edge of your field. To get to these opportunities, you need to develop expertise (which places you at the cutting edge).
People often fail to follow the correct sequencing of this process:
- Defining mission before developing expertise is prone to failure.
- Develop expertise and then discover the mission takes effort, time and contains ambiguity but is a better approach.
Chapter Fourteen: Missions Require Little Bets
- Little bets: small, achievable projects or actions.
- Chain together a series of little bets to eventually make a big leap to executing on your larger mission.
- Peter Sims’ (venture capitalist) 2012 book Little Bets: On the strategy of innovative companies: “Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance, they make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant wins...[this] allows them to find unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes.”
Chapter Fifteen: Missions Require Marketing
Seth Godin (marketer):
- “You’re either remarkable or invisible.”
- “The world is full of boring stuff—brown cows—which is why so few people pay attention...A purple cow...now that would stand out. Remarkable marketing is the art of building things worth noticing.”
Purple cows compel people to spread the word about your work (“so good they can’t ignore you...”).
The Law of Remarkability: A mission-driven project must be remarkable in two ways in order to succeed:
- It must compel people to share it with others.
- It must be launched in a venue that supports remarking.