So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport

Summary – Cal Newport delivers a book with an alternative and compelling view on careers, don’t follow your passion. With a number of examples and some solid reasoning, he describes why building skills (career capital) is more likely to lead to career satisfaction.

If the first half of the book is succinct, clear and well reasoned, the second half feels a bit weaker and wandering. For example, connecting the main idea of career capital to developing a mission seemed more tentative to me.

The structure and length of the book make it straightforward to read.

Rating – 7/10.

View on Amazon here: So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

You can view my other book notes, rating and recommendations on my books page.


Notes

This book is built on the premise that “follow your passion” in relation to careers is bad advice. I think this probably makes sense, as what to do for a career is a very complex and multi-faceted question, so the advice “follow your passion” seems too simple1.

Rule 1 – Don’t Follow Your Passion

The Passion of Steve Jobs

The Passion hypothesis – The key to occupational happiness is to figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches that passion. This idea is prevalent in a lot of books, career counselors and has become popular in general. But does it really work? Take Steve Jobs. In his now famous Stanford Commencement Speech, he seems to say follow your passion. But in reality, he himself didn’t do so. He plotted through his studies, followed Zen study and fell into a job connected to computers. It wasn’t his passion, otherwise, he’d be a monk. Whilst he may have later become passionate about what Apple became, in the beginning, it wasn’t passion that drove him there (rather, it was opportunity and a chance to make a quick buck did).

passions

Passion is Rare

So what does some of the social science seem to say about passion and work happiness?

  • Career passion is rare – most passions revolve around dance, sport (ski, hockey, swimming) and reading…mostly hobbyist sports and art. Which begs the question, how can we follow our passions if we don’t have a relevant one?
  • Passion takes time – Studies seem to suggest that the happiest employees are those who have stuck at something long enough to get good at it.
  • Passion is a side-effect of mastery2 – Self-determination theory suggests 3 key components of workplace happiness. The first is perhaps obvious, people you like makes you happier. But the last two are more interesting. They are related and as you get better at something, you can enjoy more of both.
    • Relatedness – A feeling of connection to other people.
    • Competence – Feeling you’re good at it.
    • Autonomy – Feeling you have control of your day.

So in summary, working right seems to trump finding the right work.

Passion is Dangerous

The passion hypothesis makes people believe there is one dream job for them3. People can have lofty and entitled expectations of work; immediately seeking adventure, fulfillment, impact and so on4. This can lead to job-hopping, confusion, angst and self-doubt.

Clearly, this can work for some people, but it doesn’t make it the rule5. It doesn’t make it a universally solid strategy.

Rule 2 – The Importance of Skill

The Craftsman Mindset

  • The passion mindset – Focuses on what the world can offer you. Can your role give you autonomy, adventure, flexibility?
  • The craftsman mindset – Focuses on what you can offer the world. How can you contribute? Focus on putting your head down, practicing and building skills 6.

The second mindset is key to building a good career. And it’s not the case that you can only work hard in something you are passionate about. Nothing is always fun. Even the great tennis players don’t always like practicing forehands for 3 hours a day.

The Power of Career Capital

What do people generally value in their work?

  • Creativity – Doing new or novel things.
  • Impact – Changing things around them.
  • Control – Of their day-to-day and how they work.

These qualities are generally rare. Jobs don’t give them out freely. And clearly they are valuable: people care about them.

So through economics reasoning, it follows that:

  1. Traits that define great work are rare and valuable.
  2. By supply and demand, in order to attract rare and valuable, you need to supply something rare and valuable in exchange. This can be your skillset or career capital.
  3. The craftsman mindset a.k.a. the focus on becoming great at something is a strategy well-suited to becoming rare and valuable.

So craftsman mindset is actually a pragmatic way to improve your skillset and work happiness. Over time you can trade your value for things you value (like currency).

3 disqualifiers (areas not worth applying career capital):

  • The job has few opportunities to distinguish yourself as rare and valuable or learn new skills (e.g. factory work).
  • The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even bad.
  • It forces you to work with people you dislike.

The first means skill is impossible. The second two mean you’re unlikely to stick around long enough.

Career Capital and Deliberate Practice

Research in high-performance area shows that best performers have often put a lifetime of deliberate practice into their trade. Deliberate practice was coined by Dr. Ericsson7. A key part is that it isn’t enough to just show up and work hard; eventually, you’ll plateau. Deliberate practice requires that you gain feedback, isolate skills, get coaching, etc. So if you can integrate deliberate practice into your working life, you can forgo the plateau and continue to improve. So how to do this in a knowledge-setting. 5 Habits of craftsmen:

  1. Decide what capital market you’re in. The market has implications for how you behave. If its 1st, just focus on that. You’ll waste time if you mistake your market for auction when its winner takes all.
    • Winner takes all – Only one type of career capital available, so you need to just focus on that. Examples: scriptwriting, coding.
    • Auction – More varied and each person might bring a unique mixture of skills to the table. Examples: partnerships manager, consultant, etc.
  2. Identify your capital type – what skills or opportunity, in particular, are you going to work on? Here it may be useful to focus on the things that are immediately and closely available to you (open gates).
  3. Define good – Have a clear milestone to hit.
  4. Stretch and destroy – The point of deliberate practice is that it often isn’t enjoyable. It is effortful and requires focus. Think of it as the gym – it causes discomfort but it ultimately good. It also requires honest feedback, which can be hard to take (so remove your ego).
  5. Be patient – The above takes time8.

career capital

Rule 3 – The Value of Control

The Dream-Job Elixir

Control or autonomy has been shown to be the key value in deriving work happiness. Over how you spend your day and how you do your work. Many studies have shown control to increase happiness, productivity, engagement, etc 9. So this is likely one of the first things you’ll want to cash your career capital for.

Control Trap #1

Control that is required without career capital is not sustainable. E.g. Say you quit your job to become a YouTube chef because you love food. But you’re not a good chef, then no one will watch your YouTube, so it won’t go well. Often Lifestyle Design can hint to dropping everything and starting your own thing – but importantly you need relevant career capital first.

Control Trap #2

The point at which you have enough career capital to swap for control is the point your current employer will resist from making the change. If you aren’t valuable, they’d let you leave and find someone else. If you are, they’ll do what they can to prevent. This is why fighting for more control can take courage. You need to be able to say no to this, no to promotions, not to more money, etc10.

Avoiding the Control Traps

The Law of financial Viability can be used to help steer us away from these traps when seeking control, i.e. do what people are willing to pay you for. When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit to introduce more control in your work life, seek evidence people are willing to pay you for it. Pay can mean pay but also loan, invest, give you a job, etc. But pay directly is the most direct and preferable test11.

Rule 4 – The Value of Mission

Unifying Missions

A mission can span multiple time periods and job titles. It’s a theme that collects your work together. It provides an answer to the question, what should I do with my life? This also tends to be something that people seek in their careers as valuable.

Missions Require Capital

Missions are not easy, hence everyone doesn’t have one. They actually require career capital. Often, to build a mission, you need to first work to get good at something, so you are able to spot the opportunities that could make a good mission. Think of scientists working at the edge of a field. Steven Johnson says in breakthroughs, you first need to see the “adjacent possible”12. A good career mission is in the adjacent possible of your field, just beyond whats currently being done. So first you build skill, then you can thread the mission (doesn’t work the other way around. Mission with no pragmatic follow-through)13.

Missions Require Little Bets

When people think of missions, it often is a grand plan. But more practical is to try something small and meaningful, that you can get results on in a given time-frame. Then go again14.

Missions Require Marketing

So missions require career capital and small bets. But why might we choose one mission over another? Because they are remarkable. For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two ways. a) people should remark about it b) the venue it is launched in should encourage that. So this requires some backward thinking – how will you share and tell the story of your mission?

Conclusion

  • Follow your passion is bad advice.
  • More important, is to become good at something. Focusing on this with a lot of deliberate practice is a good way to start. You may want to cultivate some habits here that help you stick to this deliberate practice (e.g. structuring your time, structure of information, routine of making notes/journals, etc.15). Overall, working right trumps finding the right work.
  • Then you can cash that in for things you care about (e.g. control and mission).

Footnotes

  1. In general, complex questions don’t have simple answers (see Single Perspective Instinct from the book Factfulness).
  2. Books such as The War of Art and Turning Pro allude to this idea too; that passion is cultivated after forcing yourself through the habits and hardship of actually creating work.
  3. As in Designing Your Life – there is no one dream job, just many jobs that may or may not be a good fit for you.
  4. This is an interesting talk by Simon Sinek on the entitlement of millennials the workplace. Whilst only tangentially related, he does discuss that peoples expectations from work (impact, fulfillment) outstrip the work they’ve done to gain credibility and skill in the workplace (career capital).
  5. This made me think of an idea in the book Principles – “focus on probabilities, not possibilities”. Just because it is possible to follow your passion and have a successful career as a footballer or a rockstar doesn’t make it probable.
  6. A prerequisite to the craftsmen mindset is the growth mindset (introduced in Carol Dweck’s popular book Mindset). In short, the growth mindset means to hold the belief that you can improve your ability in any skill. Whereas a fixed mindset means you believe your ability is fixed (e.g. “I’m just bad at math”).
  7. For more details on this, I highly recommend his book Peak.
  8. The value of patience has been highlighted by many notable thinkers, including the likes of Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos (whose first Amazon shareholder letter was titled “it’s all about the long-term“). Whilst they generally mean the investment of money, the same logic carries for investment in your skillset.
  9. Evidence and examples derived mostly from Daniel Pink’s book Drive.
  10. The book seemed to suggest that the only factor in avoiding this career trap is to build good skills. Whilst that is true, the reality is probably slightly more nuanced. Other factors can also play an impact in how much leverage you may have to gain more control in your life. For example, perhaps the job market is particularly favourable. Or perhaps the timing is favourable e.g. other team members have left, so you are the last senior manager with enough know-how in the business.
  11. Getting paid directly for your skills is always preferable to other means. For example, say you wanted to be a YouTube Chef, but you were not a good chef. You might be able to convince your Mum and Dad to invest in your YouTube channel, falsely propping you up for a period of time. Rather than exposing yourself to the realities of the market. This can lead to what Ben Hunt refers to as the curse of some talent. Preferably, your YouTube followers would pay yor directly somehow to validate this career was financially viable.
  12. “Adjacent possible” is borrowed from the book Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johson.
  13. As with Turning Pro and Deep Work – an appreciation that some boring, effortful work needs to happen first in any line fo work.
  14. Many books have utilized the idea of starting something small in order to validate the idea. Little Bets, Designing Your Life, Lean Startup.
  15. Whilst not the focus of this book, the idea of habits is introduced as a means to actually fulfill the acquiring of career capital. See The Power of Habits or Atomic Habits for a comprehensive book on habits.

You can view my other book notes, rating and recommendations on my books page.