So Good They Can't Ignore You

Authors(s): Cal Newport
Published: 2012

Overall Thoughts & Roadmap

I wish I read this earlier. I would recommend it to anyone who's figuring out how to make good career decisions.

Here's a summary of this book in 2 bullet points: 

  • Question: People want jobs that have the following traits: impact, creativity, and control. How do you find a career that is fulfilling and that you are passionate about?
  • Newport's answer: Don't follow your passion. Instead, for whatever job you find yourself in at the moment (or will find yourself in), develop a set of skills that make you rare and valuable in that profession. Developing these sets of skills will bring you autonomy, competence, and relatedness - things that will make you love your job more.

In the book, Newport gives 4 rules to finding a job that you will find fulfilling. This book summary is structured around these four rules.

(1) Don't follow your passion.

(2) Build career capital.

(3) Gain control in your job.

(4) Have a mission.

Rule 1: Don't follow your passion

Q: What is the passion hypothesis?

  • The idea that the key to occupational happiness is to match your job to a pre-existing passion.
  • This hypothesis underpins the advice to "follow your passion".

Q: Why is "follow your passion" bad advice? 

(1) Passion is rare.

  • Very few people actually have an existing passion.

(2) Passions take time to build.

  • Usually, the most happy and passionate employees are not those who followed their passion but those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.
  • Amy Wrzensniewski makes a distinction between a job (a way to pay the bills), a career (a path toward better work), and a calling (work that's an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity). In her research, she finds that the strongest predictor of someone seeing their work as a calling is the number of years spent on the job - i.e. the more experience a person has, the more likely she will love her work.
  • This means that in most jobs, as you become better at what you do, not only do you get the sense of accomplishment that comes from being good, you're also typically rewarded with more control over your responsibilities. So, perhaps one reason that more experienced employers enjoy their work is that it takes time to build the competence and autonomy that generate this enjoyment.
  • This is consistent with self-determination theory (SDT) which says that motivation requires that you fulfil three basic psychological needs: (1) autonomy (the feeling that you have control over your day and that your actions are important); (2) competence (the feeling that you are good at what you do); (3) relatedness (the feeling of connection to other people).

(3) Following your passion can be dangerous.

  • For most people, the more we focus on loving what we do, the less we end up loving it.
  • For some, following their passion works. You'd be hard-pressed to find professional sportsmen who don't claim that they're passionate about what they do. But observing these few instances doesn't make it universally effective.

Rule 2: Build Career Capital

Q. If following your passion is bad advice, what should you do instead?

  • The traits that define great work are rare and valuable. To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills.
  • Comedian/Actor Steve Martin's advice for aspiring performers:
"Nobody ever takes note of my advice because it's not the answer they want to hear. But I always say 'Be so good they can't ignore you.'"

Q: How do you build career capital? 

  • Adopt the craftsman mindset with a relentless focus on becoming "so good they can't ignore you".
  • Use deliberate practice to become "so good they can't ignore you".

Q: What is the craftsman mindset? 

  • Craftsman mindset: Focus on what value you're producing in your job.
  • Passion mindset: Focus on what value your job offers you.

Q: What is the problem with the passion mindset? 

Most people have the passion mindset, but this is not the way to go if you want to find fulfilling work. Why?

  1. If you only focus on what your works offer you, it makes you very aware of what you don't like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness.
  2. The more serious, deep questions driving the passion mindset such as "who am I?", "what do I truly love?", and "do I really love my job?" are often very difficult, if not impossible, to answer.

Q: Should you always use the craftsman mindset?

No. Here are 3 disqualifiers for applying this mindset:

  1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
  3. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

Q: What is deliberate practice?

To build up this career capital, you need to do "deep work" or "deliberate practice"  (see notes on Cal's book "Deep Work"). Deliberate practice are work sessions that: 

  • Stretch your abilities by taking on projects that are beyond your current comfort zone.
  • Requires you to seek feedback on everything - even if it destroys what you thought was good.

Newport deploys two types of structure for deliberate practice:

  1. Time structure: "I am going to work on this for one hour, I don't care if I faint from the effort, or make no progress, for the next hour this is my whole world."
  2. Information structure: This is a way of capturing the results of hard focus in a useful form. For example, when he starts a mathematical proof, he creates a proof map that captures the dependencies between the different pieces of the proof. He then advances from the maps to short self-administered quizzes that force him to memorize the key definitions the proof uses. After these first two steps, he moves on to the proof summaries. "I returned to this paper regularly over a period of two weeks. When I was done, I had probably experienced 15 hours total of deliberate practice."

Rule 3. Gain control in your job

Q. Now that you've gained career capital, how should you invest this capital?

  • You should use it to gain control over what you do and how you do it.
  • This trait of control shows up so often in the lives of people who love what they do. Why? Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfilment.

Q: What are the two traps that commonly get in the way of pursuit of control?

  1. Don't gain more control without enough capital to back it up. (Ditching your day job to launch a freelance career that gives you control, creativity, and impact will not work if you don't also have the skills.)
  2. Once you have the capital to back up a bid for more control, your employer might fight to keep you on a more traditional path/fight your efforts to gain more autonomy.

Q: How can you deal with these traps?

  • The law of financial viability: When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. Do what people are willing to pay for.
  • This isn't about  making money. Instead, it's about using money  as a "neutral indicator of value" - a way of determining whether or not you have enough career capital to succeed with a pursuit.

Rule 4: Have a mission

Q. Apart from control, what other traits define compelling careers?

  • A mission. A mission is to have a unifying focus for your career. It provides an answer to the question, what should I do with my life?
  • Example: Newport's mission is "To apply distributed algorithm theory to interesting new places with the goal of producing interesting new results."

Q. How do you find a mission?

  • Mission requires career capital (you can't skip straight to mission without first building mastery).
  • With career capital, you can get to the cutting edge of your field. Then, you should look for missions in the adjacent possible (the region just beyond the current cutting edge, where innovative ideas are almost always discovered),
  • Identifying a compelling mission once you get to the cutting edge can be seen as investing your career capital to acquire a desirable trait in your career. In other words, mission is yet another example of career capital theory in action.

Q. Once you find a mission, how do you make it succeed?

Follow a little bets strategy

  • Try small steps that generate concrete feedback ("little bets"). That is, rather than starting with a big idea or planning a whole project in advance, take a series of little bets about what might be a good direction of proceeding.
  • Use this feedback (good or bad) from these little bets to help figure out what to try next.

Follow the law of remarkability: for a project to transform a mission into a success, it should be remarkable in two ways:

  1. It must literally compel people to remark about it: It needs to be a "purple" cow (not a brown one) so that it inspires people to take notice and spread the word.
  2. It must be launched into a venue conducive to such remaking.

How to apply these rules

1. Decide what capital market you're in

There are two types of capital markets:

  • Winner-takes-all (where the skill you need is the same for everyone)
  • Auction (where there are many different types of skills one can have to succeed).

2. Identify your capital type

  • If you are in a winner-takes-all market, then this is trivial. There's only one type of capital that matters.
  • If you're in an auction market, you have flexibility. What you should do here is to seek open gates - opportunities to build capital that are already open to you. In particular, this usually means leveraging on a skill you already have. This gets you faster to where you could be than starting from scratch.

3. Define what being "good" means

  • Set goals to reach that level of being "good".

4. Be a craftsman and practice deliberately

  • Everything we know how to do well is enjoyable. This is the exact opposite of what deep work/deliberate practice demands.

5. Be patient

  • The better you get, the more opportunities you will get to gain autonomy and to build your mission.
  • Steve Martin's explanation of his strategy to learn the banjo: "I thought, if I stay with it, then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it."