“So good they can’t ignore you” by Cal Newport.
I thought that nothing would impress me that much after I read Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”. Boy, was I wrong! “So good they can’t ignore you” by Cal Newport is a gem of thought. Original, fresh, and brilliantly penned. An absolute must-read.
I have decided to summarize the book for 2 reasons — first, it helps me to consolidate what I learned, and second, I want to give back to Mr. Newport. I hope that this article will help to popularize his ideas and motivate someone to support him in his work and purchase his books.
“So Good They Can’t Ignore You”.
The book is built around the following notions:
- Great work is defined by rare and valuable traits.
- If you want to have great work you must be able to offer something in return, namely, rare and valuable skills (so-called career capital).
- “Follow your passion” is bad advice. Instead, we must “follow our effort” i.e. invest our time and energy in gaining the career capital.
The body of the book includes 4 sections outlined as follows:
Rule 1. Don’t follow your passion.
In which the author builds an argument why “Follow your passion” is horrible advice.
Rule 2. Be so good they can’t ignore you.
In which the author presents an alternative to “passion mindset” and explains why a proposed mindset to approach your career is a way more productive strategy.
Rule 3. Turn down the promotion.
In which the author talks about the first trait of great work — Control.
Rule 4. Think small act big.
In which the author talks about the second trait of great work — Mission.
Let’s take a closer at each rule.
Rule 1. Don’t follow your passion
Chapter 1. The passion of Steve Jobs
In his famous Stanford speech, Steve Jobs famously said, “Follow your passion” but this is not how he himself approached his career.
If you look closely at his life, you will realize that his coming into being a father of “Apple” and the man who shook the world, was not because he was “following his passion”.
His actions were not of your normal hustler. Nothing about his actions says he was passionate about entrepreneurship or technology.
He was networking with true tech-geeks (Steve Wozniak), he capitalized on the trends and the demands of the market (people were just starting assembling DIY computers), and he was testing different schemes to make money (acquiring rate and valuable skills).
Hence Cal Newport is offering us the first guideline:
“Do what Steve Jobs Did, Not What He Said.”
Chapter 2. Passion is rare
“Passion is rare. The more you seek examples of passion, the more you recognize its rarity. Compelling careers have complex origins.”
If you are anything like me, I am sure you understand. When we are young we rarely dream to become what we are today.
Look at your friends, your family, your co-workers. It doesn’t require close observation to notice that few of them have actually pursued the passion that was flaming their youth. Most of them have either followed the money or became masterful in the craft that they picked up for some random reasons.
And all those random reasons are quite often are the same one:
At first, you choose the path. Then the path is choosing you.
When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a biologist, an insectologist to be precise. But here I am, applying my skills in the job I absolutely love, working for the mission of helping people to acquire tools of meaning, and that has nothing to do with the passions of my childhood.
I am sure you had some crazy ideas about who you want to be as well.
Luckily, I have a chance to witness some examples of how passion transformed into a compelling career, but even for those people, the journey wasn’t exactly a walk under the moon.
I have a friend who was born to be an artist, and who is earning his living with his art. But when I asked him what was his secret of becoming a successful artist he said, “There is no secret. You take a pen, and you start accumulating your milage”.
My wife is another example. She was born to be a musician. She heard the first sounds of the classical flute when she was 13 years old, and she fell in love with the instrument. She thought, “whatever it takes, I want to be able to play this”.
And now she does. Today she is a master, with 13 years of playing music behind her back.
But I can see that even if her passion was the thing that fueled her throughout the years, it was the effort that has actually transformed her. It is the hard work that forged her craft into the tool of meaning.
Conclusions from the chapter:
#1. Career passions are rare. Most people are passionate about things that will not evolve into careers.
#2. Passion Takes Time. Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational behavior at Yale University surveyed a group of administrative assistants. The strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years on the job. There were few who claimed that they actually had the calling. And that is understandable, not that this job is not honorable (almost all jobs are) but a child’s mind must be crooked if the pinnacle of their dreams is becoming an administrative assistant.
#3. Passion is rare. Compelling careers often have complex origins. You’ll find evidence to that in your own life, I am sure.
One of the most valuable parts of this chapter is the one in which the author brings up the Self-determination theory.
The SDT is looking into 3 basic human needs:
- Autonomy: we need to be able to control the course of our lives.
- Competence: we need to be effective in dealing with the environment.
- Relatedness: we need to have close, affectionate relationships with others.
In the context of work, these can be translated as follows:
- Autonomy: the feeling that you control your workday, and that your actions are important.
- Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do, and that you receive recognition for the work you perform.
- Relatedness: the feeling of connection to your colleagues.
Chapter 3. Passion is Dangerous.
“The passion hypothesis is not just wrong, it is also dangerous.”
“Follow your passion” is bad advice. It can be a “foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.”
Confusion and angst. It’s quite obvious, where they come from.
Do you want to work for a great company? Do you want to run your own business and make people open your wallets before you? Then you have to face the question:
What do you have to offer in return?
Frustration comes from the inability to match what you have to offer and what the market demands.
“The idea that a magic “right” job is waiting for you is dangerous and can lead to failure.”
There is no magic job waiting for you. And no one in this world will give you things for nothing.
You have to be worthy — this is true today more than ever. We did not transition smoothly from the job economy to the knowledge economy. We were thrown in it hitting the existential bottom in the span of weeks. If you do not keep up with the transformation you will become obsolete.
Skills & knowledge vs Passion. What will keep you relevant in the future workforce? Well, if you know the answer, then you know that it is your responsibility to fine-tune your mental approach to your career.
Once we came to terms that “follow your passion” is bullshit advice, we start asking the right questions, such as “what do I do instead?”
And Mr. Cal Newport has the answer for us:
Rule 2. Be so good they can’t ignore you.
Chapter 4. The Clarity of the Craftsman.
This is what Steve Martin, an actor, and comedian replied when he was asked about confidence in stand-up comedy:
“Eventually you are so experienced that there’s a confidence that comes out. I think it’s something the audience smells.”
Makes sense, right?
Experience brings confidence. Confidence brings control (autonomy/competence).
Hence, comes the idea of what should be the mental approach to your career — a so-called output centric approach:
Plug away getting really damn good at what you do and you will earn a great career.
Adopt a craftsman mindset, passion will follow.
So what is wrong with the passion mindset? Why it doesn’t work? There are two problems:
- You focus on what your work offers you.
This leads to chronic unhappiness.
- Questions that are driving passion mindset are impossible to confirm.
Who am I? What do I truly love? Do I love this?
In reality, to define the work you love, you must return to the Self-Determination theory again, and answer the following questions:
- What components of my work can I control (autonomy)?
- Do I like people I work with (relatedness)?
- What are my core competencies (competence)?
The last question finally brings us to the concept of Career Capital.
Chapter 5. The power of career capital.
Let’s restate the main proposition stemming from what we learned so far.
Traits that define great work are rare and valuable →
You need to build up rare and valuable skills to offer in return (career capital).
There are 3 elements of great work that contribute to the sense of meaning and hence the sense of your fulfillment from work:
- Creativity. We as humans are hard-wired to be creative. An ability to juggle and combine the information that we know into creative solutions is an inherent property of our consciousness. The more you utilize it, the more satisfaction you will be able to draw from work.
- Impact(making difference). We are also hard-wired to help one another. Service orientation is not a skill that can be developed, it is the universal innate desire that can be directed and utilized as a tool of meaning.
- Control (working on your own terms). What would you choose, 40 hours workweek or Tim Ferris’s 4-hour workweek? The more control you have over your time, the happier you are. Time is your most valuable resource.
In order to maximize those components in your work life, you should offer skills in return. Hence again the instruction from the author: “force yourself to work, force the skills to come.” And that is the alternative to the Passion Mindset — the Craftsman Mindset.
However, there are 3 cases in which the Craftsman Mindset doesn’t work. Cal Newport calls them the 3 disqualifiers for the Craftsman Mindset.
There is no point to force yourself on the job trying to gain more work experience if:
- The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills.
- The job focuses on something useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
- The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.
If you got one of those in your work, it is time to move on.
Chapter 6. The career capitalists.
In this chapter, Cal Newport is sharing stories of people who have intentionally worked on accumulating their career capital.
I won’t be dissecting those stories as it is best to read them in the book.
However, I want to summarize the common traits that these so-called career capitalists share:
- Career capitalists are people of focus. They carefully monitor how they spend their time. (Pro tip: you can make an experiment and track your time using an app. For example, aTimeLogger for Android.)
- They cultivate a mental attitude to come away from each experience with career capital. That is a very important one. If gaining rare and valuable skills becomes your priority, this mental attitude itself becomes the factor that starts to shape your experiences.
- They are serious about what they do.
Chapter 7. Becoming a craftsman.
Let’s look at some key points that one should internalize if he sets himself on the path of becoming a craftsman:
- The inability to deal with mental discomfort associated with acquiring skills is a liability in a performance world.
- Approach building up your career capital with a mindset of “deliberate practice”. Exert yourself wholeheartedly, experience strain, and implement a feedback system to constantly improve your systems.
- The proverbial 10,000 hours rule coined by Malcolm Gladwell makes perfect sense. The path to mastery lies through many hours of focused work.
- Spend more time on what is important not what is immediate.
Cal Newport outlines Five habits of craftsman. If you are to adopt a Craftsman Mindset you must:
- Decide what capital market are you in.
- Identify your capital type (unique understanding, skills, knowledge).
- Define good. What are your KPI (keep performance indicators)? What is the desired outcome of your deliberate practice?
- Stretch and destroy. Keep in mind that deliberate practice is opposite to enjoyable.
- Be patient. Patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits. become good and then become great and then people will start to notice. Going from good to great takes time.
Passion mindset doesn’t work. Craftsman mindset works.
Hence the question: what should I do?
Answer: orient yourself to the accumulation of career capital, and approach it through deliberate practice.
Rule 3. Turn down the promotion. (About the importance of Control)
Chapter 8. Dream job elixir.
People with compelling careers start by getting good at something rare and valuable, build their career capital, and then cash in the capital for the trades that make the great work great.
In this chapter, the author proposes that autonomy is the most important trait of great work.
Indeed, the more control you have over your working day the higher will be the sense of fulfillment you draw from your work life.
If your goal is to love what you do your first step is to acquire career capital and the next step is to invest this capital in the traits that define great work.
It is important to mention another interesting concept that Cal Newport brings up here — the concept of Results Only Work Environments (ROWE)— work environments that follow a simple principle: no results = no job.
Many organizations in North America have adopted this model creating ROWE workplaces, but as remote work is becoming normality we will be seeing in years to come how more and more companies implement results-oriented workplaces and make their decisions heavily data-driven.
Chapter 9. First control trap.
Chasing control can be dangerous. Some people who have come to the realization of how important autonomy is, pursue recreating an autonomous lifestyle without having skills to offer in return. And that is what Cal Newport calls the first control trap.
Control that it is acquired without career capital is not sustainable.
The author writes the story of a girl who wanted to make money by blogging. However, to her disappointment, she soon discovered, that no one is interested in her adventures, which she also (absurdly) planned to fund by the income generated by the blog. Sounds like Catch-22 to me.
I don’t need to go far for my own example — my brother is a victim of the first trap. He dropped out of the university with the ambition of becoming a businessman. But without substantial knowledge and skills (which please note, I do not claim the higher education necessarily gives) he was failing in his entrepreneurial endeavors—one attempt after another. He could have avoided many painful lessons of life had he decided to accumulate his career capital first through work and seeking mentorship.
Chapter 10. Second control trap.
Control generates resistance.
The point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change.
Once you become “so good they can’t ignore you”, “they” stop ignoring you and begin making moves to secure the retention of talent — your retention.
Of course, choosing big bucks nad extra benefits over great traits is a matter of personal priority, but the practice shows that there are many people out there who made the move but ended up discontented.
Just last week, I have stumbled upon a LinkedIn post of a person who gave up her job in favor of a higher position at another company, and addition of 10k to her salary, thinking that ranks and bonuses will make her happier. And there she was, writing a ranting post about how her previous job was more satisfying, how she had more autonomy, and how she was happier because she was allowed to bring her dog to the office. In addition, she scored low on relatedness — all her relationships with colleagues whom she loved were gone.
Chapter 11. Avoiding control traps.
To avoid control traps we can apply the Law of Financial Viability.
Before following an appealing pursuit, make sure people are willing to pay for it.
Self-explanatory. This is an easy way to test if your project is worth your time. If there is no money in it, don’t do it.
Rule 4. Think small act big. (About the importance of Mission)
Chapter 12. The meaningful life of Pardis Sabeti.
The author writes about Pardis Sabeti, a Professor at Harvard who exemplifies the importance of the second trait of great work — Mission.
Ms. Sabeti is a biologist. And she has designed a great career for herself (just look at her LinkedIn profile it inspires nothing but awe and respect).
Her mission statement goes as follows: “to rid the world of its most ancient and deadly diseases.”
By examining her career the author concludes that even great minds like Pardis had to make many pivots before crystallizing their mission statement.
The question that you should ask yourself is “What is my Mission?” And the answer to this question will keep changing — it always remains work in progress. It is always Agile and requires countless re-iterations. But this internal work has to take place because sooner or later you come to the same conclusions that are stated in the book:
People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they are also more resistant to the strain of hard work.
Your Mission is your source of meaning. Find it and it will become the driving force behind everything you do.
Chapter 13. Missions require capital
In this chapter, the author states: a good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough — it is an innovation waiting to be discovered in the so-called adjacent possible. What’s that?
Adjacent possible is a zone close to the cutting edge.
In science, you close the gap between yourself and the cutting edge of science as you deepen your research preparing yourself to go into places where nobody has been. On that path, you acquire knowledge and skills.
Finding your Mission is the same:
In order to discover good ideas for mission you must first get to the cutting edge.
In order to reach cutting edge you must have rare and valuable skills.
So now the question is: how do I get from where I am to the adjacent possible? And there is a strategy for that.
Chapter 14. Missions require little bets.
The author proposes a strategy that we can use to test if the mission we choose to pursue is worth investing our time and energy. He calls this approach “little bets”.
To maximize your chances of success you should deploy small concrete experiments that return concrete feedback.
If career capital makes it possible to identify compelling mission, then it is a strategy of little bets that gives you a good shot of succeeding in this mission.
So how can we use it in our daily life?
Let’s say you are an educator and your mission is to channel the knowledge. You can plan, design, and implement a once month project — creating a series of video tutorials or an e-book for example.
Maybe you want to try out blogging and see if this is something you would enjoy. You can do the same thing— challenge yourself for 30 days of writing and see what happens. What will be the change in the mind, and what will be the response of the online audience.
As a matter of fact, this is how I started writing. I took up the challenge of writing 30 essays in 30 days. I ended up writing 42. The funny thing was that the first 41 went completely under the radar and got almost no traction whatsoever, but it was the 42nd essay that came as a breakthrough. I got thousands of reads, and people liked the content.
Had I given up on my 41st essay, I would never have come to the new becoming — an understanding that writing is not something that I just grew to enjoy, but something that I can eventually truly master. It took me on a journey of writing a book.
Once you formulate your mission, think about your “little bets” — what kind of things you can start testing now within a 30-days timeline. What you will discover during those 30 days might take you a long way.
Chapter 15. Missions require marketing.
Having a great idea, a great mission, and even great execution is not enough.
A good mission dream project involves two components: a remarkable idea and an appropriate venue in which this idea can propagate.
In a distraction economy, marketing is everything. You can have an excellent product but poor marketing, and you will achieve nothing. Alternatively, you can have a good product with a stellar marketing campaign, and you shall achieve massive success.
It doesn’t matter if you are a business owner, a content creator, or a job seeker, in order to market your products/services/yourself you will have to answer the following questions:
- Who is my audience?
- What is my message?
- What must be the form of communicating my message?
- What is the platform that would most effectively target my audience?
- How do I stand out from my competition?
To summarize let’s quote the Law of Remarkability stated in the book:
For a mission-driven project to succeed it should be remarkable in two different ways.
First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others.
Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.
The thought process is straightforward: Mission → Project design(Ideation/Planning)→ Execution/Marketing.
To sum up, let’s repeat all the core ideas of the book.
- Great work is defined by rare and valuable traits. (Control & Mission).
- To construct the work you love you must build a career capital i.e. rare & valuable skills.
- After you accumulate your career capital you can then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers.
- Hence the major instruction from the author: do not follow your passion, instead invest in career capital.
Thank you for reading.
It’s time for some shameless self-promotion 😄.
Writing book summaries is something I want to explore so make sure you follow me here on Medium to follow me on my journey. Also, I will be making these summaries in a video format on my Youtube channel.
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Stay safe and work smart to be “so good they can’t ignore you”.
Thank you for reading this essay.
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