So Good They Can't Ignore You

By Cal Newport

Date: 04 April, 2019

Just the Highlights in : 10 Minutes

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Summary and My Thoughts

I’ve seen this book recommended in many different circles and I am familiar with Dr. Newport’s other book, Deep Work which I had read back in Fall 2017. I enjoyed Dr. Newport’s interesting take on the role of passion in our lives, simply redefining passion as a byproduct or the result of mastery in great work rather than the directing force toward finding great work that is fulfilling. The book presents a great deal of comparative life stories of individuals and personal anecdotes of Dr. Newport’s own life in support of his theories by using both positive and negative examples. How would I boil the principles outlined in this book down further? Probably like this.

Disregard following your preconceived notions of passion to finding fulfilling work; oftentimes any semblance of passion is ill-formed and will lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Instead, pick a discipline and without second-guessing yourself, focus on becoming a master at said discipline by adopting a craftsman’s mindset, using deliberate practice and focusing on your own output rather than how the discipline makes you feel at any given moment. Once you have created enough career capital from this continuous deliberate practice you will have enough career capital to leverage for great work. Great and fulfilling work can be described as work that allows for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Don’t make the mistake of attempting to acquire these valuable traits without building up enough career capital first. Your work should also exemplify the Law of Financial Viability, someone should want to pay you for your service. Another important trait of fulfilling work is the presence of a mission associated with that work. Oftentimes the mission can be found by staying near the adjacent cutting edge of a certain field and attempting to breakthrough this edge. You can use strategies such as little bets to test the validity of your mission going forward or you can follow the Law of Remarkability and maintain that your mission is to create remarkable projects that market you to your chosen field.

Rule #1 - Don’t Follow Your Passion

Chapter 1 - The “Passion” of Steve Jobs

The book opens up with a controversial idea, Don’t follow your passion. Dr. Newport attempts to challenge what he describes is the Passion Hypothesis, essentially the idea that The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion. Contrary to a popular commencement speech given by Steve Jobs where he insists that the graduating students follow their passion into their future careers, Dr. Newport draws upon Steve Jobs’ own biographical history to show that the electronics company Apple was not born out of his passion for computers but from a somewhat lucky break in a small business scheme that Steve Jobs was partaking in with Steve Wozniak. This shows that Steve Jobs grew passionate from his work rather than allowing his passion to direct his efforts.

Chapter 2 - Passion Is Rare

If you look into the history of many notable business leaders and visionaries in their respective fields as well as many moderately successful people, you will notice that their beginnings are much more complex than simply following their passion. In many/most cases, they were not particularly passionate about their respective careers in the beginning, passion that drives career decisions in the beginning is fairly rare. More-so, passion is a product of time and work at a specific career or task as a person undertakes a path of mastery in that specific career or that specific task. Self-Determination Theory seeks to show why certain pursuits spark an intrinsic motivation in people based on three factors related to the person such as: autonomy (feeling of control and importance), competence (feeling that you’re good at what you do), and relatedness (feeling of connection to others).

Chapter 3 - Passion Is Dangerous

The passion hypothesis can also lead a person to self-doubt, unhappiness, and constant career changes as they chase after this imaginary career choice that automatically satisfies their passion. Despite the push to obtain jobs that make us happy based on our own self-perceived passions influenced by early career development literature, people are responding that they are less happy with their current state in their work lives. This development has lead to the discovery of a phenomenon labeled as a ‘Quarter-Life Crisis’, experienced by young adults settling into their careers and finding that their passion has left them feeling unfulfilled in their new jobs. There are examples where passion has driven someone to a fulfilling careers when successful such as athletes and famous musicians, however these are exceptions and no the rule.

Rule #2 - Be So Good, They Can’t Ignore You

Chapter 4 - The Clarity of The Craftsman

Dr. Newport draws a distinction between the passion mindset, discussed earlier, which seeks to find fulfillment and happiness from your job or craft; and the craftsman mindset which seeks to increase the value and production that you bring to your job or craft. The goal of the craftsman mindset is to “Be So Good, They Can’t Ignore You”, a focus on your output rather than how what you’re doing makes you feel. Dr. Newport argues that this is how to achieve a remarkable career. The craftsman mindset asks you to place your own feelings about your occupation behind you and simply focus on improving as best as you can and simply earning the fulfillment and happiness that the passion mindset simply automatically expects you to receive from the your occupation. Instead of questioning your direction life, simply in a pragmatic manner, work as hard as you can and set aside the distractions that would dissuade your efforts; Dr. Newport argues that oftentimes passion follows from the execution of the craftsman mindset.

Chapter 5 - The Power of Capital

Dr. Newport determines that great work is comprised of creativity, impact, and control. These traits are both valuable and rare in most common jobs. To obtain a job that qualifies as great work, you need to have something of great value to offer in return, this is described as career capital (rare and valuable skills that you can offer). By incorporating the craftsman mindset described in the previous chapter, you can work toward gaining this career capital. There are, however, exceptions, areas where applying the craftsman mindset may not offer the same opportunities to build career capital; these include: jobs that present few opportunities to distinguish yourself, a job that focuses on something useless or even actively bad, and a job that forces you to work with people you dislike.

Chapter 6 - The Career Capitalists

To illustrate the importance of career capital, Dr. Newport draws upon the stories of two individuals who focused on getting “good” rather than finding their “passion” and found success in building up enough career capital to catapult their success. The first story follows Alex Berger, a college debater, who moved west to Hollywood without knowing which path he would eventually take. He eventually broke into script writing by excelling at each stage and opportunity that presented itself by focusing on a craftsman mindset by working incredibly hard to distinguish himself rather than allowing himself to be directed by passion. Mike Jackson, another case study, worked his way into an enviable venture capitalist position for clean tech in silicon valley by working incredibly hard on a research project during graduate school rather than allowing passion to dictate his life choices, he simply calculated his opportunities and with grit and determination worked to distinguish himself from the rest. In their respective journeys, both individuals built career capital through their hard work and drive toward mastery which later paid off by obtaining careers that can be described as great work.

Chapter 7 - Becoming a Craftsman

Dr. Newport describes the actionable process of building career capital under the craftsman mindset as deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is the act of pushing past your own limitation and constantly challenging yourself in a given domain. The difference between the skill level of two individuals who have partaken in the same development of the same skill for the same span of time can be determined by the effectiveness of their practice and if they deliberately challenged themselves enough. Another key to the effectiveness of this practice and development is the presence of immediate feedback that can allow you to dictate the effectiveness of your practice habits. Dr. Newport argues that the 10,000 hour rule (famous from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) is not simply enough to guarantee mastery, one must embrace deliberate practice to break through the performance plateaus that everyone inevitably encounters. To increase the effectiveness of your deliberate practice, you must:

Step 1) Decide what capital market you’re in (auction or winner-take-all). An auction market where the mastery of numerous possible skills can contribute to career capital. In a winner-take-all market, deliberate practice in one specific skills is the most important.

Step 2) Identify your capital type, also based on your capital market. In a winner-take-all market, your capital type is the one most important thing. In an auction market, you can use open gates as opportunities to build capital that are already available to you.

Step 3) Define the standard of good that you’ll use as a benchmark and goal to steer your deliberate practice toward.

Step 4) Stretch and Destroy, describes the painful process of stretching your abilities and breaking through your own plateaus. Deliberate practice is not enjoyable. Mindless practice is.

Step 5) Be patient.

Rule #3 - Turn Down a Promotion (Importance of Control)

Chapter 8 - The Dream Job Elixir

Dr. Newport describes what he calls the dream-job elixir. The act of giving people more control and autonomy over what they do and how they do it increases a person’s happiness and fulfillment. Acquiring this trait is critical for establishing a job and career that you love.

Chapter 9 - The First Control Trap

To gain the control that describes a dream job, you must first establish the career capital necessary to obtain such a career. This chapter starts with a cautionary tale of a young woman who disregarded the first step in this equation and found herself in financial woes when trying to establish this control. Therefore, it is understood that control without career capital can not be sustained without similar difficulties. The courage to pursue control alone is not enough to sustain the lifestyle of complete control; you must have the established career capital to exchange for the power trait of control. This is the first control trap.

Chapter 10 - The Second Control Trap

In this chapter. Dr. Newport explores the life of a software developer who continuously re-invested her career capital in gaining more freedom and control over her life rather than elevating herself to higher positions that offered less control and more stress. The second control trap as described by Dr. Newport is gaining enough career capital that your employer will actively work against your pursuit of control and change since this control more-so benefits you and not the employer. This control trap is oftentimes very enticing because of the prestige and compensation that your employer offers to persuade you from making the change. Unlike the first control trap, courage is beneficial here in helping you make these decisions toward control in light of the persuasions of your employer.

Chapter 11 - Avoiding the Control Traps

Dr. Newport describes the Law of Financial Viability, which says 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. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on. Essentially, someone’s moves toward control and autonomy should be backed by financial viability of that pursuit. For example, before you become a freelance software developer, are there people willing to pay you for those services? Unless people are willing to pay you, it’s not an idea you’re ready to go after.

Rule #4 - Think Small, Act Big

Chapter 12 - The Meaningful Life of Pardis Sabeti

The power of a compelling and unifying mission to your career path is crucial for developing happiness in your career. To have a unifying missions allows you to focus mental energy necessary for the deliberate practice toward mastery in your specific field. To develop a mission for your career path, you also need to build up enough career capital to cash in for this valuable trait (similar to control). Dr. Newport uses the life of researcher Pardis Sabeti who uses techniques in evolutionary biology to determine how organisms build resistance to different ailments as a perfect example of someone who has a compelling and unifying life mission.

Chapter 13 - Missions Require Capital

Once again, Dr. Newport reiterates the importance of acquiring career capital prior to attempting to acquire a valuable trait (in this case, mission). He begins with two stories of two individuals whose pursuit toward establishing a mission was limited due to their own lack of career capital (either vague or not focused enough missions). Dr. Newport describes how scientific breakthroughs happen in multiples, because scientists grind toward the adjacent possible and innovation results from branching out past this boundary edge. The capital driven mission is a way to develop a mission similar to a scientific breakthrough by progressing toward innovation past the adjacent possible of your chosen field. If you want to identify a clear mission for your career, you must get to the cutting edge of your field and this takes the development of career capital and deliberate practice.

Chapter 14 - Missions Require Little Bets

Some people have a great deal of career capital but are still uncertain on which career mission to pursue. In many cases, people fail to make the leap from idea to action in the implementation of their mission. One strategy to help make this leap is to make little bets or tests to draw out critical information that can help you validate the quality of your mission or big idea. These little bets provide frequent and immediate feedback that can acted upon. An example in the book is how Chris Rock would test out new jokes as smaller venues to validate their value with the audiences before showcasing them to larger audiences at bigger venues. Career capital helps you identify a possible mission while little bets gives you the strategy toward succeeding at this mission.

Chapter 15 - Missions Require Marketing

A great mission must be marketed as remarkable to effectively be a great success. To accomplish this, one must transform their mission into remarkable projects in a space where the project can be recognized as remarkable. Dr. Newport uses the example of a software developer whose software application was incredibly remarkable and drew a large amount of attention that transformed into further success. “You’re either remarkable or invisible.” - Seth Godin You must develop purple cows in a world filled with boring brown cows. Dr. Newport introduces the Law of Remarkability which says 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.


Blake Adams is a writer, software developer, technical consultant, and financial independence enthusiast living in Oxford, MS.

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