So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Rating: 5/5

“Working right trumps finding the right work.” That’s the take-home message Cal ends with in So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Throughout this book, he outlines how to find a career you love while detailing the flaws with the terribly popular notion to “Follow your passion.” I loved this book. I’m going to buy it and give it to anyone I know looking for career advice. It really is the book I wish I had written regarding career success. Newport uses a fantastic medley of stories to illustrate his points and leaves you with concrete takeaways to apply these lessons to your own life.

The book is broken down into four rules with supporting evidence and tactics listed for each rule.

Rule 1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

Following your passion is terrible advice for two main reasons:

  1. It’s dangerous for job satisfaction. The allure of the “perfect” job leads many people to hop from position to position looking for that dream job where passion and work align. This perfect job rarely (if ever) exists.
  2. Many of us don’t have a passion. 

Cal outlines three basic psychological needs to feel intrinsically motivated for your work:

  • Autonomy: “The feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important”
  • Competence: “The feeling that you’re good at what you do”
  • Relatedness: “The feeling of connection to other people”

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

The title of this chapter came from an interview with Steve Martin about his rise to fame:

“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.’

Cal outlines two different approaches to thinking about work.

The Passion Mindset – a focus on what value your job offers you. This is dangerous for two main reasons:

  1. “First, when you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness…When you enter the working world with the passion mindset, the annoying tasks you’re assigned or the frustrations of corporate bureaucracy can become too much to handle.”
  2. “Second, and the more serious, the deep questions driving the passion mindset – “Who am I?” and “What do I truly love?” – are essentially impossible to confirm.

The Craftsman Mindset – a focus on what value you’re producing in your job. Exemplified by the phrase “the tape doesn’t lie” in reference to musicians meaning at the end of the day, the quality of the work you produce is most important. Acquire “career capital.”

Cal argues that “the traits that make a great job great are rare and valuable, and therefore, if you want a great job, you need to build up rare and valuable skills” – those skills are what he dubs “career capital”

He outlines three traits that disqualify a job from providing a good foundation for building work you love (attaining career capital):

  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.”

Cal reinforces the idea that deliberate practice is essential for obtaining career capital and mastering a trade. To help put this into practice inline with the craftsman mindset, he outlines the five habits of a craftsman:

  1. Decide what capital market you’re in
    1. Winner-take-all – Example: Television writing. All that matters is how good your script is. (Another example – blogging. All that matters is whether readers want your content.)
    2. Auction – There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection.
  2. Identify your capital type – identify ways to gain the capital you want
    • Open gates – opportunities to build capital that you are already open to. These let you get “farther faster, in terms of career capital acquisition, than starting from scratch”
  3. Define good – “Deliberate practice requires good goals.”
  4. Stretch and destroy – Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.
    • “If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an ‘acceptable level.'” [of performance]
  5. Be patient
    • …Steve Martin explained his strategy for learning 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.”

Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion

“Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and fulfillment.”

Control over your job is a requirement for happiness, but Cal outlines two traps that people fall into when they’re looking for control.

The First Trap – “The first trap is pursuing more control in your working life before you have the career capital to offer in exchange.” Control requires capital.

The Second Trap – “…once you have enough career capital to acquire more control in your working life, you have become valuable enough to your employer that they will fight your efforts to gain more autonomy.”

“When no one cares what you do with your working life, you probably don’t have enough career capital to do anything interesting.”

To help people figure out when they can pursue more control, Newport offers up the law of financial viability, which can be boiled down to do what people are willing to pay for.

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big

“The core idea of this book is simple: To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers. Mission is one of these traits.” Newport elaborates that missions require three aspects:

  1. Missions require capital.
    • Newport uses the term “adjacent possible,” which is defined as “We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.” Given a soup of chemical components sloshing and mixing together…lots of new chemicals will form.
    • “A good career missions is similar to a scientific breakthrough – it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field.”
  2. Missions require little bets.
    • This principle was based on the work from Peter Sims, who wrote a book of the same title: “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”
  3. Missions require marketing.
    • Cal introduces the “Law of Remarkability”, which states that a missions-driven project should be remarkable in two ways. “First, it should be remarkable in the literal sense of compelling people to remark about it.” To quote Seth Godin, it must be a purple cow. “Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.

Conclusion (Notes from how Cal applies these lessons)

Cal talks about how he works on deliberate practice. He has deployed two strategies that help him focus on doing the deliberate work that is exceptionally difficult:

  1. Time structure – “I am going to work on this for one hour” regardless of how difficult it might be
  2. Information structure – “a way of capturing the results of my hard focus in a useful form.”

Cal started what he calls his “research bible” – “Once a week I require myself to summarize in my ‘bible’ a paper I think might be relevant to my research. This summary must include a description of the result, how it compares to previous work, and the main strategies used to obtain it.”

“When you adopt a productivity mindset, however, deliberate practice-inducing tasks are often sidestepped, as the ambiguous path toward completion, when combined with the discomfort of the mental strain they require, makes them an unpopular choice in scheduling decisions.”

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