So Good They Can’t Ignore You


Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love is a book that is easy to read yet contains many profound ideas.


Big Idea: Don’t Follow Your Passion

Important note: There are people, like athletes, who followed the passion hypothesis, and are successful. In any idea, there are exceptions. But if it works for successful athletes, it does not necessarily mean it will work for the rest of the population.

The Passion Hypothesis – the key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion. “To be happy, you must follow your passion.”

Example: Steve Jobs’ in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech (now viewed over 27 million times) famously said, “You’ve got to find what you love… The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.”

So why is following your passion a terrible advice?

Newport states that Steve Jobs was not passionate about computers nor electronics when he was younger. Jobs was “something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics.” In 1988 biography, Steve Jobs: The Journey Is the Reward, author Jeffrey Young states that Steve Jobs took a night job in Atari because of the job advertisement that reads, “Have fun and make money.” At one point, Steve left his Atari job for a mendicant’s spiritual journey in India. When Steve returned home from India, he trained seriously at the Los Altos Zen Center.

If Steve Jobs followed his own advice, he would have been working at the Los Altos Zen Center. Jobs got a lucky break when he noticed that everyone in Silicon Valley was doing model-kit computers. Jobs and his friend Steve Wozniak eventually got their break when a Mountain View computer store asked them to build ready-made computers.

Passion is rare

In an interview, public radio host Ira Glass states, “In the movies, there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream. But I don’t believe that. Things happen in stages.”

Glass adds,

“I feel like your problem is that you’re trying to judge all things in the abstract before you do them. That’s your tragic mistake.”

Passion is a side effect of mastery

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, has made a career studying how people think about their work.” A job, in Wrzesniewski’s formulation, is a way to pay the bills, a career is a path toward increasingly better work, and a calling is work that’s an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity.

In the research of Wrzesniewski, she studied a group of employees who all had the same position and nearly identical work responsibilities: college administrative assistants. Wrzesniewski states that the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job.

Passion is dangerous

“Passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do.”

Big Idea: Developing a Skill is Important

Be so good, they can’t ignore you. Cal Newport basically lays out stories of different people who put in the hours perfecting their craft. He called this the “Craftman mindset,” which means that we should become good at what we are currently doing. Develop career capital in a great job.

Comedian Steve Martin, in his own estimation, states that it took him 10 years to be successful at his craft. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he states that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something

We should focus on what we can offer the world instead of focusing on what the world can offer us.

Three characteristics of a great job:

  1. Creativity
  2. Impact on the world
  3. Control of the job – you can control your time and the decisions involved in that job

Three disqualifiers:

  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

If your job is one of those disqualifiers, then it does not make sense to be good at it.

Big Idea: Deliberate Practice

Stretch yourself to beyond what is comfortable.

Newport states, “Stretching your ability and receiving immediate feedback provides the core of a more universal principle—one that I increasingly came to believe provides the key to successfully acquiring career capital in almost any field.”

Deliberate practice is an activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.

Scientists have failed to find much evidence of natural abilities explaining experts’ successes. It is a lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice tthat ends up explaining excellence.

If you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better.

Steps to become really good at something:

Step 1: Decide What Capital Market You’re In

2 types of capital market:

  1. Winner-take-all – only one type of career capital available, and lots of different people competing for it.
  2. Auction – many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection.

Step 2: Identify Your Capital Type

If you are in a winner-take-all market, develop that career capital (which is only one).

If you are in an auction market, find something unique and develop it. In the auction market, be in something where you already have expertise in. For instance, if you majored in sports in college, it is perhaps wise to work in the sports industry.

Step 3: Define “Good”

One must know what is “good” in a specific field. Study people successful in your field and see what they are doing.

Step 4: Stretch and Destroy

To be good at something means being uncomfortable.

If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”

Step 5: Be Patient

It takes time to be successful. You have to ignore other pursuits in the process. Ignore shiny new things when you feel like your current job/career is not taking you anywhere. As long as you are putting in the work, the results will come. But it will take time.

2 noteworthy stories from the book:

First story is Lisa Feuer.

At 38 years old, Lisa quit her career in advertising and marketing to open up her own yoga studio. Lisa enrolled in a 200 hundred hour yoga instruction and had to tap a home equity loan to pay the $4,000 tuition. The yoga studio faltered and Lisa had to resort to food stamps. Lisa did not use her career capital in advertising and marketing to make a business related to that. Instead, she is in a totally different field (yoga), which she has zero career capital. Without career capital, it is difficult to be successful at something.

Second story is Jane.

Jane was a talented student who earned top-one-percent scores on her standardized tests and attended a competitive university. However, she was unhappy with the traditional path from college.

She plans to live an adventurous life like circumnavigating the world’s oceans and traveling without motor power across every continent. She will finance this lifestyle by building a set of low-maintenance websites that recurrently earn enough to support her adventurous life. The end goal of this adventurous lifestyle was to develop a non-profit to develop her “vision of health, human potential, and a life well-lived.” Jane dropped out of college and tried her luck. Ultimately, Jane failed in her pursuit because she was not able to make websites that will finance her lifestyle. She did not develop a career capital in developing, running, and marketing websites.

Where do you start when you don’t know what you want?

Cal Newport quotes Peter Sims in his book Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries,

“When Sims studied a variety of successful innovators, from Steve Jobs to Chris Rock to Frank Gehry, as well as innovative companies, such as Amazon and Pixar, he found a strategy common to all. “Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance,” he writes, “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” [emphasis mine]. This rapid and frequent feedback, Sims argues, “allows them to find unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes.”