Book Summary: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Book Summary: So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport



– Focus on acquiring rare & valuable skills to build career capital and find passion in your work.

– Prioritize deliberate practice in your job.  Start by seeking constant feedback and by keeping a tally of time spent devoted to deliberate practice.

– Get to the cutting edge of your field in order to uncover the “adjacent possible,” and develop a mission for your work.

Book Notes

“Follow your passion” is bad career advice.  This idea, dubbed the “passion hypothesis,” has been touted by many but is not routed in research.

A classic example is Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech, where he urges the graduating class to follow their passion in order to find meaningful work.  While Jobs clearly found meaningful work in his lifetime, it’s important understand his early career before taking his advice.  He did not start out with a burning passion for computers, but instead it was a way for him to make ends meet so he could live out his real passions at the time (Zen Buddhism and travel).

Research shows that work-related passion develops over time and is tied to three job characteristics:

  • Autonomy
  • Skill (mastery)
  • Relatability

Two different career philosophies

    – Craftsman mindset: what can I do for my job?

    – Passion mindset: what can my job do for me?

Two problems with the passion mindset

    – Ambiguity surrounding passion (who am I and what do I really love?)

    – Is this my real passion?  (impossible to answer)

Steve Martin’s advice on getting started in a career: be “so good they can’t ignore you.”

Three traits that define great work:

– Creativity: the opportunity use your creative abilities

– Impact: the perception that what you are working on is making a difference

– Control: the feeling that you have control over what you work on


Career capital theory: the traits that make up great work are rare and valuable.  As a result,  in order to find great work you need to provide something rate and valuable in return.

The craftsman mindset can be applied to almost any job, but there are three types of jobs that don’t qualify:

    – Jobs that present few opportunities to learn and master skills that are rare and valuable

    – Jobs that don’t provide value or do harm to the world

    – Jobs that force you to work with people you really dislike

Most people plateau at an “acceptable” level in their careers.

Becoming “so good they can’t ignore you” requires deliberate practice.  Simply spending 10,000 hours doing something is not enough.  Deliberate practice is composed of two traits: cognitive strain and constant feedback.

Deliberate practice is hard.  In order to combat the cognitive strain, you can impose two types of structure: time structure and information structure.  Time structure can be applied by telling yourself “I’m going to spend one hour working on this specific task.” Information structure can be applied by mapping out key ideas and establishing links between them.  Embrace honest feedback to accelerate learning.

Five steps toward applying deliberate practice to your job:

  1. Determine whether your job is “winner-take-all” or auction-based

– Winner-take-all: success is defined solely based on how you do one or two things

– Auction-based: success is defined by a portfolio of skills

  1. Determine what type of career capital you need to acquire
  2. Determine what “good” looks like–set goals
  3. Stretch your abilities and execute
  4. Be patient–develop diligence surrounding your craft and avoid distractions

Three deliberate practice techniques:

  1. Create a research Bible, in which you summarize one paper that’s industry relevant per week
  2. Keep a time log of all hours spent toward deliberate practice.
  3. Keep a detailed log of all brainstorming sessions in an expensive notebook.  If it’s expensive, you will take it more seriously and value the effort more.

Rules for becoming “so good they can’t ignore you:”

Rule #1: Dismiss the passion hypothesis

Rule #2: Start acquiring skills that are rare and valuable (career capital)

A good rule of thumb: ask yourself, “are people willing to pay for it?”

Rule #3: “Invest” your career capital in traits that define great work

Career capital can be cashed in in exchange for traits that make up the great work.  A great place to start is by gaining more control over what you do.

Two traps of Rule #3:

– Trying to gain control before gathering enough career capital–you need to have an equal amount of career capital to support it.  People have to be willing to pay for your products/services/skills.

– Encountering resistance while trying to gain control because of your value

Rule #4: To go big, think small (find your “mission”)

Focus on a narrow segment of your field.  This “small” thinking will make it easier for you to get to the cutting edge of your field.  You will also acquire rare and valuable skills in the process.  Once at the cutting edge, you can develop your mission and/or the direction you want to go with your career by seeking out the “adjacent possible.”

Don’t work backward from a mission, work forward by gathering career capital and then defining a suitable mission.

Another trait that defines great work is mission.  The best ideas for missions occur in the adjacent possible.

Steps to define a mission:

– gather career capital first, then define your mission

– in order to maximize your chances of success, make “little bets” (see below)

For a mission-driven product to succeed, it should be remarkable into different ways: it must be compelling enough for people to remark about it, and it must be in a venue where remarking is possible (social media, online communities, etc.).  One example is Giles Bowkett’s Archaeopteryx project.

“Little bets” concept: successful companies don’t start out making big bets. Instead, they make a series of little bets and learn from the rapid feedback of those successes and failures.

Rule #5: do you work that’s remarkable.  Remarkable venues include blogging, websites, television, the Internet, etc.  Create a “purple cow.”

Working right trumps finding the right work.

My Thoughts

Wow, there is a ton of wisdom packed into this book.  Overall, it really resonated with me.  It contains a lot of ideas and crystal clear rationality that I have been thinking about for a long time, but had never found in one place.

Review: 95/100


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