So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Summary

Cal Newport discusses why “follow your passion” is terrible career advice that leads people down unrewarding paths. In its place, share advice about how to pursue a realistic path toward a meaningful and engaging work life.

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Key Takeaways

Newport’s book answers one simple question: Why do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal? Newport offers a realistic path toward a meaningful and engaging working life.

Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

The passion hypothesis is bad advice

Passion hypothesis: The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches that passion.

The passion hypothesis is a compelling story that dupes you into thinking that building a rewarding career is as simple as finding work that you love. There are a few problems with this story:

  1. Career passions are rare: most passions are hobby-style interests (e.g., sports and arts) and may have nothing to do with a career.
  2. Passion takes time: the longer you stay in a field and give yourself the time to get good at what you do, the more that passion develops. Passion takes time to cultivate.
  3. Passion is a side effect of mastery: when you get great at something, your interest in that something often grows. In large part, that’s because you develop a stronger sense of autonomy and competence the more that you master a craft. According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT), there are three basic psychological needs that we need to meet to feel motivated at work:
    1. Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important.
    2. Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do.
    3. Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people.

In short, it’s rare that you will be passionate about something from day 1 and forever be interested in that something. Rather, passion is often born out of spending a lot of time in a field and getting good at the skills required to feel autonomous, competent, and connected with the work you’re doing.

The dangers of the passion hypothesis

If you believe in the passion hypothesis, you likely think that there is a magic job waiting for you somewhere and that when you find that job, you will magically have everything you ever wanted in work. And when you continuously don’t find that job, you may be prone to chronic job-hopping and self-doubt that make you less happy in your career than if you stuck with a skill that you weren’t “passionate” about.

Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Or, the Importance of Skill)

Craftsman vs. passion mindset

  • Craftsman mindset: Approach to working life in which you focus on the value of what you’re offering to the world. This mindset leads to you figuring out how to offer value that other people appreciate.
  • Passion mindset: Approach to working life in which you focus on the value your job is offering you. This approach often leads to chronic dissatisfaction and daydreaming about the better jobs you imagine existing out there waiting to be discovered.

When you cultivate the craftsman mindset, you aren’t too concerned about “finding your passion.” Instead, you’re focused on producing more valuable work. And in that pursuit of producing more value, you end up discovering what you like, what other people enjoy, and ultimately how you can do work that you find meaningful and that’s valued by other people.

Traits that define great work

  • Creativity: “Ira Glass, for example, is pushing the boundaries of radio, and winning armfuls of awards in the process.”
  • Impact: “From the Apple II to the iPhone, Steve Jobs has changed the way we live our lives in the digital age.”
  • Control: “No one tells Al Merrick when to wake up or what to wear. He’s not expected in an office from nine to five. Instead, his Channel Island Surfboards factory is located a block from the Santa Barbara beach, where Merrick still regularly spends time surfing.”

The career capital theory of great work

  • The traits that define great work are rare and valuable.
  • Supply and demand says that if you want these traits you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. Think of these rare and valuable skills you can offer as your career capital.
  • The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming “so good they can’t ignore you,” is a strategy well suited for acquiring career capital. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is to create work that you love.”

Avoiding courage culture

Courage culture is a growing community of online content creators that push the idea: “The biggest obstacle between you and work you love is a lack of courage – the courage required to step away from other people’s definition of success and to follow your dream.”

This idea aligns well with the passion mindset, but it fails to show people how dedicating themselves to a craft and producing more value in the world is the best way to find meaningful work.

Limits to the craftsman mindset

  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 like.

Mastery

To cultivate mastery in a field, you need to constantly stretch your ability and receive immediate feedback to continue learning and growing. Doing these two things helps you avoid the performance plateau, which is when you just show up and work hard and eventually fail to get any better. The way to break through the performance plateau is to focus on your craft with a clear philosophy and to engage in deliberate practice.

5 habits of a craftsman

  1. Decide what capital market you’re in. Are you in a winner-take-all market (e.g., book writing) where you win by becoming an excellent writer, or are you in an auction market (e.g., building startups) where you can build many different combinations of skills and still win.
  2. Identify your capital type. In a winner-take-all market, you know what capital you need to acquire. In an auction market, you have more flexibility.
  3. Define “good.” What is your definition of success?
  4. Stretch and destroy. Continue pushing yourself to where you are uncomfortable and get critical feedback that helps you continue to improve with your deliberate practice.
  5. Be patient. It takes time to develop career capital and mastery. Take a long-term view.

Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion (Or, the Importance of Control)

Control matters

People often enjoy difficult work if they have a certain level of control over their time and the outcomes they produce. “Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment. Many organizations are now cultivating results-only work environments, in which people are evaluated by their results, not by the time they spend doing something or other arbitrary measures like how enjoyable they are to work with.

Control traps

First control trap. “Control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable. If you want to live a free lifestyle with lots of control, going straight for the adventurous part of the lifestyle without first developing a stable means to support your life will lead to failure over the long run. You need to put in the work to develop the skills that will allow you to support the life you want to create.

Second control trap. “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 a change.” This is the period where you might get caught in golden handcuffs or a specific identity that keeps you from living the life you want. This is the point where you would be wise to listen to the calls of “courage culture.”

Law of financial viability

“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.”

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big (Or, the Importance of Mission)

Mission matters

“To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions. It provides an answer to the question, ‘What should I do with my life.’”

Missions work because they help focus your energy toward a useful goal that increases your impact on the world, which helps you feel more connected to the work that you do.

Just like pursuing a life of control before you have career capital is destined for failure, so is pursuing a mission before you have the relevant career capital to pursue that mission successfully. That means you need to develop relevant, rare and valuable skills to pursue your mission.

Mission requires little bets

Don’t start by choosing a bold plan and making a heroic effort in that one direction. It’s better to take small bets, shorter endeavors that give you information about what you’re doing and how to move forward. With little bets, “it either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps.” That way, you don’t spend all of your time in a direction that’s destined to fail or one that does not ultimately provide you with what you’re seeking. Instead, you get more information over time to help move you incrementally toward your goal.

Mission requires marketing

To get people onboard with your mission, you need a compelling frame. A book about helping college students find a meaningful career will sell fewer copies than one that says “follow your passion is bad advice.” They can be the same book, but the second frame is a more compelling way to have people engage with your ideas.

Law of remarkability

“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 other. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.”

Missions can be made more compelling by following the law of remarkability.

Conclusion

  • “The traits that can make your life interesting…had very little to do with intensive soul-searching.” If you start to see the major you choose in college as a matter of cosmic significance, you’ll be in trouble.
  • “Most knowledge workers avoid the uncomfortable strain of deliberate practice like the plague, a reality emphasized by the typical cubical dweller’s obsessive email-checking habit – for what is this behavior if not an escape from work that’s more mentally demanding?
  • “Working right trumps finding the right work.”

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