I seldom read self-help books because I find they are mostly a scam, filled with vague advice and a rehashing of others anecdotal experience that seldom leads to any true self-discovery. I will not say that Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You was full of revelation on every page, nor every chapter. But the concepts laid out in this book are very useful and for me, gave credence to how I’ve attempted to live my life.
The book is divided into 4 sections, each with multiple chapters detailing a specific rule that Cal has identified. Of course, no self-help book would be complete without a few character profiles providing anecdotal evidence to his rules.
Rule 1: Don’t Follow Your Passion
In which I question the validity of the passion hypothesis, which says that the key to occupational happiness is to match your job to a pre-existing passion.
The premise of this book is summed up in the previous quote. That passion is not intrinsic, most people cannot identify their passion and that passion takes time to develop. Cal proposes that what many people attribute to passion is indeed a side effect of mastery.
The chapter begins by following a Zen Monk on his journey to self-realization that while he thought being a Zen Monk was his passion, it turned out to be unfulfilling. Eventually returning to his life as a banker, focusing on doing his job better and eventually finding happiness running a banking IT infrastructure.
Additionally, a profile of Steve Jobs, notorious for his passion for user-experience and cutting edge computer technology. Cal identifies that Jobs had neither intrinsic passion for computers, nor a drive aside from not starving and looking to turn a quick buck by being opportunistic when personal computers were fast becoming a thing. Jobs original idea was to sell 100 or so DIY assembled computers, make $1000 and continue being a college bum. When he realized he could make 5x the amount by assembling the computers first, Apple was started. It’s only after working diligently in this business did Jobs eventually become passionate about it.
Cal goes as far as to say that Passion, and more so Following Your Passion is dangerous. For a couple generations now youth have been told to follow their passion and the work will follow. There is an entire genre of self-help gurus who’s goal is to help someone build up the courage to throw in the rat-race towel and follow their dreams. Cal insists that self-fulfillment comes from being good at something, not from job hopping looking for the one job to finally make you happy.
I can personally relate in a way. All things equal, I’ve been happiest when I’ve felt competent in my career. Not feeling competent at times has led to feelings of self-doubt and wanting to make a change. For me though, instead of constant searching for the correct job, I’ve found it best to focus on gaining valuable skills and waiting for the right opportunities. Valuable skills never go out of style.
Rule 2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You
In which I introduce two different approaches to thinking about work: the craftsman mindset, a focus on what value you’re producing in your job, and the passion mindset, a focus on what value your job offers you. Most people adopt the passion mindset, but in this chapter I argue that the craftsman mindset is the foundation for creating work you love.
The craftsman mindset is a focus on what you can offer the world while a passion mindset is a focus on what the world can offer you. Cal proposes that artists and musicians are well adept to the concept of deliberate practice, which should be uncomfortable and just outside of your zone of proximal development. Knowledge Workers conversely are often opposed to the uncomfortableness that comes from pushing skills outside of their developed comfort zone.
It’s in this chapter that we get a quote from Steve Martin (the comedian) where he says his key to success was to always
be so good they can’t ignore you.
Steve Martin was also quoted saying that his goal was to play the banjo for 40 years, knowing that by then he’d be so much better than everyone who eventually quit, that he’d have to be noticed. The concept here should be that the hard work and dedication of 40 years to be the best was expected at the beginning. There never was an expected short-cut, life-hack, or growth-hack to get there. Hard work, dedication, relentless dedicated learning, and pushing outside of your comfort zone is all that is required to become So good they can’t ignore you.
What to do once you’ve acquired these skills? Or perhaps some level of competency? Cal presents this idea of competency as Career Capital that can be exchanged for more control over your life. Perhaps additional Creativity, Impact, or Control are what you desire from your career. By building up this career capital, by getting really good at rare and valuable skills, you can demand additional provisions that others cannot.
The inverse is also true, attempting to gain control without having first built up career capital is akin to having courage, it often leads to failure. Stores in this section include a very successful marketing director who threw in her towel for a month long yoga teaching course and opened her own yoga studio. The years and years of dedicated marking career capital did not follow her, she started over with a month long course that anyone could take. She eventually folded and was unable to continue, and who could blame her, she had the extensive career capital in yoga that someone fresh out of high-school could have had.
Additionally, one young and inspired soul decided to become a life-style blogger. The goal was to put together a few websites to generate enough passive income to tour the world. Oddly enough, passive income from websites is not so trivial. Just another case that Cal reports on where not enough time was spent getting good and learning a valuable skill before attempting to cash in on the reward.
There are three disqualifiers for applying the craftsman mindset though
- The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
- The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
- The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.
As alluded earlier, becoming a craftsman requires dedicated practice. Interesting enough, some research was conducted on Chess Grand Masters and discovered that not only was researching the game a better indicator to success playing the game but it was OVERWEALMENLY the key component to the skill level of a Grand Master. This reinforces the idea that it isn’t just practicing that matters, but how you practice. Cal also mentions the 10,000 hour rule popularized by Malcom Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers
The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours
It’s made apparent in this book that most professionals put in a level of learning that gets them to a skill level and eventually plateau, and fail to get any better. Often this occurs as technologies change and continued learning is increasingly difficult. Most work that doesn’t include a clear training philosophy, or in pedagogical sense a zone of proximal development get suck. To get better as knowledge workers we must determine our own training and take part in deliberate practice.
Cal lays out his 5 habits of a craftsman:
- Decide What Capital Market You’re In: Winner-Take-All or Auction
- Identify Your Capital Type
- Define ‘Good’
- Stretch and Destroy
- Be Patient
Rule 3: Turn Down a Promotion
In which I argue that control over what you do, and how you do it, is one of the most powerful traits you can acquire when creating work you love.
It’s not hard to believe that those who have more control over their working conditions tend to enjoy what they do more often. Rule 3 focus on abandoning the obvious path to promotion in order to trade in career capital for more control.
The act of attempting to acquire additional control has two identified traps by Cal. One such trap is attempting to acquire control without enough career capital. Such as the life-style blogger, without enough career capital to fund their lifestyle, or the knowledge to build passive income generating websites, there’s just failure around the corner. The second type of career capital trap comes from when you do have enough career capital, often this comes with a promotion that drains the career capital away so that you must rebuild it. Additional responsibilities, raises, corner office, etc.
In both cases one is expected to receive resistance though. Without career capital, the resistance is the world telling you that you don’t have the career capital. With plenty of career capital, the resistance is the world not wanting to give up control that you’re requesting. In both cases it can be difficult to distinguish between the different resistances. In order to help avoid these control traps, Cal introduces The 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
In which I argue that a unifying mission to your working life can be a source of great satisfaction
A career with a unified mission is a powerful thing, Cal explains at length a researcher’s mission and how the control they’ve gained as opposed to their peers was derived from a powerful and public mission. These missions however, require capital. This capital must be built up the long and hard way. Finding a mission can be a life-long confusing challenge, however Cal recommends a few methods to help identify potentially viable missions.
An idea popularized from the 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From, big ideas are almost always discovered in the “adjacent possible”. As researchers continue pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery, the next big discovery is often limited to a few areas. These areas need to be discovered before research can continue, as such, many people often discover and rediscover the same ideas because they are the next ideas that need discovered. These also make great missions, however, they exist mostly at the edge of scientific research, and as such, require career capital to have been built up to even be in the adjacent space to discover them.
To help feel out the adjacent space, Cal proposes making small bets in many different surrounding areas. This allows for rapid feedback and to check that the financial viability of these projects is valid. If enough positive feedback is received from these small bets/projects, then additional time can be spent investigating whether they will make worthwhile prospects. Once the money or feedback turns on you, it’s time to abandon the project and look elsewhere. While money should not be the goal, it’s a great proxy for societal value.
As great as it is to have a mission though, most mission driven career capital needs to still be marketed. If people are not aware of what you are doing, they can not be useful in helping you achieve your mission. In addition to being a Purple Cow in a field of Brown Cows, you need to let people know that you are a Purple Cow. Your project or mission must be remarkable for people to remark on it, they must remark on it for the idea to spread. This leads to Cal’s 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 others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.
For a self-help book, the concepts were remarkable and concise. The anecdotal evidence is slightly frustrating, however it confirms a preconceived bias I already had, so in that vein, I really enjoyed it. For me personally, the aspect to deliberate practice is important. I have a few areas that I’ve been meaning to improve, writing is one (thus my first blog post in a while), but there are a few other areas of my career that need additional attention. While I knew beforehand, this book was a good way to help remind and reinforce the need for constant deliberate practice. I’ve also been a believer that most people, with enough interest, can accomplish nearly any knowledge work related career they desire.