So Good They Can’t Ignore You

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Author: Cal Newport
Published: 9/18/2012
Not only are pre-existing passions rare and have little to do with how most people end up loving their work, but a focus on passion over skill can be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job hopping. Spending time with organic farmers, venture capitalists, screenwriters, freelance computer programmers, and others who admitted to deriving great satisfaction from their work, Newport uncovers the strategies they used and the pitfalls they avoided in developing their compelling careers.

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

Key Insights

If you’ve been told to “follow your passion” in order to be happy, you’ve been misled. Following your passion is not the way to a successful and fulfilling career.

Newport recommends abandoning the focus on passion and replacing it with a craftsman mindset. If you’re looking for something you were meant to do, you’re likely to end up disappointed. Instead, channel your energy into building skills and becoming “so good they can’t ignore you.”

Job satisfaction comes from the rewards of being good at what you do. Even if you know what your calling is, you have to be practical. Build up your skills to be able to advance your mission and make sure you’re doing something that’s a viable career and not just a hobby.

Key Points

Forget about finding and following your passion.

You’ve probably heard that you should do what you love and success will follow. This mantra has been around years, starting with the baby boomer generation. But this advice is wrong. Trying to find your passion and follow it is a recipe for disappointment.

Focusing just on doing what you love ignores important, practical factors. First, you have no idea if the thing you love has a viable career path. Second, it doesn’t account for the value of hard work and diligence.

Finding your passion is also problematic. Many people don’t actually know what they love. They may have hobbies they enjoy, but the reality of doing it as a career is not feasible or desirable. Also, you may question your choices and that doubt may make you bounce around to new jobs if you’re expecting to love what you do all the time.

Chasing your dreams is a nice idea, but success does not automatically follow.

Job satisfaction requires a long-term outlook and doesn’t depend on passion.

Drivers of job satisfaction include having autonomy and feeling like you’re good at what you do. Both of these things usually require time.

There is a direct relationship between doing something for a long time and enjoying it. If you stay in a certain line of work, you will become better at it. The better you are at something, the more likely you are to enjoy it. By this logic, being able to stay in a job longer is generally good for job satisfaction.

When you first enter a job, no matter the field, you aren’t going to be given a lot of control. That’s the deal with entry-level positions. But the more time you spend doing it and doing it well, the more likely you are to be given more freedom over your job. You can move up to positions with more authority and autonomy. These are important for attaining job satisfaction.

Simply being around the same people can also be valuable for your job satisfaction. The relationships that you build with colleagues over time can help you love your job. These connections add value beyond the actual tasks that you are completing.

If you put in time at your job, you will develop relationships, gain autonomy, and increase your capabilities. All of these things can enhance job satisfaction more than the abstract notion of passion.

Focus on becoming valuable.

Think in terms of building “career capital” through your skills. If you have skills that are sought after and you keep getting better at what you do, you will be valued.

You need to put in the work. You have to be diligent and disciplined. Practice the skills you have to maintain and improve them. You cannot allow yourself to plateau. Seek out new skills. The rarer the skillset you have, the more desirable you will be.

Make a strategic selection when considering a job. You want a role that will give you the opportunity to develop sought-after skills. If the skills are unique, they will help set you apart in the job market. Jobs that offer the ability for you to grow build career capital.

Don’t rely on your natural abilities to carry you.

Career capital is not about passion or raw talent. Even raw talent or smarts will only get you so far. You still have to practice to hone your skills and develop related ones. Take, for example, musicians or athletes. To be professionals in these fields, they probably need some natural talent. But, more importantly, they have to practice rigorously and have enough luck to be discovered by a record label or scouted for a team. Otherwise, their passion is just a hobby. They need career capital to make it a profession.

Author Malcolm Gladwell discussed this idea in his book Outliers. You cannot rely on your talent or intelligence. It helps, but the masters of their fields are the ones that work on their skills for years. Doctors have to train for years, working actors usually start learning as a child, and professional writers have been developing their writing style and abilities for years.

Think like a craftsman.

The passion mindset is too focused on what your purpose is in the world. It limits your ability to attain success in a career. So, don’t think of your work as your passion.

Instead, think of your work as your craft. The goal is to be the best at what you do and offer a high-quality output every time. You aren’t necessarily passionate about your craft. But, you’re engaged in the pursuit of becoming good at what you do.

A craftsman is constantly looking for ways to improve the output and produce more. In order to ensure excellent work, you want to hone your skills. Look for (and listen to) feedback. In order to increase your output, make your workdays more productive. Document how you spend your time to reduce waste and set clear goals.

The craftsman mindset beats the passion mindset for becoming good at your job. It makes you focus on doing the best you can, no matter what your role is.

Sometimes, you need a change.

Staying in a role is generally good for building career capital, but it’s also okay to move on.

There are three red flags that mean it’s time for a new career. First, you can’t grow your skillset. You can’t become so good that you can’t be ignored if your growth is stunted. Second, you find what you’re doing to have no use or, worse, is harmful. It’s hard to be satisfied with a job well done when that job is hurting someone. Third, you hate what you do. This is more than mere annoyance or a bad day, but it’s important to respond to.

If there’s a red flag, find your next opportunity. Change can be good and reinvigorating. Use it as a way to be strategic about how you can build more career capital.

Consider non-traditional ways to build and invest your career capital.

Getting to where you want to be in your career doesn’t always just mean taking the next promotion offered. Your goal is to be undeniably good so you can have more freedom and shape your job into the one most satisfying to you.

To get to where you want to go, you may have to make some less conventional choices. You may reject a promotion and go back to school to develop a new set of skills. Instead of taking a better paying job, you can accept an unpaid internship that builds better career capital. These choices may not be the most obvious route, but it’s about growth over time.

Building career capital may mean you also have to expend some for the right reasons. If you’ve proven yourself over and over again, your requests are more likely to be granted. You have the career capital to ask to switch to a part-time role while getting an advanced degree.

Your journey to becoming undeniably good requires both building and investing career capital. Prove yourself and then take the right kinds of risks that pay off with even more capital.

Look for the right opportunities and be realistic.

Always evaluate the realities of the opportunities you’re considering. Be methodical about what a career path can offer you.

It’s true that if you are passionate about what you do and it is your mission, you will be more willing to put in the hard work. But that doesn’t mean your passion is a viable career. If you have passions or interest areas, consider the realities to determine whether it is an option.

First, what will people pay for you to do this? If you’re not going to be able to get paid to do it, don’t try to make it your profession. This is an important question to separate hobbies from career prospects. Your passion should be something that others also care about because then they’re willing to pay for it.

Second, what kind of job market is this work? There are two general kinds of markets: auction and winner-take-all. Ideally, you want an auction market because there are more opportunities for more people. A winner-take-all market means competition for the same career capital.

Third, how can you advance your field incrementally? It may be tempting to try to find the next big thing. But big ideas lead to big risks and big failures. Instead, research where your field currently is and how you can move it forward. Execute on your passion with a craftsman mindset focused on quality and output.

The Main Take-away

Instead of following your passion into a non-existent career, chase career capital for success. Fulfillment and job satisfaction will follow. Being happy at work is all about being realistic and strategic.

In the real world, you want to make sure you have a viable career. You need to do something that others are willing to pay for. The more opportunities that exist, the more likely you are to be able to make a career of it. Your career can’t be contingent on coming up with a big idea, but incremental improvements are viable.

To build a career where you are given the autonomy to work on the things you care most about, you have to be strategic. This means playing the long game. Pick a job where you can build your skills, especially rare ones. Use a craftsman mindset to make it all about the work product. Grow your career capital to shape your work.

In the end, the goal is to make yourself the best you can possibly be. Bring a unique skillset and keep yourself sharp. Constantly produce high-quality work. Show that you are reliable and capable. Be undeniable.

About the Author

Cal Newport is a computer scientist and a tenured professor at Georgetown University. He started his academic career at Dartmouth College and got a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. Soon after, he began teaching computer science at Georgetown University.

Newport is the author of six books. His work looks at how to work and succeed as a student and a professional. More recently, his research looks at how digital technology and culture can support or interfere with the way people are able to focus on work.

Some of the ideas that Newport has developed include career capital as shared in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, distraction-free deep work needed for the knowledge sectors, and minimizing your time using and dependence on digital technologies.


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