Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

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Over the last few days, I have spent some of my time reading and reviewing the fantastic work of  Cal Newport and his book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore you’. At just over 200 pages, the book is a quick and easy read.

Throughout the book, Newport cleverly and neatly introduces four simple rules that he believes will lead us all to successful and fulfilling careers. Of course, many of us believe that rules are made to be broken, but I think these might be some rules you’ll want to follow very closely.

Rule 1) Don’t follow your passion
(its bad advice)

This first rule introduced by Newport grabbed my attention immediately. A refreshing and interesting view, Newport confidently slates and dismisses the passion hypothesis, a ‘FAD’ and safe belief that argues that ‘the key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job to match this passion’.

Giving the perfect example of how Steve Jobs was never passionate about computers to begin with (he was actually profoundly passionate about Zen Buddhism), Newport explains that passion is not only rare but that it takes time and is a side effect of mastery.

In short, the first rule proposes that believing the perfect job is out there can often lead to confusion and unhappiness when the harsh reality of life hits and we realize that it’s not there. Newport’s solution? Don’t follow your passion.

Rule 2) Be so good they can’t ignore you
(the importance of skill)

So, if rule one explicitly tells us not to follow our passions, then what exactly should we do?

Well, Newport leaves nothing unanswered in this well written book. He explains, by demonstrating through an array of examples, that we need to develop rare and valuable skills in order to be successful. We all need to find something we’re good at and do just that.

These unique skills are referred to ‘career capital’, which is anything that puts you in a better position to have a large social impact in the long term.

Newport notions that there are two types of career capital acquisition. One is ‘passion’, which purely focuses on what the world has to offer you. The second is craftsman, which focuses on what you have to offer the world.

Newport urges us to adopt the craftsman mindset and treat our job like a craft. Giving examples from famous musicians, Newport demonstrates the importance of deliberate practice. The idea that we all have to deliberately stretch our abilities beyond where we feel comfortable and receive feedback on these abilities. This deliberative practice allows us all to develop skills that make us so good that we can’t be ignored…

Rule 3) Turn down a promotion
(the importance of control)

Leading on from rule two, the obvious question is once we have enough career capital, what do we do with it? Well… you invest it into traits that define great work.

Newport proposes that control is one of the most important targets for our investment of our skills and value. If you think about all your dream jobs, you’ll probably find that having control is at the forefront.

However, Newport notes that acquiring control is perhaps a little complicated and notes two key control traps:

The first is that many of us do not gain something valuable to offer in return for control. Newport argues, and I agree, that we cannot obtain control of our career if we do not have something valuable to offer in return. You hear of hundreds of people quitting their jobs to start new and exciting career adventures and then failing. Why? Well, because they have no value to offer (no career capital) to keep control over their newly found career venture.

This leads nicely on to his ‘law of financial viability’ that states that we must offer something that people are willing to pay for. When you look at successful people who take career risks, you’ll notice that these ‘risks’ aren’t actually that risky. They are moving onto things that they know people will pay for.

The second control trap is that control creates resistance. 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 that your current employer will try to prevent (resist) you from making this change. Think about it, having more control (e.g., a pay rise, more days off, leave, leaving) does not benefit your employer and based on this, Newport notions that you should expect employers to resist control.

 Rule 4) Think small, act big
(the importance of mission)

Newport ends his book on his perhaps weakest and most unoriginal argument: that finding a mission in your work can lead to ‘great satisfaction’.

Newport promotes that to construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers… mission being one of these traits.

To be honest, after having my mind blown by Newport’s refreshing view on working life, I ended this chapter with a sigh, thinking “you don’t say Newport, I could’ve told you 200 pages ago that having a mission and purpose in your work is guaranteed to make your career more enjoyable”.

Yet, Newport continues to promote interesting ideas. The first is that a mission must be capital driven, in a sense, you can’t skip straight into a great mission without having mastery in your field.

Second, great career missions require ‘little bet’s’. This means to develop a mission; we must take small steps that give us concrete feedback and that finding a mission itself isn’t worth much if you can’t go after it. Instead, missions are transformed into great successes as the result of using small and achievable projects.

His third and final idea is that missions require marketing. That is, to succeed, good missions should obey Seth Godin’s ‘Purple Cow’ law of marketing: they should be so remarkable so as to compel people to share it with others. Newport thinks that compelling missions are more likely to be noticed, and therefore you’re more likely to be successful.

What did it teach me personally?

This book actually refreshed my view and my mindset of what work should be like. For years now, I have found myself struggling because I wasn’t sure what I was passionate enough about to turn into a career. Sure, I like a lot of things: sport, baking and socializing, to name a few. But I couldn’t grasp how to turn this into ‘meaningful’ work. I mean, I love animals, I’m sure we all do (unless you’re a psychopath), but we can’t all become vets… it’s unrealistic.

However, after reading Newport’s book, I feel content in the idea that I need to find my niche; something I’m good at, and just focus on that. Like everyone else, I need to develop skills and values before I can gain control and mission in my career.

Apart from the fourth and final chapter being seemingly obvious, my only other criticism is that Newport presents many relevant positive and negative stories of career success throughout his book. However, nearly every negative story appears to focus on a woman and most positive stories are about males. Although I am sure not intentional, it was a recurring thought I had throughout the entirety of the book,

To conclude, Newport’s book drew me in. I think his book is not only well written and concise, but I also find it novel, refreshing and realistic. I would recommend this book to anyone who feels they are stuck in a ‘rut’, trying to figure out what to do with their lives or searching to find meaning in their careers.

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