So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport: Book Summary & Notes

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


When it comes to finding work you love, “follow your passion” is bad advice. Desirable jobs require rare and valuable skills. To develop these rare and valuable skills, you should adopt a craftsman’s mindset. The craftsman’s mindset focuses on deliberate practice unlike the passion mindset which focuses on outcome.


If you want a good job (which isn’t necessarily defined by money), many others probably want it too. Thus, it is rare. To be worthy of this job, you have to develop a rare skill set that people are willing to pay for. In other words, you have to get So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

There are four rules to the So Good They Can’t Ignore You ‘methodology’.

  1. Don’t Follow Your Passion
  2. Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Or, the Importance of Skill)
  3. Turn Down a Promotion (Or, the Importance of Control)
  4. Think Small, Act Big (Or, the Importance of Mission)

Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

Conventional wisdom tells you to follow your passion to find work you love. This is bad advice. It leads to shiny object syndrome which keeps people from investing the time and effort necessary to develop a real passion. If you constantly think the grass is greener on the other side, why would you bother watering your own lawn?

If Steve Jobs followed his own advice, Apple probably wouldn’t exist today. In a commencement speech he gave at Stanford, his lesson to the graduates could be boiled down to three words: follow your passion. Ironically, Jobs wasn’t following his passion when he started Apple Computer. In college, he showed little inclination towards technology or even business. Instead, he was regarded as the “campus hippie.” Apple started as a small opportunity to make money. As it grew, so did Steve Jobs’ passion for the business. It was not the other way around. He did not find his passion and pursue it. He pursued his interests and opportunities until he developed a passion for them. Watch what he did, not what he said.

Passion for one’s career isn’t reserved for a handful of jobs like doctors, teachers, and humanitarians. According to a study done by Dr. Wrzesniewski, whether or not a person considers their job a calling is not correlated to the nature of the job itself but is instead linked to how long they’ve been working at their job. The longer you work a job, the better you get at it. When you’re good at what you do, it’s much more fulfilling.

Passion comes from mastery. Mastery takes time to develop. Thus, passion takes time to develop.

…it takes time to build the competence and autonomy that generates this enjoyment.

Self-Determination Theory states that there are three factors that motivate people in their work.

  1. Autonomy – Do you have control over what you do?
  2. Competence – Are you good at what you do?
  3. Relatedness – Do you feel connected with the people you work with?

Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Some general traits that define great work are creativity, impact, and control. The jobs that embody these characteristics are rare and valuable. If you want to be hired to do great work, you need to acquire career capital.

Career Capital can be defined as the rare and valuable skill set you can offer the world in exchange for work you love.

One way to acquire career capital is by leveraging the Craftsman’s Mindset. This mindset focuses on deliberate practice. Deliberate practice involves stretching past your comfort zone, seeking ruthless feedback, and pushing yourself to improve.

Deliberate practice is widely used in sports and music, but most people don’t yet know how to apply it to knowledge work. Thus, if you do, you’ll have a huge leg up over your peers.

The difference between people who are good at what they do and people who are great at what they do is deliberate practice.

Once you have built up career capital by becoming good at something, you should invest that capital into the traits that make work enjoyable (autonomy, competence, relatedness).

Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion

People who have control over their work are happier, more engaged, and more fulfilled. As stated in Rule #1, autonomy is one of three key factors that motivate people to do their best work. In fact, it might be the most important of the three. Accordingly, it is wise to invest career capital into gaining more control over your work. If you’re not careful, however, you could fall into one of two control traps.

Control Trap #1: Trying to gain more control before you have enough career capital to back up your economic worth.

Control is powerful, and it’s worth investing in, but you need something valuable to exchange for it i.e. career capital. The trap is trying to gain control over your career before you have built the rare and valuable skill set that allows you to command such a benefit. As Newport puts it, “Control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable.”

Control Trap #2: By building up career capital, you will inevitably become so valuable to your employer(s) that they will fight your bid for autonomy. The trap is giving in.

Whenever you try to invest career capital into obtaining more control, you will almost always face resistance. People will think you’re crazy for choosing more control over career advancement or more free time over money. Your boss will likely be hesitant to give in to your demands of more time off or a better schedule, but you have to push past this resistance. The prioritization of control is not a traditional path, and most people like to maintain the status quo. Don’t be like most people.

The Law of Financial Liability: In order to determine if a new pursuit will give you more control over work, find out if people are willing to pay for it. If so, proceed. If not, don’t.

Rule #4: Think Big, Act Small

Work that has a mission is much more satisfying than work without a mission. This probably comes as no surprise, but a big part of being happy in your career is knowing that what you do has an impact on something greater than yourself. What people often fail to consider, however, is that missions require career capital to be sustainable.

A lot of the career advice being thrown around today tells you to first decide on a mission, then begin building your career. If you want a lasting, meaningful mission, this advice is backward. A good career mission is found when you’ve built enough career capital to be on the cutting edge of your field. When you’re first starting out your career, you don’t know nearly enough to come up with a viable mission statement. In other words, you don’t yet have enough expertise to know what is worth pursuing.

When you’re in the process of building career capital, it’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed. Remember, the best career missions require experience. Acquiring experience takes time. If you want to find a mission that matters, be patient, and pursue your curiosities.

Once you build up enough career capital to identify a compelling mission, you still have to figure out how to practically implement the mission. The best way to do this is to take “little bets.” This allows you to course-correct if a small risk doesn’t work out, and further pursue the bets that do.

Law of Remarkability: Missions are transformed into successes when they’re built on ideas that are remarkable i.e. people are inspired to talk about them.

If you want your mission-driven project to take off, you have to build things worth noticing. People won’t pay attention to the boring stuff. Do interesting things in spaces where they can be noticed.

Final Thoughts

So Good They Can’t Ignore You offers hope to people who don’t currently have a burning passion for something. It is a tangible strategy that can be applied to almost every industry and every job. If you want to find work you love, start building career capital wherever you’re at right now. Deliberate practice, patience, and a little humility will take you far on the journey toward a meaningful career.