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Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

sogoodtheycantignoreyouSo Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport (2012) is a book which books the trend of a great many business books.

You can’t read a self help book or self development blog or even listen to a motivational speech (such as Steve Jobs at Stanford ) without hearing the phrase ‘Follow you passion’.

However, Cal suggests that this is less practical advice than you may initially believe.  Indeed without significant experience and skill in an area, your passion could leave you falling short of your potential and in some cases on the bread line.

There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Very few people at a young age know enough about life to choose something to be really passionate about.
  2. This that do are invariably wrong about where their passion lies.


Cal Newport’s book is an alternative view of how to have a rewarding career and become successful.  In writing this book,  the author has reviewed a large number of notable careers and has identified a key tenet of career success. That is, in many cases, it is more about working right, rather than finding the right work that creates successful careers.

So to achieve true work satisfaction you should learn to love what you do, not do what you think you love. Find passion in what you are good at rather than pick something you like and then attempt to turn it into your career.  You will be able to find people who have turned a passion into a career but it is the exception rather than the rule.  Jobs himself spent many years ‘in the wilderness’ searching for something and finally came to Apple, not as a technologist but as a leader of the company.  Job’s passion was not leading companies, but when he was good enough and practised enough, Apple could’t ignore him.

In illustrating this and a series of other points, the book explores what Cal Newport identifies as 4 rules:

Rule #1: Don’t follow your passion 

Focus on doing what you do really well and exploring many options until such times as you find what career your skills and strengths align to. Then pursue that career with passion. This is the approach that the great Steve Jobs followed.

Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is to follow your passion.

Self-determination and the intrinsic motivation for work comes from three factors:

  1. – autonomy – feeling of control over your actions is important.
  2. – competence – belief that you are good at what you do.
  3. – relatedness – a feeling of connection with others.

Rule #2: Importance of skill (Be so good they can’t ignore you) 

This is a direct quote from the comedian Steve Martin on how he became successful. He focused on becoming so good no-one could ignore him. But what is great work?

Cal Newport suggests that there are 3 things that define great work are:

  • creativity
  • impact
  • control

To become invaluable ( what Seth Godin calls a Linchpin) does takes time.

Look to develop skills that are rare and valuable. There are studies that suggest 10, 000 hours of deliberate practise is invaluable.

It is more than just showing up, this level of excellence is work hard. You will need to develop a craftsmen’s mindset and focus on continual improvement in a field where it is possible to become remarkable and distinguished.

Rule #3: Importance of control 

Having control in your career increases your personal sense of happiness, engagement and fulfilment.

But Cal suggests there are 2 Control Traps:

  1. Its always dangerous to pursue more control in your life before you have sufficient career capital support that pursuit.
  2. With sufficient career capital to gain control your employer will block your efforts.

Be aware of, prepared for and able to react to these 2 traps.

Rule #4: Importance of Mission (Think small, act big) 

A mission without career capital is not meaningful. Cal Newport suggests a mission needs to be:

  • Achievable in small steps.
  • Marketable to inspire people.

In summary, Cal Newport suggests that we must find rare and valuable skills that we are good at, and adopt a craftsman mindset to . We should then  use the leverage gained to obtain more control over our working life. Finally, we explore the boundaries of our field to find a motivating mission, which acts as a unifying focus for your career. This gives us the closest to an ideal working life:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Dare to Aspire

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