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

Cal Newport So Good They Can’t Ignore You (2012) is one of the must-read books I recommend for anyone who feels lost at work, has a career dilemma, and is unsure whether to follow their passion or do what pays. 

Over the years, passion is popularly known as one of the main drivers of career growth. People say if you want to lead a fulfilling and successful career, you have to follow your passion. There is a popular hypothesis that says you need to figure out what you are passionate about and then find a job that matches your passion. It is easier said than done, indeed. Many studies have reported that the concept of following your passion has gained a bad rep because it causes chronic job-hopping & anxiety for a lot of people. In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport challenges the idea by saying that “follow your passion” is terrible career advice.

If following your passion is bad advice, what should you do instead?

Adopt the Craftsman Mindset (not Passion Mindset)

In his book, Newport introduces two different perspectives on how people think about their working life. The first is the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, and the second is the passion mindset, which focuses on what the world can offer you. 

Newport argues that regardless of how we feel about our job right now, adopting the craftsman mindset will be the foundation on which we build a compelling career. The craftsman mindset is when we treat our jobs as a craft: which is, focus on gaining rare and valuable skills (later he referred to as career capital) and use those skills as leverage in defining our career. 

In other words, skills, exposure, and experience come first and then passion follows. 

Define What’s Really Valuable in Your Field

What’s one skill you have that other people don’t? People in business often refer to this as an ‘unfair advantage’. In the journey of acquiring our career capital, we have to understand what makes us unique and what kind of expertise we need to pursue the work we love. 

Newport believes these five steps can help us get started in achieving the goals of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”:

  1. Decide What Capital Market You’re In. There are two kinds of career capital markets: winner-take-all or auction markets. Winner-take-all is the market where one type of skill matters e.g. writer, musician, artists. Newport gives an example of television writing as a winner-take-all market because what matters the most is our ability to write good scripts. So all you have to do is to refine that one skill. On the other side, the auction market is less structured. You may have to own different types of capital which makes you generate your unfair advantage e.g expertise in the tech industry market. 
  2. Identify Your Capital Type. Once you decide on the market, you should identify the specific type of capital to pursue. For winner-take-all, you can only choose one type of capital. People often refer to this as a ‘niche’, so if you’re a writer then what kind of writer? (e.g. scriptwriter, ghostwriter, content writer, etc). While for those in auction markets, it is more flexible. Newport suggests seeking open gates of opportunities. Think of it as skills acquisition, each move that you take should give you leverage to the work you love.
  3. Define “Good” a.k.a clear goals. If you are in sales, the definition of “good” is very clear: how much money you make to the business. Or in Newport’s example: the scriptwriter’s definition of “good” is when the script is being taken seriously. Be clear about what you considered as “good” for your career.
  4. Stretch and Destroy. Get out of your comfort zone and seek criticism/feedback from others. You may think that you’re good in one industry or role, but your opinion isn’t what counts. It’s tempting to claim that you’re an expert, yet oftentimes this assumption of yours could stop you from making real progress. So rather than thinking you’re the smartest, be humble enough to seek feedback from others even if it is harsh.
  5. Be Patient. Look years into the future for the payoff. The journey of being so good is indeed uncomfortable & frustrating, yet you have to be optimistic enough to believe it will be fruitful sooner or later. Once you know what your goal is, it’s easier for you to take control of what’s best for your pursuit of career — including ignoring other sets of opportunities that pop up along the way to distract you. 

If you’re feeling stuck, uninspired, and lost at work, perhaps it’s time to change your strategy by following the above 5-steps from Newport. At the same time, if right now you feel not uncomfortable, then probably you’re stuck at an ‘acceptable’ level (which is not good). 

Just because you feel that you’re an expert or being in a higher position in an organization, it doesn’t mean that you’ll instantly have autonomy and control over others. The truth: it is hard to convince people to do what you want unless you show results & skills. So the only way to obtain the control you seek is by offering career capital in return. 

On Finding Mission

Newport begins his book with its passion hypothesis and ends it with the importance of finding a mission which I find a bit counterintuitive. Yet, it’s worth the discussion though. Well, considering lots of people obsess over finding a career mission in the early stages of their career journey. If you want to identify a mission, you have to acquire career capital. 

To maximize our chances of being so good at what we do, we have to show a willingness to learn and get feedback/criticism from others. 

And to turn our (maybe-later-to-be-found) mission into action, we have to pursue it in a way that will lead others to follow us. When it comes to pursuing a mission, it’s all about pursuing it together that matters the most to make real change. Otherwise, not owning one may probably be fine also. 

So Good They Can’t Ignore You offers us perspective on why skills trump passion in the quest for work you love. Whether or not you believe in the concept of passion/mission which is abstract, I find Newport’s main idea on acquiring career capital is quite an eye-opening and worth to follow.

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