So Good They Can’t Ignore You Summary

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So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport
Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

My Thoughts

This book has valuable thoughts for anyone in college, just out of college, wanting to quit their job and follow their passion, or just uncertain about their career in general.

If you like this, I recommend reading Deep Work, which is one of my favorite books read in the past several years.

My Favorite Quotes

  • You need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.
  • Discomfort with discomfort is a liability.
  • If you are not uncomfortable, you are probably stuck at an acceptable level.

Key Questions

  • Why do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal?
  • How do people end up loving what they do?
  • Why do some people enjoy their work while so many other people don’t?
  • How can I be really good?
  • What makes a great job great?
  • How can you tell if resistance is useful?
  • How do you make mission a reality in your working life?


Cal became obsessed with this question: Why do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal?

The conventional wisdom of “follow your passion” is seriously flawed. If this is bad advice, what should I do instead?

You need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.

You should quest to become “so good they can’t ignore you.”

Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

Chapter 1: The “Passion” of Steve Jobs

Cal questions the validity of the Passion Hypothesis which states that the key to vocational happiness is to match your job to your passion.

The passion hypothesis raises a lot of questions:

  • How do we find work that we’ll eventually love?
  • Like Steve Jobs, should we resist settling into one rigid career and instead try lots of small schemes, waiting for one to take off?
  • Does it matter what general field we explore?
  • How do we know when to stick with a project or when to move on?
  • What really matters for creating work you love?

Chapter 2: Passion is Rare

The more you seek examples of the passion hypothesis, the more you recognize its rarity.

Cal suggests exploring some of the free documentaries and interviews at Road Trip Nation.

People often stumble into their passion.

The Science of Passion

Why do some people enjoy their work while so many other people don’t?

There are many complex reasons for workplace satisfaction. The notion of matching your job to a pre-existing passion is not among them.

Three conclusions of social science research in workplace satisfaction:

  1. Career passions are rare.
  2. Passion takes time.
  3. Passion is a side effect of mastery.

People think about their work in one of three distinct ways:

  1. A job – a way to pay the bills.
  2. A career – a path towards increasingly better work.
  3. A calling – work that is an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity.

The type of work alone does not indicate how much people enjoy it.

In one survey, the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years on the job.

Self Determination Theory tells us that motivation in the workplace requires that you fulfill three basic psychological needs.

  1. Autonomy
  2. Competence
  3. Relatedness

Working right trumps finding the right work.

Chapter 3: Passion is Dangerous

Subscribing to the passion hypothesis can make you less happy.

If you search Google’s Ngram viewer for “follow your passion” you will see a big spike upward in modern times.

Following your passion for a career works only for a small sample size of highly talented people such as athletes.

The passion hypothesis convinces people that there is a magic right job waiting for them. This leads to chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.

Without the passion hypothesis to guide us, what should we do instead?

This is the question Cal Newport takes up in the three rules that follow. These rules chronicle his quest to figure out how people really end up loving what they do.

Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Or, the Importance of Skill)

Chapter 4: The Clarity of the Craftsman

Two different approaches to thinking about work:

  1. The Craftsman Mindset – Focus on what value you are producing in your job.
  2. The Passion Mindset – Focus on what value your job offers you.

The Craftsman Mindset

The craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world.

Cal Newport was introduced to this concept while watching an interview with Steve Martin on the Charlie Rose show in 2007. When asked how to make it in show business, Steve Martin said the secret is to “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Instead of focusing on little unimportant details, focus instead on becoming better.
Focus on the question: “How can I be really good?”

Cal started a habit of tracking his monthly hours spent dedicated to thinking hard about research problems. In the month he wrote this chapter, he dedicated 42 hours to these tasks. This helps him focus on the quality of what he produces.

Adopting the craftsman mindset is crucial for building a career you love.

The Passion Mindset

The passion mindset focuses on what the world can offer you.

Two reasons that Cal dislikes the passion mindset:
(beyond that fact that it is based on a false premise)

  1. When you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyper-aware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness.
  2. The deep questions driving the passion mindset: “Who am I?” and “What do I truly love?” are essentially impossible to confirm.

The passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused.

Adopting the Craftsman Mindset

Focus on what you can offer the world. This offers clarity.
You shouldn’t just envy the craftsman mindset, you should emulate it.
Put your head down and focus on becoming so good they can’t ignore you.
Nobody owes you a great career; you need to earn it.
Regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer.

Chapter 5: The Power of Career Capital

What makes a great job great?
The traits that make a great job great are rare and valuable.
If you want a great job, you need to build up rare and valuable skills.
Cal calls these skills “career capital.”

The Economics of Great Jobs

This chapter uses Steve Jobs, Ira Glass, and Al Merrick of Channel Island Surfboards as examples.

Traits that define great work:

  1. Creativity
  2. Impact
  3. Control

How do you get these traits in your own working life?
If you want a great job, you need something of great value to offer in return.

The Career Capital Theory of Great Work

  • The traits that define great work are rare and valuable.
  • The law of supply and demand says that if you want these traits, you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return.
  • Think of these rare and valuable skills you can offer as your “career capital.”

You need to get good in order to get good things in life.
Great work requires skills, courage alone is not enough.
Cal uses the example of Joe Duffy, founder of Duffy & Partners.

The passion mindset is not just ineffective for creating work you love, in many cases it can work against this goal.

When Craftsmanship Fails

Traits that disqualify a job as providing a foundation for building work you love.

Three disqualifiers for applying the craftsman mindset:

  1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or even actively bad for the world.
  3. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

Working right trumps finding the right work.

Chapter 6: The Career Capitalist

This chapter discusses the careers of two “career capitalists.”

  • Alex Berger (Writer and Television Producer)
  • Mike Jackson (Venture Capitalist)

Valuable skills = valuable opportunities

Mike tracks every hour of his day in 1/4 hour increments. He limits himself to 90 minutes of email every day. (There are more specifics about this in chapter 7)

Chapter 7: The Becoming a Craftsman

Discomfort with discomfort is a liability.
Dedicate yourself to constantly stretching your abilities.
Seek to receive immediate feedback.

How to Become a Grandmaster

Cal references the role of deliberate practice in chess expertise by Neil Charness.
In comparing serious study versus tournament play, grandmasters spent 5x more time in serious study than other players who had studied for 10,000 hours.

Cal quotes Malcolm Gladwell’s summary of the 10,000-hour rule from his Outlier’s book.

A lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice is the key to excellence.

Most individuals change their behavior at work for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level of performance, then they stop improving.
If you just show up and work hard, you will soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you get any better.

If you are a knowledge worker and can figure out a way to incorporate deliberate practice into your own life, you have the possibility of blowing past your peers in your value.

Mike Jackson’s Schedule
As discussed in chapter 6, Mike Jackson is a venture capitalist and he tracks every hour of his day in 15-minute increments on a spreadsheet.

Two categories:

  1. Hard to change (weekly commitments he can’t avoid)
  2. Highly changeable (self-directed activities he controls)

Weekly work hour allocation for hard to change commitments:

  • Email: 7.5 hours
  • Lunch, breaks, other: 4 hours
  • Planning and organization: 1.5 hours
  • Partner meeting: 4 hours
  • Weekly fundraising meeting: 1 hour

Weekly work hour allocation for highly changeable commitments:

  • Improving fundraising materials: 3 hours
  • Fundraising process: 12 hours
  • Due-diligence research: 3 hours
  • Deal-flow sourcing: 3 hours
  • Meetings, calls with potential investors: 1 hour
  • Work with portfolio companies: 2 hours
  • Networking, professional development: 3 hours

Mike’s goal with the spreadsheet is to become more intentional about how is workday unfolds.

The Five Habits of a Craftsman

  1. Decide what capital market you are competing in
  2. Identify your capital type
  3. Define “good”
  4. Stretch and destroy (deliberate practice that stretches you past your comfort zone)
  5. Be patient

Two types of career capital markets:

  1. Winner take all
  2. Auction

Seek open gates: opportunities to build capital that are already open to you.
Open gates get you further faster.
Deliberate practice requires clear goals.
If you are not uncomfortable, you are probably stuck at an acceptable level.

Patience involves the willingness to ignore other pursuits in building career capital.

Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion (Or, the Importance of Control)

Chapter 8: The Dream-Job Elixir

Cal argues that control over what you do, and how you do it, is one of the most powerful traits you can acquire when creating work you love.

This chapter uses the story of Ryan and Sarah Voiland, founders of Red Fire Farm as an example.

Ryan did not “follow his passion” into farming, he stumbled into his profession and found that his passion for the work increased along with his expertise.

Control is one of the most appealing aspects of a career.

Control is the dream-job elixir.
Control is one of the most important traits you can pursue in the quest for a happier, more successful, and more meaningful life. This is backed up by decades of scientific research.

According to the book Drive by Dan Pink, more control leads to:

  • Better grades
  • Better sports performance
  • Better productivity
  • More happiness

Giving people more control over what they do, and how they do it, increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.

See the studies on ROWE (Results Only Work Environment).

To summarize, if your goal is to love what you do:

  1. Step 1: acquire career capital
  2. Step 2: invest this capital in the traits that define great work.

Control is one of the most important targets you can choose for this investment.
Acquiring control can be complicated.
This is why the author has dedicated the remainder of rule number three to this goal.

Chapter 9: The First Control Trap

The first control trap warns that it is dangerous to pursue more control in your working life before you have career capital to offer in exchange.

Control Requires Capital

Control that is acquired without career capital is not sustainable.

Enthusiasm alone is not rare and valuable.

Even after you have the career capital required to acquire real control, things remain difficult. It is exactly at this point that people begin to recognize your value and start pushing back to keep you entrenched in a less autonomous path.

Chapter 10: The Second Control Trap

The second control trap warns that once you have enough career capital to acquire more control in your working life, you have become valuable enough to your employer that they will fight your efforts to gain more autonomy.

Control Generates Resistance

Control generates resistance from employers, friends, and family.

The irony of control: when no one cares what you do with your working life, you probably don’t have enough career capital to do anything interesting. But once you do have this capital, you become valuable enough that your employer will resist your efforts.

The second control trap: the point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life is exactly the point when you become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change.

Your employer has every incentive to convince you to reinvest your career capital back into their company, obtaining more money and prestige instead of more control.

Courage Revisited

Courage is not irrelevant to creating the work you love.
The key is to know when the time is right to become courageous in your career decisions.

Chapter 11: Avoiding the Control Traps

The law of financial viability: you should only pursue a bid for more control if you have evidence that what you do is something that people are willing to pay you for.

This chapter focuses on Derek Sivers and his approach to life. Derek’s work and life story are inspiring, you can read more about him here.

Cal reference’s Derek’s TED Talk on How to Start a Movement, here is the video:

Through talking with Derek, Cal came up with the law of financial viability.
Derek’s advice is:
Do what people are willing to pay for.
Money is a neutral indicator of value.
By aiming to make money, you are aiming to be valuable.

How can you tell if resistance is useful?
If people are willing to pay for what you’re doing and it is valuable, the resistance you are facing is an obstacle to be overcome.

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big (Or, the Importance of Mission)

Chapter 12: The Meaningful Life of Pardis Sabeti

Cal argues that a unifying mission to your life can be a source of great satisfaction.

To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career. It is more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions.

Missions are powerful because they focus your energy towards a useful goal. This in-turn maximizes your impact on your world, a crucial factor in loving what you do.

How do you make mission a reality in your working life?

A mission launched without career capital is likely to sputter and die.
Career capital alone is not enough to make mission a reality.
Plenty of people are good at what they do but haven’t reoriented their careers in a compelling direction.

Hardness scares of the daydreamers and the timid, leaving more opportunities for those who are willing to take the time to work out the best path forward and then confidently take action.

Chapter 13: Missions Require Capital

Cal argues that a mission chosen before you have relevant career capital is not likely to be sustainable.

Big ideas are almost always discovered in the “adjacent possible.” A term used to describe the spontaneous formation of complex chemical structures from simpler structures.

The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge in the “adjacent space” that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas.

The reason important discoveries often happen multiple times is that they only become possible once they enter the adjacent possible.

Understanding the adjacent possible and its role in innovation is the first link in a chain of argument that explains how to identify a good career mission.

The Capital Driven Mission

Breakthroughs require that you first get to the cutting edge of your field, only then can you see to the adjacent possible beyond – the space where innovative ideas are almost always discovered.

A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough. It is an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. The cutting edge is the only place where these missions become visible.

Mission is another example of career capital theory in action. If you want a mission, you need to first acquire capital.

You must think small and act big. Advancing to the cutting edge in a field is an act of small thinking, requiring you to focus on a narrow collection of subjects for a potentially long time.

Once you get to the cutting edge and discover a mission in the adjacent possible, you must go after it with zeal, a big action.

Chapter 14: Missions Require Little Bets

Cal argues that great missions are transformed into great successes as the result of using small and achievable projects, little bets, to explore the concrete possibilities surrounding a compelling idea.

Many people have lots of career capital and can identify a variety of different potential missions for their work, but few actually build their career around such missions.

How do you make the leap from identifying a realistic mission to succeeding in making it a reality?

Little bets are important. To maximize your chances of success you should deploy small concrete experiments that return concrete feedback.

Chapter 15: Missions Require Marketing

Cal argues that great missions are transformed into great successes as the result of finding projects that satisfy the law of remarkability.

You’re either remarkable or invisible. -Seth Godin quote from Purple Cow

Remarkable marketing is the art of building things worth noticing.

The Law of Remarkability
For a mission-driven project to succeed it should be remarkable in two ways, 1) it must compel people to remark about it to others and 2) it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.

Related Book Summaries

Hope you enjoyed this and got value from my notes.
This is the 25th book read in my 2020 reading list.
Here is a list of my book summaries.

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3 thoughts on “So Good They Can’t Ignore You Summary

  1. Just read the book, writing up my notes and looking around for a resource with the highlights. You have the best review online, thanks!

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