Are you wondering how to find work you love?

Or, at the least, a meaningful career? Or a sense of fulfillment in your working life?

If so, I highly recommend you read, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, by Cal Newport, an excellent book for those seeking career advice.

 

On this page, I want to share with you a brief summary of the book as well as some of my favorite quotes and takeaways if you are interesting a digesting this read in a more bite-sized fashion.

Let’s get to it.

What’s this book about? A Brief Summary of So Good They Can’t Ignore You

A quote from Steve Martin, one of the “Three Amigos,” was the inspiration for the title of Newport’s book. In a 2007 interview on the Charlie Rose show, Martin shared about what it’s been like, his ascension into comedic success…Martin claims the advice he gives on replicating a level of success that he achieved is not anything anyone wants to hear.

He said, “Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear…What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ …but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.'” 

Newport’s motivation for this book came from a question he had, “Why do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal?”

And while the title of the book is the answer to the question Cal opens up with, Cal’s walkthrough of his research from studying those who have found “great work,” and the implications of how to find it yourself, are highly insightful and incredibly useful for someone in an existential bout with the question, “what do I do with my life?”

Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, a blogger, and an author of some excellent books, another being Deep Worka book I’ll surely write on later. I highly recommend checking out some of his other books and writing.

What is “Great Work?”

To help with his definition of a “compelling career,” Cal calls on author Daniel Pink and references a TED talk of his, where he discusses his book, Drive, and claims that intrinsic motivation for your work comes from three things; autonomy (having control over what you do), competence (feeling you are good at what you do), and relatedness (feeling connection to those you work with).

And Newport argues that these sorts of “compelling careers,” often have “complex origins.” That being, developing a career that deeply serves those three characteristics mentioned by Pink, doesn’t just happen. Those types of careers are earned, cultivated and shaped over time. And, the overall arguement of Cal’s book, is that that type of career, can come to you faster, and with more certainty, if you pursue developing valuable skills (those valuable to the market you are in), above all else.

The takeaways I’ll share below will help walk you through how Cal builds this argument throughout his book.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Quotes, Takeaways, & Lessons

1.  Following your passion is bad advice, “the passion hypothesis”

The first and most important claim Newport feels he should correct is that finding great work comes from first discovering what you are passionate about, and finding work that matches that.

While modern-day media and successful personalities have made this seem to be the case (Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford an example of that), Newport argues that the majority of folks who are successful and love what they do cultivated passion after they developed competence, and, that this “courage culture” being created where young people have to take a ‘chance’ pursuing what they love distorts career expectations and leaves young professionals chronically dissatisfied with their work.

Citing multiple studies, Newport claimed, “…the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.”

If we assume we need to follow a pre-existing passion to find work we love, we either find nothing that matches such an expectation, or all try to be NBA stars (as for much of my life, basketball was the only thing I would say I was passionate about).

2. Get Good, to Get “Better” Work

Cal claims that better work is rare, and highly valuable. And, in turn, to find it we ourselves need to develop skills that are rare, and valuable. Cal calls these skills “career capital,” your currency with which you accumulate and leverage to find work opportunities that are increasingly more attractive. The more skillful you become, the more diverse career opportunities you’ll have.

To develop these valuable skills, Cal encourages us to develop what he calls the “craftsman mindset.” This is an approach to your work where you focus on the quality of work you are producing, and the value you are driving to your organization or the market you are apart of.

He contrasts this with the “passion mindset,” an approach where you focus on what you are getting out of the job you have.

3. Getting Good, Requires an Intentional Effort 

To truly get “so good,” you must apply a concerted effort. While in new positions and roles we inherently learn skills and grow, Cal says it’s important that we avoid a “performance plateau” when we hit a stage of being comfortable with our work. This is why he urges we implement what he calls “deliberate practice” into our work. That being, a deliberate focus at getting better at what we are doing.

4. To Answer a BIG Question like “What should I do with my life?” Start Small 

While we all want to answer that question, especially in our angst-ridden 20s, we must settle with the fact that this particular question may never have a definitive and clear answer.

However, to advance this question, in the last section of the book, Think Small, Act Big, Newport suggests finding a “mission” in our work can help. But to do so, we mustn’t start and finish with some grand vision of providing clean water for everyone on the planet, we must first dip our toes in as to what we could call “little bets.”

These “little bets” being small but significant actions we can take to test if there might be a way to turn a general idea like saving the children, into a mission-driven project.

Through taking small actions as a means for gathering feedback we can see if our idea “passes important tests.”

One of which, Cal introduces with the help of Derek Sivers (author and entrepreneur), is the “Law of Financial Viability.” As Sivers says, money is a “neutral indicator of value,” and to know that someone would pay us for our idea, is an easy way to see, is our idea worth anything?

If no one wants to pay for it, we have an issue.

And, as a final note, Newport reminds us that finding a worthwhile and serious mission takes time. As he found in his research, many successful, highly mission-driven professionals were not able to derive some deep mission until they were at the “cutting edge” of what they were doing. That being, after they had spent years learning and understanding the industry and field of work they were in, they may have finally been able to actually grasp what might be needed of them given their experience.

So as a default, feel very content learning more, pursuing curiosities and using that as fuel to develop highly tangible, rare and valued skills.

1.  Following your passion is bad advice, “the passion hypothesis”

The first and most important claim Newport feels he should correct is that finding great work comes from first discovering what you are passionate about, and finding work that matches that.

While modern-day media and successful personalities have made this seem to be the case (Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford an example of that), Newport argues that the majority of folks who are successful and love what they do cultivated passion after they developed competence, and, that this “courage culture” being created where young people have to take a ‘chance’ pursuing what they love distorts career expectations and leaves young professionals chronically dissatisfied with their work.

Citing multiple studies, Newport claimed, “…the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.”

If we assume we need to follow a pre-existing passion to find work we love, we either find nothing that matches such an expectation, or all try to be NBA stars (as for much of my life, basketball was the only thing I would say I was passionate about).

2. Get Good, to Get “Better” Work

Cal claims that better work is rare, and highly valuable. And, in turn, to find it we ourselves need to develop skills that are rare, and valuable. Cal calls these skills “career capital,” your currency with which you accumulate and leverage to find work opportunities that are increasingly more attractive. The more skillful you become, the more diverse career opportunities you’ll have.

To develop these valuable skills, Cal encourages us to develop what he calls the “craftsman mindset.” This is an approach to your work where you focus on the quality of work you are producing, and the value you are driving to your organization or the market you are apart of.

He contrasts this with the “passion mindset,” an approach where you focus on what you are getting out of the job you have.

3. Getting Good, Requires an Intentional Effort 

To truly get “so good,” you must apply a concerted effort. While in new positions and roles we inherently learn skills and grow, Cal says it’s important that we avoid a “performance plateau” when we hit a stage of being comfortable with our work. This is why he urges we implement what he calls “deliberate practice” into our work. That being, a deliberate focus at getting better at what we are doing.

4. To Answer a BIG Question like “What should I do with my life?” Start Small 

While we all want to answer that question, especially in our angst-ridden 20s, we must settle with the fact that this particular question may never have a definitive and clear answer.

However, to advance this question, in the last section of the book, Think Small, Act Big, Newport suggests finding a “mission” in our work can help. But to do so, we mustn’t start and finish with some grand vision of providing clean water for everyone on the planet, we must first dip our toes in as to what we could call “little bets.”

These “little bets” being small but significant actions we can take to test if there might be a way to turn a general idea like saving the children, into a mission-driven project.

Through taking small actions as a means for gathering feedback we can see if our idea “passes important tests.”

One of which, Cal introduces with the help of Derek Sivers (author and entrepreneur), is the “Law of Financial Viability.” As Sivers says, money is a “neutral indicator of value,” and to know that someone would pay us for our idea, is an easy way to see, is our idea worth anything?

If no one wants to pay for it, we have an issue.

And, as a final note, Newport reminds us that finding a worthwhile and serious mission takes time. As he found in his research, many successful, highly mission-driven professionals were not able to derive some deep mission until they were at the “cutting edge” of what they were doing. That being, after they had spent years learning and understanding the industry and field of work they were in, they may have finally been able to actually grasp what might be needed of them given their experience.

So as a default, feel very content learning more, pursuing curiosities and using that as fuel to develop highly tangible, rare and valued skills.

Conclusion: Following Your Passion is Bad Advice, Instead, Focus on Building Skills. Agree or Disagree?

Finding the right work is overrated. Instead, we should focus on working right as Cal argues and surely, we will be rewarded with better work in due time. And, for the most part, I agree. A simple idea, but highly insightful and helpful at a young age when determining what you should focus your greatest efforts and energies on can be perplexing.

Searching for your “dream job,” with no career capital in your pocket can leave you chronically dissatisfied…good career advice for any.

If you’d like, you can pick up Cal’s book on Amazon.com through this link, here.

What do you think?

Do you agree, or disagree? Let me know in the comments below.