[book review] So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

Constant self-improvement is everybody’s goal. If you are still struggling which self-help book to read, make sure you read this one. Grounded on real life and none of that secret crap, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is based on something real, tangible, and accessible to us normal folk who actually have jobs, don’t have a million dollars, and not part of the “exception”.

For those unfamiliar with Cal Newport when you were in school, then I suggest checking out his website at http://calnewport.com/. I finished university by the time he was writing his study hacks blog, but I saw a number of my interns reading his blog and I can see how effective his techniques are. Even if you’re outside school you can definitely get some tips on his study habits and tackling a similarly academic setup.  Familiarising yourself with his content will give you better context on how he came up with his processes in the book.

Cal Newport has a great summary of the book at his blog. I’ll try to do what he did to himself, using his own book to analyse himself, where he went wrong and where I can improve. I’ll go the rules one by one so that you can see it in action and why I really like this book.

Rule #1: Don’t follow your passion

The book details how follow your passion is bad advice. Follow your passion is something you hear all the time especially when expose yourself to different communities where people can become experts or successful with what they do. We always hear about people taking the plunge and going straight to things they really love like moving to another country (ha!), quitting their day jobs and starting a business or something that is truly out of the ordinary. I would separate this from risk taking as I’m a big believer that calculated risks is part of life, but rather big jumps that make us seem to believe that there is a perfect job out there waiting for us to quit our current ones and take that “dream job”. He calls this the passion hypothesis. The book has several examples on why figuring out our passion before hand is almost impossible or not financially viable. For some reason, a huge percentage of us think that our hobbies or things we enjoy can be made as a career and we sometimes mistake this as a passion in life. Being the practical human beings that we are, we have to take a look at things in a much more different light. Rather than dreaming of somewhere else we can be, we have to assess where we are right now and see how realistic this “passion” really is.

Seeing as where I am right now, I think I got trapped into the passion hypothesis as well. Thinking that a change of scenery would change me perhaps? I’m not really sure… My goal of moving is part of me wanting to live in another country, understanding a different environment, and getting more international experience. However, if I went by the book, there’s still one thing that I didn’t capitalise enough of which is discussed on rule #2.

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

Here he talks about the alternative to passion hypothesis, building career capital. This is my favorite chapter as it’s the most controversial and gives you the alternative to all the follow your passion advice.

Career capital is creating enough money in your personal bank so that your options will open up in the long run, creating a name for yourself with the craft/job/career that you have chosen. The few examples in the book are of a TV writer, a musician, and a venture capitalist. Most of us being knowledge workers, it might not be as clear why he choose those examples, but it’s definitely more relatable than other books. Here he defines the word deliberate practice as a way to continually improve ourselves.

I’ve heard of deliberate practice before and it’s definitely a painful process. However, deliberate practice is such a good way to measure and see if you are actually challenging yourself to keep on improving. For some reason, when I look back a few years ago, I seem to engage in more deliberate practice. Maybe because we grow more comfortable with what we do, that we try not to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. I’m trying to be more conscious now whenever I feel uncomfortable while I’m studying, writing, or any creative endeavour and I easily realise that I’m going through that phase of discomfort.

Studying is a great measurement if we are being uncomfortable enough to know that we are actually learning. Whenever, we study and seem to find the work easy to digest, then probably that is beyond your level. However, whenever we try to dodge or rack our brain, that’s the sign that we’re putting something foreign and is most likely actually learning. It’ll take a long time and it’s a crappy feeling but that’s how you learn. Newport shows several examples of this and it’s great seeing such a feeling being validated.

Deliberate practice creates career capital for oneself. With knowledge workers, where immediate feedback and deliberate practice is not as common, it creates an open field for us to strive for excellence as we can constantly be conscious of what we do with the goal of deliberate practice. This method is much more easy to spot with professions that has immediate feedback like musicians and athletes. However, being a normal knowledge worker doesn’t give us that opportunity to solicit feedback as obvious as other crafts. None the less, knowing where and what to improve is already a step ahead of the majority.

Have I built enough career capital for myself? I would think I did but the reality is different. Building career capital has to be very deliberate and conscious. I did create value, expanded my network, and specialised but career capital has to be more than this. The thing about career capital is it has to be niche and valuable enough. Did what I use to do enough for this? Of course there are more factors to this which will be explored in rules 3 & 4 but this question has been going in my mind more that ever.

Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion

Of course this will make more sense for people who currently have jobs so my interpretation will be different. In our desire to take more control and autonomy, we will usually associate it with a better role in the company. As we continually improve and create more career capital, more people will notice, especially your boss, and a promotion will follow soon. The lesson in this chapter is we should know the right time to advance. Just because we are given a chance to advance doesn’t mean we should take it. A promotion doesn’t necessarily mean more autonomy and definitely doesn’t mean more opportunities to build more career capital. He cited several examples here from different fields and if I look back, I really applaud people who would rather choose more control, autonomy, and challenges than a better title on paper.

I know several people who went through this path and it inspires me more to do the same. Focus on a niche and valuable skill and tough it out.

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big

Having a mission is one of the main points of this book. But with the theme of the book, it’s something that you have to discover for yourself and not built into us.

This is probably the most difficult part of the book as this will take time and a lot of exploration. I’m a big believer that we’re here in the world to find our own purpose. Not find in the sense of finding a rare antique. It will definitely not be there by travelling and doing something extreme like one of those once in a lifetime experience. I think this book sums it up by creating more value in what we do and from there seeing and discovering what our mission can be in life. I like the term “adjacent possible” wherein the big ideas found in any field is new combinations of existing ideas. I think this sums up our great purpose in life especially if you just don’t want to “exist” in this world. To be honest, this will be a lifelong struggle for me as I search and create more value for myself. My move to Japan is part of my goal to learn more about the world, in a very slow way. I’m the type of traveller who really wants to live in a country and not just be there.

If there’s a part of this book that will be the hardest to ingest, it would be rule 4.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You will be part of my re-read list as it does a good job of reminding us how we should continually improve ourselves and not be trapped into this passion hypothesis. Reading this book definitely reminds me of Linchpin by Seth Godin in a different sense. It surely reminds me of the Survivorship Bias article at youarenotsosmart.com which makes his thinking more palatable and acceptable in this day in age of mediocracy.

We live in such a great era that opportunities are made and not presented to us. The more value we create for ourselves the more opportunities open up. This book has definitely got me thinking of how to approach our lives in a way where we are not directed by our imaginary desires and our magical passions that a dream job exists out there. Survivorship bias is a reminder on why the law of averages exists and why we only hear about heroes.

The courage culture bug definitely hit me and maybe I did move too soon to Japan without creating as much career capital as I can. In the theme of the book, I won’t say how much I love taking risks and challenges but this is one of the reasons.

If you are at the stage of your life questioning your job daily and why you are doing what you are doing, (which a quick look at my FB feeds says majority of you) then I would definitely recommend this book. Much more approachable and realistic than your typical self help crap, So Good They Can’t Ignore You will definitely be up there in my recommended list.

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One Comment on “[book review] So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love”

  1. Enjoyed the read — thanks for the piece! Follow the money of which will give us passion *grin*


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