Notes on

So Good They Can't Ignore You

by Cal Newport

If you want happiness, it's not enough to answer "what should I do with my life?".

Following your passion does not work.

What makes a job great is having something rare and valuable to offer in return. You need to be good at something before you can expect a good job in return.

Be, as Steve Martin says, "so good they can't ignore you".

Rule #1: Don't Follow Your Passion

Follow your passion is terrible advice.

Steve Jobs, in a commencement speech, told the students to find their passion. But that's not what he did himself. He surely grew passionate, but it didn't start that way.

It takes time to get good at something. Ira Glass: "The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that's the hardest phase".

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

It's also rare that we have a passion about something that we'd usually see as a career. We're usually passionate about soccer or other sports.

The type of work we do alone does not necessarily predict how much we enjoy it.

A strong predictor is years spent on the job. More work experience = more likely to enjoy job.

Being passionate about what you do comes from being around long enough to become good at what you do.

Self Determination Theory (SDT) says that motivation comes from three basic psychological needs:

  • Autonomy - feeling of control
  • Competence - feeling that you're good at what you do
  • Relatedness - connection to other people

Notice how it didn't include a "pre-existing passion for your work" as being important for motivation.

Working right trumps finding the right work.

It's dangerous that people think that there's some magic 'right job' for them, and if they find it, they'll instantly recognize it as the work they were meant to do. When people then fail to find this job, what happens is chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt. Therefore, this passion hypothesis (following your passion being key) is not only wrong, but also dangerous.

There are exceptions to every rule. For most people, the advice "Follow your passion" is bad advice.

Rule #2: Be So Good They Can't Ignore You (The Importance of Skill)

This chapter introduces the craftsman mindset, which is about focusing on what value you're producing in your job. This is compared to the passion mindset, which is a focus on what value your job offers you.

If you aren't focusing on becoming so good they can't ignore you, you're going to be left behind.

The craftsman mindset is crucial for building a career you love.

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

When you focus on what your work offers you, you also become very aware of what it doesn't - leading to unhappiness.

The passion mindset asks you to answer "Who am I?" and "What do I truly love?", and these questions are impossible to answer. At least, it's impossible to confirm that what you've answered is also right.

For these reasons, the passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you unhappy and confused.

No one owes you a great career. You need to earn it - and it won't be easy.

Don't envy the craftsman mindset. Emulate it. Put aside whether your job is your true passion, and instead try focusing on becoming so good they can't ignore you. Regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer.

No matter how you feel about your job right now, adopting the craftsman mindset will be the foundation on which you'll build a compelling career.

There are three traits that define great work. Creativity, Impact, and Control. It's not a comprehensive list, but these traits are valuable — because they're what makes a job great. If you want a job that has these three traits, you'll need something of great value to offer in return.

You have to be driven to develop your skills.

The Career Capital Theory of Great Work

  • "The traits that define great work are rare and valuable"
  • "Supply and demand says that if you want these traits you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return." These are called your career capital.
  • The craftsman mindset is a great strategy for getting career capital.

Three Disqualifiers for Applying the Craftsman Mindset

  1. Few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  2. Focusing on something you think is useless or bad.
  3. Forces you to work with people you dislike.

These three factors disqualify a job for providing a good foundation for building work you love.

Sometimes you'll have to leave where you are and get close to the action - close to those doing what you want to do. Even if it means 'downgrading'.

You should start building career capital before you even know what to use it for. Get your foot in the door in the industry.

Instant feedback and going beyond your comfort zone can push your abilities way forward. Be dedicated to constantly stretch your abilities.

The 10.000-Hour Rule

It takes ten thousand hours to become an expert at something.

Take chess as an example. It was found that hours spent in serious study of the game dominated any other factor in terms of predicting chess skill. Grand masters have, on average, dedicated around 5.000 of their 10.000 hours to serious study. Intermediate players had only dedicated 1.000 hours to it.

The importance of instant feedback and going beyond your current skill level is stressed very much here.

Anders Ericsson (author of Peak, a book that would supplement this chapter nicely) coined the term "deliberate practice" to describe serious study. It's formally defined as an "activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance."

Deliberate practice is key to excellence in most fields.

If you just show up and work hard, you'll hit a plateau beyond which you fail to get any better. Deliberated practice might be the key to quickly becoming so good they can't ignore you. Therefore, you should dedicate yourself to it. Be obsessed with improving - even when you already are good. It's a constant learning process.

You should constantly seek feedback from others (especially those who are better than you).

Spend time on what is important instead of what's immediate.

It's a great idea to keep track of the time that you spend doing deliberate practice.

The Five Habits of a Craftsman

Step 1: Decide What Capital Market You're In

Two kinds of capital market. Winner-take-all and auction capital markets.

  • Winner-take-all: Only one type of career capital, and there's lots of people competing for it.
  • Auction: Many types of career capital. Each person might generate a unique collection of it.

With blogging (in the advice space), the only type of capital that matters is whether or not your posts compel the reader.

Step 2: Identify Your Capital Type

Answering this in a winner-take-all market is trivial; there is only one type.

In an auction market, a good way is to seek open gates. Opportunities to build capital that are already open to you.

Step 3: Define "Good"

You need clear goals. If you don't know where you're headed, it's hard to take action.

Step 4: Stretch and Destroy

Deliberate practice is an effort of focus and concentration. It's not easy. And it's often not enjoyable. It's what makes it deliberate. It's definitely not mindless. If you just show up and do what you're told, you'll reach an acceptable level of ability before plateauing. That's not enough.

When you're doing deliberate practice, you'll feel "stretched" or "strained". That's how it should feel. If you're not uncomfortable, then you're probably stuck at an "acceptable level".

"It's tempting to just assume what you've done is good enough and check it off on your to-do list. But it's in honest, sometimes harsh feedback that you learn where to retrain your focus in order to continue to make progress."

Step 5: Be Patient

If you can't be patient and reject shiny new pursuits, you'll derail your efforts before you get enough capital.

Rule #3: Turn down a Promotion (The Importance of Control)

"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."

It was found that more control "leads to better grades, better sports performance, better productivity, and more happiness".

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

It's dangerous to spend capital that you don't have. You can't pursue control that you can't afford.

"The First Control Trap: Control that's acquired without career capital is not sustainable."

However, once you get enough capital to get more control, you'll find that you're too valuable for your employer to get that control. They'll fight your efforts.

"This is 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've become valuable enough that your employer will resist your efforts." This is the second control trap:

"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've become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change."

"You should only pursue a bid for more control if you have evidence that it's something that people are willing to pay you for."

Derek Sivers has a rule that overrides his other life rules. "Do what people are willing to pay for".

He explains: "money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you're aiming to be valuable".

Don't quit your job or drop out of college before you have evidence that your idea can provide value.

"The Law of Financial Viability: When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on."

The definition of "willing to pay" varies. Maybe it means paying customers. But it could also be getting a loan or outside investment. Or getting hired / staying hired.

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

A mission is a unifying focus for your career. It's the answer to "what should I do with my life?". They focus your energy and maximize your impact on your world. That's a crucial factor for loving what you do.

Missions are hard. But you have to be comfortable with hard. It scares off the daydreamers, but leaves more opportunity for those who are willing to take time to carefully work out the best path forward and then take action.

"A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough - it's an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge - the only place where these missions become visible."

And it's hard to get there. And most of avoid the 'hardness' of this type. But we shouldn't, because it's important.

You need capital before you can get a mission.

This rule is entitled "Think Small, Act Big" because "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, however, and discover a mission in the adjacent possible, you must go after it with zeal: a 'big' action."

Little Bets: a book written by Peter Sims. He found, having studied successful innovators, that "Rather than believing that they have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance, they make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small bug significant wins".

You have to make something that is remarkable.

"The Law of Remarkability: For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking."

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