Books

So Good They Can't Ignore You

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Cal Newport’s 2012 book So Good They Can’t Ignore You is a career strategy book designed around four ideas.

The first idea is that ‘follow your passion’ is terrible career advice, and people who say this should be shot don't know what they're talking about. Cal Newport calls this idea of following your passion ‘the passion hypothesis’.

The second idea is that instead of believing in the passion hypothesis, you should adopt what Newport calls the ‘craftsman mindset’. The craftsman mindset is that you should focus on gaining rare and valuable skills, since this is what leads to good career outcomes.

The third idea is that autonomy is the most important component of a ‘dream’ job. Newport argues that when choosing between two jobs, there are compelling reasons to ‘always’ pick the one with higher autonomy over the one with lower autonomy.

The fourth idea is that having a ‘mission’ or a ‘higher purpose’ in your job is probably a good idea, and is really nice if you can find it.

I’ll summarise each idea as we go along, but it’s worth noting that the book structure is basically: ‘following your passion is bad, instead go for Mastery Autonomy and Purpose — the trio of things that have been proven to motivate knowledge workers’.

This summary is designed to completely replace the book, so you can read this post and skip reading the book entirely.

1. The Passion Hypothesis Sucks

The passion hypothesis, defined, is:

The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.

Newport thinks that this is incredibly common advice today; he points to the famous 2005 Steve Jobs commencement speech where Jobs basically says “love what you do”, and “don’t settle” when looking for a career. But if you look at what Jobs actually did: he didn’t follow his passion, which was then for zen Buddhism. If Jobs had truly followed his passion, he would have become a teacher in a zen monastery. Instead, the Apple founder had a number of stops and starts — including famously dropping out of Reed College, as well as travelling to India in search for enlightenment. Newport cautions against taking ‘follow your passion’ as the lesson from Jobs’s life — he points out that the vast majority of careers have equally odd stops and starts, and that ‘follow your passion’ is reductive and quite useless as a guiding principle.

I buy this argument, but Newport goes one step further and argues that the passion hypothesis is not just a bad idea, it’s an actively dangerous one. He points to the 2010 Conference Board survey of U.S. job satisfaction:

… found that only 45 percent of Americans describe themselves as satisfied with their jobs. This number has been steadily decreasing from the mark of 61 percent recorded in 1987, the first year of the survey. As Lynn Franco, the director of the Board’s Consumer Research Center notes, this is not just about a bad business cycle: “Through both economic boom and bust during the past two decades, our job satisfaction numbers have shown a consistent downward trend.”

Newport asserts the passion hypothesis is what is causing this decline in job satisfaction. Basically, if you think you need to follow your passion, and then find a job that fits into that passion, you’re setting yourself up for failure. People with unrealistic expectations about passions in their career will find themselves chronically job hopping, and constantly dissatisfied with whatever job they have.

Newport thinks the passion hypothesis is also fundamentally flawed for a number of other reasons.

The first reason is that passion is really rare. In 2002, a research team led by Canadian psychologist Robert J. Vallerand administered an extensive questionnaire to a group of 539 Canadian university students, and found that most of them had hobby-related passions (hockey, reading, video games), not career passions. Newport argues that this is representative: you can’t follow a passion for your work if you don’t have career-related passions to follow.

The second reason the passion hypothesis is bad advice is that passion takes time to build. Newport quotes psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski — in a study of college administrative assistants (not exactly the most glamorous of jobs), Wrzesniewski found that the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job. In other words: the more experience the assistant had, the more likely they would love their work.

Why was this so? Newport believes that Self Determination Theory holds the answer. Self Determination Theory is the idea that your happiness is related to:

Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important.
Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do.
Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people.

The assistants probably loved their jobs because increased competence led to increased autonomy. Newport writes: “when you become better at what you do, not only do you get the sense of accomplishment that comes from being good, but you’re typically also rewarded with more control over your responsibilities.”

These results help explain Wrzesniewski’s findings. Newport asserts that it takes time to build the competence and earn the autonomy necessary to generate enjoyment. In other words, passion stems from mastery.

2. Adopt the Craftsman Mindset

This theme that good things stem from mastery and not from passion runs throughout the rest of the book. Newport argues that a far better approach to your career is to adopt what he calls a ‘craftsman mindset’. The craftsman mindset is treating your job as a craft: that is, focus on gaining rare and valuable skills until you ‘become so good they can’t ignore you’ (this last bit is from the comedian Steve Martin; hence the title of the book).

To justify this argument, Newport defines what he calls ‘The Career Capital Theory of Great Work’:

  • The traits that define great work are rare and valuable. Specifically, desireable jobs are creative, allow you to create large impact, and give you control over your work and life.
  • Consequently, supply and demand indicates that you need to offer rare and valuable skills in return. These rare and valuable skills are what Newport refers to as your career capital.
  • The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming ‘so good they can’t ignore you’, is by definition the pursuit of gaining rare and valuable skills. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is to create work you love.

There are problems with this approach, of course. Not every job allows you to apply this mindset. Newport thinks that if your job has one or more of the following qualities, you should leave your job in favour of another where you can build career capital:

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

If you’re in a job with any of these traits, your ability to gain rare and valuable skills would be hampered. So it’s best to get out.

But let’s say that you are in a job where you can build career capital. How do you go about doing so?

Newport offers two useful ideas here.

Adapt to the Skill Market of Your Field

The first idea is that there are two different kinds of skill markets: winner-take-all markets, and auction markets.

Winner-take-all markets are markets where only one skill matters. Newport asserts that writers, standup artists and musicians belong to this category. These fields are ultimately dominated by proficiency in a small set of skills, so you’re probably better off optimising the skill that matters instead of doing incidental activities (like networking, etc).

Auction markets, on the other hand, are less structured. There are many different types of career capital here, and each person might generate a unique collection.

Newport gives us the story of Mike Jackson, currently a director of the Westly Group’s cleantech fund. Jackson got into this field by building up career capital in a variety of different experiences: first he majored in biology and earth systems at Stanford, then he did a masters studying the natural-gas sector in India. After the project concluded, Jackson realised that he had a deep understanding of the incredibly complicated international carbon markets — a rare but valuable skill. He started a company called Village Green, which helped companies do the convoluted carbon transactions necessary to achieve carbon neutral certification.

When the 2009 financial crisis hit, Jackson shuttered the company and landed an interview with a venture capital firm. The partner he interviewed with quickly established that Jackson might not be a good fit: “‘I have no idea how to find the next Facebook,’ (Jackson says) ‘but I could tell you if a solar energy firm was probably going to make money’”.

Instead of hiring him as a junior VC, Jackson was handed the role of intern at the Westly Group's newly established cleantech fund. Over the next three years, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a fund director. Newport asserts Jackson's career capital got him to where he is today, after he got his lucky break getting into the firm.

The lesson Newport concludes from Jackson’s story is that you should ‘seek open gates’ when you’re in an auction skills market — that is, seek capital-building opportunities that are already open to you. Jackson’s moves at each point of his career has been to capitalise on the career capital he earned from his previous step.

So: optimise the ‘one skill that matters’ if you’re in a winner-takes-all market, and optimise for ‘open gates’ if you’re in an auction market. But Newport advocates a specific kind of improving technique. He argues that we should all …

Do Deliberate Practice

The academic literature on deliberate practice is pretty solid, at this point. (I’m linking to two meta-analyses here, but omit more links in favour of brevity — this is a book summary, after all).

Deliberate practice is the practice of doing things that hurt — playing guitar pieces that are just above your skill level, practicing the tennis backhand that you suck at, studying chess positions you can barely get out of. The literature concludes that this form of practice is how professional musicians and world-class athletes become what they are; no other activity predicts world-class skill as powerfully as number of hours spent in deliberate practice.

Newport argues that applying deliberate practice to your chosen skill market is your best shot at becoming ‘so good they can’t ignore you’. The key is to stretch — you want to practice skills that are just above your current skill level, so that you experience discomfort — but not too much discomfort that you’ll give up.

Newport reduces this advice down to five steps:

  1. Decide what capital market you’re in. This is winner-takes-all or auction.
  2. Identify your capital type. If you’re in a winner-takes-all market, this is trivial: just pick the skill that dominates. But if you’re in auction market, pick from your currently available ‘open gates’.
  3. Define ‘good’ — Newport points out that the deliberate practice literature is very specific on the necessity of clear goals. Musicians have clear goals: there’s always some new, more complicated technique to master. You’ll have to decide what is ‘good’ for your particular career skill type.
  4. Stretch and destroy — you need to push yourself into areas of discomfort. Don’t stick to just using skills that you have already mastered; this is the antithesis of deliberate practice. Instead, fence off portions of your schedule to seek out this discomfort.
  5. Finally, be patient. This patience isn’t the patience of waiting your turn; it is the patience of ignoring all the distractions that may come up in your pursuit of excellence. Newport points out that Steve Martin spent 40 years getting good as a comedian; Jordan Tice has spent at least two decades at this point honing his skills as a musician. Deliberate practice takes dilligence, and diligence implies time.

3. Autonomy Means Avoiding Control Traps

Mastery of rare and valuable skills is how you get the things you want in your career. But what of the actual jobs you seek? What makes for an ideal job?

It turns out that autonomy is the dominating factor for job satisfaction. Newport opens this section with an anecdote: the more control you have in your job, the more likely you are to stay and enjoy doing it. Case studies abound. When Best Buy adopted Results-Only Work Environment[1] (or ROWE, for short), they saw rates of employee attrition plummet by up to 90 percent.

Newport than parlays this into two observations about seeking more autonomy:

  1. If you seek autonomy in your current role before gaining enough career capital, you won’t get the autonomy you seek. To put this simply: control demands capital.
  2. Once you’ve gained sufficient career capital to seek control, the universe conspires to prevent you from gaining that control. Put simply: control benefits only you.

Control demands capital because you can’t demand special treatment without creating enough value for your employers. Even if you strike out on your own, you’ll have to have skills that people are willing to pay for, or your attempt at controlling your own future will fall flat for lack of money.

Control benefits only you implies that employers will attempt to prevent you from gaining that control. This applies to both individuals in salaried work, as well as individuals seeking to start something of their own. This is logical: when you have the rare and valuable career skills needed to demand more control, people will want to tap those skills for their own benefit — and will pay you handsomely for that privilege. Attempting to seek control is thus an invitation for resistance. Learn to expect it.

The second observation leads us to a conundrum. When attempting to gain more control in your career, you will inevitably come up against resistance. But is the resistance legitimate, or is it due to a lack of career capital?

Newport suggests a simple rule, borrowed from Derek Sivers, who has made an entire career out of controlling his own destiny:

Siver’s ‘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.”

If people are willing to pay you for your expertise, then you know you have rare and valuable skills. This rule is how Sivers eventually went from musician to entrepreneur, to his current life shuttling between New Zealand and Singapore.

4. Finding Meaning

Newport ends the book with what I consider to be his weakest argument: that finding a unifying mission to your working life ‘can be a source of great satisfaction’.

My initial reaction to reading this was to think: “no shit, Newport”. It’s blindingly obvious that mission and purpose are great things to have in your career; heck, much ink has been spilt on how today’s generation of ‘millennials’ desire ‘careers with purpose’ and that companies today ‘should cater to these changing tastes’.

Newport himself admits that he hasn’t found a compelling career mission in his own life — despite having a stellar academic career. This is probably why the ideas in this last section ring hollow, while the earlier chapters develop more forcefully.

The argument in this last section may be reduced to three ideas:

First, Newport argues that mission is capital-driven. You can’t skip straight to a great mission without first building mastery in your field. Good career missions are like scientific innovations, waiting to be discovered at the ‘adjacent possible’ of your field; you need to advance first before you are able to see if there are compelling missions to be pursued.

Second, great career missions require making little bets. Finding a mission itself isn’t worth much if you can’t go after it. Instead, Newport asserts, 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.

Newport gives us the example of Dr Kirk French, who made it his life’s mission to popularise archaeology. At the time of Newport’s interview, French co-hosted Discovery Channel’s American Treasures — a reality tv show where he and co-host Dr Jason De Leon visited everyday Americans who believe they have items of historical significance.

Newport posits that French’s approach to landing this tv show was the result of a decade’s worth of making little bets — projects and film-related pursuits with the ultimate end-goal of popularising archaeology. French’s dogged pursuit of his mission, expressed through those small bets, led him directly to the opportunity that was American Treasures.

Newport’s third and last idea about pursuing career missions is that missions require marketing. That is: to succeed, good missions should obey Seth Godin’s ‘Purple Cow’ law of marketing: they should be so remarkable so as to compel people to share it with others. Newport thinks that compelling missions are more likely to be noticed, and therefore more likely to be successful. So he asserts:

“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.”

The problems with this section are more apparent than the previous ones. American Treasures was cancelled after barely a season; Newport has yet to find a compelling career mission, and it’s not clear that compelling missions should be ‘marketable’ or that they can only be executed in ‘a venue that supports such remarking’.

One assumes that Newport suffers from the availability bias — the individuals with career missions most likely to find Newport were the ones with remarkable missions, which then lead him to conclude that all missions had to be remarkable, marketable ones.

But there may well be individuals with incredible careers and compelling missions who aren’t at all well known; this renders Newport’s advice here slightly less useful.

(Or, you know, perhaps career missions are the result of pure luck. In which case we can’t generalise appropriately from the few case studies that Newport offers us. But I’ll get back to that in a minute).

Fin

So Good They Can’t Ignore You presents a number of compelling arguments. The ultimate measure of the book is how useful these ideas are; for that reason I’m willing to give a pass to the apparent weakness of the book’s last section.

I think Newport’s done a really good job with the first two sections of the book. Better still, I think those ideas are pragmatic and immediately useful.

Yes, the passion hypothesis is a bad idea — you'll get far more traction attacking mastery and gaining rare and valuable skills. Yes, the craftsman mindset works — I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post that I experienced this in a very visceral way when I was left to manage a software engineering office in Vietnam:

It was like a light switch turning on. Everything, externally, was still the same, but I remember coming in to work the next week motivated to fix the terrible situation I was in. I treated the company as a way to gain mastery in management. And I did.

I left this aforementioned job late last year to pursue solopreneurship, and everything Newport says about seeking control has come true in my experience. Gaining control of your career invites resistance. People offer you jobs, old bosses ask you to return; you find that your path is littered with opportunities (or distractions).

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, perhaps, that Newport’s advice on finding purpose falls flat. You’re probably going to get pretty far on So Good’s first two sections alone. And perhaps you should be comfortable with the idea that mission and purpose are elusive, rare things — things you may never find in your career.

Pursue mastery and autonomy, force yourself to gain rare and valuable skills — the very definition of a career moat — let yourself rest in the knowledge that you will be paid well for those skills. Ignore mission; you’ll probably turn out just fine.


Note: I've written a follow-up post that explores all the various types of 'rare and valuable' here.


  1. ROWE means being measured purely on results, ignoring how much time you spent in the office or whether you worked from home or if you kept irregular hours on the job. Workers were given autonomy to decide how they intended to achieve their results. ↩︎