Book Review : So Good They Can’t Ignore You

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Calvin Newport is the author of the academic/professional blog Study Hacks. Initially, his work revolved around academic productivity, trying to deconstruct how to get maximal productivity with minimum burnout. More recently, Newport has been writing on the subjects of craftsmanship and career building. His book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, touches on the latter subjects in some detail.

The Book

The premise of the book can be summarized as

In order to achieve the kind of dream life you aspire to, you have to offer the world something valuable in return. Instead of blithely pursuing your passion, first work on developing skills and talents (aka, career capital) by working hard at what you do. Then, as your capital increases, leverage it to get others to let you do the kind of work you want to do. In time, you will become so good others simply cannot ignore you, and they will help you pursue your passion.

This is in distinct contrast to the modern way of thinking about career building, which holds that doing work you are passionate about is the way to a successful and fulfilling career. Newport turns this “wisdom” on its head by arguing that passion is often a by-product of competency. That is, as people develop the ability to handle more and more challenging tasks in their career, they become increasingly happy with their work. (Does anybody really enjoy doing work they are terrible at? No.) Of course, people have innate interests and desires, and obviously would like to pursue work which is aligned with them. But it is very dangerous to assume that those interests are so strong as to enable one to power through difficult times. To use a modern buzzword, doing work based solely on passion is not sustainable.

Again, we should try to find work which aligns with our interests and desires. More often than not, though, when we start out doing that type of work, we are really bad at it. Newport argues we must focus on deliberate practice - continually pushing ourselves to master new techniques or ideas to improve our competency in our work. In time, that practice takes us from beginner to novice, from novice to amateur, and from amateur to pro. Only hard work, dedication, and will can take us there. Passion alone is not sufficient.

Once we have acquired more skills and competency, we now have a very valuable asset - career capital. Like monetary capital, career capital allows us to make investments in our career which help us grow and do the kind of work we want. In particular, having career capital allows us to take control over the direction of our career. Newport notes there are two fundamental “traps” that come with career capital:

  • If you want control over your career, you had better have the competencies necessary to demonstrate you can handle that control. (Newport calls this the first control trap.) Quitting your day job to start an online company sounds nice, until you do so and realize you have no idea how to do basic web design or marketing. Or asking to work from home when you are habitually late to the office. More control requires more capital.

  • If you have capital, your employer may not want you to have more control - they would rather try to wring more productivity out of you. (The second control trap.) As you become more valuable to an organization, the organization naturally wants to direct that value to their own ends; namely, leveraging your skills to generate more revenue, profits, or sales. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, you get promoted to a higher-paying position because of some great work you did. Or you get made partner because of your efforts and skills. Where it does become destructive is when organizations resist increasing your share of the fruits of your labor.

Once you have capital and control, what are you suppose to do? Newport suggests our careers should carry with them a mission - organizing principles which help guide us in our work. However, it is important to note that while missions are big, our actions in our work should be small. Just as an elephant can be consumed one bite at a time, achieving our career’s mission involves many small steps. We do not suddenly wake up one day and declare our mission accomplished; instead, we continually pursue relevant paths, revise our strategies, and evaluate our performance. It is this process which leads us to achieving our mission.

Recommendation: Read It

This book is a great read for anyone who has been thinking about their career and how to move it forward. Newport lays out a clear case in favor of working hard and developing competency, as opposed to pursuing passion and hoping success follows.