By Cal Newport (2012)

Pages: 230, Final verdict: Great-read

Is following our passion bad advice when choosing a career? Cal Newport believes so. So Good They Can't Ignore You is all about the idea that doing our job right matters more than having the right job.

Cal Newport, a professor turned author wrote this book just after having concluded a PhD in computer science. His first experience in the career advice area was the successful blog Study Hacks and, more recently, he wrote another best-selling book: Deep Work.

Following your passion is bad career advice

The book starts by disqualifying the hypothesis that following your passion is the best way to find the perfect job. Newport provides examples of people who lost track of their life after having left their jobs to follow passions such as yoga or blogging.

Newport also gives the example of Steve Jobs. Although Steve Jobs could be thought of as the ultimate passion follower, he actually started a computer company when he had absolutely no interest in computers (he was a college drop-out hippie).

According to a Canadian study, only 4% of students have passions related to work or education, while all others have passions such as dancing, swimming or reading - making the argument that passions which could be the source of a career are rare. Nonetheless, Newport does recognize that passion can work for some people, such as professional athletes, but that proves his theory that "for most people, 'follow your passion' is bad advice".

"I am suggesting that you put aside the question of whether your job is your true passion, and instead turn your focus toward becoming so good they can't ignore you." - Cal Newport

In the search for what does motivate people, we hear about Daniel Pink's TED talk where he exposes the Self-Determination Theory for what gets us motivated:

  • Autonomony (have control over what you do)
  • Competence (feel that you are good at what you do)
  • Relatedness (connecting to other people)

Work that provides those attributes is rare and therefore only few people will get there. Hence, Newport's verdict is out: the best way to get your dream job is to be really good at something which others are willing to reward you for.

Practice deliberately, build career capital and don't be too eager to find your mission

So, if you want to get a job with qualities which are rare and appealing, you have got to be very good at what you do. You have to be so good they can't ignore you.

Newport then sets out to study what makes people very good at what they do. The first aspect is focusing on building career capital. Career capital are the skills which are valuable in your particular career. For example, the best way to build career capital can be to work as an assistant to someone who is really good in your area. There you will understand what actually adds values vs. what is superficial.

"Scientists have failed to find much evidence of natural abilities explaining experts' successes. It is a lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice that again and again ends up explaining excellence." - Cal Newport

In the same way as chess players follow strict study plans or athletes do demanding physical exercises, knowledge workers must practice to evolve their skills. Newport calls it deliberate practice and all of us should do it to ensure that we are building up on our skills. This includes getting out of our comfort zones to solve different kinds of problems, seeking relentless feedback about our work or studying with the best.

Finally, once you are on your way to building those skills, you will only find true satisfaction if your job fulfils a mission which inspires you. However, this mission will probably only become clear after many years of work and trying different things out. Only when you are really good at something can you see the opportunities to apply your skills in an innovative way and make a mission out of it.

Bottom line

So Good They Can't Ignore You brings interesting ideas to the table. However, the biggest drawback of the book is its lack of deepness. The book is very anecdotal and there is limited reference to published research. Almost all of Newport's arguments are drawn from examples of people he met or read about, which makes it harder for me to believe in something as unconventional as don't follow your passion.

The chapter about why following your passion is wrong is the shortest in the book - not a lot of juice in there... Plus, with Newport being so young and early on in his career, I can't help but think: does he really know what he is talking about? Does he have enough career capital in this area?

But it is good to have commonplace ideas challenged from time to time. And Newport's arguments do make sense. Another plus is that this approach makes the book very easy to read. Moreover, the book is well structured, includes summaries at the end of each chapter and, at the end of the book, a comprehensive description of the people whose careers serve as good examples.

So, all in all, my take away from the book is:

  1. You shouldn't just leave your job to follow a passion which you have no idea how to turn into a career;
  2. Building a career takes a lot of effort, and time - you can't rush it;
  3. Once you are really good at what you do, and what you do is more or less aligned with your values, you will get a lot of satisfaction from your job.

I would recommend reading So Good They Can't Ignore You if you're interested in starting a new career. You're not going to find strong persuasive arguments in there, but it will for sure make you look at it from a new angle.

Further learning: