Book review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

“Follow your passion is dangerous advice.”

Cal Newport’s newest book opens with an interesting and controversial piece of advice. That’s perhaps not surprising given how interesting Cal Newport himself is. He’s a new professor at Georgetown University and a Computer Science PhD out of MIT. He’s also the author of a popular blog and a number of books on student life, acheivement and productivity. “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” is his most recent creation and this book might just change the way you look at your career and your life in general.

But first, let me tell you a little about myself. If you follow this blog regularly (and I hope you do) you’ll know that I’m a second year graduate student at Cornell University’s Computer Science program. I’m no longer a “new” graduate student but I’m certainly not a veteran of the research trenches yet. I’m still pretty early in my career and I’ve been grappling with some of the issues that come with the territory. In particular I’ve been thinking about what sort of projects I should be pursuing, what to do about projects I’m interested in but not 100% excited about and how to balance getting published with working on fun stuff (the two don’t always overlap). Newport’s new book has given me some good perspective on these matters.

The central thesis of this book is that the common wisdom of “follow your passion” is dangerously flawed. We shouldn’t be waiting for our dream job or our life purpose to fall into our laps. Instead we should be building “career capital” – valuable skills and expertise that we can exchange for jobs that are fulfilling and interesting.

The book opens by digging into the idea that passion is a basis for a remarkable life and bringing forth evidence that passion is rarer and less useful than we are led to believe. Newport then goes on to show that the alternative to passion is to become so good that they can’t ignore you. Concretely this translates to cultivating skills that are rare and valuable and that will let you negotiate your work and working conditions on your own terms. Newport cites studies that show that the actual determinant of career satisfaction is not “passion” but a trio of competence, control and relationships. The jobs we like are the ones that require skills, give us control over our work and life and bring us into contact with good coworkers. Finally we are shown how we can go about generating the career capital that we need in order to get these things in our work lives. In particular the book talks about deliberate practice, making small but continuous improvements in your skills and doing work that will make others sit up and notice.

Throughout the book Newport shares stories of both people who have followed the “passion hypothesis” and his proposed “career craftsman philosophy”. The examples are carefully examined and include a large group of people including venture capitalists, developers, farmers and professors. Instead of simply providing them as proof, Newport walks us through how his experiences with these people changed his own views on the matter and brought him to his current ideas on what makes a remarkable career.

While I’m generally skeptical of self-help books and books that claim to help you “follow your path”, this one is different. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Newport’s examples (and their discussion) are “scientific” but they are thorough and well researched. Furthermore, he acknowledges that the exact path will be different from person to person and that he is still figuring things out.

Personally, I found this book very helpful. It put to rest any worries I had about working on the “wrong” project. I’m still very much in the stage of my career where I’m earning career capital and most projects will be full of chances to learn and prove myself. But that doesn’t mean I should sign up for any project that walks in the door. The best projects are the ones that force me to learn something new and don’t require huge up front investments of time and energy (with little chance of results). As this book shows, excellent careers aren’t just by-products of luck, nor is it enough to just follow your interests. The best careers are crafted and take large investments of energy and effort over long periods of time. It helps that I love my job, but I don’t need to worry about picking the perfect project and being passionate about it, as long as I’m learning and gaining capital, I’m good (and getting better).

If you’re just starting out in a career, looking to switch or just want to give your career a jumpstart this is definitely a book worth reading. It’s never too late (or too early) to start improving. You don’t need to have a life mission set in stone before you get started either. Long story short, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is better life advice than “follow your passion”. Thanks to this book it’s probably easier to implement too.

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