March 17, 2019

So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport: Why your passion won't work

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About the Author

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. In addition to his academic research, he writes about the intersection of technology and society. Cal is particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work, as well as on our ability to lead interesting and satisfying lives.

Cal is the author of six books, including, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, Digital Minimalism.

In 2012, he published So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which tackled the question of how people end up loving what they do for a living. The most controversial finding from his research was that “follow your passion” is bad advice.

Oh and don’t try and find Cal on social media.  He famously doesn’t have any social media accounts, and seems to be doing ok as a result.



About the Book

So Good They Can’t Ignore You is largely about shunning the concept of ‘follow your passion’ and instead becoming dedicated to building your career capital.  Essentially meaning getting REALLY good at what you do which will afford you the luxuries of choice, freedom and the ability to create your own adventure, based on your proven abilities in your field.

Cal argues that passion and enjoyment for your work will come from being good at it – which comes from spending intentional time getting good at your work.

The book’s title is taken from a famous quote from comedian Steve Martin, who when asked by comedy students the secret of success, responded with the wise words ‘be so good they can’t ignore you’.

BIG IDEA 1 (3:25) - Don’t follow your passion. Cal argues that it is dangerous advice to follow your passion because it follows the idea that people can do things that they are not good at and create a career out of it. It also creates the trend of people quitting their jobs to go and do something that they have no career capital in. Career capital is the investment that you put into developing your skills which you can then leverage later for things like creative freedom, more money or a different work environment.


Cal is not saying that you cannot have passion for hobbies, but that passion from your work comes from getting good. Compelling careers often have complex origins. Very few people that you look at, and maybe aspire to have their career, start from the position of wanting to change the world or create the biggest company and do the best things that they do, it comes from a bit of trial and error and small steps.


Side note: If you’re interested in this concept and want to hear more examples I recommend listening to the podcast ‘How I built this’.


Cal argues that passion comes from getting good at something. This evident in studies about happiness at work. Usually passionate people have been around long enough to get good at what they’re doing and to work out what they’re not good at doing without following their dream initially.


Daniel Pink wrote a lot about this in his work and says that motivation comes from autonomy, competence or mastery and connection with others. All of these things come over time. You’re not necessarily going to get immediately after jumping over to being a yoga instructor or opening a cat sanctuary, or whatever your passion is. The dangerous idea about following your passion is if it doesn’t live up to expectation and doesn’t give you the ultimate fulfillment, there will be high level of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.


The idea is following your passion in a different way. So if you have a passion it is something that you can build on the side of something else. Build a career capital and invest in a way that you want to live and work. The danger comes when you put everything in an area that you don’t have a career capital or experience in.


BIG IDEA 2 (6:32) Get so good. Career capital is building up your competence which you can trade for freedom, creativity or different working environment. You need to build up ‘rare and valuable’ skills to put towards rare and valuable work. You may have to force yourself into the work and force the skills to come through deliberate practice. This will ultimately lead to the creativity, the impact and the control to the career that you desire.


Getting so good is where you may find your passion. Cal said it is really the career capital that matters, not courage. Deliberate practice and the ‘craftsman mindset’ are the big concepts. There are however, three examples in the book that you maybe should look at moving on when trying something different


First, if you are in an environment or role where there is no skill development. Second, if the work adds no value and is bad for society. This one is linked to your values or purpose. Third, having to work with people that you don’t like. These are not going to be an environment where you can put that deliberate or practice to work to build career capital.


BIG IDEA 3 (10:10) - Missions and the importance of them.This aligns to the idea of your purpose. Often your mission can be found in an adjacent field from ‘jiggling together’ your experiences over time. But first you have to get to the cutting edge of your field and have enough career capital to trade towards a mission. You may not find your mission or purpose outside of your career. It will come with time, experience, trying different things and seeing what fits a little bit more and getting really good. Then you can put your rare and valuable skills to work towards your mission.


He talks about finding your ‘little bets’ which is similar to design thinking principles. It is about trying little things, failing and testing out. Your mission should be remarkable; worth people remarking on.


Recommended Stuff

How I Built This Podcast


Music By:Xerces by Michael Shynes


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