Book Summary: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Quick Summary: Rather than follow your passion, this book advocates the “craftsman mindset” of patiently building skills, and offers practical solutions for acquiring and maintaining job satisfaction.

You don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t have time. This summary will provide you with an overview of everything you can learn from this book.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You Book Summary

Lesson 1: The Passion Hypothesis

When it comes to choosing a career, modern American society promotes what Newport refers to as “the passion hypothesis,” which states that finding out what you are passionate about and pursuing it leads to happiness. However, this may be bad advice for creating work you enjoy.

Newport retells the well-known story of Steve Jobs and Apple Computers to demonstrate how following your passion is not always the path to success. Jobs was never interested in electronics and instead desired to embark on a spiritual journey to learn the art of Zen. Jobs eventually became passionate about his work, despite the fact that it did not stem from pursuing his passion for electronics.

The possibility of actual application is ruled out by the passion hypothesis. Instead of putting your skills to the test and developing your talent in specific areas, you end up judging the outcome without trial based on an abstract concept.

Lesson 2: Passion Is Not the Key

When it comes to choosing a job, career-oriented passion is actually uncommon. Canadian psychologist Robert J. Vallerand and his team of researchers discovered that only 4% of 539 Canadian university students had a job-related passion.

Passion, on the other hand, takes time, as Amy Wrzesniewski, a Yale University professor of organizational behavior, has demonstrated. She discovered that people who have spent the most time in the same job are the ones who enjoy it the most. The passion hypothesis is contradicted by the fact that passion takes time.

Furthermore, Daniel Pink’s work as the author of Drive demonstrates that motivation—and thus passion—comes from three psychological states: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. These feelings develop gradually over time as a result of hard work, and thus produce passion—a byproduct rather than the primary factor.

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Lesson 3: It’s Not a Good Idea to “Follow Your Dreams.”

Newport emphasizes in his first rule that the common advice to “follow your passion” is not only incorrect, but also dangerous. This overly innocent and optimistic viewpoint is a faulty foundation for launching a career. It simply feeds young people’s fantasies, which are riddled with holes and confusion. According to a 2010 survey of US job satisfaction, 64 percent of young workers are dissatisfied with their current position.

Some people, such as athletes, become successful by following their passion and feeling happy when they succeed. These are, however, the exception rather than the rule. Even when studying a group of people who are passionate about what they do, Newport reports that their stories contain complexities that extend beyond simply identifying and pursuing your passion.

Lesson 4: They Can’t Ignore You Because You’re Too Good

Charlie Rose interviewed actor-comedian Steve Martin about his memoir Born Standing Up on his TV show in 2007. Martin’s memoir discusses how he became successful in stand-up comedy, citing the advice “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Martin developed his own distinct style of delivering comedy, free of the cliché punchline, and it took years for his act to come together. His confidence grew and developed as he gained experience, making him a huge success.

Martin’s story introduces the craftsman mindset, which consists of long hours of repetitive focused efforts and being output-centric in your work. Newport’s second rule states that having a craftsman mindset is essential for establishing a career you enjoy.

Newport distinguishes between the craftsman mindset and the passion mindset. The passion mindset promotes the passion hypothesis by focusing on what the world has to offer, whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you have to offer the world. The craftsman mindset is an important tool for achieving occupational happiness.

Lesson 5: Rare and Valuable

Before you can adopt the craftsman mindset, you must first identify what makes a great job appealing. A great job requires traits such as creativity, impact, and control, which, while rare, are extremely valuable. To obtain a rare and valuable job, you must be prepared to offer something rare and valuable in return. These characteristics are your career capital. They are obtained through unwavering focus to the point of becoming “so good they can’t ignore you.”

However, not all jobs are suitable for career capital investment, and applying the craftsman mindset to such jobs would be wasteful and ineffective. Newport identifies three disqualifying characteristics for jobs that would not be a good foundation for building work you love.

These characteristics will determine whether you should stay at your current job or invest your career capital elsewhere. First, there are no opportunities to develop rare and valuable skills that would set you apart from the crowd. Second, you do not believe in the job’s vision and mission. Third, the job requires you to collaborate with people you dislike. If your current job contains any or a combination of these disqualifying characteristics, it may stymie your efforts to build career capital—in this case, you should quit.

Lesson 5: Mike Jackson and Alex Berger

Newport tells the stories of Alex Berger, a successful television writer, and Mike Jackson, a cleantech venture capitalist, to demonstrate the craftsman mindset in action. Berger and Jackson did not focus on passion, but rather used the career capital generated by their jobs to forge a compelling path.

Television writing possesses the valuable and uncommon qualities that people seek in a job: impact, creativity, and control. However, TV writing is a difficult job to obtain due to the high level of competition. After writing episodes for three different shows, Berger eventually sold a pilot to USA Network.

Berger was an avid debater in college and began his career as a website editor for National Lampoon. Lampoon wanted to get into TV production, and Berger jumped at the chance, pitching a show called Master Debaters based on his own experience. Despite being given a budget to present a pilot, Berger’s efforts were futile.

The National Lampoon was not a good fit for him to learn and apply his debater experience, so he quit and went to work for NBC as an assistant to a development executive—he was right in the middle of the action and gained valuable insight into being a writer. Berger joined Commander in Chief as a script assistant to gain firsthand experience with professional TV writers, and he managed to write his first episode before the show was canceled. He kept moving from low-level job to low-level job, building his capital until he landed the USA Network gig.

Jackson, on the other hand, began accumulating work capital before deciding on a career path. Jackson learned valuable skills in understanding how the international carbon market works while helping his professor research the natural gas sector in India during his graduate studies.

Few people in the United States understood the carbon market, and Jackson took advantage of this to launch Village Green. Although Village Green had to close due to a recession, it provided him with the experience he needed to venture into cleantech venture capital.

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Lesson 6: Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is essential for successfully adopting the craftsman mindset. The ten thousand hour rule is a popular practice concept derived from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 best-selling book Outliers. According to Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian writer and speaker, mastery is attained through thousands of hours of practice—10,000 hours being the magic number. The more concentrated you are on difficult tasks, identifying and eliminating weaknesses, the more you will be able to expand your abilities into valuable and rare traits that create valued work.

Gladwell spent ten years honing his skills in the Washington Post newsroom, but when he moved to the New Yorker, he began writing his breakout book, The Tipping Point. It all comes down to a lifetime of deliberate practice that results in excellence.

Berger, for example, capitalized on the debater instinct that drives a constant desire for improvement. He improved his writing skills quickly in order to meet the network’s writing level. Similarly, Jackson threw himself into projects that were beyond his current abilities and worked tirelessly to see them through to completion.

When it comes to acquiring career capital, Newport recommends five key steps: identify your capital type, define what is good and set clear goals, stretch the good beyond what is comfortable, and most importantly, be patient.

Lesson 7: Gaining Control

Newport set his sights on Red Fire Farm in his quest to understand why people end up loving what they do. Ryan Voiland, an Ivy League graduate who chose to buy farmland rather than move to the city, founded this farm. Newport wanted to find out what was so appealing about Ryan and Sarah’s organic farming lifestyle that drew so many people to follow in their footsteps. His goal was to isolate the characteristics of that appeal and incorporate them into his own city life.

Ryan did not pursue his passion, but rather stumbled upon it, and his passion arose as his expertise in that field grew. His interest in agriculture began as a child, when he converted his backyard into a small farm. He went on to study horticulture at Cornell. His decision to enter the farm life was not made on the spur of the moment, but rather drew on his career capital amassed over the years. Newport was looking for a craftsman’s enthusiasm and confidence, which contrasts with Ryan’s otherwise shy personality.

The appeal of Ryan and Sarah’s lifestyle stems from having control over what you do and how you do it—all it’s about autonomy via career capital, which Newport refers to as “the dream-job elixir.” The third rule is to invest career capital in goals such as control. The more power people have over their jobs, the more happiness, engagement, and fulfillment they experience.

Lesson 8: The Control Traps

Even if you have control over your career path, there are traps that threaten to undermine that control. The first trap is that control without career capital is not sustainable—you must always offer something powerful in exchange for such control.

The requirement for career capital is perfectly aligned with Newport’s second rule, which states that career capital is the foundation for creating work you love. After you’ve acquired something rare and valuable, you should invest it in characteristics that make your job better—in this case, control. When you work to turn your skills into rare and valuable assets, you become an important and indispensable member of your team. You can now request additional benefits and establish your own rules—this is the ultimate form of autonomy and control.

However, even if your employers agree to your requests, they will be unhappy, and this will lead to resistance. Any autonomy you request, while beneficial to you, will be of no value to your employers. Resistance will come not only from your employers, but also from friends and family who will question some of your drastic decisions, such as leaving a secure job to work for a start-up.

When you’ve accumulated rare and valuable career capital that gives you meaningful control over your working life, your employer will try to prevent you from making the change you want—this is what Newport refers to as the second control trap.

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Lesson 9: The Law of Financial Viability

Newport spoke with Derek Sivers, a successful entrepreneur, musician, writer, and programmer who overcame the two control traps. And, despite the fact that he was always taking risky and nonconformist steps in his career, he was a control freak.

Sivers made his first risky move in 1992, when he left a good job at Warner Bros. to pursue music full-time. The second risky move he made was to launch CD Baby, a company that assisted independent artists in selling their CDs online, in 1997.

Sivers’ ultimate life rule is to always pursue what scares him but does not weigh him down. When he visited Singapore, he fell in love with the city because it does not try to confine you, but rather serves as a base from which you can explore. When asked how he avoided the control traps, Sivers stated that his number one money principle is that he will only do jobs that people are willing to pay for.

Sivers goes on to say that money is the most transparent value indicator—making more money means creating more value. Newport introduces the “Law of Financial Viability” through Sivers’ ideas about money. This means that if an idea seems interesting enough to pursue, see if people are willing to pay for it. If you discover evidence of their willingness, pursue it; otherwise, move on to the next idea.

Lesson 10: A Clear Mission

Newport discovered another strategy for creating work you love in an interview with Pardis Sabeti, a 35-year-old professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard. Sabeti chose an engaging and active life rather than allowing the harsh and demanding academic life to bring her down.

Sabeti’s happiness, according to Newport, stems from her career being built on a clear and compelling mission, in which she draws energy from her work in the lab to embrace her life beyond it. Sabeti’s clear and motivating mission is to fight old diseases with new technologies.

A mission is a powerful tool for directing your energy toward a useful goal, thereby creating a unified goal for your career. And if you believe your career is truly important to you, you will be unconcerned about the difficulties of your job and instead gain a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. Missions, on the other hand, are tricky endeavors, and organizing your work around a mission does not guarantee success.

Career missions are similar to scientific discoveries and breakthroughs in that they occur when scientists compete to be on the cutting edge of their respective fields. A good career mission is an innovation waiting to be discovered in your field’s adjacent possibilities.

Sabeti told Newport that passion is necessary for happiness; however, and in accordance with his first rule, Sabeti does not believe in predicting what work will lead to passion; passion is developed through the work you do. Sabeti’s career path shifted several times as her interests shifted between mathematics, biology, medicine, and, finally, research. It took a long time and a lot of patience for her to realize what her true mission is: a career in computational genetics to combat ancient diseases.

Newport developed his fourth rule with the help of Sabeti: think small, act big. Sabeti patiently focused her attention on a narrow niche, accumulating the rare and valuable career capital required to go big and establish her career, bringing her occupational happiness.

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Lesson 11: From Idea to Practice

Even if you have the necessary career capital and mission ideas, you must still make the leap between idea and practice—this is a difficult task.

Newport discovered what could be strategized to make the leap from idea to practice while reading Little Bets, a business book written by a former venture capitalist named Peter Sims. Sims investigates successful innovators such as Steve Jobs and innovative companies such as Amazon in his book to discover the reasons for their success. It’s all about placing small, methodical bets to determine which path to take. They achieve the ultimate win and success after a series of failures and victories. The key is to take small steps and move with caution.

A good mission-driven project should be notable in two ways. First, its remarkable characteristics should compel people to notice it, and second, the mission should be launched in a location that encourages this remarking. Newport refers to this as the law of remarkability.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You Review

The book is clearly written for young adults going into the job market, but it can also be applied to people who already have careers and are looking to get out or create a side hustle. Contrary to the vague advice “follow your passion” most of us heard in our youth, Newport debunks this adage. We’ve been following our passion all wrong. According to him, pursuing one’s passions doesn’t necessarily make one happy.

Instead, he proposes that we adopt a “craftsman mindset” and think about how we can contribute to the world rather than how the world can fulfill us. By honing skills that are rare and valuable, we can build up our “career capital.” This is in line with the “deliberate practice” trend that has been gaining traction this decade. Having those skills will make our mission clear.

I’ve always put 110% into everything I do. Some of my hobbies need to be turned into side hustles so I can accumulate more wealth. I am confident that I will be able to use my time wisely to keep improving my skills until the time comes for me to make my big move.

While this pandemic is going on, perhaps it would make sense for us to spend the time building our career capital.

About The Author

Cal Newport is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University and holds a PhD from MIT. He has seven best-selling books to his credit, including A World Without Email, Digital Minimalism, and Deep Work. Newport wrote So Good They Can’t Ignore You to organize his own career confusion—it was an attempt to find the key to happiness in work you love. The first rule, according to Newport, was ingrained in him even before he began his research, while the other three rules came together as he wrote this book.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You Quotes

“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”

 

“craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you. This mindset is how most people approach their working lives.”

 

“If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (“what can the world offer me?”) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (“what can I offer the world?”).”

 

“No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.”

 

“Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands….”

View our larger collection of the best So Good They Can’t Ignore You quotes. 

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