So Good They Can't Ignore You

So Good They Can't Ignore You

I saw this book by Cal Newport on Derek Sivers's list, with a rating of 10/10 and the following review: "A MUST-READ for anyone who is not loving their work, wanting to quit their job, and follow their passion, or not sure what to do next." I picked it up from the library the very next day, and I was not disappointed. Here is a summary of the main points:

Rule #1: Don't follow your passion

  • The passion hypothesis: The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you're passionate about and to then find a job that matches this passion. This widely-held, rarely-questioned belief is wrong.
  • For most people, the path to work they love is messy and indirect -- it does not start with abstractly contemplating a job and then deciding to do it.
  • Job satisfaction has a lot to do with autonomy, competence, and connection to other people, and little to do with pre-existing "passions".
  • The dangers of believing the passion hypothesis: perpetual dissatisfaction with your current job, chronic job-hopping, crippling self-doubt.

Rule #2: Be so good they can't ignore you

  • The passion mindset focuses on what value you're getting from your job. It gets you mired in unanswerable questions like "Who am I?" and "Do I really love the work that I'm doing?" The craftsman mindset focuses instead on what value you're producing in your job. It makes you focus relentlessly on your output, and on becoming "so good they can't ignore you".
  • What makes for satisfying work? Creativity, impact, and control. These jobs are rare and valuable, and to get them, you have to offer something rare and valuable in exchange -- your career capital, in the form of skills you've developed. (In contrast, the passion mindset argues that all you need for a dream job is the courage to pursue it. It completely ignores skills or merit.)
  • Exceptions to applying the craftsman mindset:
    • If your job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
    • If your job focuses on something that is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
    • If your job forces you to work with people you really dislike.
  • Stories of Alex Berger (TV writer) and Mike Jackson (cleantech VC) who love their work, and got there by gradually building up career capital.
  • The key strategy to acquiring career capital is deliberate practice. This means routinely stretching your abilities beyond your comfort level, and seeking ruthless feedback on your performance. (Deliberate practice is supposed to feel uncomfortable, in contrast to doing things you already know how to do well, which is fun.)
  • Musicians, athletes, and chess players engage in deliberate practice, because that's what it takes to succeed in their fields, which are winner-take-all. In contrast, knowledge workers who just show up and put in the hours tend to reach a level of basic competence at which they plateau. This is actually good news -- if you're a knowledge worker and you make a habit of deliberate practice, you'll quickly outperform your peers.

Rule #3: Turn down a promotion

  • What do you do once you have enough career capital? Invest it in having control over what you do and how you do it. This is a key component of a satisfying job. It increases happiness, engagement, and your sense of fulfillment.
  • Control trap #1: Control that's acquired without career capital is not sustainable. Example: Quitting college or quitting your job to pursue some dream occupation in which you have no experience, and in which you end up failing.
  • Control trap #2: Once you have acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life, you've become so valuable to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change. Example: You want to downshift to 30h/week, but instead they offer you a promotion that gives you more money and more responsibility and longer hours.
  • In both control traps, you encounter resistance. How do you know if you're in trap #1 (and the resistance is useful) or in trap #2 (and you should ignore the resistance)? Use Derek Sivers's law of financial viability: If you're thinking of doing something that will introduce more control into your work life, do it only if you have evidence that people are willing to pay for it. Examples: Your side project has paying customers, or your employer is willing to keep you even if you drop to 30h/week. Money is a "neutral indicator of value".

Rule #4: Think small, act big

  • Besides control, another source of work satisfaction is building your career on a clear and compelling mission.
  • You need mastery in your field before you can formulate a sustainable mission. A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough, in that it comes from the "adjacent possible" (see "Where Good Ideas Come From", by Steven Johnson). You need to be at the cutting edge of your field before you can see what's in the "adjacent possible".
  • You maximize your chances of success by making little bets -- small, achievable projects that return concrete feedback. Use these experiments to pick a direction that is most likely to yield outstanding results. (As opposed to making a big plan and betting everything on it, without testing the waters first.)
  • For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable: it should compel people who see it to spread the word, and it should be launched in a venue that encourages such word-spreading (examples: academic publications, TV, open-source community).

Other notes

  • I found rule #4 to be less clear and convincing than the ones before.
  • The author uses an "hour-tally routine" where he counts the hours spent each month on deliberate practice.
  • The author's "little bets" are projects small enough to be completed in a month or less, and he keeps only two or three active at any time.
  • Summary: "Working right trumps finding the right work."