So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport


The common advice for finding a compelling career that you actually want to work in can be explained as the Passion Hypothesis: Being happy with your job requires you to know what you are passionate about and then find a job that matches that passion. Newport argues the exact opposite and that working right trumps finding the right work. Job satisfaction is highly complex but matching your job to your passion is not one of the reasons people are happy in their careers.

Amy Wrzesniewski makes a distinction between a job, a career, and a calling. A job is a way to pay the bills, a career is a path toward better work, and a calling is work that is part of your life and identity.

Self Determination Theory tells us that there are three components to feeling motivated, in work or otherwise. Autonomy, competence, and relatedness. To feel intrinsically motivated about work, we need to feel that we have control over our day, our actions are important, feel that we are good at what we do, and feel connected to others.

Building a career that you will love requires that you adapt the craftsman mindset. Focus on what value you are producing in your work and what value you can offer the world. This is in contrast to the passion mindset where you focus on what value your job offers you and what the world can offer you.1

Newport then offers three traits that define great work: creativity, impact, and control. To build a meaningful career, you should pursue one that has these three traits. In order to attain these three valuable traits in your job, you need something of equal value to trade in in return. We trade in rare and valuable skills (our career capital) to buy desirable career traits. Adopting the craftsman mindset is a great strategy for getting more career capital.

To become a good craftsman, deliberate practice is necessary. Deliberate practice is an “activity designed for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” This deliberate practice is how people break past the performance plateau and are able to provide way more value than their peers. That is, they gain acquire way more career capital for later trading.

Deliberate practice can be applied to any kind of work through five steps: 1) Decide what capital market you are in, 2) Identify your capital type, 3) Define “Good”, 4) Stretch and destroy, and 5) Be patient.

\1) Your capital market can be either winner-takes-all or auction. With winner-takes-all, all that matters is your performance. There is one type of career capital and many people fighting for it. In an auction market, there are many different kinds of career capital and skills that will land you the job. 2) Then, look for gates that are open for you to build career capital. This is much more efficient than starting to build career capital from scratch. 3) Set clear goals for where to apply deliberate practice. Define what “good” looks like in your field. 4) Use deliberate practice to stretch your skills past what is comfortable and past the performance plateau. This is not easy and will be difficult and uncomfortable. 5) Building career capital takes time and consistent effort. It is a marathon, not a sprint.

One of the best things you can invest your career capital in is control. Control over what you do increases engagement and sense of fulfillment in your career. However, there are two traps that you can fall into in your pursuit for control.

The first is trying to acquire control too early and without career capital. You first have to have rare and valuable skills to trade in for control, otherwise it isn’t sustainable. Think of those travel bloggers that try and have a life of control where they blog and run their website from wherever they are in the world. They often don’t add much value (i.e. don’t have career capital) and therefore don’t make any money and their dream falls apart.

The second trap is acquiring enough career capital such that you become so valuable to your employer that they try to prevent you from acquiring more control. You put in all of this effort and add so much value to your current job that they offer you more money to prevent you from switching to a job with more control.

One tool for avoiding these traps is to use the law of financial viability: Ask yourself if people will pay for a potential pursuit for more control in your working life. This is helpful in determining whether or not you have enough career capital to succeed with the pursuit.

Having a strong mission (not a calling or passion) is another crucial element in finding meaningful work. Against common thought, missions are difficult to find. Yet again, career capital is necessary to find a meaningful mission. Big ideas are almost exclusively found in the “adjacent possible2”, the foggy area just beyond the cutting edge. Therefore, you need the career capital to get to the cutting edge to find a strong mission in the adjacent possible.

Finding a mission also isn’t a big plan that you follow the path to and find sitting there. You have to search for it by making “little bets.” Do small experiments (less than a month or two) that offer concrete feedback to learn critical information about your direction. This way, you don’t waste time and effort going down a fruitless path and you have a higher likelihood of finding a successful mission.

Lastly, your mission needs to be remarkable. Your project must compel people to want to remark about it and should be deployed in an area that supports this remarking. Seth Godin refers to these as purple cows. Your projects should stand out and compel people to market it for you by chattering about it.

In conclusion, forget about trying to discover your passion and hope that you can get a job that matches said passion. Become a craftsman with rare and valuable skills that you later invest into your career. This investment will buy you control and a meaningful mission which will lead to a fruitful career.

My Thoughts

The first part of this book really went against everything I have ever been taught about finding meaningful work. I have always been told to just follow my passion and the money and satisfaction will follow.

I really like now having something to call the aspects of the craftsman mindset. I try my hardest to add value wherever I can in my life. Now I have a good metaphor and specific label for thinking about how I approach doing that.

Same thing for career capital. I like to think about skills, frameworks, and tools that I have in my brain as a toolbox that I pick and choose from as I go through life to see if one of them helps my current problem. I have never really applied the same thinking to a career until now.

  1. I am currently a Peace Corps Volunteer so I was reminded of JFK’s Inaugural Address when I read this: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” ↩︎

  2. Term coined by Stuart Kauffman. ↩︎

Last Modified: 2023-06-04