[book review] So good they can’t ignore you

[book review] So good they can’t ignore you

Cal Newport claims that “‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous advice.” In his book “So good they can’t ignore you (referral program link)” he convinces the reader that the only way to build a fulfilling career is getting great at what you do.

What does a “fulfilling career” mean to Cal? In his opinion, such a career gives you three things: control, impact, and the ability to use your creativity. I wholeheartedly agree with that point of view. If you have a different opinion, perhaps you should not read that book.

Career Capital

Cal Newport says that such a perfect career is possible only when you acquire enough “career capital” which means that first, you need knowledge and experience, then you can start looking for something that gives you control, impact, and a possibility to use your creativity.

Gaining any knowledge and repeating the same experience over and over again is not enough. Cal describes a mindset which he called a “craftsman mindset.” The crucial part of that mindset is “deliberate practice.”

It is a practice based on the idea that you must choose a goal that makes the exercise difficult and uncomfortable but also provides immediate feedback. The goal is to stretch your abilities and reach for something which is out of your current skill level. It is not the same as “working hard.” You can work hard and do the same thing every day. That does not help you build the career capital.

Musicians, athletes, and chess players know all about deliberate practice. Knowledge workers, however, do not. This is great news for knowledge workers: If you can introduce this strategy into your working life, you can vault past your peers in your acquisition of career capital. (…) If you can figure out how to integrate deliberate practice into your own life, you have the possibility of blowing past your peers in your value, as you’ll likely be alone in your dedication to systematically getting better. That is, deliberate practice might provide the key to quickly becoming so good they can’t ignore you. To successfully adopt the craftsman mindset, therefore, we have to approach our jobs in the same way that (…) Garry Kasparov his chess training — with a dedication to deliberate practice. — “So good they can’t ignore you”

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Mission

When you finally become an expert in your field. Now it is the time to use your “career capital.” You can trade it for gaining some more control in your life, for example by limiting your workweek to four days.

At this point, you can start focusing on impact. Now you need a mission. A real mission, not a corporate kool-aid mission. You need something that makes you want to wake up every day and work hard.

You should not choose the mission before you reach the cutting edge of your field. If you do it too early, it will be either not inspiring enough or way beyond your ability.

A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough — it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge — the only place where these missions become visible. — “So good they can’t ignore you”

How do you transform your mission and your career capital into a great success? You do it by a series of small, achievable projects which Cal call “little bets” that explore as many possibilities as you can.

He also has a piece of advice regarding choosing such projects. Those projects should have “marketing potential.” When you finish, it should be possible to showcase them to many people, and the result should astonish them.

Is the Cal’s message valuable? It seems to be. It may give you the motivation to keep working and gaining new skills and expertise when you feel stuck. Cal does not promise you an “overnight success.” Also, he does not tell you that the world owes you anything. Quite the contrary, Cal claims that if you want a fulfilling life, you must have something valuable to offer first.

Because of that, you can’t have a neutral opinion about this book. You will either love it and feel inspired by Cal or hate every single word.
I love such polarizing books.


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Bartosz Mikulski
Bartosz Mikulski * data scientist / software engineer * conference speaker * organizer of School of A.I. meetups in Poznań * co-founder of Software Craftsmanship Poznan & Poznan Scala User Group