I’ve read “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport. Here is my impression (pretty mixed and rather on the negative side) and summary.
The book felt weird and very wordy. Basically the author developed their own theory about what makes one to like their job and how to reach this state. These ideas seemed reasonable and somewhat obvious. However, there was no attempt to prove anything any only ~10 anecdotes instead, which do illustrate the point, but does not prove it. One could easily ignore all the anecdotes. Also closer to the end the book started listing somewhat random advice from other books. Overall, the content could have been compressed 10-20x without losing much.
Score: 2/5 (this wasn’t a complete waste of time, but quite wasteful, I can’t recommend this book).
“Follow your passion” is harmful
We are used to hear “follow your passion” advice from everywhere as a way to choose your career. However, this is wrong. Even Steve Jobs said the same advice, but his own story was different. If he had followed his passion, there would have been no Apple. Do what Steve Jobs did, not what he said to do.
“Follow your passion” has been started with a book “What Color is Your Parachute?” by Bolles.
Passion advice is dangerous, because it makes you feel that there is a perfect job and that you will immediately recognize it. This leads to excessive career hoping and unhappiness.
Self Determination Theory explains intrinsic work motivation needs:
- Autonomy - control over your day and feeling that your actions are important
- Competence - feeling that you are good at what you are doing
- Relatedness - feeling connection to other people
Thus, a great work requires creativity, impact and control. Jobs with these features are rare and valuable. As a result, due to supply & demand you have to provide something rare and valuable in return (e.g. good skills). The author calls such skills “career capital”.
Mindsets: passion vs craftsmanship
In contrast to passion mindset (focusing on what a job offers you), there is craftsmanship mindset (focusing on what you produce).
In the passion mindset - answering “do I really love this?” and “what do I like?” is nearly impossible and leads to unhappiness. Also this forces you to focus on what you don’t like, but all entry level jobs are not perfect (low autonomy and few challenges).
Passion mindset claims that you need only courage to start your dream job, which will have creativity, impact and autonomy. Craftsmanship mindset requires you to build your skills first (“to be come so good they can’t ignore you”) to earn creativity, impact and autonomy.
Some jobs are just not good for craftsmanship mindset. The job is like that if it has any of these criteria:
- one cannot build skill in it to distinguish themselves from others
- one finds the results they produce useless or even harmful
- one is forced to work with people they don’t like.
Why are some guitar players not that good, while others are much better even after the same amount of practice? They’ve practiced differently. If you don’t get out of your comfort level during practice, you won’t develop your skill that well. Instead you should do deliberate practice - focus on what you do badly and use immediate feedback to correct.
Steps to do deliberate practice:
- Identify the career capital market you are in - winner-takes-all or an auction
- Winner-takes-all - only one skill matters and everyone competes for it.
- Auction - many skills are important, everyone can propose a combination of skills.
- Identify which career capital you need to pursue (i.e. which skill or skills).
- Define “good”, i.e. your feedback criteria and clear goals
- “Stretch”. Practice outside of your comfort zone and accept feedback even if it disagrees with your feelings. You may think that what you did is perfect, but you may be not the one deciding in the end and then your opinion won’t matter at all.
- Be patient - improving takes time.
Use open gates - some opportunities which you happened to have e.g. by chance - to gain career capital much faster.
Gaining control at work
Giving people control over what and how they do increases their happiness, satisfactions and fulfillment. Once you have career capital you can use it to gain control in your work. Gaining control before you have enough career capital is dangerous. I.e. you can start doing what you really want, but no one will find it valuable (e.g. a startup, which no one finds interesting).
Once you have enough career capital to pursue more control (i.e. become valuable enough), your current employer will try to prevent you from gaining this control, because this has negative impact for them (less control of you, possibility to lose you). They would rather use your career capital further and on the old terms.
Thus, courage is important to face this resistance. However, you should be valuable enough as well.
The Law of Financial Viability
How to identify whether you have enough career capital to go for more control? If you have an idea how to gain more control, seek evidence whether people are willing to pay you for it. If yes, proceed. Otherwise move on. “Willing to pay” may have different meaning, e.g. they actually pay you or you get a loan or you get hired.
“Do what people are willing to pay for” Derek Sivers.
Unless people are ready to pay you for an idea, it is not an idea you should go after.
Building career on some mission can make it more fulfilling.
“Adjacent possible” - a set of discoveries that are possible to make from the current state of science. E.g. discovering oxygen required precise weight scales and thinking about air as something not void. These 2 inventions moved “oxygen discovery” into “adjacent possible”. This concept is considered in greater detail in “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson.
To explore “adjacent possible” one has to reach the cutting edge. Finding a career mission is like a scientific breakthrough. Reaching the cutting edge is equivalent to building career capital.
Instead of going for one large bold idea, one should do small incremental “little bets”, which will mostly fail and only sometimes succeed. This way one can gather feedback. Each bet should take approximately 2 months and be either successful or fail. Each bet should follow your mission idea.
Career capital helps to identify a good mission, little bets help to achieve it.
Law of remarkability
Mission driven projects need to be remarkable. People who encounter them should want to “remark” about it, i.e. share. Projects should also be launched in a venue which supports such remarks (i.e. allows and promotes sharing). “Purple Cow” by Seth Godin talks about this.