This book addresses the question: Why do some people end up doing work that they love, while others don’t? Through personal interviews and third-party research, Cal Newport examined the variables, facts and myths behind fulfilling work and how you can find and do work that you love. In this summary of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, we’ll outline the key findings and recommendations in the book.
In the book, Newport shares how he went about answering the question above and the 4 rules he discovered:
(i) Don’t Follow Your Passion
(ii) Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You
(iii) Turn Down a Promotion
(iv) Think Small, Act Big.
In our summary, we’ve organized the key ideas into a 4-part process which you can use to think about and build a meaningful, fulfilling career:
Debunk the Passion Myth
Many people believe that to be happy at work, you should figure out what you’re passionate about, then find a job that matches that passion. This is the “passion hypothesis”. In the book / full summary, we explain why the passion hypothesis is flawed (i.e. passion does not drive career success), why mastery is more important for career success and motivation, and share examples to illustrate that. [You can read more about the 3 factors that drive intrinsic motivation—autonomy, competence and relatedness/purpose—in the book “Drive” by Daniel Pink.]
In fact, Newport argues that “follow your passion” not only doesn’t work, but is actually dangerous; people who try to follow their passions can end up switching jobs regularly, feeling lost and frustrated when they fail to find their dream jobs. Hence, the first step is to throw out the passion hypothesis and the search for a perfect job or career. Then, use the next 3 steps to guide yourself to the work you’d love.
Build Your Career Capital
From his research, Newport found that fulfilling and meaningful work involves 3 key ingredients: creativity, impact, and control. He argues that such such great jobs are extremely rare, so by the law of economics, if you want a great job, you must also offer something equally valuable and scarce in exchange. He calls this “The Career Capital Theory of Great Work“. In the book / complete summary, we explain what it means to adopt a craftsman mindset and apply deliberate practice to attain mastery and earn a great job. Newport also shares various examples of the craftsman mindset in real-life and a 5-step strategy to become a craftsman.
Gain Control Progressively
Perceived autonomy or control over your work—both in terms of what you do and how you do it—can increase job satisfaction and fulfillment. Hence, to love what you do, it’s important to gain control over your work. However, in the quest to gain freedom or control, many people fall into one of 2 control traps:
• They try to pursue control without career capital e.g. quit their jobs before they have the skills/experience to succeed in a new venture; or
• They fail to exert control despite having the necessary career capital, e.g. they get convinced to accept promotions that tie them down further into their current jobs.
The challenge is to get your timing right, so you don’t push ahead too early nor be trapped even though you have the capital. The trick here is to apply the Law of Financial Viability, i.e. only seek to increase control in an area when you have evidence that people will pay you for it. In the book / full summary, we elaborate on the 2 traps, the Law of Financial Viability, and share examples of people who fell prey to the traps vs those who successfully gained more and more freedom/control over their work while enjoying the financial rewards.
Find and Realize your Mission
Besides having control of your work/life, having a clear mission gives meaning and fulfillment to what you do. Unfortunately, just like how you can’t use a pre-existing passion to find your ideal career, you can’t accurately define your mission until you’ve accumulated enough work and life experiences. Instead, Newport recommends that you take baby steps and use concrete experiments till you get your “aha” moment; then, with clarity on your mission (and the career capital to achieve it), you can take bolder steps to realize your career mission. In the book / full 13-page summary, we explain the concept of an “adjacent possible”, why it’s essential to gradually build experience and career capital before making the big leap, and how to go about doing that.
In sum, to find/create the work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills. Then, apply this capital to progressively gain control and mission-clarity, so you can eventually have the blend of autonomy, mastery and purpose that makes work truly fulling and enjoyable.
Other Details in “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”
In the book, Newport includes:
• Various examples and anecdotes of his research and interviews;
• Career profile summaries of key people/examples presented in the book (such as a public radio host, a modern farmer, renowned glass blower, a professor of evolutionary biology); and
• How he applied the 4 rules above to his own quest (which culminated in this book).
Find out how to do meaningful and fulfilling work that you love!