So Good They Can't Ignore You

by Cal Newport

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Publisher: Grand Central
Copyright: September 2012
ISBN: 1-4555-0910-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 237

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The problem area of task management, mental focus, and prioritization is vast and sprawling, full of techniques that work only in some situations, in some moods, for some people, or with some types of tasks. Time and attention management books therefore work best if the peculiar focus of that book happens to align with a set of problems the reader currently has. I occasionally survey the field for something that speaks to whatever corner of the problem I'm currently working on, and then chase that thread for as long as it seems useful.

Cal Newport is my latest thread. I encountered Deep Work while feeling frazzled and pulled in too many directions to do a good job at any one thing. It laid out a helpful approach to problems of focus and multitasking (enough so that I read it twice), so I started reading backwards through Newport's blog and picked up this earlier book. It's not his first, but before So Good They Can't Ignore You, Newport focused on practical study tips for high school and college students. I may read those someday as curiosities, but I doubt they'll be as interesting to me now, more than twenty years out of college.

Going backwards through an author's writing like this is a bit of a risk, since it's relatively common in this genre of non-fiction for an author to have only one book I find interesting. For example, David Allen's Getting Things Done is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in time management systems as long as you don't focus exclusively on that one system, but it's safe to skip everything else he's written. Thankfully, Newport appears to be an exception. His blog is full of interesting tidbits and is worth an archive trawl, and So Good They Can't Ignore You is a broader survey of what it means to have a good career and how to get there. I think it's worth reading alongside the more focused advice of Deep Work.

One caveat in all that follows: Newport is a computer science professor and is writing primarily for people with similar resources, so this book is a bit relentlessly upper-middle class. The audience of this book is primarily white-collar knowledge workers with college degrees, and its framework becomes increasingly dubious outside of that social class.

The core argument of So Good They Can't Ignore You is that "follow your passion" is awful career advice that you should ignore. More specifically, Newport argues that it is far more common to enjoy something because you're good at it than to be good at something because you enjoy it. Initial passion is therefore a risky and incomplete guide. This doesn't imply that you need to do work that you hate; in fact, if you dig deep enough you may find that you hate that work because you're not good at some less obvious but still essential part of it. It does imply that every career is going to have bits that you don't enjoy, that learning something new has inherently uncomfortable parts and is therefore not always something you'll feel passionate about, and that passion is more often a reward at the end of a journey than a signpost at the start. Therefore, rather than looking for work that immediately excites you, look for work that interests you (a lower bar) and that you are capable of learning how to do well.

On the surface, it's odd that I got as much out of this book as I did, given that I'm the poster child for following one's passion into a career. I'm working in the field I decided I wanted to pursue when I was around eight years old, with essentially no wobbles along the way. But, digging a little deeper, I've accidentally followed Newport's approach in my choices of career focus. I never set out to work in computer security, for example; I just did enough of it, first by happenstance and later by choice, that I became good at it.

The drawback of the unreliability of passion is that most people will not experience a sudden emotional epiphany that guides them into their ideal career, or may find that such epiphanies point them the wrong direction. The advantage Newport points out, and backs up with numerous anecdotal examples, is that choosing a career is less fraught than the passion approach would lead one to believe, and that your initial emotional reactions are less critical than you might fear. There is not one and only one career waiting for you that you must discover. While the possibilities are not completely unbounded, there are numerous careers at which you could succeed with sufficient practice, and any of them can lead to a happy and rewarding work life. Rather than searching for that one career that sets off a special spark, find a career that you can become good at and that people will pay you for, and then put in the work to build your skills. This will give you the resources to shape your work into something you're passionate about.

Newport's writing has a bit of "eat your vegetables" practicality: learning something will be uncomfortable at times, you have to put in the work before you'll get the rewards, and (specifically for careers) you have to test your goals against some measure of external value. But Newport also has a disarming and thoughtful way of talking about the overall arc of a career that avoids making this sound dreary and emphasizes the rewards along the way. His delight in the inherent merits of work done well shines through, as does his focus on a career as a process of taking control over one's own work.

That concept of autonomy as a career goal was the part of So Good They Can't Ignore You that most caught my attention. Newport's argument here is that how you do your work has as much impact on career satisfaction and overall happiness as what you work on. Autonomy, flexibility, and choice in one's work often translates into joy and passion for the work. But there are two control traps you have to avoid: trying to take control with insufficient career capital to back it up, and being prevented by others from spending your career capital on more control.

The first trap is the more obvious one: you need some external validation that you're good enough to start setting some of the terms of your own work. Newport recommends financial rewards as a feedback mechanism: if you ask people to pay you for your work, in money or other things of obvious value (increased vacation, for instance), you're likely to get a more honest (and therefore more actionable) measure of how good you are at your craft. The anti-capitalist in me wanted to argue with the financial focus, but Newport is very good at keeping his argument narrow. People may have a lot of social motives for praising your work uncritically. To improve, you need a feedback cycle that's more objective and is willing to tell you when you're not yet good enough to take the next career step. In our current society, one good way to force that feedback cycle is to ask for money, in one form or another.

The second trap is more subtle and very useful for where I'm at personally. Once you are good enough to have accumulated the career capital to start taking more control over your work, you're also good enough that your employer will want to prevent you from doing this. They instead will want to maximize your benefit to them, or give you the kind of control that comes with more responsibility rather than more freedom. (Newport titles this section of the book "Turn Down a Promotion.") You may have to force matters and make your employer somewhat unhappy to win the type of autonomy that brings more personal happiness.

Newport's own summary of So Good They Can't Ignore You is:

To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers.

No one model of careers will capture all the nuance that goes into work, but I'm particularly fond of this one. It combines a cautious practicality with a clear-eyed vision of the end game that doesn't confuse the journey with the destination. The point is not to have rare and valuable skills; the point is to have a satisfying and compelling career, and the skills are a tool. Deep Work was focused on how to build a certain class of skills that are valuable in some types of work. So Good They Can't Ignore You is about the bigger picture: what are you using those skills to achieve, and why?

Those are big questions without any one universal answer, but Newport is thinking about them from an angle that shed some light on some things I'm mulling over. If the same is true of you, I think you'll find this book worth reading.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-09-02

Last modified and spun 2018-09-03