Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

by Swimmer9636 min read23rd Apr 20149 comments

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Book ReviewsPractical
Personal Blog

Very brief summary of main themes

1)    “Follow your passion” is terrible advice for most people. Don’t try to find your “true calling” because it’s a false concept.

2)    The craftsman’s mindset: build skills through deliberate practice.

3)    The importance of control: use your career capital to ask for and obtain autonomy, and other things that make jobs pleasant.

4)    Have a mission: once you have skills, use them to explore options and find something that can be your life’s work and driving motivation.


Introduction 

This book came to me highly recommended, and didn’t quite live up to its reputation. It’s not that I disagree with anything, but Newport seems to be trying to claim that his point is more new and exciting than I think it actually is. The style reeks of self-help manual. (This isn’t a thing wrong with the book itself, just a fact about my personal taste). Still. It has some points that would be new to me if not for LW/CFAR, and it frames them all together in a tidy package, which may not have happened before. I would definitely recommend it to the average smart high school student.


Favourable Points

1) Promoting Hufflepuff. The world needs more people making hard work and conscientiousness look shiny.

2) The concept of deliberate practice, associated with a career. Deliberate practice doesn’t seem to be an obvious concept, and I’ll get behind any popular book that explains it. 

3) Pointing out that mastery can create its own enjoyment; that it’s possible to grow to love an arbitrary activity, if it’s challenging and you can take pride in your skill. Example: the author quoted a study1 that asked people whether they considered their work to be a job (just a way to pay the bills), a career (a path towards better work), or a calling (a vital part of your life and identity.) Looking at a single occupation, college administrative assistants, the study found that the employees were roughly evenly split between calling it a job, career, or calling, and that the strongest predictive factor was time spent in the position. Although there’s a possible sample bias here (employees whose needs aren’t satisfied will keep looking for other opportunities and leave if they find them), it’s still an important point.

4) The fungibility of this thing called “career capital.” You don’t have to find the perfect dream job in order to be happy; you can find a job that provides value to society and is bearable, build up enough skill that you’re indispensable, and then bargain for the things that actually make jobs good over the long term.

5) Specific examples of people exploring opportunities and using their career capital in creative ways. For example, the book mentions a marketing executive, Joe Duffy, who wanted to work creativity into his working life–but instead of quitting and trying to make a living as an artist, he build skills and a reputation in brand icons and logos, until he was offered a job at a company that gave him the creative freedom he wanted. The anecdotes still aren’t that specific, but they feed the availability heuristic with examples.


Downvotes

The author disparagingly discusses the popular literature on career choice. I think that the “don’t follow your passion” point is less novel than he’s making it out to be. I read a lot of self-help career books as a young teenager, like ‘What Color is your Parachute’, and I wasn’t left with a belief that I ought to follow my passion. If I had been, I’d have gone into music or physics, not nursing. I don’t think that “do what you love, and the money will follow” is by any means the common sense advice peddled by life coaches.

I’m more prepared to believe that pop culture says there’s a tradeoff between doing a poorly paying job that you can love, or a well-paid job that will be boring; that you may have to make a choice about which one you want. There are solid economic reasons for this to be true.

I’m not sure to what degree the author cherry-picked his examples, but it would have been very easy to do, even without realizing. The examples break down into ‘naive, idealistic people who daydreamed about being famous and quit their jobs to pursue fantasies’, and ‘driven hard-working people who pursued ambitious careers and were lucky enough to succeed big.’

If he’s trying to make the point that drive and hard work matter more than idealism, I am the easiest person to make that point to...and I still don’t like the way he makes it. Where are the ambitious people who burned out and quit? The unambitious people who found steady jobs and raised families and had gardens in their backyards and lived happily ever after? The rest of the people in the world who don’t fit clearly into one category or another?

I guess maybe my true rejection is that none of the people profiled were nurses, or anything in that reference class. The book, however it claims not to, seems to implicitly reinforce the idea that there are “good” jobs–shiny high status jobs that anyone would find impressive–and then there are jobs like community centre manager and social worker and librarian and nurse, which aren’t even worth mentioning.  

 

Thoughts on learning coefficients, economic demand, and how the book applies to my life

This isn’t mentioned in the book explicitly, but it’s a thought that came to me afterwards and feels related.

The “career capital”, or bargaining power, that you have in your job depends on how valuable you are to your employer. This, in turns, depends on several things: one of them is your skill relative to the other people they could be employing, but another factor is the supply/demand balance of people with your qualifications.

I’m pretty good at writing, and I suspect I could get a lot better if I spent the time. But I’m by no means an above-average nurse, even for my reference class of nurses with just under a year of experience.

I still have a ton of bargaining power, probably much more than I’d have in any job that involved my writing skills. Being a writer is cool, and lots of people want to do it, but there’s not that much need in the world for writers...and so it’s hard to make a living, even if you’re a very good writer. Nursing, on the other hand, is unglamorous and hard, and the supply/demand mismatch is in the opposite direction. As a result, less than a year out of university, I have a lot of something like career capital. I’ve managed to bargain for a flexible part-time position that lets me work basically as many or as few hours as I want to (at the cost of a weird schedule), with arbitrary flexibility to take time off and travel. I could move to approximately anywhere in the world and have a job on a few months’ notice. And I happen to like my job a lot, so I win all around. The author doesn’t mention this type of career capital at all.

Still, I guess the thing that I’m doing with my career capital–getting a flex schedule so that I can do shiny exciting things like volunteering for CFAR, without having to give up income and stability–is probably something that Newport would approve of would approve of.


References

1. Wrzesniewski, McCauley, Rozin, et al. “Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People’s Relations to Their Work,” Journal of Research in Personality 31 (1997): 21?33.

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9 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:17 PM
New Comment

I also recommend How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, by Scott Adams. From Amazon's book description:

• Goals are for losers. Systems are for winners.
• “Passion” is bull. What you need is personal energy.
• A combination of mediocre skills can make you surprisingly valuable.
• You can manage your odds in a way that makes you look lucky to others.

...I seem to automatically feel a wave of dislike towards any book that contains a sentence using the word "losers."

However, I will still check that book out.

“Passion” is bull. What you need is personal energy.

Can you clarify the distinction between the two, maybe by tabooing both concepts?

Does 'system' basically mean structuring your life in a way that makes it more likely that you will be productive?

Although there’s a possible sample bias here (employees whose needs aren’t satisfied will keep looking for other opportunities and leave if they find them)

I think the result is entirely explained by this bias, and the fact that many people take administrative jobs like that right out of college simply because they can't find other jobs.

Specific examples of people exploring opportunities and using their career capital in creative ways. For example, the book mentions a marketing executive, Joe Duffy, who wanted to work creativity into his working life–but instead of quitting and trying to make a living as an artist, he build skills and a reputation in brand icons and logos, until he was offered a job at a company that gave him the creative freedom he wanted.

This anecdote is extremely unusual, for this to happen Joe had to become famous enough that his ideal job was simply offered to him. This is very unlikely for the average person in a job they find boring. They would do better trying to somehow alter their job to become more interesting. This is similar to your later complaint that there weren't any jobs mentioned positively in your reference class of nursing.

Don’t try to find your “true calling” because it’s a false concept.

and

Have a mission: once you have skills, use them to explore options and find something that can be your life’s work and driving motivation.

Initially sounded like a contradiction - "your life’s work and driving motivation" just sounds like "calling" - but the point may be that you should first build skills and then based on that basis find your calling.

the point may be that you should first build skills and then based on that basis find your calling.

I think Newport would still argue with the word 'calling,' as it generally implies that there's some external thing that you are drawn to that is recognizable from far away. "Your life's work and driving motivation" is a much more internal thing- once you have developed the skills and craftsmanship, then you use your creativity on yourself.

He argues that you actively choose a mission instead of passively finding the thing that's your true calling.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

Yeah, but IME there's still not really any such thing as a personal mission. There's a lot that actually needs doing in the world, there's a decently sized set of things that pay enough to live prudently (ie: be able to plan for the future), and there's a small set of things you're actually good at (which can be enlarged by expenditure of effort, but will always be small relative to the other two sets). If you are lucky, at some point an intersection between these three sets will arise, and you can call it a "mission" or whatever, but really it's just an intersection between the sets.

In my opinion (once again), there's no reason your job has to pay you in money, warm-fuzzies, and wider-scale utilons all at once, and in fact our current socioeconomic system simply cannot arrange itself for a supermajority of the population to pursue such unrealistically wonderful careers.

And of course, seen from the other direction, if you successfully finished a Life's Mission, accomplished some vast or even world-changing goal, then unless you've achieved Total World Optimization, it's an absolute guarantee that the world has many important tasks remaining to be done, and you were always lying to yourself that you had one mission to carry out. Everyone has all the things to do, of course, but we all take it in the doses we can handle at our level of capability and privilege.