Cal Newport
So Good They Can’t Ignore You

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

by Cal Newport, 305 pages

Finished on 19th of February, 2023
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Don't follow your passion, it often leads to disappointment. Instead, master a valuable skill for more control. Successful people have a mission based on experience and knowledge. Deliberate practice and skill development create more opportunities.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Following your passion in order to find a fulfilling and happiness inducing career most often leads to disappointment and is therefore terrible advice; one should rather identify a talent or otherwise valuable and marketable skill and focus on becoming better at that, because mastery gives us control.
  2. People who are exceptionally happy with their careers often have a mission they’re following, but these missions are only sustainably created with years of experience in the field and a grasp of what next breakthroughs are possible, as opposed to simply defining a mission before knowing anything about the field.
  3. Even when you’re doing well in your field, the habit of deliberate practice and learning to develop your own skills gives you more options and presents you with more opportunities.

🎨 Impressions

Cal Newport published this book at age 30, which is admittedly quite young for someone to give career advice in a book. He did have a Ph. D. from MIT though and had just started to become an assistant professor at the renowned Georgetown University in Washington DC. At the time, he had already published three popular advice books on studying more efficiently. Before reading this breakthrough book of his, I had already read two of his later books, namely Digital Minimalism and Deep Work. I liked both book’s messages and since So Good They Can’t Ignore You continued to pop up in my bubble, I felt the need to read it as well.

What I’ve said about the other two books, can be said about this one, too: Its density feels appropriate, there are very few wasted sentences and it’s not longer than it needed to be. It’s a quick read and what struck me most was his style to start the chapters with a little up-front announcement of what they will be about. This makes it easily skimmable, if you’re into that. I’m not, but I liked the approach to give readers the choice.

The book is clearly written for the stereotypical Millennial who enters the job market expecting immediate fulfillment on every day, and quits if they don’t get what they want from the job.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • I wish I could have read this before starting at my first job in 2007, but that was five years before the book’s publication. Still, I’m happy I have read it now. It’s the type of advice you don’t really want to hear but which you need to hear. Especially that memorable sentence of how following your passion is terrible advice really resonated with me and made me a lot happier about my current situation. Because although I went through that phase of disillusionment with my first job like that stereotype, I then focussed on building my skillset and making it more valuable to customers who were increasingly seeing the value in it as well. So after all, I did what Cal told us to do.
  • Still, over all these years I often couldn’t help but think about that my company’s work isn’t really what I’m passionate about and that that’s a problem. It’s good and solid work, yes, but I don’t have a burning desire to be the best and work all-nighters and reach the top, whatever that is. I often felt like I was missing something and that a truly fulfilling career was still waiting for me somewhere. It was great to read Cal’s message on how that’s not a problem and that either passion can and will arrive if I keep looking out for it in adjacent fields of my expertise, or that I can still be passionate about other things in life – it doesn’t have to be my job. And there you have it: here’s coding and writing on my blog, doing my endurance races, writing my book reviews – those are my passions and that’s fine.
  • I was interested on reading what Cal has learned about a mission driven career focus. Being on the lookout for a mission in my career has also been a focus point of mine in recent years. I had quite a few ideas and established some of them in my company, even founded a new company recently which is centered around a clearly stated mission. I found it great to hear that most mission-driven people have gotten to the point of having a clearly defined mission by staying focused on working and becoming better at it over the years and along the way making lots of small bets in several directions to see how they turn out, refining their ideas more and more. The point that a missions needs to be “remarkable” was also important for me to hear. It can’t just be anything that everyone else is doing and it also doesn’t have to be so big it will drastically change the world. The former is boring and unnecessary, the latter is incredibly rare to succeed.

📔 Highlights & Notes


When it comes to creating work you love, following your passion is not particularly useful advice.

In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.

Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

[Radio host Ira] Glass emphasizes that it takes time to get good at anything, recounting the many years it took him to master radio to the point where he had interesting options. “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase,” he says.

“I feel like your problem is that you’re trying to judge all things in the abstract before you do them. That’s your tragic mistake.”

Here are the top five identified passions: dance, hockey (these were Canadian students, mind you), skiing, reading, and swimming.

In other words, the more experience an assistant had, the more likely she was to love her work.

If you have many years’ experience, then you’ve had time to get better at what you do and develop a feeling of efficacy. It also gives you time to develop strong relationships with your coworkers and to see many examples of your work benefiting others.

SDT [Self-Determination Theory] tells us that motivation, in the workplace or elsewhere, requires that you fulfill three basic psychological needs—factors described as the “nutriments” required to feel intrinsically motivated for your work: 1. Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important 2. Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do 3. Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people

In other words, working right trumps finding the right work.

Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Or, The Importance of Skill)

When I told Mark [Casstevens, a seasoned veteran studio musician] about Jordan [Tice], he agreed that an obsessive focus on the quality of what you produce is the rule in professional music. “It trumps your appearance, your equipment, your personality, and your connections,” he explained. “Studio musicians have this adage: ‘The tape doesn’t lie.’ Immediately after the recording comes the playback; your ability has no hiding place.”

Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you. This mindset is how most people approach their working lives.

No one owes you a great career, [the craftsman mindset] argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.

Basic economic theory tells us that if you want something that’s both rare and valuable, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return—this is Supply and Demand 101.

Think of [the] rare and valuable skills you can offer as your career capital.

To those enthralled by the myth of a true calling [the people who feel stuck at their boring cubicle jobs], there’s nothing more heroic than [someone being so brave as to trade] comfort for passion. [..] great work doesn’t just require great courage, but also skills of great (and real) value.

The traits that define great work are bought with career capital, the theory argues; they don’t come from matching your work to your innate passion. Because of this, you don’t have to sweat whether you’ve found your calling—most any work can become the foundation for a compelling career.

THREE DISQUALIFIERS FOR APPLYING THE CRAFTSMAN MINDSET 1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable. 2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world. 3. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

To successfully adopt the craftsman mindset, therefore, we have to approach our jobs in the same way that Jordan [Tice] approaches his guitar playing or Garry Kasparov his chess training—with a dedication to deliberate practice.

“I have a never-ending thirst to get better,” [Alex Berger, a successful television writer] said. “It’s like a sport, you have to practice and you have to study.” Alex admitted that even though he’s now an established writer, he still reads screenwriting books, looking for places where his craft could stand improving. “It’s a constant learning process,” he said.

There are two types of these markets: winner-take-all and auction. In a winner-take-all market, there is only one type of career capital available, and lots of different people competing for it. [..] An auction market, by contrast, is less structured: There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection. [..] Mistaking a winner-take-all for an auction market is common.

Geoff Colvin, an editor at Fortune magazine who wrote a book on deliberate practice, put it this way in an article that appeared in Fortune: “[Deliberate practice] requires good goals. [..] Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.… Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration.

This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of “good.” If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”

Pushing past what’s comfortable, however, is only one part of the deliberate-practice story; the other part is embracing honest feedback—even if it destroys what you thought was good.

Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion (Or, The Importance of Control)

The appeal of control, however, is not limited to farmers. Decades of scientific research have identified this trait as one of the most important you can pursue in the quest for a happier, more successful, and more meaningful life.

Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.

To summarize, if your goal is to love what you do, your first step is to acquire career capital. Your next step is to invest this capital in the traits that define great work. Control is one of the most important targets you can choose for this investment.

Control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable.

The key, it seems, is to know when the time is right to become courageous in your career decisions. Get this timing right, and a fantastic working life awaits you, but get it wrong by tripping the first control trap in a premature bid for autonomy, and disaster lurks.

“I have this principle about money that overrides my other life rules,” [Derek Sivers] said. “Do what people are willing to pay for.”

When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it.

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big (Or, The Importance of Mission)

To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions.

People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.

As I mentioned, understanding the adjacent possible [which is the next big yet undiscovered discovery in your field] and its role in innovation is the first link in a chain of argument that explains how to identify a good career mission.

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 life-transforming missions could be found with just a little navel-gazing and an optimistic attitude, changing the world would be commonplace. But it’s not commonplace; it’s instead quite rare.

In other words, mission is yet another example of career capital theory in action. If you want a mission, you need to first acquire capital.

[Peter Sims, who studied a variety of successful innovators, observed that] “Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance,” he writes, “they make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant wins” [emphasis mine].

A career untamed, he realized, can bring you into dangerous territory, such as being bored while writing computer code for an investment bank.

For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable [in two different ways]. [First,] it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others.

To try to devise a mission when you’re new to a field and lacking any career capital is a venture bound for failure.


It’s more important to become good at something rare and valuable, and then invest the career capital this generates into the type of traits that make a job great.

“Don’t just talk about it,” [Michael Simmons, and old friend and co-founder of Cal Newport’s first student job company] scolded me when I offhandedly mentioned [this] book idea. “If you think it would be cool, go do it.” This seemed as good a reason as any for me to proceed.

Don’t obsess over discovering your true calling. Instead, master rare and valuable skills. [..] This philosophy is less sexy than the fantasy of dropping everything to go live among the monks in the mountains, but it’s also a philosophy that has been shown time and again to actually work.

How do you feel after reading this?

This helps me assess the quality of my writing and improve it.

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