Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book Review: 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

This book, recommended by my friend and former colleague Amy is a really solid book. I think if I had read it a month earlier, it might have been my 2013 Christmas gift to my staff instead of Enchantment (Review). Right off the bat, you'll be taken in by this book... no one wants to be ignored, everyone wants to be awesome and it feels like a bit of "I can do it." It doesn't hurt that its cover is probably designed to make you recall "Good to Great" (surprised they didn't call it "So Great They Can't Ignore You."

The basic premise is that if you want to succeed at work (or whatever), you need to work. He has four basic rules that he explores:

Rule #1: Don't Follow Your Passion - he argues that "passion" is dangerous, giving examples of people who failed because they followed their passion without doing the due-dilligence, the research, the planning. True "passion" stories, he argues are the result of time, mastery and a good alignment with natural abilities and knowing what they want and sometimes good timing. Stories that seem like someone following their passion to success are actually long stories, not overnight successes.

Rule #2: Be So Good They Can't Ignore You (The Importance of Skill) - he recalls Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours" theory but suggests it's not just doing the work, but pushing yourself. An example of a guitar player who didn't just practice hours each day, but practiced complex pieces, pushing himself to be faster and faster. It was difficult work, there was a lot of failure, but in the end, there was a mastery. He argues for becoming a craftsman and that you can then turn that into "career capital" that allows you more control over your future. But you don't start out that way. You need to pay your dues. You need to learn from those who have already been there, you need to work on your skills and recognize that at the start, you lack power/control, that it comes in time, it's earned.

Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion (The Importance of Control) - I love this rule, I was learning this on my own just about the time I was reading this book and Enchantment. I think many of us have this notion that you must always be climbing the corporate ladder. If you're not being regularly promoted, something's wrong. (This is probably also because a promotion equals a larger paycheck and our family's budget is supremely tight.) But after not getting the last promotion and seeing all the problems the guy who got the job has had to deal with - I'm kinda glad I didn't get the job. What I came to realize is that I had more power, more control, fewer hassles in my current role. Why try for a new role with all new challenges, stress and chances to make mistakes? Why not just get better and better at my current job and make it into a more enjoyable, less stressful environment? He talks more about this "career capital" - as you get more valuable, you have more control over your career (one example is someone who negotiates for a 30-hour week so they have time to pursue other interests) but how the more valuable you are, the more employers will do to try to retain you / control you. He speaks of "control traps" and how to identify and avoid them.

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big - Whether you're plotting out an entire path or just trying to go in a general direction, he speaks of "missions" - first, they require capital, whether that's time, money or autonomy/control; second, they need "little bets" - small efforts that quickly pay off or fail (both are foundational, you can learn from and build on the results) and lastly, they require marketing. Like Enchantment, the book reminds that you are responsible for marketing yourself, your abilities, your success. Otherwise, you're leaving it to interpretation or someone else's spin. No, you must take You, Inc. and be responsible for making sure people see the consistent, authentic vision of who you are and where you're going.

I like his summaries of each rule but it's a little folksy. It doesn't take away from the learnings, but I just didn't care for it. Until the end of the book - that kind of personal dialogue worked when he explains how he was able to apply his rules in his own life with regards to a couple of potential directions he was considering in his own career.

I think this is a solid book with good advice, simple enough that you can read once and internalize enough to set you off in a better direction if you agree with the basic premise that you shouldn't be ignored and the best way to avoid being ignored is to just be so good you stand-out. (That definitely resonates with me.)

So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (

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