So Good They Can't Ignore You

Cal Newport //

Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Instead of listening to the vague cliché "follow your passion", you should first instead master rare and valuable skills, and then cash in those skills for the work you love.
  2. The craftsman mindset is crucial for building a meaningful career. It focuses on what you can offer the world, whereas following your passion focuses instead on what the world can offer you. First you adopt the craftsman mindset, then the passion will follow as you gain those rare and valuable skills.
  3. Avoid the trap of attempting to gain control over your career by pursuing an unsustainable idea. You can avoid this by making "little bets", where you make small executions that return concrete feedback. It's worth pursuing the mission if people take notice and are willing to pay you.


We've all heard the term "follow your passion", and that usually comes from people in successful positions. For example, in Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement Address he spoke about the importance of having passion, which, don't get me wrong, is in theory correct. However, instead of listening to what he said in that speech, we should instead do what he did. Jobs was not as big of a tech wiz like Wozniak, but he occasionally dabbled into when it was necessary to make a quick buck as a teenager. So, I'm saying that relying on your passion to guide your career will result in disappointment. On the other hand, in the book 'Shoe Dog', Phil mentions the importance of having a passion for what you're doing. He portrayed this by not quitting during the dark days of Nike. In hindsight, what all of them say is correct. Yes, having a passion for what you're doing will result in huge returns when executed correctly, but I don't think anyone is suddenly born with a passion.

The core idea of the book is mastering valuable skills, then cashing in that "career capital" for work you love. Cal goes much deeper into this topic which I really enjoyed, he debunks the many myths of the "passion hypothesis" with statistical evidence. This is the first book I've read of his, and I really like his writing style.

So, in addition to finding the work you love, you must at some point use the "career capital" you've gained from being so good that they can't ignore you. This should be into traits that define great work or in other words, control over your life. Before we get into how to cash in the career capital, you might ask how we gain this career capital without any idea of what to do.

Well, Cal says that we need to adopt the "craftsman mindset". It essentially is acquired through the implementation of deliberate practice. The infamous theoretical physicist Richard Feynman took advantage of deliberate practice. He did it by going deep into important papers and mathematical concepts, until he could understand the material concretely. He had a modest level of intelligence growing up, but what differed him from others was his habit of being used to the strain. Obviously, nowadays there are millions of resources to learn pretty much anything you want without using too much brain capacity. Use the internet to your advantage, you can find what you need to learn for pretty much any topic.

The biggest trap a lot of people fall into is attempting to gain control without having any career capital to cash in. There are many examples in the book, but a modern example are those "lifestyle influencers". What we see with these influencers is they have all the autonomy in the world, enjoying their life and posting it for others to see. But what we don't see is their frustration of not having any means to support their unconventional lifestyles. You don't want to end up in that situation where you can't even afford your next meal but put yourself blind to it.

Who Should Read It?

As this book is more catered to landing a successful career, new grads are going to gain the most value from it. But, that doesn't mean people already in their career shouldn't read it. I find that from what I've read, you might already be in the position of being good at your work, but have limited control over what to do next. On the other hand, a new graduate with no idea what to do would follow the "passion hypothesis" and end up regretting obtaining a degree with no use. Obviously, what I'm saying is by no means correct, but that's the best audience I can frame this book for as it fits perfectly for them. If you're someone my age and just turning 18, it wouldn't hurt to read this book as well.

How It Impacted Me

  • Reframed the term "follow your passion" into pursuing something you've become good at, instead of diving head first into something you love but has no prospects.
  • Focused now on becoming truly great at some skills to offer people, instead of expecting people to pay me because I love what I do with no real purpose.
  • Embraced having my brain "melting" when learning new stuff. For example I've been getting into Deep Learning topics like AI, but it has been really difficult trying to grasp the technical concepts. After a while I've started to get a much better understanding of the benefits and limitations of AI instead of just following the buzzwords.
  • When I do end up working in a company, I'll be aware of trying to have the best possible control over my career. I don't want to have employers convincing me to invest the career capital back into their company. This would result in me gaining more money and prestige, instead of the control I'm aiming for.

Some Quotes

Telling someone to “follow their passion” is not just an act of innocent optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.

If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an 'acceptable level.'

In other words, in most jobs you should expect your employer to resist your move toward more control; they have every incentive to try to convince you to reinvest your career capital back into your career at their company, obtaining more money and prestige instead of more control, and this can be a hard argument to resist

If you’re not in control of your career, it can chew you up and spit you out.

Working right trumps finding the right work.