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

There is a lot in this book you’d be a fool to argue. The author’s selective nature when it comes to real life case studies always seemed to favour his already fashioned viewpoint, but who am I to say he hasn’t done tons of research? You almost have to assume he has.

Newport concludes, through research, that pound for pound were you to weigh following your passion to building your work into one, that the rate of ‘success’ leans more heavily to the latter.

All other advice in the book given aside, passionate or not, there is much to say about the quote by the great Steve Martin which has given this book its title: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” This is true of everything and I think true more so to the truly passionate – the ones Newport tries to cutoff at the knees in this book. Martin practised his craft because he was passionate and wanted to succeed at any cost. It was not by working at it did this passion develop, but something innate. So as good and captivating a title it is, I don’t see how the author can believe it is a statement best suited to support his ideas. And maybe that too has been done on purpose.

Smartly, the author divvies the book in 4 associating each part with a cleverly written Rule.

Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

Clever intro aside, we’re told Steve Jobs’ story and the fact his path to Apple dominance was all but linear.

Events in Jobs’ life lend well to the squiggly path he took through a modest interest in tech and fortunate friendships to a job you’d be hard pressed to believe when listening to him he wasn’t born to run. His passion.

The author then presents his case and insists that it was Jobs’ tenacity, analness, luck, and forethought that would launch his partnership with Woz and throw them into the computer manufacturer business. And not necessarily an innate passion or clear purpose. Point taken. Well argued. He may be on to something.

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

In this section, and throughout the balance of the book, Newport refers back to stories and career paths of individuals who took a roundabout way to their life’s work to others, who made declarations that x or y would become life’s work because it was their passion or calling, etc.. More often than not, those labeled passionate are found to have not yet found their ways.

An argument that one needs to build career capital, honing their skills, ruling out tangents and time-wasters is made here, and I’m a believer in if you are going to do something for an undetermined number of days in a row, that you try and do it really well. Otherwise why do it?

Those with career capital are shown to have the ability to push back; on hours, on increased vacation time, on increasing flexibility. Clearly, becoming a Linchpin no matter how you perceive the job at hand, can earn everyone from the dish pit to the C-suite some serious cred.

Newport shares his opinion that work done well can spark behavioral passion in someone who may not at first have deemed their current field as a ‘first choice’ for a career and life. I think pride can develop from applying one’s self, but passion to me is defined as something you do because you have to. Because if you don’t you’ll forever think how it may have been had you. And it’s rare. A precaution the author breaks down as false beliefs and blind truths because our 1st world problems are such that success is a right and something that has to be earned.

Additionally, I too got the sense as did one reviewer on the Amazon page linked to above that the author’s data set of case studies tackled mostly educated people, who had for the most part by default at least had the initial funds to study at post-secondary institutions. And, that a lot of what he described as those people finding ultimate happiness and success happened to have some huge financial repercussions attached to their found passions. This is not to say that the artist (bluegrass musician) or the doctor (lady working to eradicate rare diseases) had only financial successes in their sights, but that theirs and others’ ultimate passions would lend well to making some decent bank.

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

Again in this rule I agree with the author on many points.

Building on the idea of accessing career capital (knowledge and experience earned over time and peer/employer perceived excellence in one or several areas of skill), Newport explains the trappings of two types of control. That, whether exerted by or imparted on those who have earned (or think they have) said career capital, there are traps one can fall into from which they’ll never get out.

The first is a case of jumping the gun. Believing that you know enough, or don’t need to know everything about something before announcing this as your passion and running off headlong into the under developed idea or endeavour.

The second is an acknowledged acceptance by employers and peers that indeed you know what’s up, and because you are too valuable to an organization, that management try and tie you down. Remove the flexibility you’ve sought out in favour of throwing some extra cash or incentives your way and you support the status quo. Which is great for your employer, but not so much to the entrepreneur within who believes they’ve earned the opportunity to tele-work, or scale back on hours, etc..Being real good at something has its pitfalls if you can’t manage people’s expectations. The same is true with clients. Give them the world, and they’ll take it!

Another point that’s difficult to argue with is Newport’s law of financial viability. He states that whether your motivations are fame, fortune, or even to make this world a better place, that if someone (government, consumer, business, etc..) isn’t willing to pay for it, that it’s often something not worth pursuing OR at the very best something you will struggle with over time should you choose to marry the thought or idea that because it’s your passion, it then must become a success.

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

A lot of this section of the book can be appreciated by the risk-averse. Newport insists that the exception, and not the rule are the hail mary bets on this or that technology, and that the Twitter’s and Facebook’s of the World are flukes.

He says that, and I don’t entirely disagree (I love testing, making small forays into x or y to see what, if anything sticks – in business), that little bets are the best way to discover viable opportunities for the unpassionate. For the ones who are not willing to slide down the proverbial snake from Snakes and Ladders Snakes and Laddersand starting from scratch. Like taking a cooking course before enrolling in culinary school, or running a half marathon before attempting a full one.

But I don’t think passion, the way I define it, lends well to little bets. I don’t even think that Newport’s insistence that capital (career or otherwise) is even necessary for the truly passionate to succeed (success not necessarily equating to financial gain). Indeed the stories are rare, but we are World of 7 billion people, so clearly our definitions will vary immensely in comparison to his. There are certainly cultural biases at play here too, and with the sensitive capitalist in mind, perhaps a lifelong C-suiter who nixed rehearsing with his garage band in favour of Calculus homework who now dreams if a career in rock was ever a possibility, this book is a welcome pat on the back that might say to them “good job, you stayed the course even though it wasn’t what your heart and soul wanted, but you’ve made a career and a great life out of it, and are doing x and y great thing…”. A validation if you will. Which is sad really.

Not enough people even think of their “life’s work” as something they need to be passionate about. So many of us drone on, punching the clock, waiting for positive change. A few things the book imparts which I don’t think can be lost on anyone is that no matter how you find your passion or become passionate about something, the path is rarely easy. And, once you’re there, it risks getting even harder if you truly believe in what you’re doing.

To share that passion, as the author states, is to be and do remarkable things. It’s finding those platforms that will best receive your insights and invention and share it because they are compelled to. And this, whether niche startup or global company, is sound advice.

The book is less philosophical than the title and subtitle infer. Newport, like so many others, probably never realized or conjured up a passion he’d always yearn to exercise, and so, sought out to debunk the myth that “doing what you love” would bring automatic happiness (spiritually) and success (financially) by researching and writing this book. I mean, how can “doing what you love” ever be perceived as bad advice? We can all agree that people launch themselves into supposed passions quite haphazardly, but that’s the fun part in all this right..what’s it all for if not fun? It’s never a bad thing to work at something and believe because your skill, expertise and knowledge won’t make that thing more enjoyable, especially if your imagination limits you to the belief that there is no other way. But it’s another thing entirely to lump all the dreamers (and doers…dreamers do too..) into one pile and say they’d be better off taking small bites off of those things that interest them as to not risk the setback and failure following one’s passion often leads too. It’s what make people dream bigger, and ultimately what changes the World.


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