Insights from “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”

Why “follow your passion” is terrible advice

So Good They Can’t Ignore You takes on the cliché advice of “following your passion” and explains why that mentality can actually be detrimental to those who adopt it. This book is a lot more practical in how it is structured than those I’ve previously read and splits the book into 4 rules on how to find meaningful work. Those rules are:

#1 Don’t follow your passion
#2 Be so good they can’t ignore you (or, the importance of skill)
#3 Turn down a promotion (or, the importance of control)
#4 Think small, act big (or, the importance of Mission)

While much of what was in this book was very familiar to me based on past books I’ve read, but there were some new insights I pulled this time around based on my current situation and those are the lessons I’d like to share. Additionally, I want to add (as the author does) that this does not mean that no person has passions or that following your passion has never worked. What it does mean is that the idea of following your passion and the constant pressure to find your passion is causing much more harm when touted as career advice

“Following your passion” can actually hurt you

First and foremost if I had to be 100% I don’t think there’s anything I’m really “passionate” about other than not being poor. However, it never really occurred to me before how simply holding the idea that I should have a passion was hurting me. This belief creates the illusion that there is some magical job out there that aligns perfectly with whatever your passion is and you just have to find it. Then you spend all your mental energy searching for this magical job expecting to finally find happiness and satisfaction but when you can’t find that job you take it out on yourself.

“The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.” — Cal Newport

As someone who’s had a few jobs already since only graduating a year and a half ago this helped explained so much. Though I had very valid reasons for leaving each one of those jobs, this was important in helping me stave off the negative mental spiral that comes from asking yourself if you’re really passionate about being a [insert current job title here]. And that’s really the first step in finding meaningful work, simply accepting that you don’t need to have a passion in order to find your work meaningful.

I’m much more comfortable with where I’m currently at in life

This is similar to the previous point but I wanted to highlight that after reading this I’m much more at peace with the idea that I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I don’t have a “calling” and there isn’t really any job I look at and think “if only I could do that then I would be satisfied with my life”. I’m learning to shift my focus into making the most out of the situation I am currently in and being less caught up in the idea that I should be doing more. Now this doesn’t mean I’m becoming complacent, I still have my grand master goal in life of somehow having the flexibility and financial freedom to live location independent and slow travel around the world. But that doesn’t mean I have to sacrifice the present, instead I should learn to appreciate it for what it is now rather than fret about it not being what I eventually want it to be.

Plain and simple skill is everything, but gaining that skill takes time

There’s really no way around this one, if you want to make an impact you need to have the skills to do so and that takes time to develop. I don’t believe in arbitrary time limits as a litmus test for when someone is finally capable of having an impact on their work. But there is most definitely a learning curve to everything and people don’t just show up and start impacting things right away (especially when you’re new to an industry, company, or even professional work in general). This realization might sound ironic coming from me since I am pretty impatient professionally, however as I’m maturing my patience and focus on long term goals has gotten better and this resonates more strongly with me now.

Cal also coins the term career capital as an alternative to skill which is the default term most people (including myself) tend to use. Thinking about skills isn’t necessarily incorrect but I’ve learned that it doesn’t really encompass everything professionally quite like career capital does. Career capital is built by gaining knowledge of how companies run, how decisions are made and dealt with, how industries work, and yes technical skills as well. It is this career capital that we should aim to accumulate rather than simply gaining generic skills in an attempt to fill our resume.

When making this point Cal gives great examples how individuals leveraged (or didn’t) their career capital to advance their careers. And although I tend to think of my own career path as sporadic when I look at it from the lens of leveraging career capital it makes a lot more sense. After graduating I worked as a physics teacher, then resigned and went to work at an ed-tech startup as a tech support specialist, and now work as a support engineer at another start up in advertising. When considering the concept of career capital it’s a lot clearer that I was able to leverage my educational work experience to get my position in an ed-tech start up and that I was then further able to leverage the experience of working in support for a SaaS startup to get my current job. Now in my current position I understand that I’m building the career capital of front-end engineering technical skills as well as an in depth understanding of the advertising world (which is really how the internet works and how the start up economy can exist).

Renewed interest in continuing into higher education

The last part of the book about finding your mission was easily the part that impacted my goals the most. As mentioned previously I don’t have a “calling” (or at least I’m pretty sure I don’t yet) and for the longest believed this to be a personal deficiency, something I just didn’t get in life like people who think they’re just not good at math. But just like those people are wrong about simply not being good at math, this book showed me how wrong I was about thinking it was inherently my fault for not having a real mission to live by. The problem is that you until you are at the cutting edge of some industry or field you can’t really fathom what a viable mission really is for your particular situation, you need to put the work in first.

“You can’t skip straight into a great mission without first building mastery in your field” — Cal Newport

I’ve done a lot of self-teaching in coding and programming (enough to get me a position as a support engineer at an ad-tech company) however, I do feel like my progress has slowed down since I initially began and my motivation has waned with respect to my side-projects. This final chapter made me realize that although I am in a good position in life now I’m becoming complacent and will likely remain relatively plateaued if I don’t find a viable path forward to get to mastery in my field.

While higher education is far from the only option for doing so, in my case I think it’s probably the best option when taking everything into account. I’ve done the self-teaching stuff to an extent and as effective as it was in getting me to where I am I don’t think it will be enough to get me to the cutting edge and help me become one of the best in a specific field. Graduate school would not only offer me access to experts in my chosen field but it would also place me in a very like-minded community (my cohort) which would help astronomically in keeping me motivated to continue deeper into my field until I can reach what Cal Newport dubs the adjacent possible. The adjacent possible is the place you reach when you’ve reached the cutting edge of your field. Only in the adjacent possible will you really be experienced enough to recognize what there is actually left to do in your field and how that can be formed into a personal mission to guide your career trajectory.

I don’t know exactly what I would want to study in graduate school but I am leaning very heavily towards either data science or computer science in general. I am leaning closer to data science because of my sporadic interests and the versatility that deriving insights from data would afford me in my career choices. Data scientists can work in anything from tech companies trying to optimize their algorithms to data journalists who want to write great stories based on factual data rather than alternative facts (like fivethirtyeight).

Conclusion

The biggest take away for me from this book was really that I’m not as far behind in life as I feel like. It’s ok that I’m not changing the world or even having that big of an impact right now, if anything I’m exactly where someone my age would be expected to be (probably doing even better considering where I started). Now just because I’m in a good place doesn’t mean I should become complacent. This book has been a huge help in helping me determine where I want to focus my energy and refine what goal I want to work towards. As impatient of a person as I am, I’m beginning to internalize the true scale of patience and persevering that is going to be necessary to succeed.