Becoming a Craftsman: A Book Review and Analysis of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport

A constant theme on the writings on my blog is skill development as it pertains to your professional career. Two book reviews in harmony with that theme were Deep Work,” by the same author, and Peak by Anders Ericsson. Those two books are intertwined with the book I’m reviewing today, and while the former writings provide the detailed methods for obtaining a satisfactory career, So Good They Can’t Ignore You provides the blueprint.[1]

Peak and Deep Work dealt with the ways we develop Career Capital, which is defined as a description of the skills you have that are rare and valuable to the working world. So Good is the book that develops what Career Capital is and why it is so important to achieving a compelling career. But before I delve in the details, I’ll entertain one of the primary refutations in this book: the fallacy of the pursue your passion mindset — i.e., picking your passion and then developing a career around that passion.

Steve Jobs popularized this career-guiding framework during his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech. Newport says this advice has everything backwards: you must first create skills that are rare and valuable, and it is from acquiring these skills that passion follows. Moreover, follow your passion advice can be harmful because you set such a high standard for yourself — inevitably an unattainable one. The focus is on what the world can do for you, not what you can do for the world. And this mode of thinking neglects developing rare and valuable skills, which is the ultimate good here.

The alternate mode is the Craftsman mindset. The logical chain of the Craftsman mindset is as follows: (1) You develop career capital through deep work and deliberate practice; (2) you use this career capital to acquire valuable and deserving traits, such as autonomy, control, and mission; and (3) as an outgrowth of this progression, you become passionate towards a mission, and find ways to expand your mission in new ways.

So first, the Craftsman focuses not on passion, but on honing rare and valuable skills to produce Career Capital. I believe it’s important to not only work relentlessly to develop your rare and valuable skills, but also in choosing which skills to develop. In Law and many other professions, I believe it’s common that individuals end up focusing on the non-crucial aspects of their job, while neglecting what is lofty and likely to lead to success. I have fallen victim to this as well, as I enjoy reading about legal topics that are rather obscure and not directly relevant to my area of law.

Thus, to pinpoint the most salient areas for development, Newport asks a basic question: What must you understand in your field to develop the necessary Career Capital. For Newport, he believed understanding his field’s (computer science) most difficult results would be a good first step towards revitalizing his career capital stores. In my case, taking Employment law as the field, a good place to start would be reconstructing, analyzing, and comprehending the most utilized statutes in my arena. This would entail rigorous understanding of, and painstaking detail to , statutes like the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), or the Labor Code. This might consist of reading the corresponding legislative history, poring through the authoritative commentary, and understanding the statutory construction of my targets. Another Career Capital building technique Newport introduces is the Research Bible: Once a week, requiring yourself to summarize in your bible a paper you think might be relevant to your research or area of study.[2] After you’ve developed some career capital, this is when you can cash them in for valuable traits. The main traits Newport glamorizes are Control and Mission. Control is vital because it increases individual’s happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment. With these underlying needs met, one can only imagine how much easier it is to continually develop your skills, thus acquiring more career capital for even better traits.

But there are, as Newport mentions, “Control Traps” for the unwary. This includes taking on too much control before you have enough career capital. This is unsustainable and should be avoided at all costs. To side-step this trap, Newport introduces the Law of Financial Viability: 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. If you find this evidence, continue; if not, move on.

With control and your career capital stores replete, you can start developing your Mission. Mission is so important because it provides a unifying goal for your career — something lofty, deeper, meaningful. Newport explains that for mission to come about, once must reach the cutting edge of their field, which requires focusing on a narrow collection of topics for a potentially long time. Once on this precipice, your mission will reveal itself to you. It is often the result of combining various ideas, concepts, principles you’ve stumbled upon, and then meshing them together to create something novel.

With your mission in place, you must work to maintain this mission. There are two primary ways to do this: (1) Utilizing the Law of Remarkability; and (2) Making Little Bets. The Law of Remarkability is satisfied if your mission is remarkable in the literal sense of compelling people to remark about it, and if it has the ability to be spread in a venue that supports these remarks. In other words, produce work in a community that is well respected and highly visible. One example of this in the Legal field would be publishing an article showcasing your talent in a highly respected legal journal or highly-read magazine. This could be a publication like Los Angele’s Daily Journal or a Law Review Journal (while I know many of these journals have caught fire in the past for being read at extremely low rates, your ability to market this journal and publicize it yourself can help the spreading of your work). For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip out on the more self-explanatory little bets technique (for more detail on this download my outline).

Now that you have your mission, the career capital and traits to maintain that mission, and the techniques to continuously further and expand that mission, passion will inevitably follow: You will be so good they can’t ignore you.

Cal Newport is a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown and is easily one of my favorite authors. I highly encourage anyone starting out, or looking to advance, in a career to check this book out as I believe it provides the blueprint and structure for a successful purpose in your career. Also, download my outline for further principles, definitions of concepts, and examples. Find the Book on Amazon here: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Check out similarly themed writings here at my blog: