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

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

by Cal Newport

So Good They Can’t Ignore You successfully debunks a common belief that following your passion is enough to become successful. The author, Cal Newport, strongly argues against following this advice because he firmly believes that pre-existing passions are exceptionally rare. The book presents an unconventional line of thought that developing passion should follow the hard work and mastery, not vice versa. In fact, passion is the result of mastering skills, doing hard work, and cultivating patience. 

The book promotes adopting the craftsman mindset and discarding the passion mindset. The title of the book, which is a quote by the comedian Steve Martin, fully captures the essence of the craftsman mindset. This type of mindset will help people acquire career capital which they can later trade for their desired careers and the success of their missions. 

To ensure the success of mission-driven projects, people should make little bets and avoid planning their entire projects in advance. Those little bets will help determine the right direction to move forward and eventually help people land their dream jobs.

This is an eye-opening book that inspires us to look beyond trivial advice to start mastering skills and working on self-improvement.

Summary Notes

The Passion of the Monk

“ ‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous advice.” 

Many people deeply believe that following your passion is the key to a fulfilling and happy life. However, this belief, when applied to people’s professional lives, often proves to be naive and unwise. In fact, it can be strongly argued that following your passion is dangerous advice. That particular line of thought is seriously flawed. It often leads to anxiety and job shifting, particularly when the individuals who follow this advice feel unsatisfied with their work choice.

The concept of following your passions does not provide a viable answer to the question of how successful people manage to build their careers. Instead of focusing on their passions, people should focus on the importance of ability and mastery and let passion follow them, not vice versa. The goal should be to become so good at something that you can’t be ignored. 

Actions to take

Passion Is Rare

“The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase.”

A common piece of advice which is given in the media, in books, and on television is to pursue your dreams. Following this advice is frequently perceived as the golden ticket to success. In reality, success does not inevitably stem from people’s dreams, and it does not happen overnight. On the contrary, it happens in stages or phases, and the most difficult phase involves hard work. Becoming proficient in any field requires dedication, work, and the mastering of various skills. Doing so will open the doors to many work possibilities and leave you with more options.

Another major problem with the passion hypothesis is that it implies that people already have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered. In principle, it is not easy to predict what type of work people will enjoy doing. 

Research has shown that career passions are rare and that passion takes time to develop. It can be claimed that passion is a side effect of mastery. That means that by mastering skills and improving our abilities, we will start doing a more effective job. Quality work will, in turn, give us greater pleasure and strengthen our passion for it. And these higher levels of autonomy and competence will certainly make us more passionate about the work we’re doing.

Actions to take

The Clarity of the Craftsman

“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

People usually adopt one of two mindsets regarding their work-life: the craftsman mindset and the passion mindset. As mentioned previously, the passion mindset is likely to result in professional failure and dissatisfaction. It does not emphasize professional growth, skill development, or hard work. It lacks substance and it leaves the individual with a lot of unanswered questions and a lack of professional clarity. 

The craftsman mindset, on the other hand, is far more realistic and motivates you to better yourself and your performance at any job post. This mindset strips you of illusions and offers clarity. It focuses on the things that you can offer the world rather than what the world has to offer you. It removes egocentricity from the equation. By adopting the craftsman mindset, you dedicate yourself to constant improvement. In the long run, this will make you love what you do.

Actions to take

The Power of Career Capital

“If you want something that’s both rare and valuable, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return.”

Although initially the passion mindset might seem appealing, in reality, it is the craftsman mindset that is required so that you can grow to love what you do. The main work principle you should adhere to is finding something, a quality or a skill, that you could offer the world.

Many people quit their boring jobs in the quest to find a fulfilling job, thinking that simply following their passion will be enough to prosper in a highly competitive job market. However, if you wish to pursue a line of work that is both rare and valuable, you need to be able to offer something which is also considered rare and valuable.

These rare and valuable skills or abilities are what constitutes career capital. To acquire as much career capital as possible, it is of utmost importance and necessity to adopt the craftsman mindset. Only then will you be able to do and enjoy great work.

Three major traits define great work: creativity, impact, and control. Consequently, these traits are considered rare and valuable, and, as such, they are connected to the craftsman mindset. 

Nevertheless, there are some obstacles to applying the craftsman mindset. For example, there may be very few actual opportunities to stand out; the job you’re doing may be meaningless, useless, or even harmful; and the job may cause you to work with people that you genuinely despise. 

Actions to take

Becoming a Craftsman

“Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands...”

Finding passion in the work we do means that we should approach it with dedication and deliberate practice. In fact, we should place deliberate practice at the center of our quest for work that we enjoy and love doing. To perfect certain skills, it is advisable to solicit advice and feedback from others. Unfiltered and honest feedback will have a positive outcome in the process of self-development. That often means going outside our comfort zone because that is where true growth takes place.

The first step in this quest is deciding on the capital market you’re in. There are two types of markets: winner-take-all and auction. In the former market, there is a single type of career capital which is available and a great number of people are competing for it. In the latter market, there are various kinds of career capital, so an individual can gain a unique selection. 

The second step is to identify the specific type of capital that you wish to pursue. However, keep in mind that flexibility exists only in the auction market. This flexibility leads to skill acquisition and mastery. Possessing these skills will make any work transition much easier.

The third step is to define what is considered to be “good” in your line of work and then to try and achieve it. Very often what is “good” is straightforward.

The fourth step is to understand that deliberate practice prevents us from reaching a plateau. Deliberate practice isn’t generally described as enjoyable because it focuses on improvement and not on stagnation. 

The fifth and final step is to be patient and to realize that success and passion take time. In other words, acquiring career capital takes time. Still, one day you can cash in that career capital to land your dream job.

Actions to take

The First Control Trap

“She tried to obtain control without any capital to offer in return, and ended up with a mere shadow of real autonomy.”

Control, as was mentioned previously, is one of the key traits that contribute to great work. It is also linked to personal and professional autonomy; therefore, it is considered to be a highly valuable trait. However, when it comes to gaining control, there are certain traps to avoid. 

Many people make the mistake of believing that they are in control of their professional lives. However, for that to be true, they must have something rare and valuable to offer in return. Otherwise, the feeling of having control will be short-lived and illusory. Avoiding this trap means acquiring enough career capital to offer in return for gaining control.

Actions to take

Avoiding the Control Traps

“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.”

Some professional paths seem more appealing than others. However, before deciding to follow a particular path with the desire of gaining control, make sure there is a real opportunity for success. Namely, the first thing to do is discover whether people are willing to pay for your next professional endeavor. If you find evidence to support the financial aspect of your professional ambition, then, by all means, pursue your dreams and ideas. If not, shift your focus to the next thing using the same objective mindset.

This type of approach will prevent professional failures, bankruptcy, and a loss of focus. However, if you find out that your idea will generate a profit, then continue developing it.

Actions to take

Missions Require Little Bets

“The important thing about little bets is that they’re bite-sized.”

Planning an entire project in advance can be overwhelming and can often result in failure. Also, planning on such a large scale means that there is no place for feedback or process improvement since every part of the project is planned in advance.

Innovative and successful individuals and companies make little bets to show whether they are moving in the right direction. These little bets ensure quick and frequent feedback and prevent major failures. Although some small failures are expected in the process of developing an idea or pursuing a new career, there are also some wins that help to point you in the right direction.

The best thing about little bets is that they can be tried for a short amount of time to see if they work. If they don’t, you will be ready to move on and try another bet. Although courage is required to achieve major success, so is tentativeness. 

The strategy of employing little bets can lead to mission success after having acquired the needed career capital.

Actions to take

Missions Require Marketing

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

A great mission requires building mastery in your professional field. The law of remarkability applies in the case of great missions. If you want your mission to be successful, then it must be remarkable in two ways. The mission should inspire others so that they also find the mission remarkable. Secondly, the venue, or the setting of the mission-driven project, should support this type of thinking. If these two components are present, the mission can be considered a success.

It is immensely important to acquire career capital so that you can identify a good mission. However, that is not the end of the road. Working hard to make it happen is what transforms a strong idea into a strong career.

Actions to take

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