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

When I was taking a course in web development, one of my projects was to re-create a poster known as The Holstee Manifesto, a series of short affirmations that stand out with big, small and medium sized fonts. These affirmations often say things like “if you don’t like your job, quit” or “live your dream and share your passion.” Basically, two brothers decided to quit their jobs during the 2009 recession and pursue their T-shirt passion project (Holstee) which they started with a friend. They defined what success would look like if “money wasn’t an object” (although their bio never really says what kind of lucrative career they might have had before they quit or whether they grew up with a fair amount of financial privilege that would allow them to quit their jobs and pursue their passion full-time. Not taking a dig at these guys. Just saying).

In Cal Newport’s 2012 book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he argues that this idea that one should pursue only what they love, aka the passion hypothesis, is not only total B.S. but also harmful to people’s self-esteem and ideas of genuine happiness. Instead we need a much more realistic discussion of what the words success, happiness and passion actually mean. Before I read the book, I poo-pooed Newport’s idea and became sick and tired of hearing that my dreams of moving to New York City for my music career were unrealistic and I was just setting myself up to struggle miserably. After reading this book, I can’t even fathom why I would become so overly optimistic about such an ideal without considering how to put bread on the table, pay my rent or heck, even learn how to survive at all.

Newport opens his book with a true story of a young man named Thomas who travels the world after college in search of a career he enjoys. He finds his true calling at a Zen monastery in the Catskill Mountains of New York. He practices meditation and studies day and night to pass his koans, or word puzzles in the Zen tradition. However, this did not bring him true happiness and he found himself yet again asking, “What should I do with my life?” Newport uses this example at the beginning in order to support his argument that just because we think we have landed our dream job or found our passion does not mean this guarantees absolute happiness. In fact, he explains that people who find their true lifelong calling at a young age are rare and most people who are successful use a craftsman (or craftsperson, to include women and non-binary people) approach to their career instead of just simply starting off “doing what they love.”

Having a craftsperson mindset, unlike a passion mindset, means focusing on the value you can bring to your job (i.e. what you can offer an individual or company) rather than focusing on what the job can bring to you. Newport interviews a professional guitar player named Jordan and although he, Newport, started guitar at the same age as Jordan, took lessons and performed a lot of repertoire in various shows, he explains that he did not reach the level of proficiency that Jordan did. It wasn’t so much the number of hours they practiced their instruments, but what they did during those hours of practice. As a musician myself, I know how tempting it can be to just run a piece straight through during practice sessions and then move on to the next one because it seems fun to do so. However, I finally had to come to the conclusion that playing a piece straight through just isn’t efficient practice, and when you get on stage in front of an audience, you end up messing up worse than you did in the practice room, and soon later, burning out.

Jordan, however, practices in order to get better. According to Newport, when Jordan plays a wrong note or out of tune, he goes back and fixes it. Simple as that. He also seeks new opportunities to experiment with his technique, such as playing by ear. I myself have found it helpful to practice music by ear because it not only helps expand my repertoire (give me some P!nk songs any day of the week to hash out classical-style), but also gives me a chance to step outside my comfort zone. Even just by experimenting with how accurate the pitch I am playing is is an exercise in and of itself. I remember getting extremely burned out during my first professional orchestra audition because I just played all these difficult pieces at the last minute, straight through, no taking breaks for myself, and I burned out before my audition. However, two years later, I have been working diligently with my mentor on practicing with the specific intention to get better rather than just perform.

In my lesson one day, my teacher talked about the advice that famous comedian and actor Steve Martin gives to people who ask how they can be successful in their careers. Martin’s advice is always “Be so good they can’t ignore you” (hence the book’s title), and it’s the kind of advice most people don’t want to hear. Martin says that most people want advice on how to get an agent and write a script, but it really just came down to persistence and thinking outside the box that helped launch Martin’s career. His new act took ten years to actually achieve success, which goes to show that there really is no shortcut to fame.

Another key thing people need to have in order to find a job they actually can succeed in and love is career capital, aka the rare and valuable skills you can bring to the table. Alex Berger, a successful television writer, took on multiple projects that forced him to get out of his comfort zone and use feedback from his peers as an opportunity to improve upon his work and build his portfolio. According to Newport, how you leverage your skills depends on what kind of market in which you acquire career capital. A winner-takes-all market only has one type of career capital that people want and people compete to perfect this one type of career capital so they can get all the opportunities, the call-backs and so forth. Alex was writing for a winner-takes-all market, and the only thing that matter to employers in this industry is the quality of your scripts. An auction market, however, lets you acquire various types of career capital so that each person can generate their own original portfolio of varied skills that people in their field could be looking for.

Newport further argues that one also has to have a clear mission when they pursue a career. Pardis, a 35 year old biology professor at Harvard, enjoys her hobbies of playing guitar and volleyball, and that is in part because her work has a clear purpose and provides her the energy to keep pursuing these hobbies. She does her work not just so she can get grant money or recognition but because she wants specifically to use technology to fight some of the oldest diseases, such as malaria and the bubonic plague. However, Pardis began by building career capital, aka the rare computer algorithm she created to find disease-resistant genes, and using the knowledge she acquired over time to develop her research. In short, she focused on one small niche and then gradually expanded her work to fit a broader mission.

Newport tells an earlier story about a young woman named Jane, who dropped out of college to pursue ambitious goals such as surviving in the wilderness and learning how to breathe fire. She launched various businesses, freelance and blog posts to fund her own journey , but unfortunately lost motivation because she didn’t have anyone who was willing to help financially support her ambitions.What makes Pardis’ story different from that of Jane is that Pardis was patient with herself and developed her passion as she went along in her research so that she could build quality material to show people. She started small so that she could later enjoy succeeding big rather than just merely “dreaming” big. Jane, however, tried to dream big from the beginning and soon came up small. I found myself relating to Jane because I started off after college with this unrealistic idea that I was going to become a professional soloist and travel the world and play for various orchestras just to become rich and successful. But two years down the road I have done more research on the field and sought guidance from professional musicians, and have concluded that it is unrealistic (and downright horrible for your mental health) to magically expect your dreams will come true by quitting your day job and striking it out on your own with your instrument and a knapsack.

I have come to embrace Pardis’ story because she acquired a specific skill set and developed her findings over time while still pursuing what she loved on the side. Even as a musician, I have found using this blog to be helpful in developing my voice in writing and cultivating the art of patience. I know this blog will not be perfect overnight and it takes time to build a good blog, but as someone who tends to be a perfectionist I honestly have to remind myself of this every day. As a philosophy major I was constantly writing, editing my papers and learning how to craft a well-founded argument, sometimes until 2 in the morning. As a musician I have learned to take criticism, practice more efficiently, and perform under pressure. Working in customer service has enabled me to communicate on a human-to-human level and work well under pressure. Right after college, I assumed things would magically fall into place with my degree and a single orchestra audition and I got cynical and depressed when they didn’t. However, even my small accomplishments along the way have been immensely formative in helping craft a larger picture of what I want my life’s purpose to be. I believe that finding creative and valuable ways to use my skills in order to create career capital will help me confront my perfectionist tendencies, stay curious and open to feedback and ideas, and help me develop a clearer mission for my career.

Finally, Cal Newport talks about how developing a clear mission requires using small and achievable projects (little bets) to explore an idea of interest that could be of interest to the public. He discusses how the actor Chris Rock, for example, prepared a successful comedy set for one of his HBO specials. Rock made several surprise visits to a comedy club in the New Jersey area and took notes on a legal pad while on stage so he could figure out what material the audience was willing to see. Even though the audience didn’t really like most of his jokes during these visits, he actually admitted to them on stage that the jokes need improvement, and even the act of admitting it was all awkward for him made the audience laugh. Over time Rock’s series of mini-flops and mini-successes went into developing an original set that people actually enjoyed. Had he had the perfect set from Day 1, Rock wouldn’t have learned how to appeal to his audience, and moreover, how to create capital for his career.

One thing I liked about this book is the absence of a clear cut plan for how to achieve success. While it was nice reading Richard Bolles’ What Color Is Your Parachute? at first, I stopped doing the exercises and reading the book altogether. Even after taking all the self-assessments in the book, I still didn’t feel like I had a clear idea of what my ideal job would look like, and this depressed me even further. So Good They Can’t Ignore You cuts straight through the sugary fluff of “follow your passion” and gives concrete examples of people who have succeeded by starting off with realistic goals and following through with them, and also gives examples of those who didn’t do this and ended up struggling.

There is this awesome video by Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Ver Hage of the popular personal finance site The Financial Diet in which the two elaborate on the flawed passion hypothesis by giving specific tips for how you can realistically achieve your goals, even if that means going against what some “inspirational” manifesto poster tells you to do.

Agree or disagree with the passion hypothesis? Comment below!

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