I had not heard of Cal Newport until he started talking about how advice to follow your passion—in the common way that most people often took it—was misunderstood, and generally bad advice. In this book he explores what works instead and how to go about it.
Newport’s work in his blog Study Hacks and the subject matter for his other books demonstrates his long-term focus in various aspects of Performance Science. In this book, his material is specific to following passion as a means to success and on what distinguishes the people who achieve this success while many others don’t.
“Part of what makes the craftsman mindset thrilling is its agnosticism toward the type of work you do. The traits that define great work are bought with career capital, the theory argues; they don’t come from matching your work to your innate passion. Because of this, you don’t have to sweat whether you’ve found your calling—most any work can become the foundation for a compelling career.”
I discovered this book soon after its its release. Cal had made his point on numerous video interviews and cut through the major arguments that support the “follow your passion” recommendation. In the book, he discusses how the success stories of people who follow their passion are narratives prone to confirmation bias—that we are likely to discount the examples that don't fit our idea of what should work. In other words if 10 people decide to follow their passion, and eight fail in the process, we selectively remember the two that succeed as proof that following your passion is a valid idea.
There are a few key concepts in this book. The first, The Craftsman Mindset, is about how the reader can approach skill-building methodically, the motivations required and the mental models that are best suited to pursuing excellence. The second concept, Career Capital, guides the reader toward the best possible circumstances for success in a highly competitive market. One significant concept that rightfully gets attention is Deliberate Practice, coined by Anders Ericsson in his groundbreaking performance science study The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (also the source of Malcolm Gladwell's often-cited 10,000 Hour Rule ) and Peak. Here, Cal is careful to separate conventional interpretation from the serious analytical assessment of the concept. In doing so, he clearly establishes its connection to his larger framework of how the Craftsman is, coupled with the right Career Capital, best positioned for success.
Once these main concepts are out of the way, the writing changes from being about ideas to guidebook-style recommendations for anyone interested transforming themselves and their performance toward excellence, in practically any field. The book refers back to the concepts as foundational parts throughout, especially as he starts to explore some of the likely obstacles in defining and pursuing success. He gives great examples of people in various fields, citing both successes and failures to make failsafe arguments for his recommendations.
So Good They Can't Ignore You is a treatise on the importance of developing “ability” within the domain of any field. It is the antidote to the self-help section's feel-good, often unsubstantiated writing on the topic of what to do if you are jaded by what you studied in college, and what you have been doing with that degree since.
“Follow your passion” is advice commonly given to people who arrive at your doorstep looking for guidance on what to do with themselves. This is the book for them.