So Good They Can’t Ignore You

"If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (‘what can the world offer me’) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (‘what can I offer the world’)."

- So Good They Can’t Ignore You, page 42

Starting around 1970, the idea of following your passion in your career choice grew in popularity till it became the de facto advice for American career planners and seekers.

According to Cal Newton, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, this is an appealing, simple equation but should not be taken at face value because:

  • Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.
  • The vast majority of people don’t have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered and matched to a job.

In fact, following your passion can actually make it less likely to feel passionate about the work.

The passion mindset is self-focused, always asking: What is this job doing for me? Am I happy? Is there something else that I like better?

The trap of focusing on what you want causes anxiety and uncertainty. Nothing is going to measure up to the mythical idea that this is your passion and you will love it. This is harmful, leading to chronic job hopping and steering you away from a meaningful, satisfying career.

In contrast, the craftsman mindset asks: How much value am I producing? How useful am I? How can I create more positive contributions to the world?

The relentless focus on how I can make myself and my output more valuable is significantly more likely to craft a career that is a huge source of passion.

Cal observes that people are passionate about their job because they have become so good at it that they are able to choose how they want to work on it, on their own terms.

The book includes case studies of both passion and craftsman mindsets, and prompts us to examine our own approach in the search for a fulfilling career.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

The Power of Career Capital

"The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming ‘so good they can’t ignore you’, is a strategy well suited for acquiring career capital. "
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You, page 48

Careers that are fulfilling have the following traits:

  1. Creativity
  2. Impact
  3. Control

These factors are rare and valuable. Most jobs do not offer their employees great creativity, impact or control over what they do and how they do it.

Based on the economic theory of demand and supply, in order to have a great career, you need something of great value to offer in return. These rare and valuable skills you can offer are your career capital.

Are there strategies to systematically, reliably and quickly build career capital?

Cal proposes ‘deliberate practice’ – an approach to work where you deliberately stretch your abilities beyond where you are comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance.

Musicians, athletes and chess players know about deliberate practice but most knowledge workers avoid the uncomfortable strain it brings, instead continuing with familiar tasks that do not expand their skills.

By introducing deliberate practice strategy into their work, knowledge workers can accelerate past their peers in the acquisition of career capital. For example, Cal’s deliberate practice routine includes summarising a research paper weekly, indicating how it might be relevant to his research.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The Power of Control

"Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement and sense of fulfilment."
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You, page 113

Control is one of the most universally important traits that you can acquire with your career capital. It is so powerful and essential to the quest for work you love that Cal has called it the dream-job elixir.

We need to be aware of the traps in acquiring and managing control so that it can work in our favour.

Trap #1. Control that you acquire without career capital is not sustainable.

Trap #2. Control generates resistance from employers. Acquiring more control in your working life benefits you, but likely has no direct benefit to your employer. They will fight your efforts to gain more autonomy.

Both traps indicate that gaining control is not easy. When you do not have enough career capital, you are not in the position to pursue opportunities that allow you more control. But once you do have this capital, you have become valuable enough that your employer will resist your efforts.

The key is to know when the time is right to be courageous in your career decisions.

When deciding whether or not to pursue a bid for more autonomy, use ‘The Law of Financial Viability’. You should only pursue a project if people are willing to pay you for it. If they aren’t, you probably don’t have sufficient capital to exchange for the control you desire.

The definition of ‘willing to pay’ is flexible, and may include customers paying you for products or services, or getting approval for a loan, receiving outside investment or convincing an employer to hire you with your choice of hours.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The Power of Mission

"Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximises your impact on your world – a crucial factor in loving what you do."
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You, page 152

Like ‘control’, ‘mission’ is one of the desirable traits for a fulfilling career. However, it is not something that happens easily in a moment of inspiration.

Cal’s research reveals the tactics for realising missions.

  1. Missions require relevant career capital. You cannot skip straight into a great mission without first building mastery in your field.

    For example, Pardis Sabeti, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University, found her mission in using computational genetics to help rid the world of ancient diseases after years of acquiring enough skills to recognise the exciting new opportunity.

    However, career capital alone is not enough to make a mission a reality. Many people are good at what they do but have not reoriented their career in a compelling direction.

  1. Missions require little bets – small and achievable projects.

    The best way to discover and realise a mission is to take small, tentative steps. This means deploying small, concrete experiments that return concrete feedback, and identifying those with the highest likelihood of leading to outstanding results.

  2. Missions require marketing.

    For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should compel people to remark about it to others and be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.

    For example, Giles Bowkett is a well-known Ruby software programmer. His mission is combining the worlds of the arts and Ruby programming. This mission was successful when he released Archaeopteryx, an open source computer software that writes and performs its own music, to the open-source software community. People took notice and spread the word.

Skills trump passion in the quest for work you love and pre-existing passion helps to sustain the journey in the acquisition of skills.

Which skills are you acquiring to build your career capital?

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Fern Chang

ABOUT Fern Chang

Fern is a Certified Project Manager (PMP) and a Certified Evernote Consultant. After a career in Information Technology with industries including academic institutions, hospitality, psychology counseling and translation services, Fern decided in 2013 to make the switch to the world of a solopreneur...
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