So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Summary Written by Fern Chang
"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

The Big Idea

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

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.

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Insight #2

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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Read the book

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Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a writer and a professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He is the author of five books and runs the popular advice blog, Study Hacks, which attempts to decode “patterns of success” in both school and the working world. His contrarian ideas on building a successful, meaningful life have been featured on TV, radio, and in many major publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Post.

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