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

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After having read Deep Work, been a follower of Study Hacks, and checked the Top Performers course (yet to take it though), I was curious to read Cal Newport’s book about career advice: So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

It does punch like the title, delivering immediately actionable advice on how best to steer, improve and leverage your career to get your dream job.

How does it all play out then? By following four simple rules (and corollary laws).

Rule #1: Don’t follow your passion.
First of all, we very rarely know what our passions truly are. It’s more the norm to become passionate about something we do really well. Secondly, passion is dangerous, since it can lead you to jump onto options for which you do not have the necessary skills. Thirdly, by trying to follow your passion, you end up assessing each job opportunity according to what it offer you, instead of what value your are producing.

Rule #2: Be so good they can’t ignore it (or, the importance of skill)
One needs to develop rare and valuable skills, a career capital, in order to trade them for better and better jobs. These skills are best acquired via the craftsman mindset, “a focus on what value you’re producing in the job” and through deliberate practice, “an approach to work where you deliberately stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance.” (more on this in Deep Work).

Rule #3: Turn down a promotion (or, the importance of control)
So now that your have built up your career capital, what do you trade it for? One of the most powerful traits to acquire is control over what you do, and how you do it. Deciding how much and where to work. Control has it traps though.
The first control trap states that “control that is acquired without career capital is not sustainable.”
The second control trap is that “the point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaning control is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent your from making the change.”
In order to avoid these traps, one should follow the Law of financial viability, which briefly states that you should always check your desired changes against the willingness of people to pay for it.

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big (or, the importance of mission)
Another fundamental source of satisfaction of your work is having a mission, but finding such a mission is not an easy task. Like control, mission also requires career capital: having a clear defined mission but no skills to carry it out will only leave you unsatisfied and looking for another job to pay for your bills. Ok. You’ve got the necessary skills, but still lack a driving mission. How do you find it? Cal argues that great missions are found in the adjacent possible of your field, meaning you first need to become an expert to spot new fruitful directions. Exactly like in science. Great discoveries are found at the edges of the current knowledge. Good. You found a possible direction. Do you jump head on into it? No, you take small bets in many of these direction, in order to probe what’s truly feasible, and also remarkable. A small bet is transformed into a compelling mission and then into a great success if it satisfies the law of remarkability, “which requires than an idea inspires people to remark about it, and is launched in a venue where such remarking in made easy.” Example? Intriguing scientific discoveries in peer-review journals and innovative software in open-source GitHub repositories.

That’s a quite concise summary of the book. In order to dig deeper into the arguments behind these rules and laws, and read many peoples’ stories, successful and not, you ought to read the whole book. At 230 pages at large font is a fast read, but you’ll come back to some chapters multiple times, to adjust your understanding to your current career situation.

Personally, I found the advice clear, which is not always the case, sound, which is even less so, and immediately applicable. Overall, what’s best about the book is that it frames career development and finding the dream job in very practical and no-nonsense terms.

Buy it here.

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