So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

This might be the best book about career advice written to date, especially for young people who are just getting started, who are trying to figure out what to do with their lives, or what they’re passionate about. This book explores answers to the questions: Why do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal? And how do we end up passionate about our careers?

The book in three sentences

Don’t obsess over finding your passion, instead focus intensely on mastering rare and valuable skills. Once you build up the career capital that these skills generate, invest it wisely. Use it to acquire greater control over what you do and how you do it, and to identify and act on a life-chasing mission.

– Don’t “follow your passion.” Stop soul-searching and trying to figure out what your true calling is ahead of time. Leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. Instead of focusing on what value your job can offer you, focus relentlessly on what value you’re offering the world and have an obsessive focus on the quality of what you produce. Regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer.

– Be so good they can’t ignore you. Focus on getting really good at rare and valuable skills — not on finding your passion — and then use the career capital this process generates to invest in acquiring the traits that make for a compelling career (i.e. control and mission).

– Regardless of how you feel about your job right now, do whatever you do really well, thus ensuring that you come away from each experience with as much career capital as possible. After each working experience, stick your head up to see who is interested in your newly expanded store of capital, and then jump at whatever opportunity seems most promising.  

– Figure out how to integrate deliberate practice in your life. Introduce some practice strategies into your working life that will force you to make deliberate practice a regular companion in your daily routine (e.g. research bible, hour-tally, theory-notebook routines, etc). Approach your career like an elite musician, professional athlete, or chess grandmaster would — with a dedication to deliberate practice. Develop a systematic and painstaking practice regime for your field of work that’s designed — ideally by a teacher — for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of your performance. Schedule time every week for deliberately practicing the skills that matter most in your field. 

– Practice in a way where (a) the materials are deliberately chosen or adapted such that the problems to be solved are at a level that is appropriately challenging, carefully chosen to stretch your abilities just beyond what is comfortable in the areas that most need stretching, and (b) where you immediately receive ruthless feedback on your performance: be it from looking up the answer in a book, online, an expert coach, or from professionals in your field.

– Out of every 10,000 hours of practice, spend at least 5,000 investing in serious study (aka deliberate practice) of your field — systematically pouring over books and using teachers to help identify and eliminate weaknesses.

– Accustom yourself to hardship. Learn to become comfortable with the mental discomfort and strain that accompanies deliberate practice. Put strain and feedback at the core of your practice regime, and be happy to practice like this for hours at a time.

– Notice when you inevitably hit a performance plateau. When you do, carve out time in your schedule for deliberate practice, where you stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and receive ruthless feedback on your performance.

– Constantly be soliciting feedback from colleagues and professionals. Choose projects where you’d be forced to show your work to others.

– Throw yourself into a project that’s just beyond your current capabilities and where you’re receiving direct feedback. And then hustle to make it a success.

– To build a deliberate practice strategy:

  1. Figure out whether you’re competing in a winner-takes-all market or an auction market.
  2. Identify the specific type of career capital to pursue (seek open gates — opportunities to build capital that are already open to you).
  3. Clearly define what “good” means. You need a clear goal. If you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, then it’s hard to take effective action.
  4. When you engage in deliberate practice, remember to stretch and destroy. Deliberate practice is the opposite of enjoyable, and if you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.” Stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.” And embrace honest feedback – even if it destroys what you thought was good. It’s in honest, sometimes harsh feedback that you learn where to retrain your focus in order to continue to make progress. Get feedback from professionals who won’t hesitate to let you know what’s working and what’s not in what you’re producing. Continuous and harsh feedback will accelerate the growth of your ability.
  5. Be patient and stay diligent. Recognize there will be frustrating months of hard work and mediocre performing ahead. Ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you. Acquiring career capital can take time. Without this patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your efforts before you acquire the capital you need.

– Control over what you do, and how you do it, is one of the most powerful traits you can acquire when creating work you love. But make sure you always have enough career capital to back you up before you make a bid for more control in your working life.

– Once you’ve acquired enough career capital, you will face resistance from your employer, friends and family as you try to invest it to get meaningful control over your working life – they will try to prevent you from making the change, offering more money and prestige instead of more control. This is precisely the time to be courageous, stay the course and push through those demands and temptations.

– Do what people are willing to pay for. Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable. When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on. If you’re struggling to raise money for an idea, or are thinking that you will support your idea with unrelated work, then you need to rethink the idea.

– If you want to identify a mission for your working life you must first get to the cutting edge, so you can see the adjacent possible beyond — the only place where these missions become visible. First start by mastering a promising niche — a process that requires patience and that may take years of work — and only then, once you’ve acquired enough capital, turn your attention to seek a mission.

– To make the leap from identifying a realistic mission to succeeding in making it a reality: deploy a methodical series of little bets — small, bite-sized, concrete experiments about what might be a good direction — that return concrete feedback and allow you to learn critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant wins (rather than believing you have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance). You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps.

– Before launching a mission-driven project, make sure it’s remarkable in the two following ways: (1) it should compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others (i.e. to take notice and spread the word, to write their friends and tell them, “You haveto see this!”), and (2) it must be launched in a value that supports such remarking (i.e. where there’s an established infrastructure in the community for noticing and spreading the word about interesting projects).

– Resist the lure of distraction and to work on things that don’t matter. Fight against the internal resistance your mind feels and the intense wave of neuronal protest it unleashes when it realizes the effort you’re about to ask it to expend on deliberate practice. It’s much easier to redesign your website than it is to grapple with a mind-melting problem/project. Tell yourself: “I am going to work on this for one hour. I don’t care if I faint from the effort, or make no progress, for the next hour this is my whole world.” It takes about 10 minutes for the waves of resistance to die down.