June: Book of the Month – So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

8 minute read

Is this you?

You’re wrestling with quitting your job, you’re not being challenged enough and the daily commute is draining your soul. Worst of all,  you’re just not ‘passionate’ about your work, leaving you with no energy and no motivation to pull yourself out of bed some days.

That was me, and I was stuck in that rut when I found So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.

I had read Cal Newport’s book, ‘Deep Work’, and really liked the concept. It was a dogged pushback of the new-agey corporate culture that promoted open-plan offices, shared desks and opportunities for multi-tasking across different projects. This was all in an effort to increase workplace happiness and productivity from employees. 

These corporations had great intentions, but unfortunately, their ideas were based on questionable advice from self-help business gurus.

Here’s what research says about the common business productivity dogma:

1) Multitasking makes people increasingly less productive. In fact, multitasking doesn’t exist. Our brain can’t process two cognitively strenuous tasks in tandem. What it ends up doing it rapidly switching from one task to the other, causing fatigue and loss of concentration. This is called attention residue: a buffer period that is taken for your brain to adjust from one task to the next.

2) Open workspaces cause distractions and reduce focus. This means that there is less quality in the work.

3) Collaboration and open communication should be strictly scheduled and not be made into the norm because it distracts people from being deeply focussed. 

Corporate environments are frantic and fast-paced; they are not conducive to any deep work. But, research is saying that deep work is integral for doing great work, and it is a skill that is absolutely necessary if you want to aim at any sort of mastery.

Newport defines deep work as:

‘engaging in a single cognitively demanding task and sustaining your focus on that task for an extended period of time. Now, all that nonsense about multitasking, open workspaces and constant collaboration becomes the death of deep work.’

Here’s a mantra to help get into some deep work, ask yourself: “what do I need to put in place so I can mercilessly cut out distractions and be obsessively focussed on this task in front of me?”

Summary: Deep Work talks about what’s necessary to achieve mastery and builds nicely into Newport’s first book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which talks about how mastery is the gate that opens up our passion.  


So Good They Can’t Ignore You

The premise of the book can be summarised in 4 main points:

  • The Passion Trap: don’t follow your passion follow growth
  • Passion is a side effect of mastery
  • Autonomy equals competence
  • Strive for more control of your time

Have a craftsman mindset:

  • Passion = what the world can offer me
  • Craftsman = what I can offer the world

Here are some in-depth takeaways from the book:

Passion trap

“Follow your passion and you will be happy and successful” – this is the advice regurgitated by many new ‘Gurus’.

There is extreme career dissatisfaction today. Millenials are starting out in the workforce and becoming so disenchanted that they switch off and disengage. They feel like they are not making a difference and yearn for the feeling of passion in their veins. They have been sold the pathology that passion is the be all and cure all of a dream career.

The research actually shows that people who work hard and generate careers capital in their given area, develop a passion for what they are doing, regardless of what the task it. If you work hard and become an expert in your field, the passion will follow. Why, because you have become great at what you do. You’ve achieved something, and you’ve earned your gratification. 

For over 200,000 years humans didn’t evolve will regular meals, heating or fundamental safety. We are biologically wired to surmount obstacles. Doesn’t it make sense that passion is the natural reward of mastery and expertise; because the person who becomes a master is one who has the tools to be able to live another day.

We don’t thrive when we are comfortable. We thrive when we overcome adversity.

Automation and Autonomy

When we are starting out at a new skill or a new job, we tend to forget that a lot of pleasure comes from being competent at your job. Competence can only happen as a result of repeating tasks to the point that they become automatic. This means that you do not have to expend a lot of energy on them anymore, leaving more room for you to take on more responsibility in your role.

Here’s another mantra: Automate like a mother f*#ker.

You need your precious brain power to think about more important things.

Group all the administration and minutia into autonomous habits – so it’s like you are just running a script and not expending much cognitive load. You don’t want to be mindless about it, you want to treat these admin tasks like you would riding a bike or driving a car. You can drive a car and sing a song at the same time and not crash because your brain has scripted and chunked together all the physiological and mental processes that go along with safely driving the car.

Have a craftsman mindset, not a passion mindset

Newport says one of the biggest fallacies being promoted in the career world today is that occupational happiness comes from finding a job that corresponds with a preexisting passion. “Passions don’t come before skills,” Newport explains. “That’s often a roadblock — it’s hard to get around this idea that we all have a preexisting strong passion, and it’s just whether or not we follow it.”

The problem with the passion mindset is that it leads people to approach their work asking, “What can the world offer me?” — and that results in a lot of job hopping.

When we focus on our achieving our passions as our main priority, we end up making ourselves unhappy.

“First, when you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyper-aware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness,” he writes. This is especially true for entry-level positions, which rarely offer fulfilling challenges. He also objects to the passion mindset, because the questions it prompts — “Who am I?” “What do I truly love?” “Is this who I really am?” — These questions are not only hard to answer, but are, as he writes, “almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused.”

Career Capital

“Career capital is the skills you have that are both rare and valuable and that can be used as leverage in defining your career.” It is crucial in developing a successful career, one that Newport describes as being marked by creativity, impact and control, or autonomy.

“Basic economic theory tells us that if you want something that’s both rare and valuable, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return—this is Supply and Demand 101. It follows that if you want a great job, you need something of great value to offer in return.”

When you develop high career capital, you will have more leverage in your organisation. This means that you will have more opportunities because of your skills.

Be careful of the passion trap in your life. What tends to happen is that people become bored and unfilled at work, and then they decide to start a business around their passion. But reality eventually kicks in and they quickly realise that they need money to survive and that their passion is worthless unless it is providing value to other people in a way that they are willing to pay for it.

Control

We perceive success as having more control. People want to work for themselves or get that big promotion because ultimately, they crave more control over their lives. They feel like they are in the wash of the 9 to 5 and are stagnating.

More money, more time = more control.

Newport mentions that we can start by taking control over what we do and how we do it. We need to make sure that before we try to take control, we must have the career capital to exercise.

If you had to choose between the more control over your hours and a raise, choose control every time.

Something to note is that the more control that you try to imply in your career, the more resistance you will encounter. People in your organisation won’t like to fact that you are taking on more control and autonomy – it’s threatening and disconcerting. Be careful of people trying to trap you with ‘new opportunities’, because they could be trying to loosen your control. Healthy paranoia is good medicine.

Key takeaways

Don’t aim for passion because it is expedient. Passion is one of the symptoms of mastery, and for some reason, our society has become preoccupied with passion as the ultimate goal. I think that we’ve lost sight of the feeling of pride and accomplishment that one gets from taking responsibility, practising discipline and striving for mastery. Mastery doesn’t involve a fleeting feeling, it’s a badge that is pinned on your reputation and reinforces your character.

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