Cal Newport : So Good They Can’t Ignore You (book highlights)


Note: The following are my personal highlights. If you like them, please consider buying the book.

  • The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.
  • If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, we would probably find him today as one of the Los Altos Zen Center’s most popular teachers.
  • The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.
  • If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, we would probably find him today as one of the Los Altos Zen Center’s most popular teachers.
  • In Wrzesniewski’s research, the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do. On reflection, this makes sense. If you have many years’ experience, then you’ve had time to get better at what you do and develop a feeling of efficacy. It also gives you time to develop strong relationships with your coworkers and to see many examples of your work benefiting others. What’s important here,
  • Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people
  • Of equal interest is what this list of basic psychological needs does not include. Notice, scientists did not find “matching work to pre-existing passions” as being important for motivation. The traits they did find, by contrast, are more general and are agnostic to the specific type of work in question. Competence and autonomy, for example, are achievable by most people in a wide variety of jobs—assuming they’re willing to put in the hard work required for mastery. This message is not as inspiring as “follow your passion and you’ll immediately be happy,” but it certainly has a ring of truth. In other words, working right trumps finding the right work.
  • disagree. The more I studied the issue, the more I noticed that the passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.
  • The more we focused on loving what we do, the less we ended up loving it.
  • This dedication to output, I realized, also explains his painful modesty. To Jordan, arrogance doesn’t make sense. “Here’s what I respect: creating something meaningful and then presenting it to the world,” he explained.
  • If you’re not focusing on becoming so good they can’t ignore you, you’re going to be left behind. This clarity was refreshing.
  • Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you. This mindset is how most people approach their working lives.
  • First, when you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness. This is especially true for entry-level positions, which, by definition, are not going to be filled with challenging projects and autonomy—these come later.
  • Second, and more serious, the deep questions driving the passion mindset—“Who am I?” and “What do I truly love?”—are essentially impossible to confirm. “Is this who I really am?” and “Do I love this?” rarely reduce to clear yes-or-no responses. In other words, the passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused, which probably explains why Bronson admits, not long into his career-seeker epic What Should I Do With My Life? that “the one feeling everyone in this book has experienced is of missing out on life.”
  • there’s something liberating about the craftsman mindset: It asks you to 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. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.
  • I am suggesting that you put aside the question of whether your job is your true passion, and instead turn your focus toward becoming so good they can’t ignore you. That is, regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer.
  • “the tape doesn’t lie”: If you’re a guitar player or a comedian, what you produce is basically all that matters. If you spend too much time focusing on whether or not you’ve found your true calling, the question will be rendered moot when you find yourself out of work.
  • Most jobs don’t offer their employees great creativity, impact, or control over what they do and how they do it. If you’re a recent college graduate in an entry-level job, for example, you’re much more likely to hear “go change the water cooler” than you are “go change the world.”
  • 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.
  • He produced something of great value and in return his career got an injection of creativity, impact, and control.
  • “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase,”
  • The traits that define great work are rare and valuable. Supply and demand says that if you want these traits you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. Think of these rare and valuable skills you can offer as your 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. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is to create work you love.
  • You need to get good in order to get good things in your working life, and the craftsman mindset is focused on achieving exactly this goal.
  • When Feuer left her advertising career to start a yoga studio, not only did she discard the career capital acquired over many years in the marketing industry, but she transitioned into an unrelated field where she had almost no capital.
  • Instead of fleeing the constraints of his current job, he began acquiring the career capital he’d need to buy himself out of them.
  • To aid John, I ended up devising a list of three traits that disqualify a job as providing a good foundation for building work you love:
  • Alex and Mike both focused on getting good—not finding their passion—and then used the career capital this generated to acquire the traits that made their careers compelling.
  • There’s nothing mysterious about how Alex Berger broke into Hollywood—he simply understood the value, and difficulty, of becoming good.
  • Instead, after each working experience, he would stick his head up to see who was interested in his newly expanded store of capital, and then jump at whatever opportunity seemed most promising.
  • They’re both focused on difficult activities, carefully chosen to stretch your abilities where they most need stretching and that provide immediate feedback.
  • In the early 1990s, Anders Ericsson, a colleague of Neil Charness at Florida State University, coined the term “deliberate practice” to describe this style of serious study, defining it formally as an “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.”
  • It is a lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice that again and again ends up explaining excellence.
  • Put another way, if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better. This is what happened to me with my guitar playing, to the chess players who stuck to tournament play, and to most knowledge workers who simply put in the hours: We all hit plateaus.
  • To successfully adopt the craftsman mindset, therefore, we have to approach our jobs in the same way that Jordan approaches his guitar playing or Garry Kasparov his chess training—with a dedication to deliberate practice.
  • Step 1: Decide What Capital Market You’re In For the sake of clarity, I will introduce some new terminology. When you are acquiring career capital in a field, you can imagine that you are acquiring this capital in a specific type of career capital market. There are two types of these markets: winner-take-all and auction.
  • It helps to think about skill acquisition like a freight train: Getting it started requires a huge application of effort, but changing its track once it’s moving is easy.
  • The first thing this literature tells us is that you need clear goals. If you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, then it’s hard to take effective action.
  • Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.… Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate,” as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.
  • The good news about deliberate practice is that it will push you past this plateau and into a realm where you have little competition. The bad news is that the reason so few people accomplish this feat is exactly because of the trait Colvin warned us about: Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.
  • I like the term “stretch” for describing what deliberate practice feels like, as it matches my own experience with the activity. When I’m learning a new mathematical technique—a classic case of deliberate practice—the uncomfortable sensation in my head is best approximated as a physical strain, as if my neurons are physically re-forming into new configurations. As any mathematician will admit, this stretching feels much different than applying a technique you’ve already mastered, which can be quite enjoyable. But this stretching, as any mathematician will also admit, is the precondition to getting better. This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of “good.” If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.” Pushing past what’s comfortable, however, is only one part of the deliberate-practice story; the other part is embracing honest feedback—even if it destroys what you thought was good.
  • What’s interesting is that Martin redefines the word so that it’s less about paying attention to your main pursuit, and more about your willingness to ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you. The final step for applying deliberate practice to your working life is to adopt this style of diligence.
  • This is why Martin’s diligence is so important: Without this patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your efforts before you acquire the capital you need. I think the image of Martin returning to his banjo, day after day, for forty years, is poignant. It captures well the feel of how career capital is actually acquired: You 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.”
  • It argued that the passion hypothesis, which says that the key to loving your work is to match a job to a pre-existing passion, is bad advice. There’s little evidence that most people have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered, and believing that there’s a magical right job lurking out there can often lead to chronic unhappiness and confusion when the reality of the working world fails to match this dream. Rule #2 was the first to tackle the natural follow-up question: If “follow your passion” is bad advice, what should you do instead? It contended that the traits that define great work are rare and valuable. If you want these traits in your own life, you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. I called these rare and valuable skills career capital, and noted that the foundation of constructing work you love is acquiring a large store of this capital.
  • Rule #2, I then countered that people with compelling careers instead start by getting good at something rare and valuable—building what I called “career capital”—and then cashing in this capital for the traits that make great work great.
  • Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.
  • It didn’t take her long to realize that just because you’re committed to a certain lifestyle doesn’t mean you’ll find people who are committed to supporting you.
  • 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.
  • Hardness scares off the daydreamers and the timid, leaving more opportunity for those like us who are willing to take the time to carefully work out the best path forward and then confidently take action.
  • The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas. The reason important discoveries often happen multiple times, therefore, is that they only become possible once they enter the adjacent possible, at which point anyone surveying this space—that is, those who are the current cutting edge—will notice the same innovations waiting to happen.
  • Scientific breakthroughs, as we just learned, require that you first get to the cutting edge of your field. Only then can you see the adjacent possible beyond, the space where innovative ideas are almost always discovered.
  • In hindsight, these observations are obvious. If life-transforming missions could be found with just a little navel-gazing and an optimistic attitude, changing the world would be commonplace. But it’s not commonplace; it’s instead quite rare. This rareness, we now understand, is because these breakthroughs require that you first get to the cutting edge, and this is hard—the type of hardness that most of us try to avoid in our working lives.
  • Similarly, identifying a compelling mission once you get to the cutting edge can be seen as investing your career capital to acquire a desirable trait in your career. In other words, mission is yet another example of career capital theory in action. If you want a mission, you need to first acquire capital. If you skip this step, you might end up like Sarah and Jane: with lots of enthusiasm but very little to show for it.
  • Here’s what I noticed: Kirk’s path to American Treasures was incremental. He didn’t decide out of nowhere that he wanted to host a television show and then work backward to make that dream a reality. Instead, he worked forward from his original mission—to popularize archaeology—with a series of small, almost tentative steps.
  • “Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance,” he writes, “they make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant wins” [emphasis mine]. This rapid and frequent feedback, Sims argues, “allows them to find unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes.”
  • To maximize your chances of success, you should deploy small, concrete experiments that return concrete feedback.
  • These bets allow you to tentatively explore the specific avenues surrounding your general mission, looking for those with the highest likelihood of leading to outstanding results.
  • The Law of Remarkability For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.
  • law of remarkability. This law says that for a project to transform a mission into a success, it should be remarkable in two ways. First, it must literally compel people to remark about it. Second, it must be launched in a venue conducive to such remarking.
  • As you might recall, a little bet, in the setting of mission exploration, has the following characteristics: It’s a project small enough to be completed in less than a month. It forces you to create new value (e.g., master a new skill and produce new results that didn’t exist before). It produces a concrete result that you can use to gather concrete feedback.
  • When a little bet finishes, I use the concrete feedback it generates to guide my research efforts going forward. This feedback tells me, for example, whether a given project should be aborted and, if not, what direction is most promising to explore next. The effort of completing these bets also has the added side benefit of inducing deliberate practice—yet another tactic in my ever-growing playbook dedicated to making me better and better at what I do.

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