Book review: So good they can't ignore you

I picked up this work on the 2 Jan this year and finished it yesterday, 10 Jan. On Amazon, this book is listed at 267 pages.


This is the (non-affiliated) link from Amazon: here. Without further ado, let's quickly skim the main points of the book.

So good they can't ignore you: why skills trump passion in the quest for work you love

The author segments the book into 4 rules and allocates a 2-3 chapters to talk about each rule and how to apply them. The entire drift of the book is how you shouldn't find a job based on your passion, but rather find a job that you can be good in, which will eventually become a job you love.

Rule 1: don't follow your passion

In here, you will learn about the passion hypothesis, which is the hypothesis that you first identify your passion, then follow it to find a job. There are three reasons why the hypothesis is flawed and you should never follow it.

  1. Passion is rare. It is unlikely that you have something you are passionate about when you first start work.
  2. Passion takes time. You change our passion all the time and it is impossible to know your passion so early.
  3. Passion comes from mastery. Only when you become good at what you do and learn the skills, then can you know what you are passionate about.
As a result, you should not follow the passion hypothesis since it will make you follow a passion you think you have, and you become disillusioned since you don't find work happy.

Rule 2: be so good they can't ignore

Here, you learn about the craftsman mindset, where you focus on what you can offer to the world instead of what the world can offer you (the passion hypothesis). You will also learn about career capital, which is what you must have before you can exchange it for a great work.

Career capital is defined as skills which are rare and valuable. Great work is defined as having creativity, impact, and control.

However, you must know that there are some industries where you will be unable to adopt the craftsman mindset and hence not be able to acquire career capital. There are 3 disqualifiers.

  1. Your job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing skills which are rare and valuable. For instance, a cleaning job will not give you skills which are rare and valuable.
  2. Your job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world. For instance, you manufacture cigarettes and you think smoking is harmful for health.
  3. Your job forces you to work with people you really dislike. For instance, a workplace where you have many "enemies".
If your job does not hit any of the 3 disqualifiers, then you can go on to acquire career capital by getting deliberate practice with instant feedback with work that is challenging and structured. You will learn about these 5 steps to acquire career capital.

  1. Know what is a "winner-take-all" or "auction" market. In a "winner-take-all" industry, only one skill matters and you need to be the best in that skill. In an "auction" market, there are plenty of skills that you can become good at, and any combination can make you good.
  2. Identify capital type. You have to know whether your industry is a "winner-take-all" or "auction" market.
  3. Define good. You need to know what is good and how you can improve.
  4. Stretch and destroy. Improve by doing something beyond your comfort level and seek instant feedback.
  5. Be patient. It takes time to be good.

Rule 3: turn down a promotion (the importance of control)

There are two traits that define great work. One of which is control, where you have control in your work. You can only have control in your work if you have sufficient career capital to support you and then using your career capital to negotiate for control.

There are two career traps here which you need to be wary of.

  1. Not enough career capital. If you don't have enough career capital, you should not go for control since there will be strong resistance to you negotiating for it.
  2. Too much career capital. If you have too much career capital, then there will be many people who want you to continue in your current work and thus resist your negotiation for control.
Both traps present the same reactions but both are different in that one is good and one is bad for you. To successfully differentiate between the two, you will need to use the law of financial viability. This law asks whether people are willing to pay for your career capital.

If yes, then you are in the second career trap, and you should negotiate for more control. On the other hand, if people will not pay you for your career capital, then you should not ask for more control but rather acquire more career capital first.

Rule 4: think small, act big (the importance of mission)

The first trait that define great work is control and the second is mission. When you have a mission in your work, you tend to enjoy it. Similarly, we need to have the career capital first before we pursue a mission in our work. Otherwise, the mission will be a failure.

To know whether a mission is worth pursuing, you have 2 ways.

  1. Small bets. Conduct small, concrete experiments that can return concrete feedback so you can decide whether it is feasible. These experiments usually take 2-3 months so even if you fail, you have not lost much rather than having gone head in.
  2. Purple cow. To fulfil the purple cow criteria, your mission must be so remarkable that it compels people who encounter it to remark about it and your mission must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.
For instance, if you are a programmer, a venue to create a remarkable project would be the open-source community whereby great work gets remarked about rather than you opening a website and selling it where people would not spread the word around.

Applying the rules

The last chapter talks about how the author, Cal Newport, who is a professor, applies the rules to his work. To read about it, you can get the book. I personally feel that the 4 rules are more important to feature in this review.

My rating

I would give this book a 9.5/10 because it manages to explain the conundrum that many people have today and how some people can work so happily. It also gives very concrete steps, supported by examples, on how you achieve the same result.
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