So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Newport, Cal. (2012). So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Hatchette Book Group; New York.

I have followed the work of Dr. Cal Newport with interest for some time now – his blog called Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success is immensely popular and started when he was a computer science Ph.D. candidate at MIT. Even though he is now an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, he still manages to provide a whirlwind of excellent career and personal advice on his blog and related books.

Cal’s notes that he is “particularly intrigued by the benefits of living deeply in a distracted world” (Study Hacks Blog, 2013). His book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is his critical evaluation of the so-called “passion hypothesis” –  essentially the modern-day idea that you need to know what you’re passionate about before you can go out into the working world to find a job. Cal coins this and many other phrases throughout the book, which reads as a manifesto on the personal quest to find relevance within your life’s work.

As Cal goes through and debunks the idea that you should obsess over your life’s passion, he outlines what you should be doing instead; namely, focusing on building up high levels of expertise (i.e. the craftsman mindset), identifying rare and valuable skills needed in the working world (i.e. career capital), pushing yourself into new and uncomfortable situations (i.e. deliberate practice), along with many others.

Image of Dr. Cal Newport's book. Image credits to Amazon 2013.
Image of Dr. Cal Newport’s book. Image credits to Amazon 2013.

I read this book with great interest, as I identified strongly with many of Cal’s definitions and assessments. I thought about all the years I’ve spent honing and dedicating myself to the deliberate practice of academia, and how gaining mastery over academic writing (a sphere within my own control) has given me a lot of career satisfaction and empowerment. Switching careers into another unrelated field like carpentry would mean rededicating myself to this new area of work. The book has helped me to realize that I’m not the only one worried about my future career trajectory, and provided me with the courage and tools needed to build a fulfilling work life.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You does suffer from a few conceptual issues. First, I thought that Cal’s extensive focus on eminent computer programmers working in the pre-2000 era (e.g. Steve Jobs) was unhelpful. Times have radically changed since the dawn of the internet era and the lifestyle/career trajectory of the modern-day computer programmer is much different than during the halcyon early days of technology. To increase the scope of his discussion, Cal does a good job of drawing in examples from a diverse range of more modern innovators (e.g. archeologists, organic farmers, writers, etc.).

Second, I think that Cal perpetuates certain long-standing career myths which are external, though related, to the passion hypothesis. On page 154 he is quoted as writing “…Hardness [in pursuing a mission] scares off the daydreamers and the timid, living more opportunity for those like us who are willing to take the time to carefully work out the best path forward…” (Newport, 2012, emphasis mine). Though taken out of context, this quote refers to the importance of defining and patiently pursuing a mission in life, rather than attempting to skip ahead in line on your path to fame and fortune. Here Cal suggests that only certain people have what it takes to work hard and be truly successful. Timid, shy, and vague people are unequipped to reach the perfect utopia he envisions – a career myth that has deterred many introverted and quiet people like myself.

In a time when Generation Screwed (of which I am a part) faces staggering student debt and limited or ridiculous job opportunities, it is important to know how to achieve contentedness with work and career. Cal’s book should be on the ‘required reading’ list for those self-reflective individuals seeking comfort in their post-graduate working life.

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