Notes on So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

Like a lot of books that purport to offer “rules,” this has the whiff of the self-appointed guru — then again, part of the message is about effective self-promotion, so at least Newport is modeling.

It should have been an long essay instead of a book, but the good parts are quite good. My main takeaways:

  1. He says that “follow your passion” is wrong advice — but considering the evidence he presents I would say that’s it’s not entirely wrong, just too vague. He’s right that people usually don’t start out with a pre-defined passion, or if they do it’s usually not their life’s work: Steve Jobs would have ended up a Buddhist calligrapher if he had followed his passion. But Newport also talks about the importance of deliberate practice, and that what separates those who reach a pinnacle from those who plateau is the ability to push past the discomfort of stretching oneself. (The difference between noodling on the guitar and practicing the difficult parts on a loop for hours.) He convinced me of that, but what does that ability to push consist of? It’s either masochism or passion. It seems to me having enough passion about something to put up with deliberate practice is a good evidence that you’re on the right track — the real distinction to make is between making your passion your master or your servant. (In Mike Rowe’s words: Don’t follow your passion, but always bring it with you.)

  2. There is a popular notion that the only thing preventing people from following their passion is a lack of courage, and Newport thoroughly debunks this idea. It may take courage to quit your banker job and open a yoga studio, but if you’ve never taught yoga before it’s also stupid. That’s not to say that courage isn’t important, though: It also takes courage to turn down a promotion in favor of negotiating for greater autonomy in your work, but from the point of view of job satisfaction that is usually smart.

  3. Small, achievable projects give you a chance to quickly iterate, get feedback, and course correct. (Cf. Darius Kazemi, Thoughts on small projects.)

  4. He has a refreshingly straightforward view on supply and demand, and the value of not just self-improvement but specifically building marketable skills. “Career capital” is the term he uses.

  5. Despite his musician examples, this book has mixed messages for those who want to have an artistic career. He claims that “the right work” is secondary to “working right,” with the implication being that as long as your position has the traits that lead to job satisfaction (autonomy, impact, a sense of competence, good relationships) you might as well find the position that will maximize your earning potential. Money is a “neutral indicator of value” and art is a “hobby-style interest.” Tell that to Lewis Hyde.

4 thoughts on “Notes on So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

    1. Newport himself seemed conflicted about this. He had admiring examples of musicians — but one had been making money from it since high school and the other, Steve Martin, said he was willing to practice forty years before being good at the banjo (while making millions from his comedy in the meantime). There was a story about a screenwriter powering through the lean years, but Newport never talked about how many lean years are too many.

  1. Money is not a neutral indicator of value. It is a measure of how well your talents and abilities match with the times. For most of history, being an actor was valued little, and then the movies were invented and a small number of actors became among the highest paid people around. Why? Their talents were exploitable at a massive scale. A few musicians had the same experience with the coming of records. And athletes with the coming of TV. With the advance of technology, “Nerds” are now shaping the world. It’s all about being born when your talents are exploitable.

    1. That reminds me of something Warren Buffett said about his skills: If he had been born a few thousand years ago he would have been lion lunch. But because he was born in he 20th century, he’s a billionaire.

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