SO GOOD THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU by Cal Newport — a Review

SO GOOD THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU is the latest book by Georgetown Professor Cal Newport, author of the Study Hacks blog. This is a tremendously valuable book for anyone who is looking not for a job, but a career that offers control, autonomy, and gives you a sense of fulfillment. SO GOOD gives you the step by step plan to achieve it.

So Good Newport

The subtitle of this book reveals the author’s main theme: “Why skills trump passion in the quest for work you love.” This is a unique idea that rejects the current popular advice of “follow your passion.” Even today on a WSJ blog, the CEO of Zipcar, Scott Griffith, is quoted saying,

“If you really don’t have passion for what you’re doing, quit. Go find something. I was interested in technology and transportation when I was in junior high school. It may not be that clear to everybody, but we all kind of know what our passions are pretty early in life, and if you can figure out a way to align your avocation with your vocation, the sky’s the limit for your career and your happiness.” (“Zipcar CEO: ‘If You Don’t Have Passion For Your Job, Quit,’” Leslie Kwoh, Wall Street Journal, 9/19/12)

Newport rejects this idea, claiming that quitting your job to follow your passion is at best unrealistic, and at worst, dangerous for your long-term success. Instead, Newport stresses the pursuit of skills, not passion. But not just any skills. He focuses in on what he calls “career capital”: the specific, valuable, and marketable skills that will separate you from the rest of the pack and let you define the terms of your career.

I think at this point, we’ve all heard the notion of it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. But not all practice hours are equal. Newport suggests using a concept called “deliberate practice”–practice that pushes you beyond your comfort zone, that stretches you, that forces you to improve–to achieve those career capital skills. Although difficult, it is far more effective than other means of practice, Newport argues.

Once you have mastered these skills, you can start defining the terms of your career, giving yourself the control and autonomy many crave but few achieve. Of course, once you’ve picked up a few skills, you’re not scott free at this point. Newport highlights two traps. The first is thinking you have enough career capital too early in your career. In other words, you jump without looking: you start your own business before people are willing to pay you for your skills. The second is acquiring so much capital that your boss will not want to let you go, in effect pushing you in a direction that offers you less control and autonomy even though it may come with a new title, new office, and maybe even a raise. But Newport offers a solid plan to avoid these traps. Moreover, Newport also offers advice on building a career not based on passion, but one that you become passionate about.

Not too long ago, I stopped working at a law firm to become a freelance writer. Writing is always something that I’ve really enjoyed, so I was a perfect example of someone who followed their passion. And although I possessed writing skills, I lacked the other skills necessary for a freelancing life (marketing know-how, references, a pile of clips, etc.). In other words, I didn’t have the complete career capital package. I fell into Newport’s first trap. I’ve been working my way out of it ever since. SO GOOD is the book I wish I had when I first started thinking about transitioning from the law firm to the freelancer life. I would have been able to hit the ground much faster. But Newport offers enough concrete tips in SO GOOD, that I think I can make up for the lost time and separate myself from the other writers out there.

But don’t think this is just a book for people who are thinking of becoming writers or bloggers or lifestyle coaches or whatever new job the latest web gurus are touting. Not only does Newport profile writers and musicians, but also a biologist, venture capitalist, archeologist, and various other entrepreneurs. In SO GOOD, Newport offers a plan that can work for anyone. It’s a short read, and while there are definitely times when Newport repeats himself (he summarizes passages that you have read only a handful of pages earlier for example), the lessons are specific and useful. When you finish reading SO GOOD, I can almost guarantee your career plans will have changed for the better. They will be better defined and likely more productive. Read it, learn it, use it. Discover your dream job by developing your skills.

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