So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal New Port

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

by Cal Newport


It’s safe to say that this book came in at the right time in my life. I’m currently in my last year of high school and I’m not sure what I want to pursue. Before reading the book I thought that developing skill is critical in your career, and that whatever I end up pursuing in university I must develop rare skill & abilities.

This book confirms my theory. Most people like myself don’t have a preexisting passion that they could match to a career (and actually make money whilst pursuing it), so the advice follow your passion is flawed. You should do things that allow you to develop rare & valuable skills that differentiate you from your peers. This way, you don’t worry about making the right decision when at a crossroads, just choose the option that yields the most opportunity to become so good they can’t ignore you. (a lot of times both options are similar in that regard, they both give you opportunity to grow)

If you’d have to choose the most valuable concept from this book it would probably be the career capital theory. When you start out in your career you don’t have any career capital. The better you get and the more skill you develop, the more you acquire career capital. You can trade in your career capital for more autonomy or a mission. The latter requires a lot more career capital and you need to be at the cutting edge of your field, that’s where missions become more visible.

The 4 Rules

This book is structured in 4 main rules:

  1. Don’t Follow Your Passion
  2. Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You
  3. Turn Down A Promotion
  4. Think Small, Act Big

RULE #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

Working right trumps finding the right work.

In the beginning of your career, work won’t be that great. Your tasks will probably be pretty boring, you don’t have a say in how your day is structured and the pay will not match the CEO’s salary. But that’s all right.

When you’re starting out, you have little to none career capital built up. You first have to prove yourself before trying to acquire more control over the projects you’re working on and how your schedule looks. Maybe you’ll feel that your job isn’t for you and that you made a poor decision. That’s mainly because you don’t have the traits that define great work such as:

  1. Autonomy: the feeling of control over the projects your working on and how your day is structured;
  2. Competence: the feeling of being very good at what you do;
  3. Relatedness: feeling connected to the people you’re working with;

These traits have a multiplying by zero effect. You can feel that you’re very good at what you’re doing and love the people you’re working with, but if you don’t really have a say in the projects you’re working on, it’s not going to fulfill you.

RULE #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You

In order to have a fulfilling career, you need to be so good they can’t ignore you. This takes time, but in the long-term you can be sure it’s going to be worth it.

How are you going to do this? By adopting the craftsman mindset. Treat what you do like a craft that needs to be constantly refined. There’s always something new to learn and you also need to deliberately practice it.

The Five Habits Of A Craftsman:

  1. Figure out the career capital market type. There are two main career capital markets: winner-take-all and auction. In a winner-take-all market, there’s only one skill that matters, like in writing, the only thing that matters is how good your writing is. You need to focus all your time on that skill. In an auction market, there are multiple skills that are needed, like in business, you need to know sales, management, etc., but also niche knowledge about the field your business is in.
  2. Figure out the career capital type. What kind of capital do you need to acquire? If you’re a singer, your capital would probably consist in singing. If you’re a programmer, your career capital probably consists in how good your programs are, but also knowledge about the field you’re in.
  3. Define “good”. Clarify what goal you need to achieve in order to define yourself as good in the field you’re in. If you’re a cook, this may be working in a 3-star Michelin restaurant.
  4. Practicing deliberately. Practice and refine your craft deliberately. This is going to be very stressful. There’s a lot of strain when practicing this way, that’s why we avoid it. You can work 10 hours per day and have little to none progress if you’re working in a disorganized manner.
  5. Be patient. You won’t get good overnight. It takes a lot of time and effort to be so good they can’t ignore you. That’s why there are few individuals that are hard to ignore. But it’s a comforting thought. You can be the smartest human on the planet, but if you lose patience and get distracted by other things, you’re not going to be a good craftsman.

If you apply these habits, you’re going to end up loving what you do. There are some exceptions.

If you find that your job presents you with few opportunities to develop valuable & rare skills or you think your job is useless (worse, you think it’s actively bad for the world) or you dislike the people that you work with, then it’s not optimal for applying the craftsman mindset.

RULE #3: Turn Down A Promotion

Control is a defining characteristic of great work. Control over your projects, clients, schedule and life is highly desirable.

There are 2 traps that people often fall into when trying to acquire more control in their careers.

  1. Trying to acquire control without enough career capital. People either try to get more control in their current job or they try to switch jobs, but they don’t have enough experience. If you don’t have valuable skills that validate your ask for more control, you won’t get it.

Think of it using the law of financial viability. Do what people are willing to pay for.

Also, aim to make money. As Derek Sivers notes:

Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.

Pair this idea with his personal value vs market value theory. Pursue what has market value, skills that get you hired, specific knowledge, coding, writing, etc. Don’t pursue things that you enjoy, but nobody would hire you for. Like playing video games. Sure, there are e-sports players that make a lot of money, but they are few. How many e-sports players do you personally know vs how many programmers do you know?

If you want to make a switch in your career, make it only when you validate your idea. The law of financial viability is a good heuristic.

  1. So good they won’t let you go. Once you’ve acquired the career capital you need to get more control, people don’t want you to get that control, because you’ve become too valuable to them.

RULE 4: Think Small, Act Big

We seek meaning not only in life, but also in work. If you find a mission in your career, it will literally drive you. You want to be able to wake up Monday morning excited to go to work, because you’re doing something remarkable in your field.

Finding a mission is tough. And seeking it in the beginning of your career is a mistake people often make. Just like control, you need career capital to acquire your mission.

You first need to get to the cutting edge of your field, that’s where missions become visible. Getting to the cutting edge requires lots of experiences that give you a general understanding of your field.

Don’t make the mistake of trying to find a mission before getting to the cutting edge.

You also need to have the mindset of a marketer. You need to market your mission, so it becomes not only interesting to you, but also to others. Your mission needs to be word of mouth worthy, so people tell their friends and their dog about it. You also need to launch it in a place where it can be seen.

For example, if I would launch a product, I would market it in a way so people can get excited about it and I would launch it in a place where lots of people get to learn about new products, such as Product Hunt.