Skip to content

Book Notes: So Good They Can't Ignore You - Why Skills Trump Passion In The Quest for Work You Love

Posted on:February 8, 2020 at 12:00 AM (20 min read)

Should you follow your passion to find your dream job? Is passion what drives Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos as they “tap dance” to work every day? Cal Newport, on his quest to find his own passion and career path, decided to find out - documenting his findings in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You - Why Skills Trump Passion in The Quest for Work You Love.

I have recently been opening my book notes to the blog community for reference if anyone finds themself looking for a detailed summary with quotes. The book has various reviews because the author himself has only experienced an academic career and at times can seem arrogant (in my humble opinion). I still appreciated the different outlook on finding your passion and skills, along with how to find yourself in places that you enjoy going to work every day for. I hope these notes are helpful to you!

Most content in this blog post is from the book: So Good They Can’t Ignore You - Why Skills Trump Passion In The Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport. The below post is just notes I took from the book to help summarize it when I want to reference it later. The notes are not structured, not perfect in grammar, and of course contain a lot of content from the book. I’ve tried to put in quotation marks direct quotes, but just want to make it clear almost none of the following content is my own. If you enjoy the notes, purchase the book - I believe it’s worth the time!

Let’s get started!!


“‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous advice.”

The book starts with a story of Thomas, who believed that zen was his passion and studying at the Zen Mountain Monastery was his dream. When he quit his job and took on his passion by studying at the monastery, he learned one day (1 year in) what was required to be called a Zen practitioner. He day dreamed of this day, expecting happiness and peace at obtaining his goal and his passion, but he realized - nothing really changed.

”The reality was, nothing had changed. I was exactly the same person, with the same worries and anxieties. It was late on a Sunday afternoon when I came to this realization, and I just started crying"

"Fulfulling his dream to become a full-time Zen practitioner did not magically make his life wonderful” The author uses this to show why the path to happiness is more complex than asking “What should I do with my life”?

The author found himself on his own question to figure out “How do people end up loving what they do” and this book is documenting his findings.

”The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return…you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job."

"Don’t follow your passion; rather, let it follow you in your quest to become…so good they can’t ignore you”

Your focus should be on “working right” instead of finding “right work”

Chapter 1 - The “Passion” of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs has a famous quote:

“You’ve got to find what you love…[T]he only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.

The Passion Hypothesis

”The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.”

This is contained within many career and personal dev books…to be happy…you must follow your passion.

“’Follow your passion’ might just be terrible advice.”

Do What Steve Jobs Did, Not What He Said

He goes into details of how Steve Jobs studied Western history and dance and dabbled in Eastern mysticism. Further, he dropped out of college and because of that became a celebrity on campus as he slept on couches and received free meals.

Eventually, Wozniak and Jobs were partnered up because Wozniak was great with electronics and handed the business side of things of an arrangement to Jobs. He left to go to an All-One commune without telling the boss, and was replaced.

The author questions at this point: “Does this look like someone passionate about tech?”

Eventually in the same year - Jobs pitched designing a computer circuit board so they could sell them to local hobbyists, leading to a small amount of profit.

They tried selling them to Mountain View computer store, where they were told they didn’t want circuit boards but would pay $500 for fully assembled computers…the rest is pretty much history and Apple was born.

It wasn’t born because Steve Jobs had passion, but instead wanted to make mula.

”I don’t doubt that Jobs eventually grew passionate about his work: If you’ve watched one of his keynote addresses, you’ve seen a man who obviously loved what he did. But so what? All that tells us is that it’s good to enjoy what you do…but it doesn’t help us answer: How do we find work that we’ll eventually love?”

Chapter 2 - Passion is Rare

This chapter talks through a show called Roadtrip Nation that interviewed successful people throughout the nation.

Al Merrick…tells a similar tale of stumbling into passion over time. “People are in a rush to start their lives, and it’s sad…I didn’t go out with the idea of making a big empire…I set goals for myself at being the best I could be at whatever I could.”

Key: Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion”

The Science of Passion

Three conclusions from the author:

  1. Career Passions Are Rare - he quotes a study where the hobbies of people were not marketable / income generating
  2. Passion Takes Time - “A job…is a way to pay bills, a career is a path toward increasingly better work, and a calling is work that’s an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity”
  3. Passion is a Side Effect of Mastery - Three requirements of a job to keep people motivated. Autonomy, the feeling you have control over your day and your actions are important. Competence, feeling you are good at what you do. Relatedness, the feeling of connection to other people.

”The reason that more experienced assistances enjoyed their work was because it takes time to build the competence and autonomy that generates this enjoyment.

Competence and autonomy are achievable by most ppl, neither require passion

Chapter 3 - Passion is Dangerous

The Birth of the Passion Hypothesis

Cal Newport gives credit to the 1970 publication “What Color is Your Parachute” by Richard Bolles for the idea to follow your passion. The younger generations “…expect work to be not just a job but an adventure…a venue for self-development and self- expression…and something that provides a satisfying fit with their assessment of their talents.”

The more Cal studied the issue, he began seeing trends that finding the “magic right job” causes people to job hop and fail to find the job they want, because then they never are competent enough at one job (since his hypothesis is that you find your passion in a job you know how to do).

Rule #2 Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Or, the Importance of Skill)

Chapter 4 - The Clarity of Craftsman

Two mindsets:

  1. Craftsman Mindset - “Focus on what value you’re producing in your job”
  2. Passion Mindset - “Focus on what value your job offers you”

Most people have the passion mindset, but he believes that the craftsman mindset is the way to go.

Steve Martin said: “Be so good they can’t ignore you."

"If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’ people are going to come to you"

"Stop focusing on these little details, focus instead on becoming better”

He recommends tracking your hours to things you want to become better at, by actually tracking it, you will see how much effort you actually are putting forth.

Studio musicians have this adage: “The tape doesn;t lie”

If you’re not focusing on becoming so good they can’t ignore you, you’re going to be left behind.

The craftsman mindset focuses on What you can offer the world

He notes a second issue with the passion mindset is that it can be very difficult to answer: “What do I truly love doing or Who Am I?”

He uses Steve Martin and Jordan Tice as examples of craftsman mindset people.

Chapter 5 - The Power of Career Capital

Career capital is created with the craftsman mindset, where he says if you want a great job, you need to build up rare and valuable skills (career capital).

Traits That Define Great Work

Having these fundamental traits at your job can be difficult; it isn’t easy to change the world in an entry level job.

”The key thing is to force yourself through the world, force the skills to come, that’s the hardest phase!”

The Career Capital Theory of Great Work

”The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on what you produce is exactly the mindset you would adopt if your goal was to acquire as much career capital as possible”

To get good things in your work life, you need to be good!

Three Disqualifiers for Applying the Craftsman Mindset

  1. Few opportunities to grow rare skills
  2. Job focuses on something that isn’t good for the world
  3. It forces you to work with people you really dislike

If a job has a combo of these traits, it can “thwart your attempts to build and invest career capital.”

Chapter 6 - The Career Capitalists

”…Mike literally tracks every hour of his day, down to quarter-hour increments, on a spreadheet. He wants to ensure his attention is focused on the activities that matter.”

Chapter 7 - Becoming a Craftsman

Deliberate practice is the key strategy for acquiring career capital

”…the difference in our abilities by the age of eighteen had less to do with the number of hours we practiced…and more to do with what we did with those hours."

"Watching Jordan’s current practice regime, these traits - strain and feedback - remain central…he keeps adjusting the speed of his practicing to a point just past where he’s comfortable. When he hits a wrong note, he immediately stops and starts over, providing instant feedback for himself."

"The difference in strategy that separates average guitar players like me from starts like Tice and Casstevens is not confined to music.”

Focus on stretching your abilities and getting feedback - aka deliberate practice!

Deliberate Practice - “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance."

"If you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better.”

Most types of work don’t have a deliberate practice or training routine…if you can figure out how to integrate deliberate practice…you have the possibility of blowing past your peers in your values.

The Five Habits of Craftsman

  1. Decide What Capital Market You’re In

    • Winner takes all - only one type of career capital that everyone are competing for
    • Auction - Many types and everyone generates their own collection
  2. Identify Your Capital Type

    • Once you identify, define skills to build
  3. Define “Good”

    • define the deliberate practice to reach good with clear goals
  4. Stretch and Destroy

    • Push you past the plateau and into a realm of no competition
    • ”Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable”
    • If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level”
    • Embrace feedback so you can destroy acceptable and push to great/good!
  5. Be Patient

    • ”…Martin redefined [diligence] so that it’s less about paying attention to your main pursuit, and more about your willingness to ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you.

The idea is continually stretch yourself overtime to get to the point people begin noticing!

Rule #3 - Turn Down a Promotion

Chapter 8 - The Dream-Job Elixer

Control over what you do and how you do it is one of the most powerful traits you can acquire when creating work you love.

”You have to get good before you can expect good work"

"…farming is a complicated and stressful pursuit - but their lives are their own to direct, and they’re good at this…the weather is something to battle, not to enjoy. And it’s not about getting away from the computer screen…instead, autonomy that attracts the Granby groupies: Ryan and Sarah live a meaningful life on their own terms”

The Power of Control

”…control has been found to improve people’s lives…more control leads to better grades, better sports performance, better productivity, and more happiness.

”Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.

Chapter 9 - The First Control Trap

”it’s dangerous to pursue more control in your working life before you have career capital to offer in exchange”

First Control Trap

”Control acquired without career capital is not sustainable.”

He gives example of some bloggers assume that generated the courage to pursue control is what matters, but quickly realize that the details for doing so should be thought through first.

Chapter 10 - The Second Control Trap

”The point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change”

This chapter talks through a few examples of how different people navigated getting more control and fought through the resistance by the company to do so. Even some of them had to fight through critics in their inner circle who thought they were making a big mistake by turning down job offers or promotions.

The reason this makes sense is because the more control you want that benefits you might not directly benefit the company.

The key is knowing when to make courageous career decisions, because it makes all the difference in how that control works out. Once you have career capital, it can be much easier to gain more control.

Chapter 11 - Avoiding the Control Traps

”Do what people are willing to pay for.”

Note: he exempts hobbies from the rule

Law of Financial Viability - “When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on.

In other words, if you want to start a side hustle that will lead to independence, don’t quit your day job to pursue it until it becomes lucrative and starts making money.

Rule #4 - Think Small, Act Big

Chapter 12 - the Meaningful Life of Pardis Sabeti

”A unifying mission to your working life can be a source of great satisfaction."

"her happiness comes from the fact that she built her career on a clear and compelling mission-something that not only gives meaning to her work but provides the energy needed to embrace life beyond the lab."

"Her mission provides her a sense of purpose and energy, traits that have helped her avoid becoming a cynical acemic and instead embrace her work with enthusiasm. Her mission is the foundation on which she builds love for what she does, and therefor it’s a career strategy we need to better understand.”

The Power of Mission

”What should I do with my life”

Missions are powerful bc they focus energy toward a goal you believe in…maximizing your impact, which helps you love what you do.

Having a mission and work that helps accomplish it can be a rewarding job. It helps you stay late without as much angst and changes your job from entering data to compiling statistics to save the world.

”How do you make mission a reality in your working life?”

Mission is one of these desirable traits in a job, so you must first build career capital to obtain it.

Chapter 13 - Missions Require Capital

Although people typically think of innovation as one moment, it doesn’t typically happen that way. The author argues it’s more systematic by continually improving the cutting edge to reach new edges over and over again. “Technological (and scientific) advances rarely break out of the adjacent possible”

A good example of this is React and GraphQL at Facebook. They didn’t come from thin air but gradually got closer and closer as problems rose that needed to be solved.”

The Capital-Driven Mission

”A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough - it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field.”

To identify a mission for your working life…get to the cutting edge, because that’s where they become visible!

Key: for technologist, this means finding ways to get involved with the cutting edge so your adjacent discoveries can be noticed."

"…having passion for your work is vital, but she also believes that it’s a fools errand to try to figure out in advance what work will lead to passion"

"Once you get to the cutting edge…and discover a mission in the adjacent possible, you must go after it with zeal: ‘a big action.”

Chapter 14 - Missions Require Little Bets

”great missions are transformed into great successes as the result of using small and achievable projects - little bets - to explore the concrete possibilities surrounding a compelling idea.”

key: “Many people have lots of career capital, and can therefor identify a variety of different potential missions for their work, but few actually build their career around such missions”

There’s more to this career tactic than just getting to cutting edge - you have to have capital to ID it and figure out how to put a mission into practice…if you don’t have a mission then you prolly won’t make a leap to go forward!

”Kirk’s path to American Treasures was incremental. He didn’t decide out of nowhere that he wanted to host a television show and then work backward to make that dream a reality. Instead, he worked forward from his original mission - to popularize archaeology- with a series of small, almost tentative steps. When he stumbled on the old film reels…he decided to digitize them and produce a DVD. After this small step he took the slightly larger step of raising money to shoot exploratory footage for a new version of the documentary. When George Milner played him that fateful answering machine tape, Kirk took another modest step by launching The Armchair Archaeologist project with no real vision of how it would prove useful, other than perhaps as fodder for his intro to archaeology courses. This final step, however, turned out to be a winner, leading directly to his own television show”

The only thing for me on this is a bit of survival bias. I feel like you can still work backwards to find the basic steps to take, then course correct as you move forward.

People “make a methodical series of little bets about what might be good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant ‘wins’…”

This approach stands in contrast to making a master plan with a big bet, kind of like putting all your eggs in one basket, for success

Missions Require Marketing

Law of Remarkability - “For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports remarking."

"He approached the task of finding good projects for his mission with the mindset of a marketer, systematically studying books on the subject to help identify why some ideas catch on while others fall flat.”

Key: “You’re either remarkable or invisible…the world is full of boring stuff - brown cows - which is why so few people pay attention…a purple cow…now that would stand out. Remarkable marketing is building things worth noticing.”

Key: “If you want to make a name for yourself in software development - the type of name that can help you secure emplyoment - focus your attention on making quality contributions to open-source projects. This is where the people who matter look for talent.”


“‘Don’t just talk about it,’ he scolded me when I offhandedly mentioned the book idea. ‘If you think it would be cool, go do it.‘"

"Most knowledge works avoid the uncomfortable strain of deliberate practice like the plague, a reality emphasized by the typical cubicle dweller’s obsessive e-mail-checking habit- for what is this behavior if not an escape from work that’s more mentally demanding?

”A graduate-level mathematics problem set…is about as pure an exercise in deliberate practice as you’re likely to find. You’re given a problem that you have no idea how to solve, but you have to solve it or you’ll get a bad grade, so you dive in and try as hard as you can, repeatedly failing as different avenues lead you to dead ends. The mental strain of mustering every last available neuron toward solving a problem, driven by the fear of earning zero points on the assignment, is a nice encapsulation of exactly what the deliberate-practice literature says is necessary to improve."

"…his compulsion to tear down important papers and mathematical concepts until he could understand the concepts from the bottom up…amazing intellect was less about a gift from god and more about a dedication to deliberate practice”

Combatting deliberate practice resistance:

  1. Time structure - I’m going to work on X for an hour…nothing else
  2. Information structure - capturing the results of hard focus in useful form (proof map)

Craft-centric: “Getting better and better required the strain of deliberate practice. This is a different way of thinking about work, but once you embrace it, the changes to your career trajectory can be profound.”

Deciding between a job where things are new vs already sustained means the difference of having a say in how things are ran vs not.

True missions require two things:

  1. career capital
  2. Ceaseless scanning your always-changing view of the adjacent possible in your field, looking for the next big idea

This requires a dedication to brainstorming and exposure to new ideas…these two commitments require a lifestyle - documenting them every day.

”…I really understand the new idea, I require myself to add a summary, in my own words, to my growing ‘research bible’…I also try to carve out one walk each day for free-form thinking about the ideas turned up by this background research.

He uses this to create small bets from his research to try and implement, finding career value that builds into capital from successful projects.

The book overall was an interesting perspective on how to find meaningful work and enjoying the career you build. I really enjoyed the different way of thinking and some of the new tips I’ll be thinking through as I make decisions on how to best impact the world with my own mission statement.

Lastly - I know that this set of book notes is less thorough than my previous ones. I typically mark passages I enjoy or thought more about in my books with small sticky notes as I’m reading on the NYC Subway, because of this it’s not easy to type everything up I’ve connected with, but at least keep the main ideas in the form of notes so I can remember the ones I connected with :).