So Good They Can’t Ignore you

The following is based on the Book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport

In 2010, as author Cal Newport wrapped up his postdoctoral associate at MIT and started looking for a professorship, he began to wonder: What makes people love their work? As he waited to hear back about his job applications, he studied performance science, interviewed people about their professional successes and failures, and tested out his hypotheses on his own career and life.

Interestingly, he discovered that the best way to find or create work you love is not to follow your passion, as so many career counsellors, books, and well-meaning mentors advise. In fact, the best way to love what you do is to become highly skilled—so good no one can ignore you. Then, you can offer your skills in exchange for work that allows you autonomy and the opportunity to change the world, two of the most significant contributors to workplace satisfaction.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You describes four rules to loving your work:

  1. Don’t concern yourself with passion. 
  2. Instead, improve your skills. 
  3. Cash in your skills for autonomy. 
  4. Cash in your skills for the opportunity to change the world. 

Rule #1: Don’t Concern Yourself With Passion

While the passion hypothesis is popular, the author believes it’s flawed for several reasons:

Reason #1: Scientists have uncovered three major discoveries that debunk the passion hypothesis:

  • Discovery #1: Passion isn’t an ingredient for motivation. Self-determination theory states that the real ingredients are independence (having control over your responsibilities makes you want to do them well), capability (feeling competent results in a feeling of satisfaction), and connection (liking your coworkers makes you happier). 
  • Discovery #2: Most people don’t have occupational passions. When Robert J. Vallerand, a psychologist, surveyed Canadian university students about their passions, he discovered that 84% of students had a passion, but less than 4% of the passions were related to work. 
  • Discovery #3: Occupational passions can be developed. Amy Wrzesniewski, an organizational behaviour professor, studied college administrative assistants and discovered that the assistants who saw their job as a calling (rather than simply a way of making money) had been working the job the longest. This suggests that people learn to love their work as they acquire the ingredients of motivation. 

Reason #2: Since the rise of the passion hypothesis, workplace satisfaction has actually decreased.

  • Example #1: According to Conference Board surveys, in 1987, 61% of Americans said they were happy with their jobs. By 2010, only 45% of Americans were.
  • Example #2: Anecdotal evidence shows that even people who have jobs that match their passions aren’t happy. For example, 27-year-old Scott, who works in politics, admits that his job matches his passion, but he’s still not happy because it includes some tasks he doesn’t like. 

Reason #3: The people who have jobs they love didn’t get them by following their passions.

  • For example, Andrew Steele, an astrobiologist who loves his job, didn’t know where he was going to end up when he started his Ph.D. program. He signed up because it gave him options, not because he was passionate about the subject. 

Rule #2: Instead, Improve Your Skills

Improve your scarce and prized skills (career capital) to the point where you’re so good people can’t ignore you.

Career Capital Theory

The author’s interpretation of career capital theory includes three statements:

Statement #1: The traits that make a job desirable are scarce and prized. 

After looking at case studies of three people who enjoy their work, the author discovered three notable traits:

  • Trait #1: The job provides the opportunity for autonomy. For example, Al Merrick, a surfboard shaper, doesn’t have to adhere to a dress code or work prescribed hours. His surfboard factory is a block from the beach and he can take off and go surfing whenever he wants. 
  • Trait #2: The job provides the opportunity to change the world. For example, Steve Jobs’s advances in the field of technology have changed the lives of everyone who uses computers. 
  • Trait #3: The job provides the opportunity to use imagination. For example, Ira Glass, host of This American Life, narrates a one-of-a-kind podcast that lets him use his creativity. 

Statement #2: Careers are subject to the rules of supply and demand. 

This rule states that if you want something scarce and prized, you need to pay for it with something equally scarce and prized. 

You’ll “buy” the three desirable job traits using your career capital.

Statement #3: You must adopt the craftsperson mindset to build career capital. 

There are two different mindsets when it comes to work:

  • The passion mindset is concerned with what the universe can do for you.
    • It leads to pessimism and an identity crisis because if you concentrate on what you’re supposed to be getting, it makes you aware of what you’re not getting.  
  • The craftsperson mindset is the opposite of the passion mindset—instead of concerning yourself with what the universe can do for you, you focus on what you can do for the universe.
    • You don’t have to think about whether your job is perfect or represents your identity—you simply focus on developing your skills, thus increasing your career capital.

How to Acquire Career Capital: Practice Deliberately

To develop your career capital, you need to adopt the craftsperson mindset and practice your skills to develop them. The best way to practice is “deliberately,” a method studied by psychologist Anders Ericsson. Most people in the workforce don’t practice deliberately, and as a result, their skill level plateaus. Therefore, if you do practice deliberately, you’ll have an advantage.

When to Stick It Out and When to Quit

There are certain jobs and situations that inhibit your ability to amass career capital. If your current job has any of the following factors, you should quit and look elsewhere:

  • The job doesn’t give you enough opportunity to develop scarce and prized skills.
  • The job is useless or immoral, or involves working with disagreeable people. 

While you could theoretically build up career capital at a job like this, you probably wouldn’t want to work there for as long as it would take to do so. 

Rule #3: Cash in Your Skills for Autonomy

Now that you’ve developed your scarce and prized skills, you can start cashing them in for the scarce and prized traits that make a job desirable.

Autonomy is the ability to control what you work on and how you work, including, among other things, your schedule, responsibilities, and office space. Autonomy is such an important determiner of happiness that the author calls it the “dream-job elixir.”

Most common dream jobs include autonomy, and people who have autonomy in their workplace tend to be happier and more productive.

Rule #4: Cash in Your Skills for Mission

A mission, which is a useful, potentially world-changing goal that focuses your career.

Finding Your Mission: The “Adjacent Possible”

A mission needs to be innovative and never-seen-before in order to change the world. As a result, missions come from a space called the “adjacent possible”: a place just beyond the cutting edge of human knowledge that can be reached by building incrementally upon the current understanding.

You need to have enough career capital to see into the adjacent possible before you can discover your mission.

Developing Your Mission

Coming up with an idea for a mission is only the first step to cashing in your career capital—next, you need to figure out which projects to pursue to transform that idea into a reality.

Adopting a Marketing Mindset

Once you’ve found your mission and started to develop it by pursuing projects, adopt a marketing mindset in order to share it with the world—the more people who interact with your mission, the greater your world-changing ability. 

The marketing mindset states that mission-driven projects need two criteria:

Criteria #1: They need to be remarkable—they need to be so novel and interesting people want to talk about them.

  • For example, after deciding on a mission to combine technology with art, Giles Bowkett built Archaeopteryx, an AI program that composes its own dance music. Few programmers knew how to compose music, and few musicians knew programming, so the project was remarkable—Giles was probably the only person in the world who could have built it. 

Criteria #2: They need to be displayed on a visible and respected platform so that lots of people hear about them, which increases your reach.

  • For example, to spread the word about Archaeopteryx, Giles went to speak at conferences and publicly released the program’s code to the open-source community, which is a group of people who share and work on each other’s projects for free. Many programmers and employers keep an eye on open-source platforms because they’re a good place to discover new talent, so plenty of people found out about Archaeopteryx.