Stefan Knapen

PhD-student – Co-assistent

So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport

I read the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport. Here are my notes and thoughts.

So GoodSo Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport

ISBN: 1455509108
Read: August 2014
Amazon page
for more details and reviews. page for Dutch people.


I also wrote a more extensive post about this book on my other website, StudySuccessful. Read it here.

Short intro: I read this book on a holiday. I read it almost in one sit, it’s that good. On the other hand, this was a period when I did not make a lot of notes on books, so I may have to do a re-read to get a little bit more from the book during these re-reads.

All these notes are directly from the book, cursive text are my thoughts.

My notes

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

A job, in Wrzesniewski’s formulation, is a way to pay the 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 you identity.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) tells us that motivation, in the workplace or elsewhere, requires that you fulfil three basic psychological needs — factors described as the “nutriments” required to feel intrinsically motivated for your work:

  • Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important
  • Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do
  • Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people.

I have discussions with a lot of people on passion after reading this book. This point, the Self-Determination Theory is probably one of the strongest arguments I can make against passion, against “but what do you need if not passion?”

“Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties.” This book chronicles the personal testimony of dozens of unhappy twentysomethings who feel adrift in the world of work.

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

Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you. Cal discusses two types of mindset, the craftsman mindset and the passion mindset. The passion mindset is what is thought to us currently: find your passion, find what you want from the world. The craftsman mindset works the other way around, what can you offer the world? About this craftsman mindset:

No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it – and the process won’t be easy.

I am suggesting that you put aside the question of whether your job is your true passion, and instead turn your focus toward becoming so good they can’t ignore you. That is, regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer.

On when you should not adopt this mindset in your work:

Three disqualifiers for applying the craftsman mindset:

  1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
  3. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

This last point is a great way for me to think of the future: how are the people who are currently working in this field.

It is a lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice that again and again ends up explaining excellence.

If you can figure out how to integrate deliberate practice into your own life, you have the possibility of blowing past your peers in your value, as you’ll likely be alone in your dedication to systematically getting better. That is, deliberate practice might provide the key to quickly becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

Interesting book mention: Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.

Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.

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.

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. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge – the only place where these missions become visible.

If career capital makes it possible to identify a compelling mission, that it’s a strategy of little bets that gives you a good shot of succeeding in this mission.

“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.”

To combat internal resistance, I deployed two types of structure. The first type was time structure: “I am going to work on this for one hour,” I would tell myself. “I don’t care if I faint from the effort, or make no progress, for the next hour this is my whole world.” But of course I wouldn’t faint and eventually I would make progress. It took, on average, ten minutes for the waves of resistance to die down. Ryan Holiday talks more about the “resistance” from inside. You can find notes on his book ” The Obstacle is the Way” later on this website.

The second type of structure I deployed was information structure – a way of capturing the results of my hard focus in a useful form.

After reading / thinking about a difficult problem: I would conclude by writing a detailed summary in my own words.

Once a week I require myself to summarize in my research bible a paper I think might be relevant to my research. This summary must include a description of the result, how it compares to previous work, and the main strategies used to obtain it.

Here’s my rule: Every wek, I expose myself to something new about my field, I can read a paper, attend a talk or schedule a meeting. To ensure that I really understand the new idea, I require myself to add a summary, in my own words, to my growing “research bible.”

Interesting book mention: Steven Johnson. “Where Good Ideas Come From.”

A little bet has the following characteristics:

  • It’s a project small enough to be completed in less than a month.
  • It forces you to creat new value (e.g., master a new skill and produce new results that didn’t exist before).
  • It produces a concrete result that you can use to gather concrete feedback.

My thoughts

This is a great book. It has some very thought provoking ideas which go directly against everything we think of as good career advice. The highlighted parts don’t even cover the four rules he lays out for becoming so good they can’t ignore you. I especially liked the book as Cal explained how he puts this to practice in his own work, as a scientist. As a PhD-student, this book is really worth your time. Highly recommended reading.