So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You LoveSo Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of the few books I would actually recommend in the self-help category. These are notes rather than a review.

Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion
Passion hypothesis says that the key to occupational happiness is to match your job to a pre-existing passion. Do what you love and the money will follow is the de-facto motto in career advice field. At the core of the passion hypothesis is the assumption that we all have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered.

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

(ii) Passion takes time
Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, has made a career studying how people think about their work. In Wrzesniewski’s research, the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do. On reflection, this makes sense. If you have many years’ experience, then you’ve had time to get better at what you do and develop a feeling of efficacy. It also gives you time to develop strong relationships with your coworkers and to see many examples of your work benefiting others.

(iii) Passion is a side-effect of mastery
Self-Determination Theory (SDT) tells us that motivation, in the workplace or elsewhere, requires that you fulfill three basic psychological needs:
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

– Birth of the Passion Hypothesis
Richard Bolles, in his 1970 publication, ‘What Colour is Your Parachute?’ was one of the first to say,”figure out what you want to do and then find a place that allows you to do it.” Google Ngram viewer shows a spike in usage of ‘Follow Your Passion’ in the 1970s, then a huge increase in 2000s. It gives people the impression that there is a magic job somewhere out there waiting for them. This results in a huge number of people being unsatisfied with their jobs.

Alexandra Robbins, Abby Wilner – Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your 20s (2001)

“Here’s a case where someone successfully followed their passion,” they say, “therefore ‘follow your passion’ must be good advice.” This is faulty logic. Observing a few instances of a strategy working does not make it universally effective.

Rule #2: Be So Good That They Can’t Ignore You
Two different approaches to thinking about work: the craftsman mindset, a focus on what value you’re producing in your job, and the passion mindset, a focus on what value your job offers you. The craftsman mindset asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is ‘just right’, and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.

If you spend any time with professional entertainers, especially those who are just starting out, one of the first things you notice is their insecurity concerning their livelihood. Their grinding does not come from pre-existing passion, but from a craftsman mindset to get good at what they do.

* Accumulating Career Capital
– The traits that define great work are rare and valuable.
– Supply and demand says that if you want these traits you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. Think of these rare and valuable skills you can offer as your career capital.
– The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming “so good they can’t ignore you,” is a strategy well suited for acquiring career capital. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is to create work you love.

* Three Disqualifiers for the Craftsmen Mindset
– Job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing rare and valuable skills
– Job focuses on something you think is useless or is actively bad for the world
– Job forces you to work with people whom you really dislike

* Becoming a Craftsman
Neil Charness, a psychologist with Florida State University, published a decades-long study of chess players led by him in 2005. Hours spent in serious study of the game was not just the most important factor in predicting chess skill, it dominated the other factors. the players who became grand masters spent five times more hours dedicated to serious study than those who plateaued at an intermediate level. The grand masters, on average, dedicated around 5,000 hours out of their 10,000 to serious study. The intermediate players, by contrast, dedicated only around 1,000 to this activity.

In serious study, feedback is immediate. If you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better. In most types of work—that is, work that doesn’t have a clear training philosophy—most people are stuck. This generates an exciting implication. Let’s assume you’re a knowledge worker, which is a field without a clear training philosophy. 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.

Stretch yourself and obtain direct feedback.

(i) Decide What Capital Market You Are In
Two kinds of markets: Winner-takes-all and Auction. In winner-takes-all, there is only one kind of career capital available and lots of different people competing for it. An auction market, by contrast, is less structured: There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection.

(ii) Identify Your Capital Type
In a winner-takes-all market, only one kind of capital matters. Build capital in opportunities that are open to you. It gets you farther faster than starting from scratch.

(iii) Good Goals
Deliberate practice requires good goals. Geoff Colvin, ‘Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else’ (2008)

(iv) Stretch and Destroy
Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.

Without the patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your efforts before you acquire the capital you need.

Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion (The Importance of Control)
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. Dan Pink in his 2009 bestseller ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, reviews the dizzying array of different ways that control has been found to improve people’s lives. New work philosophy called ‘Results Only Work Environment (ROWE)’. Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.

– First Control Trap
The story of Jane who quit her college to earn money through blogging and finance her globetrotting is a classic case in most books telling you to follow passion. Also reminds me of people in ‘lifestyle design’ following Tim Ferriss’ ‘Four Hour Work Week’.

Control without career capital is not sustainable.

– Second Control Trap
Once you have enough career capital to acquire more control in your working life, you have become valuable enough to your employer that they will fight your efforts to gain more autonomy.

In most jobs you should expect your employer to resist your move toward more control; they have every incentive to try to convince you to reinvest your career capital back into your career at their company, obtaining more money and prestige instead of more control, and this can be a hard argument to resist.

It’s possible that you don’t have enough career capital to back up this bid for more control. That is, you’re about to fall into the first control trap. In this case, you should heed the resistance and shelve the idea. At the same time, however, it’s possible that you have plenty of career capital, and this resistance is being generated exactly because you’re so valuable. That is, you’ve fallen into the second control trap. In this case, you should ignore the resistance and pursue the idea. This, of course, is the problem with control: Both scenarios feel the same, but the right response is different in each.

– Avoiding Control Traps
Derek Sivers and his Law of Financial Viability: “Do What People are Willing to Pay For”

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big
(i) A unifying mission to your working life can be a great source of saisfaction.
Steven Johnson – Where Good Ideas Come From (2010)

(ii) Understanding the ‘adjacent possible’ and its role in innovation is the first link in a chain of argument that explains how to identify a good career mission. We like to think of innovation as striking us in a stunning eureka moment, where you all at once change the way people see the world, leaping far ahead of our current understanding. In reality, innovation is more systematic. We grind away to expand the cutting edge, opening up new problems in the adjacent possible to tackle and therefore expand the cutting edge some more, opening up more new problems, and so on. 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.

(iii) Leaping the gap between Idea and Practice
Peter Sims: Little Bets -> To maximize your chances of success, you should deploy small, concrete experiments that return concrete feedback.

(iv) Law of Remarkability
Seth Godin: Purple Cow
“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 the art of building things worth noticing.”

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 such remarking.


1) Research Bible Routine
Summarise a paper relevant to my research every week. Description of the result, description of previous work and main strategies to obtain it.

2) Hour Tally Routine
Number of hours spent each day doing deliberate practice on the desk

3) Theory Notebook Routine
Brainstorming new theory results in a fancy notebook to remind yourself about the seriousness of the enterprise.

When you adopt a productivity mindset, tasks that take strain are lower down in priority. Hence deliberate-practice tasks are sidestepped.

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