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  • Writer's pictureKelly Adams

So Good They Can't Ignore You Book Notes

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

by Cal Newport

My personal book notes/summary on Cal Newport's book, So Good They Can't Ignore You.

Table of Contents:


INTRODUCTION - The Passion of the Monk

Thomas practiced Zen Buddhism when he tried following his passion, he thought it was the key to a meaningful life. It started off well enough but after completing the koan he became a serious student of Zen Buddhism. He had reached the "zenith of his passion", he was a Zen practitioner, but he was not experiencing the peace and happiness that he dreamed of.

"The reality was, nothing had changed. I was exactly the same person, with the same worries and anxieties". He originally believed the key to happiness is identifying your true calling and then chasing after it with all the courage you can muster.

The author's main question after trying to find a job in academia, "How do people end up loving what they do?"

Follow your passion advice is seriously flawed:

  1. fails to describe how most people actually end up with compelling careers

  2. can actually make things worse, leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst when one's reality inevitable falls short of the dream

Outline of the Book:
  • Rule #1 - debunk the passion hypothesis

  • Rule #2-4 - if "follow your passion" is bad advice, what should I do instead?

Common thread: the importance of ability. The things that make a job great are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. AKA you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.

This moves beyond the acquisition of useful skills and instead into investing in career capital. Don't follow your passion; rather, let it follow you.


RULE #1 - Don't Follow Your Passion

Chapter 1: The "Passion" of Steve Jobs

The author questions the validity of the passion hypothesis, which says that the key to occupational happiness is to match your job to a pre-existing passion.

"The Passion Hypothesis" is the key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you're passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.

Chapter 2: Passion is Rare

Author argues the more you seek examples of the passion hypothesis, the more you recognize its rarity.

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

There are many complex reasons for workplace satisfaction but the notion of matching your job to a pre-existing passion is not one of them.

The Science of Passion Conclusions:

  1. Career passions are rare - most "passions" don't have any relation to work or education

  2. Passion takes time - the more time you're in a career the more likely you're to see it as a passion

  3. Passion is a side effect of mastery

Motivation requires that you fulfill 3 basic psychological needs, factors described as the nutriments required to feel intrinsically motivated for your work (feeling that you...):

  1. Autonomy - have control over your day, actions are important

  2. Competence - are good at what you do

  3. Relatedness - of connection to other people

Chapter 3: Passion is Dangerous

Author argues that subscribing to the passion hypothesis can make you less happy

The passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere out there is a magic job that is waiting for them and if they find it they'll immediately recognize it and realize that this is the work they're meant to do. When they fail to find this certainty bad things follow like chronic job hopping or crippling self doubt.

The passion hypothesis is not just wrong, it's also dangerous, can be a foundation for a career riddled with confusion and ask. Constantly asking yourself if "this is your passion" and if it isn't searching for the next thing.

Sometimes following your passion works.


RULE #2 - Be So Good They Can't Ignore You (or, The Importance of Skill)

Chapter 4: The Clarity of the Craftsman

Author offers two different approaches to thinking about work: the craftsman mindset, and the passion mindset. Argues that the craftsman mindset is the foundation for creating work you love.

Be so good they can't ignore you = if you're so good people are going to come to you

The craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world. The passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.

Passion mindset is based on a false premise:

  1. if you focus on what your work can offer you it makes you hyper aware about what you don't like about it leading to chronic unhappiness

  2. the deep questions driving the passion mindset, "who am I?", "what do I truly love?" are essentially impossible to confirm, its almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused

The craftsman mindset offers clarity while the passion mindset offers ambiguous questions.

Core Argument of Rule #2: You shouldn't just envy the craftsman mindset, you should emulate it. 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. Regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer.

Adopting the craftsman mindset will be the foundation on which you'll build a compelling career.

Chapter 5: The Power of Career Capital

Justify the importance of the craftsman mindset by arguing that the traits that make a great job great are rare and valuable and therefor if you want a great job you need to build rare and valuable skills called career capital in return.

Traits That Define Great Work: creativity. impact, and control

The Career Capital Theory of Great Work

  • 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, these rare and valuable skills = career capital

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

A job with any combination of these traits can thwart you

Chapter 6: The Career Capitalists

Demonstrates the power of career capital in action with two profiles of people who leveraged the craftsman mindset to construct careers they love.

  1. Alex Berger (TV Script Writer) - former debate champion, coolly assessed what career capital was valuable in this market (TV script writing). Then he set out with the intensity once reserved for debate prep to acquire this capital as fast as possible

  2. Mike Jackson (Director at Westly Group, Cleantech Venture Capital) - he leveraged the craftsman mindset to do whatever he did really well, thus ensuring that he came away from each experience with as much career capital as possible. He never had elaborate plans for his career. Instead after each working experience, he would see who was interested in his expanded store of capital, then jump at whatever opportunity seemed most promising

Chapter 7: Becoming a Craftsman

Introduction to deliberate practice, the key strategy for acquiring career capital, and showing how to integrate it into your own working life.

Deliberate practice might provide the key to successfully acquiring career capital in almost any field

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

"To successfully adopt the craftsman mindset, therefore, we have to approach our jobs with a dedication to deliberate practice"

How Alex and Mike use Deliberate Practice:

  1. Alex - stretched his abilities by taking on projects that were beyond his current comfort zone; and not just one at a time, but often up to three or four writing commissions concurrently. He then obsessively sought feedback, on everything.

  2. Mike - threw himself into a project beyond his current capabilities and then hustled to make it a success and receiving direct feedback

The Five Habits of a Craftsman

  1. Decide what capital market you're in

    1. winner take all - there's only one type of career capital available, and lots of different people competing for it

    2. auction - less structured; many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection

  2. Identify your capital type

    1. winner take all - there's only one type of capital that matters

    2. auction - have flexibility

      1. seek open gates - opportunities to build capital that are already open to you

      2. advantage of open gates - get you farther faster in terms of career capital acquisition, than starting from scratch; getting started requires a huge application of effort, but changing its track once it's moving is easy

  3. Define "good" - begin to draw from research on deliberate practice; you need clear goals

  4. Stretch and destroy - deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration

    1. often the opposite of enjoyable

    2. "stretch" - what you should experience in your pursuit of "good"; if you're not uncomfortable, then you're probably stuck at an "acceptable level"

    3. embrace honest feedback, even if it destroys what you thought was good

  5. Be patient - acquiring capital can take time

RULE #3 - Turn Down a Promotion (or, The Importance of Control)

Chapter 8: The Dream-Job Elixir

Argues that 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 need to get good before you can except good work.

Control turns out to be one of the universally important traits that you can acquire with your career capital - something so powerful and essential to the quest for work you love = dream-job elixir

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

If your goal is to love what you do, your first step is to acquire career capital. Your next step is to invest this capital into traits that define great work. Control is one of the most important targets you can choose for this investment.

Chapter 9: The First Control Trap

Introduce the first control trap, which warns that it's dangerous to pursue more control in your working life before you have career capital to offer in exchange.

First Control Trap - Control that's acquired without career capital is not sustainable

These people assume generating the courage to pursue control is what matters, while everything else is just a detail easily worked out.

Ex: Blogger who quit his 9-5 to start a blog/business. The "business" is as the case with many lifestyle designers, was his blog about being a lifestyle designer. In other words, his only product was his enthusiasm about not having a "normal" life. This lifestyle designer was investing in a valuable trait but didn't have the means to pay for it.

If you embrace control without capital, you're likely to be enjoying all of the autonomy you can handle but unable to afford your next meal

Chapter 10: The Second Control Trap

Introduce the 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.

Ex. Lulu Young, had a boring job where she was tempted to quit and get a new one. But she decided to acquire career capital acquired to get somewhere better.

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.

Dismissive of the "courage culture", the idea that the only thing standing between you and a dream job is building the courage to step off the expected path. But the key is to know when is the right time to become courageous. If you get the timing right then you have a fantastic working life ahead of you, but if you get it wrong by tripping in the first control trap, then disaster may happen.

Chapter 11: Avoiding the Control Traps

Explains the law of financial viability, which says you should only pursue a bid for more control if you have evidence that it's something that people are willing to pay for.

Do what people are willing to pay for because money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you're aiming to be valuable (hobbies are exempt from this rule) - Derek Sivers

The 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.


RULE #4 - Think Small, Act Big (or, The Importance of Mission)

Chapter 12: The Meaningful Life of Pardis Sabeti

Author argues that a unifying mission to your working life can be a source of great satisfaction.

Pardis Sabeti's happiness comes from the fact that she's built her career on a clear and compelling mission.

Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on your world- a crucial factor in loving what you do.

Chapter 13: Missions Require Capital

The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas.

Innovation isn't a eureka moment, innovation is more systematic.

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.

Mission is another example of career capital theory in action

Rule #4: "Think Small, Act Big"

Advancing to the cutting edge in a field is an act of "small" thinking, requiring you to focus on a narrow collection of subjects for a potentially long time. Once you get to the cutting edge, however, and discover a mission in the adjacent possible, you must go after it with zeal: a "big" action.

Chapter 14: Missions Require Little Bets

Little bets are bite-sized. You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps.

To maximize your changes of success, you should deploy small, concrete experiments that return concrete feedback.

Chapter 15: Missions Require Marketing

Purple Cow by Seth Godin - "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."

The Law of Remarkability

For a mission-drive 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 at a venue that supports such remarking.


To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers. Mission is one of those traits.

  • Best ideas for missions are found in the adjacent possible, region just beyond the current cutting edge

  • the launch specific projects that make it succeed: little bets, small steps that generate concrete feedback, then use this feedback to help figure out what to try next

  • also to adopt a marketer's mindset, law of remarkability, remarkable in two ways: (1) literally compel people to remark about it; and (2) must be launched in a venue conductive to such remarking

You must work to make it succeed.



  • Rule #1 - passion hypothesis (key to loving your work is to match a job to a pre-existing passion), is bad advice and potentially dangerous and harmful

  • Rule #2 - what define great work are rare and valuable, if you want these traits in your own life, you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return = career capital. And adopt the craftsman mindset to acquire career capital. In order to do this you need to participate in deliberate practice

  • Rule #3 - once you have this career capital you can invest in it by gaining control over what you do and how you do it. But there are two traps that snare people in their pursuit of this: (1) it's dangerous to try to gain more control without enough capital to back it up and (2) once you have the capital to back it up you are valuable enough to your employer that they will likely now fight against you to keep you on a more traditional path, control is good for you but not their bottom line. To see if you have enough career capital to succeed check with the law of financial viability.

  • Rule #4 - Missions are found in the adjacent possible, region just beyond the current cutting edge. To see if you have the right mission you the launch specific projects that make it succeed: little bets, small steps that generate concrete feedback, then use this feedback to help figure out what to try next; and also adopt a marketer's mindset, law of remarkability, remarkable in two ways: (1) literally compel people to remark about it; and (2) must be launched in a venue conductive to such remarking

Working right trumps finding the right work


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