Be So Good That They Can’t Ignore You

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So Good They Can’t Ignore YouWhen was the last time you stayed up all night to read a book?  OK, you may not have been able to put down Fifty Shades of Gray and miss just one moment of her biting her lip or his cocking his head.  But what about a business book?

It’s six am on a Saturday morning, I’ve got my trusted cup of coffee here and I’m going to tell you why I stayed up until something like 3AM reading my review copy of So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport.

FINALLY!  The Search For Your Passion Can Stop!

In which I deliver the news that searching for your passion is a complete waste of time.

Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE what I do!  And, I keep wondering if I’ve found my passion.  I mean that’s what all the experts say.  You’re supposed to find your passion and the money will come. I’ve got a small fortune tied up in “find your passion” books and still have that unknowing feeling inside.  At least that goofy feeling hasn’t stopped me from moving on with life and creating a profession I love, learning new skills and contributing to the world in some way.

If that sounds a little like you – well, you can relax, because Cal Newport, the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You has some interesting news.  Focusing on passion is a waste of time and it doesn’t work.  You’ll have to read the book for more details.

I’m landing firmly on the side of Cal’s argument – instead of trying to find your passion and then searching for work that delivers – become good at something valuable.  Get passionate ABOUT being good at something valuable, and focus on giving something of value to the world.

In other words – (and Newport shows data to prove this) – we’ve had it backwards all along.  Passion isn’t behind loving our work – being good at something that gives value is what has us loving our work.

Who Is This Guy?!

In which I tell you about the author, his style and how it will tickle and twist your brain inside out.

Newport doesn’t mince words.  In fact, this is what makes this book so downright hard to put down.  He just tells you what he’s thinking, why he’s thinking it and then goes about the business of sharing research, quoting other well-researched fun-to-read authors like Gladwell and telling stories of his interviews with folks who looked for their passions and other folks who worked at getting good at a skill.

I mean Newport just goes for the jugular in this book.  It’s like he had this epiphany and is running around trying to be “all cool and calm” while telling you that if you don’t stop wasting time focusing on passion, you’re going to waste your life wishing for something that isn’t there.

One of my FAVORITE examples comes early in the book where he basically deconstructs Steve Jobs’ life and career.  He doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know, he simply shows you that if Steve had “followed his passion” he’d been in a commune or an ashram instead of a visionary for a computer giant.

I’m also starting to wonder exactly how big a fan of Ira Glass Newport is.  Glass is one of Newport’s case studies, but I’m curious if he isn’t more of a fan than the rest of us.  Each chapter of the book starts with a title and then there’s this sort of explanation of what’s inside.  I’m actually doing a tribute to the style in this article.  If you’re a fan of Ira Glass and This American Life it will remind you of how Ira introduces each story in the show.

Oh yes – the author.  So get this.  I broke my rule of reading the front and back jacket of the book first.  I was so engaged in the title and the subject, I just tore right into it.  At first I thought the author was an older, very experienced academic.  But then as I read on, there was something about the writing and the tone that made me look at the picture on the jacket, and there I saw the picture of Cal Newport – who looks like he’s still in college (except that he’s not at all) it’s just that he’s not nearly as close to retiring as I had originally thought.

In the book, Cal Newport talks a lot about his time as a grad student at MIT.  These days he’s an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University.  He earned his Ph.D form MIT and his bachelors from Dartmouth.  He’s written three other books of unconventional advice for students How to be a High School Superstar, How to Become a Straight-A Student and How to Win at College.  (Excuse me while I skip over to Amazon right now to pick up a few of these for my son).


Where I tell you who should read this book and why.

Well, so I’ve gone for that second cup of coffee and I’m thinking about who I think will love this book.

First, I’m going to go with parents with kids who are in college.  Oh yes.  You will want to read this book and have your college kids read this book.  If you don’t, you risk having them living with you for years and still borrowing the car!

The next ideal audience for this book are young professionals.  This book is written by a young professional who has gone out and done some turbo research on life and how it works.  Yeah, you need to read this so that you can get through the next 30 or 40 years of your professional life without being depressed and angry at the world.

And that’s all I have for you today, folks.  What can I tell you that doesn’t sound over the top about my experience with So Good They Can’t Ignore You?  I’m a little tired, but I really feel like I’ve changed my perspective about the way I’m going to approach everything I do.

I’m no longer going to look at my writing or projects or learning new things as an obstacle to get to the other side.  Rather, I will see them as opportunities to get so good that I won’t be ignored.  Thanks Cal.

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Ivana Taylor Ivana Taylor is the Book Editor for Small Business Trends. She is responsible for directing the site’s book review program and manages the team of professional book reviewers. She also spearheads the annual Small Business Book Awards. Ivana publishes DIYMarketers, where she shares daily do-it-yourself marketing tips, and is co-author of "Excel for Marketing Managers."

9 Reactions
  1. Interesting review.. I’m sure they’d be so much to learn from that book. I’ll just have to become so good they can’t ignore me. My time starts now..!

  2. I tend to disagree on this, at least partially, unless the narrative in your article requires more detail. To use Steve Jobs as an example of a point in case, Jobs was always interested in style (caligraphy) form and simplicity (budism and non-comformism) those were his passions and he followed them and found an outlet for them. To say ‘just become passionate about being good’ is to me the blandest possible advise anyone can give to another human being. You find what makes you tick and then look for a vehicle that allows you to manifest it in your daily life, granted, it does not have to be that obvious (Steve found his vehicle with the design of hardware and software that are the perfect example of simplicity) but the driving force has to be the passion for the principle behind it, not a generic ‘being good at it’ mood making passion. Just my view of course.

    • Hi Antonio – I really get what you’re saying — and — this is where reading the actual book will give you more information. I think Newport says it much better than I do. In the book he has exactly this discussion and gives several examples of the critical components that deliver on passion. Developing and building on Career Capital is one of those critical components. In the Steve Jobs example, he had “career capital” that included his many skills and talents that allowed him to leverage things he knew, understood and cared about.

      All I can say is that this book really got me thinking in a different direction. For example – I USED to see feedback as nothing more than criticism of my work (a bad thing). Now I see feedback as an opportunity to get BETTER at something. To refine and improve my skills. That’s what made this book so much fun for me. It really tickled and twisted my brain.

  3. So true– I’ve definitely found this in my career adventures!

  4. I’ve usually found pleasure and satisfaction in most every job I have had since I was a teenager. I include those jobs that one takes just to pay tuition and rent such as delivering papers, store clerk, tutor, baling hay (somewhat unconventional), warehouse work, etc. However, I had to work hard on top of the job itself to find something about it I could have fun with. The key, at least for me (and I speak for no one else), is getting the work done that you are supposed to and THEN begin to do other things on top of that to take it into a different direction. I definitely believe that accomplishment leads to satisfaction, which leads to job satisfaction. As you start getting good at what you do then the ideas do come. The trouble then becomes will anyone listen to you ?

    To wit, my current job is in academia, teaching at one of the so-called “top 20” universities at least as rated by US News, whose rating system I think is a load of you know what. Anyway I’ve found little about which to be happy there. I used to work in show business and I thought that that industry had the exclusive claim on vanity, immaturity, and entitlement but that is nothing compared to what I encounter on a daily basis at this allegedly esteemed institution of higher learning and research. The immaturity of tenured faculty can be mind blowing.

    Back to the point. I do think we can become passionate about work even if it wouldn’t be our first choice. Sometimes it can be more challenging than you would like.

    • Hi Rusty! I wanted to acknowledge you for putting it all out there. I wonder how much of your experience has to do with expectation? When you had jobs where the expectation for liking them was low, it seems that you found something to like. And where you are in a position that appears to be more ideal or prestigious, at the very least, your expectations for fulfillment would be higher.

      Not sure how valid that is – just playing around with ideas.

      I have a friend who loves what he does, but doesn’t like WHO he works with. And that really limits the level of passion that he has for his chosen career.

  5. As someone who is researching this very topic for my dissertation and someone who has had a chance to take a look at this book I would make the point that what we’re ultimately discussing here is a problem of directionality. What I mean is, “does competency drive passion or does passion drive competency”. I think that when the smoke clears with all of the new research emerging from the positive psychology movement that we’ll confirm that passion and competency are in fact reciprically reinforcing and that they build simultanously. Depending upon the individual one will dominate at the beginning. Some people wake up and realize “Hey, I’m good at this, it’s enjoyable, this is what I was meant to do”. Others have a dream and pursue it relentlessly. For someone from MIT with high levels of intelligence and competency at a young age this book makes sense, for those of us trying to decide what we want to be competent at it’s less help. After all you don’t get into MIT unless you are smart, and being smart means you probably have a passion for learning.

    • Hi Aaron – Actually, I think it’s exciting that this has even come up as something worthy of study. As is often the case, it’s never one nor the other, it’s usually what you said “reciprocally reinforcing” (I love that phrase!)

      Your points are excellent and really add to this review because they give us something more to consider. Personally, I love it when a books shakes me up and gets me to think completely differently; to know that there are other options or considerations.

      Good luck with your work – I look forward to reviewing YOUR book soon! 🙂