The title of the book comes from a famous comedian Steve Martin who once said in his speech ‘’Be so good that they can’t ignore you’’. The author of this book, Cal Newport, a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University, took inspiration from this line to guide people on the reality of how people end up loving their careers.

We are often told that following our passion can lead us to success but in the 21st century, but as observed by the author, this thinking might be flawed. By studying leading professionals who followed their passion and hopped from one job to another, he came to an understanding that the way we look at passion needs to change.

The author, Cal Newport refers to Steve Jobs, the genius behind Apple and says that if Jobs had actually followed his passion, he would have been a teacher in a Zen monastery and not been able to achieve all that he did.

It is skills that give people a competitive advantage in their field, build you a ‘career capital’ and not passion alone. Skills can, as the subheading of this book goes, ‘trump passion in the quest for what you love’.

So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport
So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Moreover, the author has observed that when people just follow their hearts but do not end up being successful, it can lead to anxiety, depression, disappointment, and a sense of helplessness.

Here are my 3 biggest lessons from this book :

1. Decide What Kind of Market You Are In & Adapt

There are broadly two types of skill markets:

The winner-take-all market is a market that has rampant competition and a lot of people out there who want to do well in the field. The primary skill required to succeed is to upscale your quality of work.

So people in this category comprise of – freelancers, writers, musicians, artists, etc.

The author believes that in this market since people have a few sets of skills, they should work hard on improving them more than juggling between networking and other efforts. 

The work of such people speaks for itself and they automatically start getting recognized through word of mouth and are then contacted for business.

Auction markets are a market that isn’t so specifically structured and each person might have a unique skill set. It’s all about seeking new opportunities as they come knocking.

This is applicable to people in management jobs, and entrepreneurs. 

It’s possible you spent so many years building a company and because of a financial crisis, it had to be shut down and you had to start afresh. Being experienced as well as being open to new ideas will help you come out of this situation.

2. Adopt the Craftsman Mindset

You will come across the term ‘career capital’ multiple times. This is all about how you can build on that. The author refers to a craftsman mindset as one which has rare and valuable skills. The more demanding a job is, it comes with more responsibility, autonomy, and has room for a lot of creativity. 

When you are allowed to take a few decisions independently and be in charge of how things are going, it is your creative thought process that will help you succeed and win.

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.

Once you start listening to Steve Martin and try to “be so good they can’t ignore you”, you’ll be so busy trying to deliver quality work that you won’t even have the time to deliberate what your true calling is.

Deliberate practice is the way to develop the autonomy and competence you need to boost your intrinsic motivation levels. The key is to stretch — you want to practice skills that are just above your current skill level, so that you experience discomfort — but not too much discomfort that you’ll give up.

3. Avoid the Control Traps

The author through a string of studies and research explains that autonomy is a great factor for job satisfaction i.e. having some control. 

When you have unique qualities and valuable skills, people will come looking for you. Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.

And as you build those skills, use those as leverage to take control of your career and shift it in directions that resonate with you.

He also says great careers start with ‘small bets’, i.e. small and achievable projects which would enhance your capabilities and make you feel confident as well. The author further adds that working right trumps finding the right work. We didn’t need to have a perfect job to find happiness — we need a better approach to the work we already have.