Matt W. Kane

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love
Cal Newport

The narratives in this book are bound by a common thread: the importance of ability. The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.

Where the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you. This mindset is how most people approach their working lives.

With this in mind, it’s only natural to envy the clarity of performers like Jordan Tice. But here’s the core argument of Rule #2: You shouldn’t just envy the craftsman mindset, you should emulate it. In other words, 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.

The Power of Career Capital

In which I justify the importance of the craftsman mindset by arguing that the traits that make a great job great are rare and valuable, and therefore, if you want a great job, you need to build up rare and valuable skills–which I call career capital–to offer in return.

Traits that define great work:

  • Creativity: Ira Glass, for example, is pushing the boundaries of radio, and winning armfuls of awards in the process.
  • Impact: From the Apple II to the iPhone, Steve Jobs has changed the way we live our lives in the digital age.
  • Control: No one tells-Al Merrick when to when to wake up or what to wear. He’s not expected in an office from nine to five. Instead, his Channel Islands Surfboards factory is located a block from the Santa Barbara beach, where Merrick still regularly spends time surfing. Jake Burton Carpenter, founder of Burton Snowboards, for example, recalls how negotiations for the merger between the two companies happened wile he and Merrick waited for waves in a surf lineup.)

The Career Capital Theory of Great Work

  • 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.

 It told me that 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 our 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. To successfully adopt the craftsman mindset, therefore, we have to approach our jobs in the same way that Jordan approaches his guitar-playing or Garry Kasparov his chess training – with a dedication to deliberate practice.

You have to get good before you can expect good work.

The Power of Control

Ryan and Sarah have heaps of control in their working lives, and this is what makes the Red Fire lifestyle & appealing. The appeal of control, however, is not limited to farmers. Decades of scientific research have identified this trait as one of the most important you can pursue in the quest for a happier, more successful, and more meaningful life. Dan Pink’s 2009 bestselling book Drive, for example, reviews the dizzying array of different ways that control has been found to improve people’s lives! As Pink summarizes the literature, more control leads to better grades, better sports performance, better productivity, and more happiness.

In one such study, mentioned in Pink’s book, researchers at Cornell followed over three hundred small businesses, half of which focused on giving control to their employees and half of which did not. The control-centric businesses grew at four times the rate of their counterparts. In another study, which I found during my own research, giving autonomy to middle school teachers in a struggling school district not only increased the rate at which the teachers were promoted, but also, to the surprise of the researchers, reversed the downward performance trend of their students.

If you’re struggling to raise money for an ice, or are thinking that you will support your idea with unrelated work, then you need to rethink the idea.

To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career.

But this brings me back to my nagging question. I had notebooks filled with potential missions, yet I had resisted devoting myself to any one in particular. And I’m not alone in this reluctance to act. Many people have lots of career capital, and can therefore identify a variety of different potential missions for their work, but few actually build their career around such missions. It seems, therefore, that there’s more to this career tactic than simply getting to the cutting edge. Once you have the capital required to identify a mission, you must still figure out how to put the mission into practice. If you don’t have a trusted strategy for making this leap from idea to execution, then like me and so many others, you’ll probably avoid the leap altogether.

What’s nice about this first notion of remarkability is that it can be applied to any field. Take book writing: If I published a book of solid advice for helping recent graduates transition to the job market, you might find this a useful contribution, but probably wouldn’t find yourself whipping out your iPhone and Tweeting its praises. On the other hand, if I publish a book that says “follow your passion” is bad advice, (hopefully) this would compel you to spread the word. That is, the book you’re holding was conceived from the very early stages with the hope of being seen as “remarkable.”

To combat this 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. Those ten minutes were always difficult, but knowing that my efforts had a time limit helped ensure that the difficulty was manageable.

The second type of structure I deployed was information structure–a way of capturing the results of my hard focus in a useful form. I started by building a proof map that captured the dependencies between the different pieces of the proof. This was hard, but not too hard, and it got me warmed up in my efforts to understand the result. I then advanced from the maps to short self-administered quizzes that forced me to memorize the key definitions the proof used. Again, this was a relatively easy task, but it still took concentration, and the result was an understanding that was crucial for parsing the detailed math that came next.

The insights of Rule #2 fundamentally changed the way I approach my work. If I had to describe my previous way of thinking, I would probably use the phrase “productivity-centric.” Getting things done was my priority. When you adopt a productivity mindset, however, deliberate practice-inducing tasks are often sidestepped, as the ambiguous path toward their completion, when combined with the discomfort of the mental strain they require, makes them an unpopular choice in scheduling decisions. It’s much easier to redesign your graduate-student Web page than it is to grapple with a mind-melting proof. The result for me was that my career capital stores, initially built up during the forced strain of my early years as a graduate student, were dwindling as time went on. Researching Rule #2, however, changed this state of affairs by making me much more “craft-centric.” Getting better and better at what I did became what mattered most, and getting better required the strain of deliberate practice. This is a different way of thinking about work, but once you embrace it, the changes to your career trajectory can be profound.

Here’s what I learned: After leaving the monastery, Thomas returned to the banking job he had left two years earlier when he moved to the Catskills to pursue his passion. This time, however, he approached his working life with a new awareness. His experience at the monastery had freed him from the escapist thoughts of fantasy jobs that had once dominated his mind. He was able instead to focus on the tasks he was given and on accomplishing them well. He was free from the constant, draining comparisons he used to make between his current work and some magical future occupation waiting to be discovered.

Managing computer systems might not generate the daily bliss that defined Thomas’s old daydreams, but as he now recognized, nothing would. A fulfilling working life is a more subtle experience than his old fantasies had allowed. As we chatted, Thomas agreed that a good way of describing his transformation is that he came to realize a simple truth: Working right trumps finding the right work. He didn’t need to have a perfect job to find occupational happiness–he needed instead a better approach to the work already available to him.