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Book Review: ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ by Cal Newport

Cal Newport’s ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ – the book that changed the way I think about career

By Jasmine Huang

So Good They Can’t Ignore You
Cal Newport. Grand Central, $28 (304P)

I first heard about Cal Newport’s book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ because of an episode of Tim Ferriss’ podcast. In the episode, former executive editor at Wired and author of the new book ‘The Inevitable’ Kevin Kelly talked about several books he recommends the most and Cal Newport’s book was one of them. I looked it up immediately and thought I needed to read it. I went to the closest bookstore in the area to read the book, which at the time happened to be the biggest bookstore in Taiwan— Eslite Bookstore Xinyi Branch in the Xinyi District. I grabbed the book from the selves and started reading while standing there. The book changed what I think about career.

I used to believe what Steve Jobs had said in the famous Stanford commencement speech. He said, “You’ve got to find what you love…The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.” These lines became popular lines that many of my programmer friends, startup friends, writer friends would sometimes put in their own speeches and presentations. I got to hear it a lot and thought that must be true. The thinking was hard to break and only a Kevin Kelly’s highly recommended book would change my mind.

After reading most parts of the book, first time in October 2015 and second time in the Spring of 2017, I have begun to see my friends’ career in a new light. What Newport wants his readers to get can be summarized in one sentence: stop following your passion; start developing your rare and valuable skills. I have a ghostwriting deadline that I need to meet today so I will have to wrap up this blog post very quickly by putting a couple of my favorite passages below.

P42 If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (“what can the world offer me?”) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset(“what can I offer the world”).

P46 “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase,” he elaborated in his Roadtrip Nation session.

P99 In his memoir, Martin expounds on the idea when he discusses the importance of “diligence” for his success in the entertainment business. What’s interesting is that Martin redefines the word so that it’s less about paying attention to your main pursuit, and more about your willingness to ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you. The final step for applying deliberate practice to your working life is to adopt this style of diligence. 

The logic works as follows: Acquiring capital can take time. For Alex, it took about two years of serious deliberate practice before his first television script was produced. Mike Jackson was a half decade out of college before cashing in his capital to land a dream job.

This is why Martin’s diligence is so important: Without this patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your effort before you acquire the capital you need. I think the image of Martin returning to his banjo, day after day, for forty years, is poignant. It captures well the feel of how career capital is actually acquired: You stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realising, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.”

In addition to the mindblowing idea that radically changed the way I think about career, what I like the most about this book is the way Newport delivers the message through his own personal experiences and other people’s real-life examples. Newport gives his readers real people with real career success cases to better illustrate the idea of “deliberate practice,” a key strategy for acquiring career capital. There was TV writer, computer scientists, programmer, professor, book writer, blogger, musician, all coming from the book author’s first hand information. I appreciate Newport’s energy to interview so many interesting people and his willingness to set aside time to tell a story he deeply cared about. It was an important story to tell. He knew lives would be changed because of his writings. I envy his writing talents and wish I will one day have the topic that I must write.

What is interesting about reading this book is that it makes you wonder around the public figures you admired. After re-reading the book, I thought about the Oscar winning Taiwanese film director Ang Lee Taiwanese film director, how every Taiwanese friend I met knew about Ang Lee’s inspirational story, about how Ang Lee went from jobless, a hard time in his life relying on his wife and families’ financial support, to an award-winning director. I thought about Ben Fountain’s remarkable debut novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”. I thought about what Ang Lee had said in an interview that he saw himself in Ben Fountain’s experience. Ang Lee had said that because Ben Fountain had also endured a long, hard time to take off. As a lawyer-turned-writer who was struggling to get published, Fountain like Ang Lee, also rely on his attorney wife’s support.

I find these figures’ stories interesting to think about. I wonder whether their wives are talented readers and writers themselves. And I think about the stories that I’ve been meaning to tell and how to get the stories out. I believe the deadlines are going to be my friends. They are always my friends. Without them I will not be able to force myself to sit down and type. In one sitting this is how much I produced. I want to call myself a typist now. I wish I could type more but my eyes are too exhausted and I will have to hit Save now. My next blog post might be about a British writer Neil Gaiman’s nonfiction book.

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