On Getting Good

December 18, 2018

This weekend I finished Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Much of it rings true for me. Although it’s intended to motivate and to help one maximise career potential, it can also be painful to read, since it can highlight one’s career missteps. Or at least it has thrown my mistakes into high relief. Nevertheless I’m very glad to have read it. It is an easy book to outline as Newport clearly delineates the constituent ideas into rules, so I’ll summarise them and explain how I reacted to each of them in turn.

His first rule is that “Follow your passion” is bad career advice, not merely because most people don’t commence life with profitable passions, but because this attitude leads to constant career switching and dissatisfaction. It encourages the belief that work should be immediately gratifying, when in fact the research shows that satisfaction comes with skill, and skill comes with time and effort on the job. One needs, therefore, to do the hard work of cultivating skills before one can expect fulfilling work. Some reviewers have misunderstood this to mean that there is no place for passion in one’s work; this is a misreading of the argument, which predicts that passion will grow from cultivating skill. The point is not that one need not be passionate about one’s work; it’s just that passion follows skill acquisition, and shouldn’t be used as an upfront indicator to lead one’s career decisions. Passion, when it arises, should be used as fuel for the hard work of mastering skills; it should not be passively “followed” to and fro.

I largely agree with the first rule, and it posed no real obstacle for me, as I’m not one to shy away from hard work, nor am I short on passion.

In passion’s stead, Newport proposes his second rule, the titular “Be so good they can’t ignore you”, a piece of advice attributed to comedian Steve Martin. To flesh this out, Newport describes his own “career capital theory”, which emphasises the importance of skill. He advises readers to drop the “passion mindset” and to cultivate the “craftsman mindset” wherein one engages in deliberate practice to improve a skill through effort. Deliberate practice requires setting high goals to stretch one’s abilities and receiving fast feedback to guide one’s efforts.

The overall goal of this approach is to build up “career capital” by becoming extremely skilled at something rare. Once cultivated, career capital can be exchanged in various ways. The most obvious is financial: once you become exceptionally good at something, you will command a higher salary. But salary (beyond a certain point) does not correlate particularly well with happiness or satisfaction. Citing Daniel Pink and “self-determination theory”, Newport defines the most important metrics of fulfilling work to be:

  • Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important
  • Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do
  • Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people”

Deliberate practice leads to competence, but the best way to improve autonomy is to exchange career capital for it. (Newport doesn’t spend much time on “relatedness,” though probably career capital can also be exchanged for this, if one finds oneself in too isolating a job.)

This second rule was more painful for me. I certainly believe in deliberate practice, though I was more prone to exert this in my hobbies than in my work. His examples of what deliberate practice looks like, and how difficult it should be, also inspired me to set my goals higher. As for the three psychological needs, they do seem important for happiness at work, and I had precisely none of them at my last job. In response to this, however, I jumped ship with no land in sight, and have thereby risked losing what career capital I had accumulated without exchanging it for anything.

This exchange leads to his third rule: “Turn down the promotion”. This argues that one should privilege control over capital-building after a certain point. In fact, Newport argues, career capital can be exchanged more-or-less directly for control.

How does this look in practice? Tim Ferriss’ instructions on how to switch to part-time work in The 4-Hour Work Week come to mind. Once you’re indispensable, cut back hours, or otherwise use this indispensability to define your own terms.

Newport describes two traps when it comes to this type of exchange: trying to get freedom before one has sufficient capital, and the fact that as capital increases, an employer will be less amenable to allowing one more freedom. The first would be like trying to switch to part-time a few months into a first job; one is not yet particularly important to the business, which is as likely as not to say no, or even to let one go. Newport warns about the dangers of “lifestyle design”, in the mould of Tim Ferriss, when one is young and skill-less.

But in ten years’ time, one may quite possibly have become not only indispensable, but capable of doing whatever needs doing in fewer hours per week. In this case, a company might try to prevent one from gaining more control. This is the second trap: as competence improves, bids for more control are more likely to be rejected.

In examining these traps, he turns to the inimitable Derek Sivers. Sivers’ incredible book Anything You Want led me to his FAQ, which is what led me to read this Cal Newport book. From Sivers, who has switched careers several times with meteoric success, Newport derives the “Law of Financial Viability.” This means that one shouldn’t attempt to switch careers until others are willing to pay one for it. This is not an act of selfishness; Sivers famously gave away $22m after the sale of his company. Rather, he treats money as neutral value indicator, which shows whether one is sufficiently skilled to move into the new domain.

This third rule was especially hard for me, as I am sorely tempted to switch careers, but I certainly have no certainty that any other career will pay me. This has led me to consider whether I might not be better off trying to get more autonomy in my old career, assuming it can be salvaged.

The fourth rule is about mission and is confusingly called “Think Small, Act Big”. Newport argues that the very best careers will have a mission which spans multiple positions and projects. But a mission can take a long time to find and decide. One won’t find it unless one is in the region of the “adjacent possible,” i.e. the cutting edge, for a while. Missions decided before this point are likely to be unproductive.

Once at the cutting edge, and in order to stay there, Newport advises that one take “little bets” which are one month projects that stretch one’s limits and test new areas (remember deliberate practice?). These may contribute to finding one’s mission, but even if they don’t, they will contribute to competence.

In this rule he also proposes the “Law of remarkability”. This states that the best projects should be remarkable in two senses: that people will literally talk about them, and that they are presented within a forum conducive to amplifying such remarks. He gives the example of open-source software as a place to launch projects.

I agree with his point about trying to stay at the cutting edge, and I like his idea about little bets and remarkability. I’ve done this, in a way: last year I spent a few months attempting translation as a way of seeing whether I could do it. But I did not do it in a forum with particularly high remarkability.

That pretty much sums up the book. It is not always palatable. It often made me feel like I’d made the wrong choices in my life. But I think it does give insight into what it means to have a fulfilling career, as well as how to get there. The advice is not easy to follow, as it provides no shortcuts around the extremely hard work required for mastery. On the other hand, it does give fairly concrete advice about how to build this expertise.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.