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So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport: Review/summary
Book cover for So Good They Can’t Ignore You

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

By Cal Newport

Length: 304 pages

Rating: 7/10

First Published: 2012

Get it: UK 🇬🇧 | US 🇺🇸

Last read: 2020

Provides a great framework to think about your career. It argues that blindly following your passion without acquiring “career capital” first is a bad idea.

The book is too long with too much detail. For example, when interviewing a musician, I don’t really care what their house looks like, or how long it took to drive there. I just want the interview.

The chapter summaries were better than the chapters themselves, which adds to my frustration with the useless details.


The book argues that finding your “passion” is not a good career strategy. Rather, you derive passion from practicing and improving on a set of skills.

As you become great at these skills, they start to bring enjoyment. You turn out to be “so good they can’t ignore you” (book title). Then, you can turn your abilities into a currency for fulfilling, unique and interesting career.


Rule #1: Don’t follow your passion
Rule #2: Importance of skill (Be so good they can’t ignore you)
Rule #3: Importance of control
Rule #4: Importance of mission (Think small, act big)

Chapter Nine: The First Control Trap

If you embrace control without capital, you’re likely to end up like Jane, Lisa, or our poor frustrated lifestyle designer—enjoying all the autonomy you can handle but unable to afford your next meal.

Chapter Ten: The Second Control Trap

The second trap describes what happens when you do have enough capital to stop your current activity.

It’s exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change.

You’re most likely to encounter resistance from others in your life, as more control usually benefits only you.

The law of financial viability.

When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on.

Chapter Fourteen: Missions Require Little Bets

“Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance, they make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant wins”. — Peter Sims, Little Bets

To maximize your chances of success, you should deploy small, concrete experiments —little bets— that return concrete feedback. And then use this feedback, be it good or bad, to help figure out what to try next.

A little bet has the following characteristics: It’s a project small enough to be completed in less than a month. It forces you to create new value (e.g., master a new skill and produce new results that didn’t exist before).
Note: Incorporate worst case

Why don’t I have a personal mission-driven career?
Note: It’s interesting that even the author himself didn’t.

Chapter Fifteen: Missions Require Marketing

Produce purple cows, the type of remarkable projects that compel people to spread the word.

The Law of Remarkability: For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking. It can be applied to any field.

If I publish a book that says “follow your passion” is bad advice, (hopefully) this would compel you to spread the word.

If you asked a Ruby programmer about this project, he would tell you that this is solid, quality, useful work. But it’s not the type of achievement that would compel this same Ruby programmer to write his friends and tell them, “You have to see this!”

Summary of Rule #4

By using little bets and the law of remarkability, you greatly increase your chances of finding ways to transform your mission from a compelling idea into a compelling career.

To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers.

The tricky part is figuring out how to acquire this capital. By definition, if it’s rare and valuable, it’s not easy to get.

You can’t skip straight into a great mission without first building mastery in your field.
Note: This relates to Outliers. Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs already had rare skills when the time was right.


I needed to introduce some practical strategies into my own working life that would force me to once again make deliberate practice a regular companion in my daily routine.

Deliberate Practice—a method for building skills by ruthlessly stretching yourself beyond where you’re comfortable.

I deployed two types of structure. The first type was time structure: “I am going to work on this for one hour.”

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 keep a tally of the total number of hours I’ve spent in a state of deliberate practice.

Getting better required the strain of deliberate practice, “as if my mind realized the effort I was about to ask it to expend, and in response it unleashed a wave of neuronal protest”

I had two offers in hand, one from Microsoft and the other from MIT. This is the type of decision that would paralyze my classmates. I, however, didn’t see any reason to worry. Both paths, I was sure, would yield numerous opportunities that could be leveraged into a remarkable life.
Note: It took 6 months for Cal to stop looking for a job.

At a large research institution, tenure happens as follows: Higher-ups in the administration send out letters to other people in your general field and ask whether you’re the top person in your particular specialty. If you’re not, they’ll fire you and try to hire whoever is.

If you’re not in control of your career, it can chew you up and spit you out.

You need to be ceaselessly scanning your always-changing view of the adjacent possible in your field, looking for the next big idea. This requires a dedication to brainstorming and exposure to new ideas.

Mission-development system

Top Level: The Tentative Research Mission

Rough guideline for the type of work I’m interested in doing.

Middle Level: Exploratory Projects

  • Use deadlines
  • Track hours spent on the projects

Bottom Level: Background Research

  • Every week, I expose myself to something new
  • Try to carve out one walk each day for free-form thinking

The choice of what material to expose myself to is guided by my mission description at the top of the pyramid.

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.

Highlights and covers are copyright to their respective authors.