Cal Newport’s ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ Is a Must-Read Guide to Building a Creative Career

I’ve mentioned Cal Newport on this blog before. I started implementing his daily shutdown ritual after reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, for example, and it has made my workday (and my evenings) so much better.

But last week I read his 2012 book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, and I am ready to GET EXCITED ABOUT IT.

Here’s the tl;dr, though I really really really think you should r:

If you want to build a fulfilling career, you need to develop both marketable skills and career capital. Being passionate about a particular line of work isn’t enough.

This is kind of the tension at the core of Nicole Dieker Dot Com, btw — like, I’m writing about being vulnerable online and mushing through the draft of NEXT BOOK while also being fairly hard-headed about how this type of career takes schedules and strategies and showing up every day.

Or, as I put it in one of my very first posts: there’s a difference between “the dream” and “the work of doing your work.”

So Good They Can’t Ignore You is about pushing through that difference, and going from the work of doing your work to building a dream career.

It’s worth noting that this “dream career” may not be related to your current creative passion; that is, the end game isn’t “full-time novelist” or “full-time singer-songwriter” or whatever. The end game is to develop a career that capitalizes on your skills, lets you control your time, and helps you create the life you want, which may also include writing novels or making music or working on political campaigns or traveling for three months every year.*

I can hear you thinking “but there aren’t enough of those careers to go around,” which, okay, sure, but Newport makes two additional points:

  • With enough skills and career capital, you can build your own career. (This is what I did.)
  • With enough skills and career capital, you can work to make the world better for everyone else.

To quote Chapter 13, Missions Require Capital:

Pardis Sabeti thought small by focusing patiently for years on a narrow niche (the genetics of diseases in Africa) but then acting big once she acquired enough capital to identify a mission (using computational genetics to help understand and fight ancient diseases). Sarah and Jane, by contrast, reversed this order. They started by thinking big, looking for a world-changing mission, but without capital they could only match this big thinking with small, ineffectual acts.

Go read this book. You might not agree with everything Newport writes, but I bet at least one or two chapters will make you think differently about your creative career.

It did for me, anyway, and I’ve been doing this for seven years now.

Next Tuesday I’m going to review a book that’s more about the emotional and vulnerable aspects of building a life. In case you’re curious. It’s all about balance, after all.

*Yes, you can go straight into trying to become “so good they can’t ignore you” at your current artistic pursuit or passion project. The book has some notes on that path as well — after all, the “so good they can’t ignore you” quote came directly from Steve Martin. But that path might be a lot harder than the one where you use your monetizable skills to build the type of capital that can help you achieve your large-scale goals.

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