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.

The Art and the Finances of a Creative Career

This weekend I not only took a new profile photo — which aged me three years in an instant, I tell you — but also finally narrowed down what I want Nicole Dieker Dot Com to be about:

Daily posts on the art and the finances of a creative career.

You might remember that I originally called this space a Creative Practice Club, but that never quite felt right (which is one of the reasons I did not purchase the domain name CreativePractice.club, even though I could have).

The creative practice is part of it — specifically, figuring out how to do THE WORK you want to do while living THE LIFE you want to live.

But the creative career is the part that gets you THE MONEY.

And most of us need THE MONEY to fund THE WORK and THE LIFE.

So I’m going to include some posts about where my money comes from, and how I spend and invest it — and if you’re coming from The Billfold, you’re already familiar with this because I’ve been writing those kinds of personal finance posts for five years.*

If you’re interested in building the type of creative career that I currently have, where I earn money from freelancing and teaching and publishing and editing and all of it feels like THE WORK I want to do and THE LIFE I want to live, you’re in the right place.**

If you’re interested in building the type of creative career that’s unrelated to THE WORK you want to do but provides THE MONEY and THE LIFE you need to complete THE WORK, you’re also in the right place.

Because the thing about a creative career is that you get to create it.

So… welcome. ❤️

*Technically seven years, since I originally began writing about my finances on Tumblr in 2012.

**If you’ve read The Biographies of Ordinary People, you’re probably familiar with the scene where the Tinder date asks Meredith if she writes anything “for herself” and Meredith says “it’s all for me.” That’s how I feel. I don’t want to just write novels or whatever. I want to write personal finance posts for Bankrate and lifehacking posts for Lifehacker and help people learn new things. I love teaching, I love connecting people and ideas, I love all the work I do, and it’s all for me. It’s also all for you.

THE WORK, THE LIFE, and THE MONEY

Yesterday I asked whether “does it make money” should be a factor in determining a creative work’s success.

This, by the way, is one of the oldest questions in the book, we were debating it back in grad school, but in grad school we were also all on food stamps because that was literally part of the orientation process.*

Since then, I have had varying levels of income — specifically, two periods of earning at or above the median income in the United States, separated by a few years during which I earned significantly below the median income — and I’ve become less interested in the philosophical question of whether creative work should make money then the practical question of how to earn money from your creative work.

Here’s what I have come to believe:

  1. The big creative work you want to do with your life — aka THE WORK — should include a money-making component.
  2. THE WORK might not earn enough money to be your sole source of income. (If it is, congratulations!)
  3. You will probably need to do additional types of work to fund THE LIFE you want to live. If possible, choose work that complements and/or supports both THE LIFE you want and THE WORK you want to do.
  4. A successful piece of WORK should, at minimum, earn back the cost of producing the WORK. This cost may or may not include your time.

None of these foundational beliefs address the question of how to earn money from your creative work — we’ll get to that, probably next week — but, at least for me, they set up a framework through which I can structure THE WORK, THE LIFE, and THE MONEY while simultaneously evaluating the success of all of the above.

This brings me to Grant Sabatier’s new book Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need.

Sabatier wrote this book as a sort of unofficial sequel to my very favorite personal-finance book ever, Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence. (Vicki Robin wrote the foreword to Financial Freedom, making it an official unofficial sequel?)

Your Money or Your Life teaches you how to interact with money; how to calculate your true hourly wage and identify jobs that give you the most value for your time, how to avoid blowing your cash on impulse buys and poorly-thought-out purchases, and how to save and invest for the future.

Financial Freedom teaches you how to earn more.

Financial Freedom also provides an updated guide to the whole saving-and-investing thing. The original edition of Your Money or Your Life was all about savings account interest and U.S. Treasury Bonds (both of which are no longer performing at a rate that can lead a person towards long-term financial security), and Financial Freedom focuses on newer strategies such as index funds and Roth IRA conversions.

If that’s not where you are in your financial journey, you can skip that part.

But I would argue that every creative person should read both Your Money and Your Life and Financial Freedom, if only because these books will cement the connection between THE WORK, THE LIFE, and THE MONEY.

If your job is not giving you enough time and/or money to live THE LIFE and do THE WORK, these books will help you find and/or create a better job, preferably one with a higher true hourly wage.**

If THE LIFE you want to live does not match the life you are currently living, and especially if you are spending extra money because you are dissatisfied with your life, these books will show you how to shift your habits and your spending to get you closer to THE LIFE you want.***

If you want to go all Marie Kondo on your everyday expenses and ask yourself “do I really want to spend $780 every year maintaining my pixie cut or do I want to invest that money and turn it into three months of financial freedom,” well… guess what, I started growing my hair out.

(Financial freedom, by the way, translates to “the amount of time you can live comfortably without earning another dollar.” You can stack up your months of financial freedom to provide security for the future, or cash them in for a big purchase such as a house or a sabbatical or an indie-published book.)

Most importantly, if you want to figure out how to turn THE WORK into THE MONEY-MAKING WORK, Financial Freedom has several excellent suggestions.

That’s all for today. Next week we’ll continue discussing how to make money on your creative work, so… see y’all on Monday. ❤️

*The orientation, which was student-led, consisted of two components: don’t sleep with the undergrads and here’s how to get on food stamps.

**I know jobs don’t grow on job trees and getting a new job is not always easy. But if you are going to do the work of job-hunting, it’s worth knowing what kind of job you’re hunting for.

***I can hear you saying “I don’t earn enough money to change any of my spending habits,” which, believe me, I’ve been there. I first read Your Money or Your Life in 2004, when I was making $9 an hour working as a telemarketer. (That’s the equivalent of $12 an hour today, if you were curious.) I could make very few changes to my spending, but I started doing things like making peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches because a tub of raisins was cheaper than a thing of jam, and taking the bus during off-peak hours because it was less expensive, and finding a job that paid $13 an hour, and within nine months I had saved $500, which was NOT A LOT, but also proved that the system worked.