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Cal Newport’s New Book: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

September 18, 2012

Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m a huge fan of Cal Newport, and have written a ton about how his ideas have shaped my thinking about getting students to lead extraordinary lives filled with learning and almost zero stress.

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed is watching Cal seemingly grow up as a blogger. I started reading his stuff years ago, when he first began grad school, and then most of his advice was detail level stuff about taking better notes in technical classes or developing an autopilot strategy for setting a schedule. I liked these posts because they were instantly actionable—print and share the article with kids, and many would find it instantly useful.

As Cal has grown up and completed grad school and now is working as a tenure track professor, his columns have taken on a more big picture focus, and many start to deal more with how to craft a fulfilling career. On a personal level, I still find them immensely helpful, but I now have to work to digest them more for my high school students, many of whom aren’t really ready for heavy conversations about their future careers (even though I think such conversations might be a good thing). But the more I read his stuff, the more I see the vision for what I want to help my students to become—romantic scholars, career craftsmen, and masters of hard focus. The key is help my students to stop listening to all the voices that tell them to find their passions, and instead to help them find the inner voice that tells them to dig in and get to work, knowing that passion will come from building up skill in one area.

This is why I’m thrilled has written his new book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for the Work You Love. I’ve read the first chapter of Cal’s book, and I’m already deeply impressed by how he lays out four simple principles for success. Here they are in his own words:

  1. Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion. Here I make my argument that “follow your passion” is bad advice. You’ve heard me talk about this on Study Hacks, but in this chapter, I lay out my full-throated, comprehensive, detailed argument against this common advice.
  2. Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Here I detail the philosophy that works better than following your passion. This philosophy, which I call career capital theory, says that you first build up rare and valuable skills and then use these skills as leverage to shape you career into something you love. During this chapter I spend time with a professional guitar player, television writer, and venture capitalist, among others, in my quest to understand how people get really good at what they do. You’ll also encounter a detailed discussion of deliberate practice and how to apply it in your working life.
  3. Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion. Here I argue that control is one of the most important things you can bargain for with your rare and valuable skills. I discuss the difficulties people face in trying to move toward more autonomy in their working lives and describe strategies that can help you sidestep these pitfalls. During this chapter, I spend time with a hotshot database developer, an entrepreneurial medical resident, an Ivy League-trained organic farmer, and Derek Sivers, among others, in my attempts to decode control.
  4. Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big. In this final rule, I explore how people end up with career-defining missions — often a source of great passion. I argue that you need rare and valuable skills before you can identify a powerful mission. I then spend time with a star Harvard professor, a television host, and a Ruby on Rails guru, all in an effort to identify best practices for cultivating this trait.

I’m glad that I’ve gotten to see Cal’s argument in this book develop from the very earliest ideas about the misguided nature of passion and the notion that you need to have a skill before you can really identify how you will make a difference in the world to where they stand today in this book.

I’m going to try to write more thoughts about these ideas as I make my way though Cal’s book in the upcoming weeks, but in the meantime, I strongly urge you to check it out for yourself.

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