Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You

Cal Newport makes that case that The Passion Hypothesis (that great careers are built on pre-existing passions) is a myth; and introduces Career Capital Theory, the idea that in order to find great work you must acquire rare and valuable skills worth trading with an employer.

Prior art



  • 2010 Conference Board survey of US job satisfaction:
    • Only 45% of Americans describe themselves as satisfied with their jobs.
      • Steadily decreasing from 61% in 1987, the first year recorded.
    • 64% of young people say they're actively unhappy in their jobs.
      • This is the highest level of dissatisfaction ever recorded.





The Passion Hypothesis isn't the whole story

We likely won't find happiness in "following our passion":

[...] the path to happiness -- at least as it concerns what you do for a living -- is more complicated than simply answering the classic question "What should I do with my life?"

Common examples of "following passion" are untrue:

Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break -- a “small-time” scheme that unexpectedly took off.

Career capital theory

Our expectations of work are growing:

This young generation has "high expectations for work," explains psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, an expert on the mindset of the modern postgrad. "They expect work to be not just a job but an adventure[,]... a venue for self-development and self-expression[,]... and something that provides a satisfying fit with their assessment of their talents."

Good jobs demand equivalent value in skills:

The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.

Skills are acquired through deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is defined:

In the early 1990s, Anders Ericsson, a colleague of Neil Charness at Florida State University, coined the term "deliberate practice" to describe this style of serious study, defining it formally as an "activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance.

We need to be critical of its results:

the tape doesn't lie

Deliberate practice is supposed to be a little uncomfortable:

If you're not uncomfortable, then you're probably stuck at an "acceptable level."

We need to strain our abilities and seek critical feedback:

I used to get upset when our rhythm guitar player would suggest we try out something new during band practice. He was happy glancing at a chord chart and then jumping in. I wasn't. Even at that young age I realized that my discomfort with mental discomfort was a liability in the performance world.

We have to escape our comfort zones:

Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.... Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it "deliberate," as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.

And accept uncomfortable truths:

[...] it's in honest, sometimes harsh feedback that you learn where to retrain your focus in order to continue to make progress.

Chess grand masters build on "average" recall ability over an extended period:

Previous studies had shown it takes around ten years, at minimum, to become a grand master. [...] This is the "ten-year rule," sometimes called the "10,000-hour rule," which has been bouncing around scientific circles since the 1970s [..]

And this deliberate practice is the deciding factor in their performance:

Hours spent in serious study of the game was not just the most important factor in predicting chess skill, it dominated the other factors.

Steve Martin on deliberate practice:

It's clear in his telling that there was no real shortcut to his eventual fame. "[Eventually] you are so experienced [that] there's a confidence that comes out," Martin explained. "I think it's something the audience smells."

The Craftsman mindset

The craftsman mindset is about expanding our skillset to better serve the world:

Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.

This shifts our attention inward, toward self-improvement:

First, when you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don't like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness.

But if we're not persistent, we plateau:

This is what happened to me with my guitar playing, to the chess players who stuck to tournament play, and to most knowledge workers who simply put in the hours: We all hit plateaus

Exercising capital carries risks

Courage can be dangerous -- pushing for control without sufficient capital is risky:

Control that's acquired without career capital is not sustainable.

Prestige is meaningless without control -- progression has to improve quality of life:

Taking an afternoon off on a whim to do an interview is not the type of decision she could have gotten away with if she had followed a traditional career path to become a stock-owning, Porsche-driving, ulcer-suffering VP. But then again, stock-owning, Porsche-driving, ulcer-suffering VPs probably enjoy their lives quite a bit less than Lulu.

We have to learn to strike the balance:

The key, it seems, is to know when the time is right to become courageous in your career decisions. Get this timing right, and a fantastic working life awaits you, but get it wrong by tripping the first control trap in a premature bid for autonomy, and disaster lurks.

Having the courage to become your own boss is only healthy if you fully appreciate the risks:

The fault of the courage culture, therefore, is not its underlying message that courage is good, but its severe underestimation of the complexity involved in deploying this boldness in a useful way.


Money isn't everything, but it is a useful indicator of value:

"Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you're aiming to be valuable."

Agreement from employers is also a sign:

She knew she had enough capital to support this change because her employer said yes. In later jobs, when she negotiated a three-month leave or insisted on working freelance with an open schedule, these were also bids for more control that were validated by the fact that her employers accepted them. If she had had less career capital they would have had no problem telling her good-bye.

Missions provide direction

We drive happiness from pursuit of an overarching mission:

[...] her happiness comes from the fact that she built her career on a clear and compelling mission -- something that not only gives meaning to her work but provides the energy needed to embrace life beyond the lab. In the overachieving style typical of Harvard, Pardis's mission is by no means subtle: Her goal, put simply, is to rid the world of its most ancient and deadly diseases.

[...] what's important to note now is that her mission provides her a sense of purpose and energy, traits that have helped her avoid becoming a cynical academic and instead embrace her work with enthusiasm.

Scientific discoveries tend to be made by multiple people at the same time:

In one study cited by Johnson, researchers from Columbia University found just shy of 150 different examples of prominent scientific breakthroughs made by multiple researchers at near the same time.

We find these ideas in the adjacent possible -- the space between the cutting edge and the unknown:

Big ideas, Johnson explained, are almost always discovered in the "adjacent possible," a term borrowed from the complex-system biologist Stuart Kauffman, who used it to describe the spontaneous formation of complex chemical structures from simpler structures.


The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas.

We evolve our thinking, but we need to take revolutionary action once we reach the cutting edge:

Advancing to the cutting edge in a field is an act of "small" thinking, requiring you to focus on a narrow collection of subjects for a potentially long time. Once you get to the cutting edge, however, and discover a mission in the adjacent possible, you must go after it with zeal: a "big" action.

Take small steps to find your footing:

"Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance," he writes, "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".

Smaller steps let us validate our ideas:

If career capital makes it possible to identify a compelling mission, then it's a strategy of little bets that gives you a good shot of succeeding in this mission.

We need to market our work to acquire capital:

"The synthesis of Purple Cow and My Job Went to India is that the best way to market yourself as a programmer is to create remarkable open-source software. So I did."**

Compel sharing, and launch in a venue that supports sharing:

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.


Remain in control -- have direction:

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

Be cautious:

We were bored, available, and ambitious -- a dangerous combination -- and starting a company sounded as promising as anything else we could imagine.

But act:

Indeed, the motivation to write my first book was an idle dare leveled by an entrepreneur I admired whom I met one night for drinks: "Don't just talk about it," he scolded me when I offhandedly mentioned the book idea.

Be wary of short-term productivity thinking, as we can't always align productive time with our growth needs:

When you adopt a productivity mindset, however, deliberate practice-inducing tasks are often sidestepped, as the ambiguous path toward their completion, when combined with the discomfort of the mental strain they require, makes them an unpopular choice in scheduling decisions.

Key facts

  • Of 539 surveyed Canadian university students:
    • 84% of the students surveyed reported that they had passions.
    • Less than 4% identified passions that had any relation to work or education.

New ideas

  • The Passion Hypothesis (happiness/satisfaction at work is rooted in doing something you love) isn't the full story: interesting careers aren't built on pre-existing passions, but on acquired skills.
    • Steve Jobs stumbled into computing after flunking a job -- his passion for the space grew out of his work.
  • Career capital theory defines a mechanism for how the trade of skills for careers works.
  • Deliberate practice develops rare and valuable skills.
  • The Craftsman mindset is the relentless focus on becoming "so good they can't ignore you". It defines five habits:
    • Decide capital market type.
    • Identify your capital type.
      • Follow open gates -- what opportunities are available to you?
    • Define "good".
    • Stretch and destroy.
    • Be patient.
      • Follow the law of financial viability -- do what people are willing to pay for.
  • Traits that define great work:
    • Creativity: pushing the boundaries
    • Impact: changing the way people live their lives
    • Control: autonomy over what you do and how you do it
  • Disqualifiers for applying the craftsman mindset:
    • Few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills.
    • The work is focused on something useless or actively harmful.
    • The job forces you to work with people you actively dislike.
  • Capital markets describe the nature of the market based on the types of capital available:
    • Winner-take-all: as there is only a single type of capital available and lots of competitors for it, all that matters is that individual skill.
    • Auction: less structured, since there are many different types of career capital, and each person has a unique collection.


  • The examples don't really disprove The Passion Hypothesis, but it does show that passion alone isn't enough to build a career. I struggle to see how one would find their calling in a field they're not passionate about.
  • "No one owes you a great career, [...] you need to earn it" heads a little too far into meritocracy territory for my liking. We don't live in an equitable society, and some people are born into privilege which exposes them to more opportunities to acquire and exchange career capital.