Book Review – So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Who is this for?Those who have struggled to find traction in their lives due to a common tendency to over prioritize passion.

Like many Back to Work listeners, I’ve just finished Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, at the recommendation of Merlin Mann. While I’m certain the book will be well examined by Merlin and his co-host Dan Benjamin, I wanted to offer up some early thoughts for those who are yet to give this book a chance.

I knew a lot about both Cal and the book going in. Last year I had the pleasure of hearing Cal give an early talk on his findings from So Good They Can’t Ignore You at the World Domination Summit. We also discussed the subject of passion at length when he came on to the Mikes on Mics podcast when the book was first released.

I purchased the book right after it was released but didn’t prioritize reading it. I thought I had gotten enough of the picture from his talk and visit to the show. Now having read it, I can safely say that I was wrong.

I see how this is the kind of book where you may feel the CliffsNotes edition is sufficient; I certainly felt this way at first. It doesn’t take all that long to grasp the idea that “following your passion is a bad idea,” that you should instead cultivate skills and build up career capital until you’re So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

That framework is useful and the stories do a great job of enhancing the premise, but the book came to life for me towards the end when Cal stopped looking out and started sharing what the experience has meant to him. He takes you on his journey, walks you through the discovery of each of the ideas presented in the book and shares how he applies many of the concepts, like deliberate practice, to his own life. While not as obviously useful as the framework presented in the early sections, it did a better job of bringing the concepts to life. It was easily the most enjoyable and enlightening part of the experience. It was also the most convincing.

Much as I enjoyed the premise, the framework and many of the takeaways, there were two aspects that continually frustrated me along the way.

Why Are We Arguing?

The first was the occasional academic tone and structure. Clearly this is Cal’s background shining through, but he kept “arguing”—a frequent term used throughout the book—his case rather than allowing the ideas to compel me. This may just be a personal preference, but the book straddles both an academic and conversational tone, and I continually found myself craving the conversational. I didn’t want an argument presented to me, I wanted to hear what he discovered, learn more about who he had met and understand what he thought it meant.

While the first challenge is clearly a personal preference, the second has more to do with the premise.

Is All Passion A Problem?

The main argument of the book is that following your passion is a bad idea. Newport makes a strong argument for this, but I think he takes the argument too far. Rather than offering up nuanced thoughts on the role that passion plays in our lives, it often felt as if he was dismissing it. He’s so busy making the argument about following passion that I think he accidentally overlooks the importance of having it. There wasn’t a single case study in the book where the person didn’t seem pretty darn passionate to me. They may not have been following their passion, but they sure as hell had it.

As I read, I came to agree that passion is a poor leader, but I also redoubled my own belief that it’s an essential ingredient. Don’t get me wrong; I wish I had read this years ago as I wasted years waiting for a passion to emerge and lead the way. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.) It wasn’t until I shifted my own focus away from finding my purpose and towards cultivating skills that I gained any kind of traction. Yet as I’ve gained skills, I’ve also discovered the passion that always seemed so elusive.

It would have been a slightly different book and would have stepped on the branding, but I wish Cal had presented a more nuanced examination of the role of passion. There was clear passion in this book about not following your passion. It just put passion in the proper perspective and context. I worry that readers taking the premise too literally may eliminate the value of passion rather than properly adjusting the role it plays.

Regardless, Cal is a smart man, a good writer and a hell of a teacher. All of this shines through in So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The ideas are clearly presented, the examples are useful and you walk away from the book with a better sense of what matters most when trying to improve your own career and life. It’s well worth your time. Especially if you’re struggling to put passion into the proper perspective.

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