Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport, published 2012

Yet Another Great Book by Cal Newport

Cal Newport’s recent books inspired me to do a deeper dive into his earlier works. This one does not disappoint. Lovely to see evolution in motion. He started out working to figure out how best to study, to enhance his own studies (and playtime). He then shared shortcuts through books such as How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. In 2012, while finishing his Ph.D. at MIT he was researching this So Good book, while creating his own new work reality.

In all of his books, Newport does a great job of combining research study info. with real life stories and examples of success. As soul savvy readers know, success is not just about high salaries, though that’s great. It’s also about being able to choose beneficial working conditions, perks that matter. Plus, you need the ability to be balanced and fulfilled in love, creativity, leisure and the like.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You is a phrase Newport took from comedian Steve Martin’s recounting of how he became successful. Newport studies those who succeeded and those who didn’t throughout the book. His findings are surprising and instructive. Since the 70s, there was a new rhetoric in the career counseling arena, starting with Richard Bolles’ book, What Color is Your Parachute? Boomers ate this up, and passed it to their kids. Newport’s findings challenge these constructs, calling “the passion hypothesis” misleading, incorrect and even dangerous.


The book is a essential read, especially recommended for those starting their careers as well as those nearing retirement and looking to establish part time work realities. In other words, recommended for all. You’ll see what really works to increase success in his examples. Instead of passion, Newport names the term “career capital”, which is the building of your skills and expertise.

Building career capital not only takes time, as you’d guess, but it can be hard to grow, since it’s easy to get in a rut, to get comfortable. Deep skills develop when people stretch themselves rather uncomfortably. Again, the stories help illustrate his points. He details the path of a  TV writer and what it took for him to break into the extremely narrow corridor of great success in this realm.

More Key Takeaways

Other key takeaways include the need to match your work and building of career capital with what people will pay you for. Here the stories of unsuccessful ventures are instructive. Several people jump into creating their own businesses or blogging missions that fail. Within six months, they’re in line for food stamps. Not a pretty picture.

The importance of having a mission is discussed – again, this is not something that you usually start with, but something that forms over time as you develop your deep work and career capital. He shares advice on how to test the viability of a career, and of missions, by doing small experiments that can be built into larger leaps.

Once you have build that amazing career capital, it’s notable that the world does not just line up to eat out of your hand or give you every ideal working condition. Newport found that at this point, the highly skilled worker will usually want items that are not in the interest of their employers. For example, talented employees may ask for less hours, which doesn’t serve the bottom line. This will be met with resistance often, and may mean the end of the job. These stories are very useful to see, in terms of those who succeeded to fashion better conditions, and those derailed. The point there – expect some push back, though you might be amazingly desirable.

Essentials for Developing Valuable Skills

A useful tip from many of those offered in the final section of the book repeats the theme of needing to push ourselves. You need to enter uncomfortable arenas that stretch you, to experience ever valuable growth. For example, the worker who has artistic skills but works full time – yet is tired when arriving home at the end of the day. Yes, it’s hard to push yourself, but knowing how this might lead to better things can be some incentive.

When navigating this zone himself, Newport brainstormed the best area to focus on to increase his career capital. He then created a spread sheet to track the hours he spent doing the work. He had a goal of a certain amount hours spent at the task he named. This has greatly improved his success, knowledge and skills. For our artist friend, the book may help to emphasize the benefit of even short spells of time spent at the craft, which will add up and increase talent over time.

Recently I used Newport’s tips myself. Last year I had trained in RRT, a new therapy technique. I’d been doing therapy for well, over twenty years at that point. I wasn’t really looking for a whole new approach, but it is that. And, it requires practice. After Newport’s book, I realized that to master this new skill, I’d have to set aside time to practice, to stretch into that uncomfortable zone of learning. It was helpful to have his framework for this awareness and action to happen.

Some of Newports constructs remind me of a Denzel Washington quote: “Nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success.” Fall forward, indeed.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments regarding this busting busting of the “follow your passion”, or Do What You Love… and the money will follow- kind of thinking … Has this worked for you?

About Denise Barnes

Licensed Therapist, Life Coach and Spiritual Counselor, Denise has an office in Boulder CO and is a certified Telehealth provider.
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