So Good They Can’t Ignore You: A manifesto for realists


We all know that famous Steve Jobs speech from Stanford – the one where everyone seized on the palatable, soundbitable angle:

Love your work. Don’t settle. 

As Cal Newport writes in the early pages of his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, our generation is rather obsessed with ‘following our passions’. But ironically, that’s not at all what Jobs actually did. Had he done that, Newport says, Jobs would probably have wound up as a teacher at the Los Altos Zen Center. Apple was the result of a lucky break, a small-time scheme that took off, albeit one that Jobs no doubt eventually became passionate about later.

What’s actually more important and more telling about that Stanford speech is what Jobs says about joining the dots in retrospect:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

Having just finished the book, I’ve got a few thoughts to put into words. Bear with me!

The dark side of the ‘passion’ mindset

Chasing passion is often unrealistic and in many cases only leads to disappointment. Newport cites a few studies to back up this argument:

One surveyed a group of students and found the vast majority did not have passions that mapped to work/career paths – most were instead related to leisure or hobbies.

Another found that among employees who all held the same  administrative role with nearly identical duties, there was a fairly even split between those who saw their work as a job vs those who saw it as a career or even a calling – and those most likely to think of it as a calling were the ones with the most years on the job.

And yet another found that job satisfaction numbers have been trending downwards over time. “The more we focused on loving what we do, the less we ended up loving it,” he writes.

Give, and you shall receive?

What I took away from the book is that mastering your craft – which we should all aspire to – is its own kind of reward. Get so good that people can’t ignore you and will pay you accordingly … and job satisfaction follows.

It’s the same philosophy Newport has outlined on his blog; the book is his attempt to flesh this out with living examples and further depth.

It’s a pragmatic approach that no doubt most of us know deep down holds a lot of truth:

Focus on what you can offer the world, instead of what the world can offer you.

Derek Sivers, ostensibly a guy of many passions who’s done a bunch of different things, is one of the ‘masters’ in the book and is quoted thusly: “I have this principle about money that overrides my other life rules: Do what people are willing to pay for.

The law of financial viability, then, is one to bear in mind. I’ll never forget a conversation that went down in our dorm room in Grindelwald, Switzerland. Four of us were sitting around talking: me, T, a ditzy girl from Connecticut and an intense Southern guy who travelled all over the world organising and running races (marathons and ultras). We were discusing how he managed to scrape together a living doing this (he definitely wasn’t doing it for the money) and inevitably, the “passion” word came up.

“So, do what you love and the money will follow?” Ditzy Girl piped up eagerly, obviously waiting for a high five and rah-rah chirpy confirmation.

But rather than immediately jumping to affirm this, Running Guy paused.

“More like, do what you love and figure out a way to make money from it,” he said seriously.

The missing piece of the puzzle

The biggest thing I felt was missing from So Good They Can’t Ignore You was that vital first step. What do you do if you have NO idea what you want to do? (This is the ongoing problem in our household, specifically on T’s side.) How do you get started? Do you just try to get a foot in the door somewhere, assuming the basic elements are bearable – that there’s some room to grow, you don’t actively hate the industry, and you don’t hate the people – and stick with it, beavering away on the quest to achieve mastery and become a highly valuable professional?

One of Newport’s examples, Pardis Sabeti, touches on this: “I think you do need passion to be happy. It’s just that we don’t know what that passion is. If you ask someone, they’ll tell you what they think they’re passionate about, but they probably have it wrong.” From that, Newport concludes that it’s a “fool’s errand” to try figure out in advance what work will lead to that passion. Alas, that point isn’t taken any further.

Yes, he demonstrates that many of his example ‘masters’ took awhile to find their exact direction, but they generally started down the right sort of track early on; it was just a matter of honing in from there over time. It’s not super clear how they found that track to start with. Newport does acknowledge at one point that it’s very hard to start from the bottom in a new field, so if you’re genuinely floundering, maybe the key is simply finding a field that you can tolerably devote yourself to.

Finally, I don’t think that the ‘craftsman’ approach and the ‘passion’ approach are mutually exclusive. They can actually play in quite well together, which I don’t think Newport adequately acknowledges. Passion, or at least interest, was definitely an element for many – though not ALL – of the examples of happy ‘masters’ cited in the book. Take the screenwriter, the archaeologist, the geneticist. One does not complete a master’s/PhD without at least some interest in their subject! In an effort to draw clear lines and take a strong, controversial stance that sells books, passion gets thrown totally under the truck.

In closing: If you read his blog Study Hacks, you probably won’t glean much more meat from the book. He also gives a good overview in this 99U talk.

Cal Newport: “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice from 99U on Vimeo.

7 thoughts on “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: A manifesto for realists

  • Reply Taylor Lee September 4, 2014 at 14:09

    I think Newport definitely leans in on the contrarian opinion of “passion don’t matter” in large part because millennials and young people in general (largely his target audience) are painted as being so adrift in trying to find their passions they waste time navel gazing instead of getting things done. I generally like his idea of people doing SOMETHING rather than waiting for their dream mostly to (1) reality check that they’ve rightly assess what they are passionate about (people rarely know what they want) and (2) couldn’t find fulfillment in something without being fully invested in it, passion-wise.

  • Reply Genevieve @PFTwins September 4, 2014 at 15:34

    I agree with many of your pros/cons of the book. I’ve read his blog for years and left various comments like this over the years. I feel like he might have edited the book to not include some of his ideas that soften the stance of his book a little bit — perhaps to be more controversial/ interesting? Or have his ideas evolved to this more limited stance over time?

    One way to grow an interest into a skill set:
    In his earlier books, he suggests students take an interest – even a mild one – and join an organization that is interesting/novel and that fits with this interest (Maybe like a small nonprofit vs. a hospital volunteer where you are one of many). Then when you’ve learned the ins and outs of the organization, pitch a cool project to the organization. This is a way of “leveling up” your skills. Perhaps this clever skill building on a small interest is what leads to opportunities and eventually leads to deep interest? Also he has ideas about nurturing fun (aka passion) projects with underscheduling that also is a bit contradictory to this latest book.

    In summary, I think he has some ideas around developing interests into things that make money (aka pursuing your passions), but has chosen not to elaborate on these.

    (I have my own ideas of course, but these are what I remember from his work.)

    The thing that is missing for me:
    We don’t make 100% perfect decisions and I don’t feel like we should pursue every interest forever, even if we are competent and on the way to being “so good”. It’s OK to quit! I think it’s wise to realize where your talents are and develop those instead of just pushing through something you start to hate. What happens when you make a detour for a little while with your career? To me the answer is a pivot — build new skills and overlap them with existing skills.

    (For example, I can’t be bothered with engineering, even though that’s what my undergrad degree is in. I love communication and interacting with people. Better to pursue technical writing vs. a job as a typical engineer.)

  • Reply Mrs. Frugalwoods September 5, 2014 at 01:21

    Hmm, interesting. I haven’t read the book, but I’m intrigued. I agree with you that I think passion usually is at least some element of the success people realize. I, for one, really don’t want to go through life doing things I’m only halfheartedly interested in. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Reply Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) September 5, 2014 at 03:58

    I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak to its finer points, but the scientist side of me is seriously dubious about all of the studies he presented to back up his point that passion leads to disappointment as they seem to be the classic example of misinterpreting correlations as causation, which is one of my biggest pet peeves with people who attempt to use “science” to back up whatever claims they are trying to make. As people who are always looking for answers and tend to favor simple “A causes B” reasoning, we generally tend to assume that when two things occur together, that one must be causing the other. Without explicitly manipulating variables, we can’t know this for certain and, indeed, two things may just randomly happen to coincide with one another. Statistically speaking (and this is another issue, as without seeing the original studies, it’s not clear what kind of analyses were actually run and which correlations were actually significant) plenty of things that actually have nothing to do with one another can be found to be correlated, especially if you are dealing with small study samples.

    Put simply, it’s unclear to me what any of the studies regarding career and passion are actually saying, at least given how they’ve been presented. For instance, the conclusion that “the more we focused on loving what we do, the less we ended up loving it” seems spurious given the study presented: it is possible that focusing on doing things we love has resulted in lower job satisfaction, but it is just as possible that because people are becoming increasingly disenfranchised by their jobs that there has been an increased focus on transitioning into positions that people love. It’s impossible to say, based on this study where nothing has been experimentally manipulated, to say which factor is driving the other.

    (As an aside, I will say that there is actual experimental evidence that has shown that if you reward children for doing a task they already enjoy—for instance, giving a child a candy bar whenever they practice the piano—with time, children will generally be less inclined to do the task without external motivation and come to rate it as less enjoyable than those who were never rewarded in this fashion. To me, this is a far more compelling argument.)

    The same correlation NOT causation problem extends to the “calling/career path vs job” mentality and job tenure: do people who feel they are being called to do a job stick with it longer because they believe they are meant to be doing it, or do people who have been doing something for ages ultimately come to believe it’s what they were meant to be doing? We hate cognitive dissonance (fancy term that means we don’t like when our beliefs conflict with our actions), so if someone has been in a job for 20 years, it’s probably easiest for them to justify that by saying it’s what they were meant to be doing. But with these simple correlational studies, you can’t actually say which factor is causing the other (if, in fact, either is).
    /rant over

    Anyway, I don’t necessarily take issue with the thesis of the book—not everyone should or needs to make a career or a living out of what they love, though I don’t necessarily think it’s bad to encourage people to consider that they needn’t hate their jobs either. It’s just that 11 years training as a research psychologist means that I just REALLY hate it when people make grand-sweeping claims based on poor understanding of the scientific method! (And I’m not lampooning you for this, but rather the author of the book: if he’s going to pose himself as an authority on a subject, he should do his due diligence and present the research responsibly!)

  • Reply Catherine September 6, 2014 at 09:42

    Really interesting and thought-provoking post. Had never really seen passion as having this ‘dark side’ before, but now you’ve pointed it out it is so obviously true! Will definitely be mulling this over for a while.

  • Reply Michelle September 7, 2014 at 01:18

    For a very long time I missed having a passion. However, even though I didn’t have a passion I did enjoy (in regards to work) learning the job, honing my skills, and doing the best that I could. I am rediscovering things that I’m passionate about and figuring out a way to run my life, make money, and combine the three. Ultimately, work is still work so finding other things like: volunteering, taking dance classes again, getting fit is important to me when I look at having something that I get excited about doing everyday when I wake up.

  • Reply Femme @ femmefrugality September 7, 2014 at 06:02

    This is great. Following passion only works if you have a viable career path for it, but becoming great at what you do leads to self confidence. How could you be self confident and not have a twinge of happiness about that?

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