So Good They Can’t Ignore You

I just finished listening to the audiobook of So Good they Can’t Ignore YouSome notes:

First off, I have no argument with the basic premise of the book. The idea that you should first identify your passion and then follow it no matter what is backwards, counter-productive, and has damaged a lot of lives. Passions take work to discover, and many people who are now passionate about what they do stumbled into it by accident while trying to make a buck. It’s nice to see a book finally confront this sort of Disney-style wishful thinking head-on.

It’s easy to agree with Newport, because my career so closely mirrors the careers of his successful case studies. When I was a young man with options in front of me, I had some strong but ill-defined passions. But I also needed to support myself, and I knew that some of my passions (like having a family) would take money. So I didn’t try to find a job that involved following my bliss. Instead I took an opportunity to do something that I enjoyed, was good at, and which made good money.

Since then I have been, as Newport puts it, steadily building “career capital” and periodically trading it in for greater and greater autonomy. First, from a soulless mega-corp to a small software company that let me work from home part-time; then to a fully remote three-person startup; then to freelance work; and finally to selling books and videos and setting my own schedule.

I never worked out a theory for all this the way Newport did, but it seems like I instinctively came to similar conclusions. I’ve always felt compelled to reach a point where I feel legitimately in-demand before making a move—an unconscious form of measuring career capital.

I’ve also placed a lot of “little bets” in recent years. Such as launching a podcast, drafting a short ebook and selling it before it was done, or launching RubyTapas while still working as a freelancer. Each one gave me a way to validate (or not) an idea for new business.

Despite identifying strongly with it, I do have some criticism of the book.

First and foremost, there is zero mention of the role of privilege in any of the anecdotes that Newport employs to make his point. It’s occasionally difficult to buy into the given rationale for his case studies’ successes, because it’s obvious that the people he’s talking about were also benefiting from quite a few implicit privileges. E.g. being white and male, or having the kind of upbringing that naturally puts a person in a position to go to a good school and meet interesting people, etc.

The only mitigating factor for this glaring omission is that, as best as I can tell from extrapolating from the various stories, he’s mostly talking about people from a similar level of privilege. As such, his comparisons of, say, one person who quit her job in banking to become a yoga instructor vs. another who quit his marketing job to do… something more independent but still marketing-related, still have merit since these two people probably started out at a similar station in life. So if one finds success and satisfaction while another’s business founders, Newport’s claim that the difference in outcome hinged on career capital seems plausible.

Still, it would have been a much stronger book if it had addressed head-on the question of privilege and how that effects one’s ability to pursue the kinds of career strategies he advocates.

Secondly, while Newport defines career capital as a collection of rare and in-demand skills, it’s clear from listening to the stories that that’s not the whole story. The capital his exemplars build up sounds more like it is maybe 50% skill and 50% reputation and connections.

It’s cool that he focuses on the skill part of the equation. After all, there are far too many career books that focus exclusively on the reputation and/or connections angle, to the exclusion of the part where you provide actual value. But I think it’s a bit misleading not to address the social aspect of career capital at all. That aspect might not be obvious to every reader, and some might focus exclusively on building skills, without also building the requisite relationships which will ensure their skills are in demand.


Listening to a book like this, it’s a little too easy for me to just nod along and say “yep, this confirms everything I’ve been doing right!” without actually acting on it. As the book drew to a close I started thinking about whether there were any lessons there that I should apply to my life.

One thing that it brought home was that I could all too easily plateau where I am. I’ve built up a considerable amount of career capital in the field of software engineering and the Ruby language. And I’m in the process of spending that capital, making my living by showing others everything I’ve learned along the way.

Newport’s choice of the term “career capital” makes it clear that it is a finite resource. It won’t last forever. If I want to continue to move on bigger and better opportunities—indeed, if I want to avoid eventually finding myself obsolete—I need to work on building capital now just as much as I did when I was younger.

Where I’m at right now, I see this breaking down into two broad categories where I should be applying deliberate practice. Here are some off-the-cuff ideas for what that deliberate practice might look like:

Building capital as a communicator:
  • Do talks that challenge me. Try to do talks in the vein of speakers I admire most; people who make me think “I could never give a talk that good”
  • Get critical feedback on my talks. Don’t just bask in Twitter complements.
  • Challenge myself more on video production. Critique my editing, illustrations, etc. as compared to other screencasters, documentaries, etc.
  • Put my next book through a rigorous editorial process.
Building capital as a developer:
  • Resume pair-programming sessions for exposure to other people’s problems.
  • Pair-program with my programming heroes. Try to be the “dumbest guy in the room”.
  • Step up the pace on app development. Have apps with real paying users that I am working on regularly.
  • Continue reading software classics, and challenge myself to apply what I’ve learned to my app development.
  • Perhaps most importantly, regularly study new paradigms, languages, etc. that make my brain hurt.

The latter part of the book, where it talks about mission, was some of the toughest for me. I honestly don’t know what my mission is right now. I mean, I have the overriding mission of providing for my family. But I don’t have career-related mission; or if I do, it’s something nebulous like “show programmers how to write code more happily and more effectively”.

I need to spend more time figuring out where exactly the the “adjacent possible” lies with respect to software development, and then getting closer to it. I’m not a computer scientist; I’m not going to discover an amazing new algorithm. But I feel like there are maybe some breakthroughs to be made in building applications speedily and sustainably.

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  1. Thank you for posting this. I think my experience of the book was very similar to yours. It’s all anecdotal and the scientist in me wants to scream “bad data” while I know that just because it’s anecdotal doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    Does everyone need a holy mission for their career? Maybe some of us will never find one and we’ll just keep plugging away exploring new things.

    1. I think Newport’s point was that mission isn’t necessary, but that people who enjoy their work the most tend to have both control and mission. So, as someone who wants to enjoy his work as much as possible, (and have a better compass for making career decisions) I’d like to develop a clearer mission.

    2. Juan David Pastás Rivera September 20, 2014 at 14:34

      I feel several times my mision is just explore new things.

  2. I haven’t read the book, but I’m familiar with his blog and the idea behind the book. I think one reason that most books in this genre don’t mention much about privilege is because there’s a certain amount of privilege that’s basically a given if you’re even reading a book like that, you know? I tend to think that if you’re in a position in life where you can be introspective enough to take the time to read this type of book and have heard of this guy, then you’re probably not so disadvantaged that you can’t make some use of what he has to offer.

    1. I think you’re absolutely right, but I even so I’d like to see it acknowledged more often.

      1. Absolutely agreed.

        1. …I should add: the reason I wish it was acknowledged is that while Cal Newport might well recognize the implicit privilege that goes into his examples, a lot of readers won’t. I worry that without qualifying their advice in terms of privilege, when a lot of people read books like this they just serve to reinforce existing biases about how “those people just don’t work hard enough”. I can totally see someone reading this and thinking that if only those people in the Projects would take the time to invest in a rare and valuable skill, they could “better themselves”.

          1. Ahh, I see. I didn’t think about in terms of how it would affect readers’ perceptions of *other people* and how “successful” they may or may not be. That is definitely a worthwhile discussion to have.

  3. Dennis Major May 9, 2014 at 12:59

    Without a doubt an identified passion for anything can be a good thing – it can also be the gift from hell.

    What determines what it’ll be for anyone person IMO is whether it manages you or you manage it.

    Passion has so much to offer in the way of enjoyment, pleasure and self validation and gratification that it can easily result in excesses that can even be detrimental to the realization of a passion’s full potential for positive outcomes over the longterm.

    You don’t have to look far to find cases where someone has ‘passionately’ over indulged, be it career capital or some other passion, which then resulted in outcomes such as very narrow and limiting world-views, or worse yet, used up body and mind resources to the point that something breaks.

    Oh yea – that’s self-evident one might say – which it is when dispassionately analyzed from afar – but much less so when you’re deep into something that you get a great deal of pleasure, joy and satisfaction from – it’s then that self control comes to the fore as a critical skill for managing passion.

    Passions do evolve and no one should be surprised if that over the longterm the passions one started out with are not even remotely like the ones that one ends up with as lifetime companions.

    So passions should not be put on a pedestal – there’s a good chance the one’s you’ve identified and follow today will pale in comparison to the one’s you’ll identify and follow tomorrow but it requires routinely managing and questioning today’s passion to realize tomorrow’s passion.

    As always there are exceptions e.g. ‘a passion for family’ carries very little risk of ending up in a bad place. It’s difficult to over indulge and is very unlikely to be pre-empted or no longer produce joy.

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