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Book:  So Good They Can't Ignore You

Author:  Cal Newport

Purchase:  PrinteBook | Audiobook

Citation:  Newport, C. (2012). So good they can't ignore you : why skills trump passion in the quest for work you love. New York: Business Plus.

Three Big Takeaways:
  1. Steve Martin once said, "Be so good they can't ignore you." It took Martin, by his own estimation, ten years for his new act to cohere, but when it did, he became a monster success. 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. I think it's something that the audience smells." (pg. 33)

  2. The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours. Great accomplishment is not about natural talent, but instead about being in the right place at the right time to accumulate such a massive amount of practice. If you can figure out how to integrate deliberate practice into your own life, you have the possibility of blowing past your peers in your value, and you'll likely be along in your dedication to systematically getting better. That is, deliberate practice might provide the key to quickly becoming so good they can't ignore you. To successfully adopt this craftsman mindset, we have to approach our jobs with a dedication to deliberate practice. (pg. 80)

  3. Now I keep a tally of the total number of hours I spend each month in deliberate practice. By having these hour counts stare me in the face every day I'm motivated to find new ways to fit more deliberate practice into my schedule. Without this routine, my total amount of time spent stretching my abilities would undoubtedly be much lower. Getting better at what I did became what mattered most, and getting better required the strain of deliberate practice. This is a different way of thinking about work, but once you embrace it, the changes to your career trajectory can be profound. (pg. 213)


Other Key Ideas:

The happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do. If you have many years' experience, then you've had the time to get better at what you do and develop a feeling of efficacy. It also gives you time to develop strong relationships with your coworkers and to see many examples of your work benefiting others. (pg. 17)

At times, you might feel like you are stretching to convince the world that your work is interesting, yet no one cares. Martin's response would be "Stop focusing on the little details, and instead focus on becoming better." I turned my attention to a habit that continues to this day: I track the hours spent each month dedicated to thinking hard about research problems. (pg. 35)

If you're not focusing on becoming so good they can't ignore you, you're going to be left behind. (pg. 37)

One individual uses a spreadsheet to track how he spends every hour of every day. His goal is to become more "intentional" about how his workday unfolds. "The easiest thing to do is show up to work in the morning and just respond to email the whole day," he explained. "But that is not the most strategic way to spend your time." He now freely admits that he doesn't "do much email." The important stuff still finds its way to him, but on his schedule. The majority of his week is focused on what matters. Without careful tracking, this would not happen. At the end of every week he prints his numbers to see how well he achieved this goal, and then uses this feedback to guide himself in the week ahead. The fact that he's been promoted three times in less than three years underscores the effectiveness of this deliberate approach. (pg. 88)

The good news about deliberate practice is that it will push you past the plateau and into a realm where you have little competition. The bad news is that the reason so few people accomplish this feat is because practice is often the opposite of enjoyable. You stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, "Hey, I've become pretty good, and people are starting to notice." If you can introduce this strategy into your working life you can vault past your peers in your acquisition of career capital. (pg. 97)

A lot of people do not follow their passion into a career. Instead, many people who end up loving what they do stumble into their profession and then find that their passion for their work increases along with their expertise. (pg. 108)

In a Results Only Work Environments (ROWE) all that matters is your results. When you show up to work and when you leave, when you take vacations, and how often do you check your email are all irrelevant. They leave it to the employee to figure out whatever works best for getting the important things done. "No results, no job: It's that simple," as ROWE supporters like to say. (pg. 112)

Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment. (pg. 114)

Once you have enough career capital - when you have proven yourself to be a high quality worker - you will earn the trust of your employer to earn more autonomy. The key is to know when you have enough career capital built up. Get this timing right, and a fantastic working life awaits you. But get it wrong and prematurely bid for autonomy, and disaster lurks. It's dangerous to try to gain more control without enough capital to back it up. (pg. 131)

When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on. (pg. 139)

A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough - it's an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, you must first get to the cutting edge - the only place where these missions become visible. You must first finish a promising niche - a task that may take many years - and only then turn your attention to seeking a mission. You must build up rare and valuable skills and build up your career capital. If you want a mission, you must first acquire capital or else you might end up with lots of enthusiasm but very little to show for it. (pg. 161)

Getting to the “cutting edge” of a field can be understood in these terms: the process builds up rare and valuable skills and therefore builds up your store of career capital. Similarly, identifying a compelling mission once you get the cutting edge can be seen as investing your career capital to acquire a desirable trait in your career. If you want a mission, you need to first acquire capital. If you skip this step, you can have lots of enthusiasm but very little to show for it. 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. (pg. 163)

Rather than believing you have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance, 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. This rapid and frequent feedback allows you to find unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes. The important thing about little bets is that they're bite-sized. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of choosing a bold plan and making one big bet on its success. These bets allow you to tentatively explore the specific avenues surrounding or general mission, looking for those with the highest likelihood of leading to outstanding results. (pg. 178)

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. Mission is one of the most important traits you can acquire with your career capital. But adding this trait to your working life is not simple. Once you have the capital to identify a good mission, you must still work to make it succeed. By using little bets and the law of remarkability, you greatly increase your chances of finding ways to transform your mission from a compelling idea to a compelling career. (pg. 193)

If you're not careful to keep pushing forward, your improvement can taper off to what is called an "acceptable level." These plateaus are dangerous because they cut off your supply of career capital and therefore cripple your ability to keep actively shaping your working life. As my quest continued, it became clear that I needed to introduce some practical strategies into my own working life that would force me to make deliberate practice a regular part of my daily life. The first strategy is time structure: "I am going to work on this for one hour - I don't care if I faint from the effort, but for the next hour this is my whole world." Eventually I would make progress. On average, it would take about ten minutes for the waves of resistance to die down. Those ten minutes were always difficult, but knowing that my efforts had a time limit helped ensure that the difficulty was manageable. The second type of structure was information structure - a way of capturing the results of my hard focus in a useful form. Finally, I would conclude my work by writing a detailed summary in my own words. This was demanding, but the fact that I had already spent time on the easier tasks built up enough momentum to help push me forward. This new mindset taught me that straining myself was good. Instead of seeing this discomfort as a sensation to avoid, I began to understand that strain was a sign of doing something right. (pg. 209)

To ensure I really understand a new idea, I require myself to add a summary, in my own words, to my growing "research bible." This background-research process, which combines exposure to potentially relevant material with free-form re-combination of ideas, comes straight out of Steven Johnson's book, "Where Good Ideas Come From." According to Johnson, access to new ideas often provides the catalyst for breakthrough new ideas. (pg. 224)

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