Commonly heard advice for anyone looking for success is “Follow your passion”. The theory goes that if you’re passionate about it, there should be enough others that will come alongside you and give you money for that passion.

The siren song of living your passion is so strong. You’re passionate about rock climbing, so you build a business all around rock climbing. You’re living the dream…right?

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport, throws the ‘follow your passion’ argument on it’s head. He does this right away as he expresses the core thought of the book.

The core idea of this book is simple: To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers.

Newport breaks the book up in to 4 rules. So Good They Can’t Ignore You puts forth that if you can follow these 4 rules, you’ll build the career you’ve been dreaming of. Building that thing you love, doesn’t start with passion though.

Rule 1 Don’t follow your passion

Rule 1 starts by stating The Passion Hypothesis which states:

The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this position.

But Newport doesn’t believe this is true at all. Even Apple computer didn’t start with passion for Steve Jobs, unless it was the passion of earning a living. It took off when his small time idea for selling complete computer circuit boards brought a request for building complete computers. Jobs wasn’t going around pitching complete computers with a passion. He was trying to make some money on circuit boards.

Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break – a “small-time” scheme that unexpectedly took off.

When the Byte Shop said no to the boards but said they’d buy complete computers Jobs jumped at the chance. No one would dare say that Jobs wasn’t passionate about building amazing technology. But he didn’t start there.

A second fallacy built on working your passion is that once you find it you just go there.

Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

As I look at my career I’ve built houses, installed decks, sold kayaks, built websites, guided canoe trips, ran a live performance theatre. Now I’m building a business around helping others build their business. If you had asked me 5 years ago if I’d be coaching people I would have told you it would never happen.

At that point I was too close to my finished counseling degree. I didn’t want to sit around and listen to people’s problems. Looking back what I was tired of was people that only wanted to talk. I wanted to work with action takers.

It took years of doing other things in diverse fields to figure that out though.

Don’t follow your passion. Don’t expect you can come up with some amazing plan and then get to walk a straight path to that ideal life. If both of those things are true, how do you get a career that you’re happy with?

In Wrzesniewski’s research, 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.

In his excellent book, Mastery (my review), Robert Greene talks about the fact that while we want to master our work, we rarely want to put the time in to build the skills required of a master.

Looking at my coaching practice now I know that 10 years ago I didn’t have the experience to help business owners with their problems. While I had tried many things on the side, I had never run a successful business.

With 10 years under my belt of running a business I only now have assistance to give to other business owners. Those 10 years are my career capital (we’ll define that term in a bit). I can now trade in that capital for a bit less scheduled work and thus more freedom to pursue those things I love.

The more I studied the issue, the more I noticed that the passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem of course is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.

If you’re not supposed to follow your passion in to the job of your dreams, what on earth are you supposed to do?

Rule 2 Be so good they can’t ignore you

Rule 2 is the dream. If you can achieve this it means that people come to you for that which you are amazing at and enjoy. You’re so good that people are willing to wait weeks to work with you.

…there’s something liberating about the craftsman mindset: It asks you to leave behind self-entered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it — and the process won’t be easy.

This craftsman view isn’t glamorous. It’s hard work. The great thing is that it’s work which many people aren’t willing to do. They’re willing to put in the time in a quest for the mythical 10,000 hours that signifies mastery. They’re not willing to put in the emotionally draining work of putting their work out there and asking for critique.

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They’ll run to ‘train’ but never hire the coach to break down their form so it can be built back up stronger than it was when they started.

If you take time to talk to web developers that no longer write code you’ll find that they stopped because they were no longer willing to do the hard work of learning the latest technology. They felt comfortable where they were and wanted to stop stretching their ability.

The central idea of this chapter is that the difference in strategy that separates average guitar players like me from stars like Tice and Casstevens is not confined to music. This focus on stretching your ability and receiving immediate feedback provides the core of a more universal principle — one that I increasingly came to believe provides the key to successfully acquiring career capital in almost any field.

Those that stick with it are as passionate about some part of programming as they were about it on their first day. Maybe they’ve moved to something more complex than where they started, but they keep diving in again to whatever is new.

It’s this relentless pushing of your own limits that will help you be so good that you can’t be ignored.

Another core thought in Mastery is that as you move from being an Apprentice in to the Creative-Active phase of work you must put your work out for others to critique.

Pushing past what’s comfortable, however, is only one part of the deliberate — practice story; the other part is embracing honest feedback — even if it destroys what you thought was good.

You need to be willing to have your work judged. You have to be ready to hear that your work is sub-par. Then with that information you need to be to dive back in to the work and try again, but better.

If that’s not you, then maybe you’ve fallen for the lure that your work, your passion, should always be pleasurable. If it’s not, then it’s not your passion and it’s time to move on to the next thing as you pursue the career that is meaningful and fulfilling.

Rule 3 Turn down a promotion

The Peter Principle states that you get promoted through a business until you reach your level of incompetence. So the great coder becomes the project lead and just barely hangs on to the job.

Career capital is the idea that as you do your work you build up ‘good will’ or ‘capital’ which you get to cash in. If you cash it in for a promotion, you’re likely heading on the road to the Peter Principle.

People are happiest at their jobs when they have autonomy. Instead of cashing in your career capital for a promotion, cash it in for control. Unfortunately many jobs won’t love this bid for autonomy.

The point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change.

Cashing in your career capital for autonomy is how you get to only work 4 days a week. This capital is how one of my coaching clients gets paid a full salary for 8 hours of work. He built up so much capital and is still so valuable in his work that they find his 8 hours a steal. A steal for a salary that is usually attached to 40 hours of work.

If you’re wondering how to build up career capital my friend Jonathan sums it up well.

If you jump around from job to job looking for your passion you’re building yourself in to a generalist. If you take the time to build a specialty, you’re on the road to building career capital.

Rule 4 Think Small Act Big

The goal of the fourth rule is to convince you that money isn’t enough of a driver for your work. You need a mission.

To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions. It provides an answer to the question, what should I do with my life?

Simon Sinek calls this your WHY. Jeff Goins calls this your purpose. Both of them, and Newport, tell us that finding this purpose greater than ourselves is what will help us have a career that we can love.

For years my WHY has been: “To help business owners build the business they dreamed of”. I want to help people stop working all the time and have clients they love and do work they enjoy.

My WHY has been sitting on a note above my desk for years and while I get to do that now, it didn’t happen because I wrote it down.

…missions are a powerful trait to introduce into your working life, but they’re also fickle, requiring careful coaxing to make them a reality.

Contrary to what happens to Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, you will not build it and they will not come. You have to have a solid plan and keep working the plan. The best part of working a plan, and working hard, is that it means you’re going to be doing it on your own.

Hardness scares off the daydreamers and the timid, leaving more opportunity for those like use who are willing to take the time to carefully work out the best path forward and then confidently take action.

If you want the career you’ve dreamed of get ready to work hard. There are only 2 choices for most things in life. You can either work to change your life, or learn to live with it. If you’re not ready for the hard work of building work based on your mission, I guess you’re going to have to settle for the even harder less fulfilling job of learning to live with a mediocre life.


If you love the idea that following your passion is the path to success, don’t read this book. It’s going to show you your folly, and you’re not ready to have your heart broken.

If you’re ready to dive deep and put in the hard work to find a bigger calling with your work. If you’re ready to do the hard work it’s going to take to become a master in your field? If you want to be So Good They Can’t Ignore You, then it’s time to read the book.

Get So Good They Can’t Ignore You on Amazon

photo credit: vhmh96 cc

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2 responses to “How do you become so good you can’t be ignored?”

  1. Charlie Avatar

    Curtis, Thanks for the topic and there are some good points here. I feel however (and I havent yet read the book) that this is a stark contrast to an aimless pursuit of passion. In that, it is equally awry. I firmly believe that the “middle road” is what leads to success.

    One requires a certain level of passion in order to devote the time required for mastery; with the “why” of one’s life as the guiding principle. Otherwise, if mastery is not in line with a life worth living (one’s passion) then it can be equally as detrimental as passion without devotion. ie: waking up one day an unhappy master of a meaningless craft.

    I don’t think we should be so quick to devalue the passion prospect, especially early on in one’s life, when exploring — as you and I have done — is a key component to defining the why and ultimate goal of life. Excitement is the fastest course to purpose.

    In short, this book seems misleading for those that are driven by passion and does not honor the balance between passion and mastery. However, as stated before, I have yet to read the book. These are merely my thoughts after reading your review.

    1. Curtis McHale Avatar
      Curtis McHale

      I think this book is a response to ‘follow your passion’ and any response like that is always going to swing further away. I wouldn’t say that Newport really thinks you should go for no passion, but that you should not just say you love … whatever … and then make it your career. As the saying goes “you will not just build it and they will come”. Checking the full passion thoughts in your head is a good endeavor.