Things Cal Newport Missed in So Good They Can’t Ignore You

[]

Back in 2017 I read So Good They Can't Ignore you for the first time. Well 2019 and 2020 have been a season of purchasing some of my favourite digital books in physical form and then reading them again and today's book is So Good They Can't Ignore You. Instead of a review/summary of the book like I did last time I'm going to highlight some of the areas that I think this book missed the mark.

Not that Newport is wrong, but since my first time through this book I've read lots of other things that have informed my thinking and some of them don't support what Newport is telling readers in So Good They Can't Ignore You.

Kind vs Wicked Learning Environments

According to David Epstein in Range there are two types of learning environments that lend themselves to different learning styles. I summarized it like this:

Kind environments are those that have well defined rules and the choices you make immediately result in feedback about the quality of those choices. Chess is a good example of a kind environment. The rules are known, and you get feedback immediately about the quality of your move.

In contrast, wicked environments have ill-defined rules and the feedback may come long after choices have been made. Wicked learning environments don’t have repeating patterns, and sometimes even success isn’t quite clear. - Is It Better to Specialize or Go for Range?

When Newport talks about how to improve yourself so that you gain Career Capital1 he mostly looks at what works for kind learning environments. Places like chess, where the rules are known and at the end of every game you have a clear idea who the winner is. While he does acknowledge that this is not the case for most knowledge workers, he doesn't provide any clear strategy for a wicked learning environment so that you can gain Career Capital there.

Yes, Newport does talk about the 10,000 hour rule, and rightly follows it up with the difference between practice and deliberate practice. The closest he gets to offering a path can be found in this quote from the book.

Let's assume you're a knowledge worker, which is a field without a clear training philosophy. 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, as you'll likely be alone in your dedication to systematically getting better. 2.

From there he talks about getting a coach and getting feedback on your work, which are both great ideas, but he doesn't address the easy to fall into trap of specializing early and spending all your time on one career path that isn't going to be a great fit long-term. At least he doesn't address these issues directly, possibly because Range wasn't written until years later, but his examples show the pathway that was confirmed by the research in Range when it comes to finding a compelling career.

All of the examples of people that have compelling careers according to the book followed a path found in Range. They tried many things and slowly narrowed themselves down into something that became their speciality, but only after years of varied practice that gave them the unique wide ranging skills that are needed for their work currently.

I highlight this "miss" because while Newport does acknowledge the importance of little bets in chapter 14, it would be so easy to take his advice in our culture that prizes early success and run with building a niche long before you have any of the skills needed to actually succeed there.

Instead, follow the path suggested in Range and look at the places in which you show grit. Where do you stick with hard things in the face of setbacks. Use those areas to help narrow down your focus and build value you can use to establish career capital.

Meritocracy Isn't Possible for Many

One of the other big things that would be easy to take away from So Good They Can't Ignore you is the power of meritocracy. Late in the book3 that is essentially what he argues for as a way to stand out. He cites a programmer who had the spare time to build something amazing that got him noticed and then he had job offers coming in where he got to set many of the terms.

In part this makes sense, Newport is a white American dude4 and as The Atlantic found:

Americans are more likely to believe that people are rewarded for their intelligence and skills and are less likely to believe that family wealth plays a key role in getting ahead.

But the truth is far from that. Women and minorities must have higher performance reviews to get the same raises and opportunities as white men. Single parents have less time to show their talent and effort because they have kids to take care of after working lots to pay for the things kids need.

Even looking at my highly privileged life as a white dude, I started my programming career before I had kids when my wife was willing to do extra house work so I could do client work and learn to program. I wouldn't have that time now with my wife working and kids around wanting my attention. I was also lucky that my parents paid for much of my schooling, and then my wife's parents helped pay for a bunch of my schooling. Without help on both sides I would have had a degree and $40k in debt instead of a degree and less than $10k in debt, which my in-laws helped pay off in a year for us.

Because I had no debt, I could afford to take the risk and jump out on my own to run a business.

The simple truth is that meritocracy doesn't work and it disadvantages women and minorities.

Newport's book does nothing to address the inherent inequality found in the idea of meritocracy. He simply tells you that your work will stand on it's own so do good work, and use your off time to do that good work. People will notice if it's valuable...so go do work.

I don't have answers for an alternate path here, though I do have a long reading list I built to educate myself on the issues with meritocracy.

Should You Read So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport

Despite two issues I now see with the book, I do think that the main concepts hold up. If you can provide high value then you can dictate many of the parameters of your work. Unfortunately I don't think that Newport gives you a clear path if you are in a wicked learning environment, or if like many people you can't rely on meritocracy because it simply isn't a think for many people.

Hopefully I will have some good reading suggestions on those two ideas in the coming months.

Purchase So Good They Can't Ignore You: Independent Publisher | Amazon


  1. I defined this in my review of the book back in 2017 so go read it there 

  2. Page 85 

  3. Page 189 

  4. I'm a white Canadian dude