Welcome to my book review of So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport! In this book review series, inspired by Seba and Jesus in The Business Kids Podcast, I review some of my favourites books and share the lessons I’ve learned through them. Every month I make it a habit to read anywhere from 3-5 books, so I’ll be picking out the best book of the month to share on here.
The format will go as follows:
- Quick Summary of the Book
- Key Ideas of the Book
- What I Loved About the Book
- What I Disagree About the Book
- And finally, an overall rating of the book (rated out of 5 stars)
So, without further ado, let’s dive right into it!
So Good They Can’t Ignore you is Cal Newport’s first real “big hit.” While writing the book, Cal was also trying to choose between securing a professor job as a career or going on a completely separate path. His motivation to figure out why people love their work provided the original impetus for the book.
In the book, Cal documents his interviews with people who are currently in LOVE with their jobs and also people who dread their jobs. From these interviews, he pulls many lessons about how to select a fulfilling career and consequently how to live a meaningful life.
You may be thinking to yourself at this point “oh this is just another one of those BS career advice books which tell you to follow your passion blah blah blah.” But exactly the OPPOSITE is true. One of the first of Cal’s findings is that you actually SHOULDN’T follow your passion. He argues that for most people, following their passion is terrible career advice. If that wasn’t enough, Cal then goes on to tell us what we should instead do.
From career capital to deliberate practice to traits that good work must have, this book is a sort of manifesto for anyone who wants clarity in their professional life. It helped me firm up my views about the future so I got a ton out of it and I’m sure you will too!
Key Ideas From “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”
There are countless lessons in Cal’s book and I’m sure you’ll be able to pull something meaningful from every chapter. But for me, 3 key ideas really stood out:
- DON’T follow your passion
- The importance of career capital
- How to acquire career capital
DON’T Follow Your Passion
Most people seeking career advice nowadays will run into this phrase at least once if not many more times: FOLLOW YOUR PASSION.
The rhetoric goes something like: “If you follow your passion, you’ll love your work. If you love your work, you’ll be good at it. If you’re good at it, you’ll love it even more. Benevolent cycle emerges and ta-da! You’ve found your dream job.”
Cal goes about proving that this simply isn’t the case. He brings up example after example of people who have “followed their passion” and utterly failed. Including (off the top of my head):
- A university drop-out whose “passion” was to travel the world and ride dogsleds in Antarctica
- A sales and marketing lady who decided that her real passion was teaching yoga (despite having no prior yoga experience)
- And finally, a computer programmer whose passion was to become a Buddhist monk
As you might guess, none of these people ended up too well. The university drop-out didn’t have any way to finance her travels so her lifestyle wasn’t sustainable. Nobody wanted to take yoga lessons from the sales and marketing lady so she ended up relying on food stamps for her meals. And, despite being an arguably pretty good monk, the computer programmer did not find that anything inside of him had fundamentally changed and was left still unhappy with his life.
The Importance of Career Capital
So… if passion isn’t the secret ingredient to work that you love, what is? Well, Cal argues that what you really need for meaningful work is to have rare and valuable skills that you can trade for rare and valuable traits in a job.
The argument goes something like this:
- There are certain traits that make work meaningful (autonomy, a feeling of connection, a feeling of impact, etc.)
- These traits are very sought after, but that, in turn, makes them rare and valuable
- Nobody will give you rare and valuable stuff for free
- Therefore the way to get these traits in a job is to develop rare and valuable SKILLS which you can trade in return
These skills are what Cal calls “career capital.” You NEED to build up a large store of career capital if you want to have a meaningful working life.
“Wait… but where does passion fit into all of this?”
Cal has already anticipated your question. Through his research and interviews, he found that the people who loved their jobs the most were indeed passionate about them. HOWEVER, they weren’t passionate in the beginning of their journey. In fact, most of them didn’t even know what they wanted to do. It was only through painstakingly acquiring unique and valuable skills throughout time that these people managed to grow into their current jobs.
How to Acquire Career Capital
“Ok that’s great… but how does one acquire this so-called career capital?”
And here is the golden a-ha moment. To have meaningful work which you’re passionate about, you can’t just blindly follow your passion. Instead, you need to develop rare and valuable traits which you can trade-in for good work. And how do you develop this career capital?
By being So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
Cal argues that the way one acquires skills and pushes forward in the professional world is to become extremely good at what they’re doing.
A lot of people nowadays have the mentality of “I don’t like what I’m doing at work so I’m going to put as LITTLE effort as possible into it.” Then because they’re doing a sh*tty job, higher-ups can’t trust them with more interesting and important work, so they get stuck doing mundane work for the rest of their working lives (or until they quit). Cal argues that to really develop this career capital, you need to find certain things that not many people are doing well, and you need to hone in and really get good at it.
This is where Cal introduces the idea of deliberate practice. Basically, he says that since very little people in the work-force are truly being deliberate about what they’re doing, if YOU use deliberate practice, you will quickly zoom ahead of your peers.
What I Loved About the Book
Personally, I really agree with Cal’s overall message.
When seeking career advice before, I always had a little tug of resistance accepting the “follow your passion” mantra that is seemingly spewed everywhere.
I’m a very logical guy, and this rhetoric just didn’t make sense to me. Why? Well, let’s do a little thought experiment to test the “follow your passion” hypothesis.
Let’s say that for whatever reason, every single working-age person decided that their passion was to sing. They just LOVE singing and that’s all they want to do for the rest of their lives. Now… if they ALL “followed their passion”, how would that work out? As you can imagine, not well: nobody would do anything else and essential jobs like doctors, grocery store workers, and caretakers would be completely undersupplied. PLUS, not everybody will succeed at being a singer. In fact, probably a small percentage of people would actually make any money at all, and the rest? Well, they’ll just have to starve.
You might say “well Jeff….. that’s just a thought experiment. In the real world, not everybody wants to be a singer.” I totally agree, but is there some sort of magical being which makes it so that the people who will be really good at something ALSO have a passion for it? And not only that but the EXACT number of people the economy needs in that position also have a passion for it? If you answered anything other than “Yes absolutely there’s a magical being that does that!” then you admit to the fact that the passion hypothesis has a hole in it.
Cal’s idea of career capital makes much more sense to me. In order to love your work, you need to get REALLY good at something which is rare and valuable. Basically, passion comes AFTER the hard work, not before.
It’s an uncomfortable idea, but one that we must accept if we hope to actually find meaningful work. Let’s face it, it’s SO much easier to think that there’s some magical RIGHT job for us out there. That all we need to do is find it, or gain the courage to pursue it, and once we do everything will fall in place. It’s much harder to come to terms with the idea that we need to put in the hard work, and then AFTER we spend (probably) many years building up career capital, we can then trade it for work that makes us passionate.
What I Disagree About in the Book
Honestly there wasn’t much that I didn’t like about the book. The only thing I’d say could have been better would be if Cal had included a few more data points to support his arguments.
Throughout the book for every one of his points he generally included 1-2 examples. Then he built his argument off of those examples. Being a pretty logical/statistical guy, I would have loved if he ran more broad / large-scale studies and used those to boost his arguments.
Not to say that I disagree with anything he said (I honestly agree with it all). It just would’ve been nice to have even more examples.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You Review (Final Rating)
All in all, So Good They Can’t Ignore You was a fantastic read with principles that opened my eyes in more ways than one. This book will definitely help shape my professional career and has also taught me a lot about effective communication/writing.
Could’ve done a bit better with more examples, but I still agreed with all the points made. For solidifying certain ideas pivotal to my own journey and for giving a clear roadmap on how to achieve these points, I give So Good They Can’t Ignore You…
The books on the docket for next month are:
- 21 Lessons for the 21st Century: Yuval Noah Harari
- Think Again: Adam Grant
- And whatever else I pick up after these two
Feel free to suggest books in the comments and I’ll be sure to consider them for next month’s book review. Until then, feel free to check out more of my content on Financial Pupil and happy reading!
Thanks for reading through So Good They Can’t Ignore You Review and thank you for following along! If you’re a Canadian Student, check out the Ultimate Canadian Student’s Guide to Personal Finance! To learn more about me, head over to this link here. If you want to get exclusive updates and tips, drop your email in the “get updates” box (might have to scroll up a bit.) Let me know your thoughts and suggestions in the comments!
Jeff is a Harvard 2025 student passionate about making smart financial decisions both in school and in the workplace so that he can spend more time doing what he loves (like playing golf, spending time with family, and travelling). He has experience working in the financial industry and enjoys sharing all things personal finance, academic, and golf-related. Outside of blogging, he loves to cook, read, and golf in his spare time.