Every once in a while you come across a really good book. A book you want to read twice. A book you cannot wait to give to someone as a present. So Good They Can’t Ignore You is one of those.

So Good is a book by Cal Newport, the author of the popular (and of a great quality) blog Study Hacks. He blogs a lot about deep work, about getting good at your craft and about extra-ordinary people. I wrote about him before and even interviewed him in the past. His book So Good has been out since 2012, but in the summer of 2014 I finally picked it up and gave it a read, while riding the train across Europe with my girlfriend.

Is Passion Bad for You?

It’s a great book. Like ‘The Defining Decade‘ it focuses on a generation which is told to ‘follow their passion’ in order to be happy. And according to Cal, this is not the advice we should be hearing. ‘Passion’ is a very vague term, and seems very daunting, because it is supposed to be the Holy Grail when it comes to living a fulfilling life. People around us are stressing out because they cannot find their passion. Well, maybe that is not what we need to look for. According to Newport:

Motivation, in the workplace or somewhere else, requires that you fulfil three basic psychological needs – factors described as the “nutriments” required to feel intrinsically motivated for your work:

  • Autonomy: The feeling that you have control over your day and that your actions are important.
  • Competence: The feeling that you are good at what you do.
  • Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people.

These three basic concepts will make you happy on the long term. This is very close to what Daniel Pink advocates in his TED Talk “The Puzzle of Motivation” and Cal refers to this as well.

This advice resonates. Autonomy feels good. After my first year of internships I was longing for some responsibility. To make my own decisions instead of shadowing a doctor all the time (I was missing autonomy). Right now I am loving to do research as I grow every week more into the subject (Great sense of mastery). My internships were still bearable, even though the lack of autonomy, because there are so many interns in the same boat as I was (good sense of relatedness).

Cal continues to break down why passion is not the road which will lead to success and he shifts toward what he thinks is the best way to be both happy and successful in your life. His ideas mainly revolve around ‘Mastery.’ Becoming so good, that they have no choice but to recognise, admire and pay you for your work.


Instead of focusing on passion, we should be focusing on becoming extremely good in something, like a craftsman working their art.

Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.

This is an important difference. We always get told that our generation feels so entitled. Well, of course we do when we are brought up with the idea that you can do anything you want. We grew up in the golden years, the 90s were very, very big. And we were already grown up when the crash hit, and we will still feel entitled.

We can combat that by acknowledging we are not entitled to anything, but we are capable of a lot. At least, if you are willing to put the work in. We haven’t earned anything, be we can earn everything.

Now if we have decided we want to put the work in, we need to do so in a smart way. Cal advocates a term called ‘deliberate 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, as you’ll likely be alone in your dedication to systematically get better. That is, deliberate practice might provide the key to quickly becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

Here comes the hard part:

Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable. – Cal Newport

What I like about Cal is first of all: he is very honest. Second, he is in the same field as I am right now: doing research. So the more personal his advice becomes, the more applicable it becomes as well. What he is doing to expand his horizon is this:

Here’s my rule: Every week, I expose myself to something new about my field. I can read a paper, attend a talk, or schedule a meeting. To ensure I really understand the new idea, I require myself to add a summary, in my own words, to my growing “research bible.”

Now that is deliberate practice. He not only goes out of his way to learn something new, but he forces himself to capture it as well. So when you read a paper, reading is not enough. You need to take an extra 15-30 minutes to capture the most important ideas. You will thank yourself later.

Little Bets

The last idea from Cal I want to share with you is the concept of ‘little bets.’ Taking up a new project can be very frightening and can seem very hard. Cal therefore introduces little bets. Little steps you take in order to proceed. You need to explore them and see whether or not they are useful for you. That is the best thing about little bets, you can kill them later on. He took this from another book called “Little Bets” by Peter Sims. Now what is a little bet?

  • It is a project small enough to be completed in less than a month.
  • It forces you to create new value (e.g. master a new skill and produce results that didn’t exist before).
  • It produces a concrete results that you can use to gather feedback.

This could be anything from writing a small ebook, writing a draft of a paper or setting up a small kickstarter campaign to find out whether your idea will work out or not. The cool thing with little bets is that you can track them. Write them all out. Track them by looking at them weekly (probably during your weekly review) and see whether or not they are still applicable to your work. I would recommend using an Index Card for this so the project has to stay small. Look at the different cards and archive them when you are done (and don’t forget to write the result on it as well).

Recommended Reading!

I highly recommend you to read the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. It is an easy read and Cal will walk you through why passion is overrated, what you should focus on and (most important) how you should focus on this. Especially if you are in the last years of college, this is recommended reading. Pick up the book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You!’

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