A few years back, a friend recommended So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and I finally got around to reading it. Here is a summary in my own words (mostly for myself).
Naively doing what you love is stupid. Instead, cultivate rare and valuable skills. Then use your track record to exchange for the control that most people seek in their life.
Rule 1: Don’t Follow your Passion.
The passion hypothesis says do what you love. This seems intuitive, but it’s actually dangerous and often backfires.
Rule 2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You
What instead then? “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
Why? Let’s compare the craftsman mindset and the passion mindset. The craftsman continuously works on getting better and offering more value. The passionate amateur sits back and says, “how much do I like this?”
What happens? The craftsman accumulates career capital, rare and valuable skills, which typically only come through sweat. The passionate amateur gives up when it gets hard.
And you need rare and valuable skills to exchange for rare and valuable jobs. So be a craftsman first and consider passion later. This is the career capital theory of great work.
What does being a craftsman entail? Many people talk about the 10,000 hour rule (make sure you’re putting in the time) and deliberate practice (make it quality time, where you’re actually being pushed to improve).
If you’re preparing for a job, it may also think about whether the career capital market in your field is winner-take-all or auction-based. If the former, focus on the one skill that matters and ignore all else. If the latter, you’ll likely find the winners are more diverse.
Rule 3: Turn Down a Promotion
Some are convinced that if they only had the courage to pursue their passion, all would be well. Let’s call this courage culture. This is folly because it’s not just courage that is required, but also career capital.
People who love their jobs have control. They choose when and how they do their work. Do not make a bid for more control without the requisite career capital, however, or it will not be sustainable. This is the first control trap. Once you do have the requisite career capital, your employer will likely fight you from making a change. This is the second control trap. This may come in the form of a promotion, which limits your control.
How do you know how to avoid the above two traps? Use money as a litmus test. If someone is willing to pay you for something, you can use it to bid for more control. If not, you shouldn’t. This is the law of financial viability.
Rule 4: Thinks Small, Act Big
Finally, careers often benefit from some overarching mission. Good missions are often found in the adjacent possible, implying you should use the craftsman mindset to reach the cutting edge of your field.
Doing so is often difficult, but can be mitigated by little bets, small (say one-month long) projects that both push your limits and explore. What makes a good project? You’ll know you’re on to something when people are inclined to say something about it (the law of remarkability).
Practical Tips for Craftsmanship
- The author has a research bible routine, in which he summarizes a difficult paper every week. This helps ensures he stays a craftsman by pushing his limits.
- The author has an hour-tally routine, mounted behind his desk, which is metric of how much deliberate practice he is getting in.
- The author has a theory-notebook routine, where he records new theory results in an overly expensive notebook, encouraging more deliberate practice.
This book doesn’t read poetically, but it doesn’t have to. It lays out a solid framework for avoiding deadly career pitfalls by consolidating concepts and a vocabulary around sensical ideas that you may not want to hear. It then adds some practical examples and tips. Ignore at your own peril.