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Friday, December 14, 2018

Review: So Good They Can't Ignore You

So Good They Can't Ignore You is Cal Newport's counterpart to John T Reed's Succeeding. The difference is that Cal Newport's an academic, so he'll take his arguments to extremes that most normal people won't. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's a good thing, because you can see how he takes his arguments to the logical conclusion. It's a bad thing, because that approach lets him ignore practical realities that aren't necessarily congruent with his worldview. As such, I think John T Reed's book is much better, but that doesn't mean that Newport's book isn't worth reading.

There's one core thesis to Newport's book, which is that passion is a worthless idea. He points out that even "passion" touters like Steve Jobs did not have a career path with a clearly defined goal at the outset. Most success stories revolve around opportunistic approaches, where skill/talent meets opportunity. As such, Newport's advise will sound a lot like your grandparent's approach to love in an arranged marriage: there's no such thing as an ideal career or person, you should just learn to love what you're stuck doing.

Obviously, high caliber people (i.e., people who can be bothered to read a book such as this one) will have lots of choices as to what skills and careers to pursue. Newport declares that the best approach is to have career capital. In other words, be so good at something valuable that you can have your pick of projects in the related area. Again, this is kind of an odd duck. For instance, Scott Adams' advice, which I think is quite appropos for most people, is to have a combination of skills that make you unique, rather than being the best in the world at any one thing. (Newport himself is such an example: an academic who can write is far more valuable than most other academics, excepting the ones who are at the top in their field)

He then blathers on about mission and a marketing approach to constructing your ideal career and lifestyle. This is by far the weakest part of the book, since it's quite clear that Newport himself doesn't have a good understanding of marketing and mission either. His habit of summarizing each chapter at the end just looks like padding because his chapters are so short!

Ultimately, I like the book's major thesis, but I disagree that Newport's approach is clearly the correct one. For instance, there's a huge factor involved in personality and fit to your job and career. John T Reed points out that it's much easier to adjust the environment to fit your personality, rather than trying to change your personality to fit your environment. That's much better advice than Newport's. Similarly, in a world of increasingly short attention spans, in many cases all it takes to make it into the top 10% is to be willing (and able) to read a book and execute. Now, being in the top 10% is great. But being in the top 10% of basket ball players won't get you anywhere, while being in the top 10% of computer programmers will get you a good job that pays very well! So it's important to understand that when building "career capital", but Newport doesn't acknowledge or seem to understand that.

I started this review wanting to recommend that you read Newport's book. But by the middle of writing this review and reflecting on the book I've realized that the academic approach to career advice that Professor Newport espouses is as unrealistic as the "passion hypothesis" approach he inveighs against. There are much better career guides out there. Go read those instead.

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