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Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

18 Swimmer963 23 April 2014 03:27AM

Very brief summary of main themes

1)    “Follow your passion” is terrible advice for most people. Don’t try to find your “true calling” because it’s a false concept.

2)    The craftsman’s mindset: build skills through deliberate practice.

3)    The importance of control: use your career capital to ask for and obtain autonomy, and other things that make jobs pleasant.

4)    Have a mission: once you have skills, use them to explore options and find something that can be your life’s work and driving motivation.


This book came to me highly recommended, and didn’t quite live up to its reputation. It’s not that I disagree with anything, but Newport seems to be trying to claim that his point is more new and exciting than I think it actually is. The style reeks of self-help manual. (This isn’t a thing wrong with the book itself, just a fact about my personal taste). Still. It has some points that would be new to me if not for LW/CFAR, and it frames them all together in a tidy package, which may not have happened before. I would definitely recommend it to the average smart high school student.

Favourable Points

1) Promoting Hufflepuff. The world needs more people making hard work and conscientiousness look shiny.

2) The concept of deliberate practice, associated with a career. Deliberate practice doesn’t seem to be an obvious concept, and I’ll get behind any popular book that explains it. 

3) Pointing out that mastery can create its own enjoyment; that it’s possible to grow to love an arbitrary activity, if it’s challenging and you can take pride in your skill. Example: the author quoted a study1 that asked people whether they considered their work to be a job (just a way to pay the bills), a career (a path towards better work), or a calling (a vital part of your life and identity.) Looking at a single occupation, college administrative assistants, the study found that the employees were roughly evenly split between calling it a job, career, or calling, and that the strongest predictive factor was time spent in the position. Although there’s a possible sample bias here (employees whose needs aren’t satisfied will keep looking for other opportunities and leave if they find them), it’s still an important point.

4) The fungibility of this thing called “career capital.” You don’t have to find the perfect dream job in order to be happy; you can find a job that provides value to society and is bearable, build up enough skill that you’re indispensable, and then bargain for the things that actually make jobs good over the long term.

5) Specific examples of people exploring opportunities and using their career capital in creative ways. For example, the book mentions a marketing executive, Joe Duffy, who wanted to work creativity into his working life–but instead of quitting and trying to make a living as an artist, he build skills and a reputation in brand icons and logos, until he was offered a job at a company that gave him the creative freedom he wanted. The anecdotes still aren’t that specific, but they feed the availability heuristic with examples.


The author disparagingly discusses the popular literature on career choice. I think that the “don’t follow your passion” point is less novel than he’s making it out to be. I read a lot of self-help career books as a young teenager, like ‘What Color is your Parachute’, and I wasn’t left with a belief that I ought to follow my passion. If I had been, I’d have gone into music or physics, not nursing. I don’t think that “do what you love, and the money will follow” is by any means the common sense advice peddled by life coaches.

I’m more prepared to believe that pop culture says there’s a tradeoff between doing a poorly paying job that you can love, or a well-paid job that will be boring; that you may have to make a choice about which one you want. There are solid economic reasons for this to be true.

I’m not sure to what degree the author cherry-picked his examples, but it would have been very easy to do, even without realizing. The examples break down into ‘naive, idealistic people who daydreamed about being famous and quit their jobs to pursue fantasies’, and ‘driven hard-working people who pursued ambitious careers and were lucky enough to succeed big.’

If he’s trying to make the point that drive and hard work matter more than idealism, I am the easiest person to make that point to...and I still don’t like the way he makes it. Where are the ambitious people who burned out and quit? The unambitious people who found steady jobs and raised families and had gardens in their backyards and lived happily ever after? The rest of the people in the world who don’t fit clearly into one category or another?

I guess maybe my true rejection is that none of the people profiled were nurses, or anything in that reference class. The book, however it claims not to, seems to implicitly reinforce the idea that there are “good” jobs–shiny high status jobs that anyone would find impressive–and then there are jobs like community centre manager and social worker and librarian and nurse, which aren’t even worth mentioning.  


Thoughts on learning coefficients, economic demand, and how the book applies to my life

This isn’t mentioned in the book explicitly, but it’s a thought that came to me afterwards and feels related.

The “career capital”, or bargaining power, that you have in your job depends on how valuable you are to your employer. This, in turns, depends on several things: one of them is your skill relative to the other people they could be employing, but another factor is the supply/demand balance of people with your qualifications.

I’m pretty good at writing, and I suspect I could get a lot better if I spent the time. But I’m by no means an above-average nurse, even for my reference class of nurses with just under a year of experience.

I still have a ton of bargaining power, probably much more than I’d have in any job that involved my writing skills. Being a writer is cool, and lots of people want to do it, but there’s not that much need in the world for writers...and so it’s hard to make a living, even if you’re a very good writer. Nursing, on the other hand, is unglamorous and hard, and the supply/demand mismatch is in the opposite direction. As a result, less than a year out of university, I have a lot of something like career capital. I’ve managed to bargain for a flexible part-time position that lets me work basically as many or as few hours as I want to (at the cost of a weird schedule), with arbitrary flexibility to take time off and travel. I could move to approximately anywhere in the world and have a job on a few months’ notice. And I happen to like my job a lot, so I win all around. The author doesn’t mention this type of career capital at all.

Still, I guess the thing that I’m doing with my career capital–getting a flex schedule so that I can do shiny exciting things like volunteering for CFAR, without having to give up income and stability–is probably something that Newport would approve of would approve of.


1. Wrzesniewski, McCauley, Rozin, et al. “Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People’s Relations to Their Work,” Journal of Research in Personality 31 (1997): 21?33.

Comment author: Swimmer963 01 April 2014 03:10:43AM 0 points [-]

OK, guilty. Most of my successes in life so far are explained by the fact that it's easy for me to work hard for long periods of time without burning out, and that my internal reward system is set up to make delayed gratification easy.

...Amusingly, I used to think I had inherited an awful metabolism that made it impossible for me to lose weight, because it is really hard for me to lose weight by dieting, even though I was swimming competitively and very fit. A couple of years ago, when I finally decided that my actual weight was just fine and what the hell, I concluded that I was fortunate to have a fast metabolism and be able to eat whatever I wanted without gaining weight. Unsure what to conclude from this.

Comment author: Vika 08 March 2014 05:40:34PM 0 points [-]

Thanks! I still agree with what I think is the main message of "keep your identity small": not allowing things to automatically be part of your identity for historical or political reasons.

Which identities did you cultivate? I'm curious how you dealt with your stingy person identity.

Comment author: Swimmer963 08 March 2014 07:21:14PM 2 points [-]

I'm curious how you dealt with your stingy person identity.

Mainly by being able to point out that its purpose has expired. It was really useful being a stingy person in first-year university–I had a lot of time, and limited ability to turn it into money. Being stingy allowed me to not go into debt, at the cost of maybe a bit of happiness–I always felt a bit guilty about i.e. going out to dinner with friends. Once I graduated, the default was to stay stingy, but I can convince my brain to relax on specific items like "go out to dinner with friends" or "travel to lots of places" because, hey, the whole point of being stingy in the first place was to get me through school and to the point when I had a career and savings and could do fun things.

Comment author: Swimmer963 07 March 2014 09:41:27PM 4 points [-]

Awesome post! I've definitely spent a long time vaguely thinking that "keep your identity small" was a good idea, while cultivating various identities anyway.

"The aversion to wasting money and material things predictably led to wasting time and attention instead. I found it useful to try "thinking like a trader" to counteract this "stingy person" identity, and get comfortable with the idea of trading money for time. Now I no longer obsess about recycling or buy the cheapest version of everything."

This resonates so hard for me.

In response to Ability to react
Comment author: jschulter 01 March 2011 07:08:00AM *  1 point [-]

Posting this before reading the comments to give a summary/response based on my own internal experiences. Quick note: I'm extremely good at internalizing/manipulating information, and about proficient at "reacting". It might also be worth noting sex (I'm male), since I could definitely see these kinds of thought processes being different on the two standard systems.

This analysis is definitely subject to the "generalizing from one example" problem, considering some large differences between the thought mechanisms you mention and my own. One telling example is the programming/reacting analogy: when programming(and writing, after the first stage of composition) I have this tendency to "hold the whole program in my head" as I've heard it called, and in doing so I don't use an internal monologue at all. In fact, when I'm solving most problems(math, spatial manipulations, logic puzzles) in my mind, my internal monologue is silent, and rather I'm working silently in my headspace- my reasoning methods feel spatial, rather than verbal. When working in a group (cooking is the closest example of "reacting" that I can relate to in terms of necessitated efficiency/urgency) the monologue is still silent and I'm solving problems through psuedospatial manipulation; the significantly smaller amount of problem solving necessary does tend to allow the problem/solution to just remain static in my head for most of the time though while I engage in physical tasks, rather than actively solving it. This for me, leads to a sense that very little focus is used while reacting; some tasks (mincing garlic, dicing onions(crying makes it harder), &c.) however may require close attention, if physically complicated, and this might be the other kind of focus you mention. I can, overall, add another confirming data point to the "silencing your internal monologue is helpful/necessary for reacting properly" hypothesis though.

I also have some possible suggestions, though mileage will likely vary very extremely:

silencing ones internal monologue can be aided by meditation- in fact, they are practically equivalent- so the initial meditation exercises, to "clear ones mind" may prove useful in getting used to doing this, and possibly make it easier.

there's no need to practice silencing your internal monologue only while "reacting"-try doing it during everyday tasks where intense thought isn't necessary(eg brushing your teeth), and it might become that much easier.

if your brain works like mine, you may be able to delegate certain tasks to parts of your mind not directly linked to what you consider "you" (one notably common example is how sometimes you realize the solution to a problem you were working on a while ago but not actively thinking about), and if you can get good at this, it works better(for me) than memorizing responses- just let yourself respond on automatic.

In response to comment by jschulter on Ability to react
Comment author: Swimmer963 11 February 2014 02:53:43PM 0 points [-]

...Several years later, I finally got up the willpower and time to start meditating, and it did help. But not as much as other things, like just getting a lot of practice.

In response to White Lies
Comment author: Swimmer963 10 February 2014 10:12:23PM 8 points [-]

I can see how a reputation for lying would be a bad thing to have, but I can also see why a reputation for not being capable of lying would be a bad thing (mainly in social contexts). From one of my other comments:

For almost a year my best friend was dating a man without telling her ex-husband, and I was seeing her ex-husband every time I went to play with my godson, and I had to remember to lie about a whole bunch of random things like "what did you and my ex-wife do on Saturday?"

This was hard for me. There've been other times where I've slipped up and forgotten. Usually not in the context of friends explicitly telling me to lie about something, but in the context of Person X them telling me something which, to them, is obviously something that they want to conceal from Person Y because of conflicts it would cause. However, I don't model this–I model Person X and Person Y both as friends who I trust with details about my life, and assume that's commutative. I don't even think about it on a conscious level–it's not "I want to tell this person the truth about the thing this other person did because lying is complicated"–they just ask me a question and I answer it. I try to avoid having enemies because it makes things complicated, but that's not something I could force my friends to do, and it's not even something I would think was right to force them to do...I just don't get around to noticing potential conflicts.

Among certain groups of my friends, I've definitely earned the reputation for being a bit socially inept because of things like this.

In response to comment by Swimmer963 on White Lies
Comment author: shminux 09 February 2014 09:54:43PM -1 points [-]

"This doesn't bother me. I've got plenty of time. I just want you to be comfortable, that's my job."

Just saying "this is part of my job and I love my job" is not good enough?

I was seeing her ex-husband every time I went to play with my godson, and I had to remember to lie about a whole bunch of random things

I wonder if there is a better way of handling this, other than telling your best friend that you are not going to be a part of this game and risking a backlash... In a similar situation I ended up curtailing my interactions with the party I'd have to lie habitually to, which is rather suboptimal.

In response to comment by shminux on White Lies
Comment author: Swimmer963 10 February 2014 05:38:13AM 5 points [-]

Just saying "this is part of my job and I love my job" is not good enough?

It sounds evasive and not like the natural response, and I'm not all that worried about my patients yelling "no, you're a liar!" and getting mad if I tell them I don't mind at all, and I don't have any particular reason to want to not lie in this situation.

In response to comment by Alicorn on White Lies
Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 February 2014 02:30:36AM 12 points [-]

But is that literally as good for a patient in an ICU who really, really needs to not shut up about these things? i mean, in that situation, it would probably occur to me that the nurse might still be lying... but telling a lie like that is still a kind of permission to bother her which "Don't worry about it" isn't.

Comment author: Swimmer963 10 February 2014 05:26:44AM 15 points [-]

Agreed. One of the things I think is wrong with lying in general is that it can mess up the incentives for behaviours you want to see more of (i.e. a white lie to your friend, claiming to like her awful haircut, doesn't do anything to help your friend improve her future haircuts.) In my example, I'm lying with respect to my first-order desires, but telling the truth according to my second-order desires. I may first-order want a few more minutes to drink tea and socialize with the other nurses, but I don't endorse myself wanting that, and I certainly don't want to encourage my patients to not call me because they're worried I'm too busy or tired or cranky. I second-order want to encourage the behaviour where my patients call me for all the little things and 90% of the time it's annoying and stupid but 10% of the time it's super important.

If I ever had a patient with a rationalist background, maybe I could explain all of that, but maybe not even then; most people aren't at their best for following complex logic when they're loopy on drugs or having trouble breathing or whatnot. So I go for the emotional reassurance, because that gets through. Still working on different phrasings, and I don't always succeed; I was helping out another nurse with her patient who had diarrhea, putting her on the bedpan every half hour, and at one point she fell asleep and pooped in the bed while asleep and then cried with frustration the whole time I changed her, and I wasn't able to reassure her.

In response to comment by Swimmer963 on White Lies
Comment author: Alicorn 09 February 2014 10:16:17PM 4 points [-]

I'm curious about how you, being a nurse, would prefer that the patient behave in situations like this? There don't seem to be great options - is there a least-bad attitude?

In response to comment by Alicorn on White Lies
Comment author: Swimmer963 10 February 2014 05:03:32AM *  11 points [-]

...I feel like a lot of that boils down to stuff out of patients' control, like "don't be confused or delirious." Assuming that my patient is totally with it and can reasonably be expected to try to behave politely, I prefer that patients tell me right away when they need something, listen to my explanation of what I'm going to do about it and when I'll be able to do it, or why I can't do anything about it, and then accept that and not keep bringing up the same complaint repeatedly unless it gets worse. I have had patients who rang the call bell every 5 minutes for hours to tell me that they were thirsty, when I'd already explained that I couldn't give them anything by mouth, or that their biggest concern was being thirsty but I was more concerned that their heart rate was 180 and I really really needed to deal with that first.

I obviously prefer it when patient's aren't embarrassed and I can joke around with them and chat about their grandkids while cleaning their poop. But emotional reactions aren't under most people's control either, so it's not a reasonable thing to ask.

In response to White Lies
Comment author: Swimmer963 09 February 2014 02:46:23AM *  41 points [-]

There are certain lies that I tell over and over again, where I'm 99% sure lying is the morally correct answer. Stereotypical example: my patient is lying in a lake of poop, or is ringing the call bell for the third time in 15 minutes to tell me that they're thirsty or in pain or need a kleenex, and they're embarrassed and upset because they're sure I must be frustrated and mad that they're making me do so much work. "Of course I don't mind," I've said over and over again. "This doesn't bother me. I've got plenty of time. I just want you to be comfortable, that's my job." When it's 4 am and I desperately want to go on break and eat something, none of these things are true. But it's my job, and I want to want to do it, so the fact that sometimes I desperately don't want to do it is kind of moot. But the last thing a patient in the ICU needs to hear from their nurse is "yes, I'm pissed that you shat in the bed again because I was about to go on break and now I can't and I'm hungry and cranky." I keep that to myself.

...Other than that, I generally don't lie to friends, although I do lie by omission, especially when it comes to my irrational feelings of frustration or irritation with things they do. I'm generally not bothered by being very open with people about i.e. my relationships or other personal things, so I'm confused when other people want to lie or conceal information about these sorts of things. I actually have a really hard time keeping up with other people's systems of lying; when you're friends with two people who both have specific lists of things they don't want you to ever tell the other person, it gets complicated. (For almost a year my best friend was dating a man without telling her ex-husband, and I was seeing her ex-husband every time I went to play with my godson, and I had to remember to lie about a whole bunch of random things like "what did you and my ex-wife do on Saturday?" I respected that it was her choice whether or not to tell him, but I still found this really, really irritating.)

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