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Book Review by C.M. Mayo

by Cal Newport
Grand Central Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978-1455528042
Review originally published in Madam Mayo Blog, June 1, 2015

My heart sank when I opened the box from amazon.com. Why had I bought a hardcover edition of what surely must be airport-bookstore-biz-section fluffo? (When I indulge in fluffo it's the cheaper Kindle editions— and only for perusing on airplanes, hair salons, and the like). But lo, Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You is a both unusually insightful and practical book.

It's addressed to younger readers, from wannabe movie actors to disgruntled cubicle workers to maybe-biologists-maybe-astrophysicists, but of course I read it as the 50-something literary writer that I am. I've "made it" as a writer, I guess you could say, if only because I'm still at it after having published several books, and every once in a while I get the breeze-at-my-back of a glowing review or an award or an invitation to speak. And I've taught creative writing workshops for over a decade, so I've had many a conversation with beginning writers who want to "follow their passion." In sum, I hereby throw the weight, such as it may be, of my career and experience behind Cal Newport's Rule #1: Don't Follow Your Passion.

That may sound strange, for I am passionate about what I do. In a sentence: passion isn't enough because it will never be enough. (And as any writer, or any artist, passionate about their work can tell you, some days are just head-banging torture.) When beginning writers say they have passion for writing, methinks what they really have passion for is their idea of being a writer, which is as different as the first date with the dorm hottie from celebrating a 30th wedding anniversary.

So if it isn't necessarily following your passion, what describes "great work"? According to Newport, it involves creativity; it has impact; and you're in control.

Hmm... sounds like writing.

Rule #2: Be So Good They Can't Ignore You
Newport argues that "the craftsman mindset is the foundation for creating work you love." Certainly that has been true for me. I could retail a hundred stories of beginning writers who couldn't weather their first workshop. They come in with the notion that you have talent or you don't, so they're resentful, even deeply angry when the workshop leader and other students don't shower their manuscript with lotus petals of praise, and they're quick to conclude: I don't have talent, I give up. They don't think: I need to get some skills in the craft of writing. Ah, how rare that is. And the impulse is one of generosity. Writes Newport:

"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 mindset is how most people people approach their working lives."

(Which, I guess, is why most people begrudge their boss / customers the minimum and spend the balance of their days in the Gulag Architelevisiono.)

Newport continues:

"[The craftsman mindset] asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is 'just right.' and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career... you need to earn it— and the process won't be easy."

Newport then provides a checklist of jobs to avoid: Those that do not provide opportunities to develop rare and valuable skills (e.g., working on a frozen foods packing plant's conveyor belt isn't going to cut it); those that provide a good or service you think is bad for the world; those where you have to work with people you really don't like.

That still leaves a wide open world, for many. The point is, if you're fortunate enough to have a choice in where and with whom you work, and you want to find work you love, choose the job that enables you to develop a rare and valuable skill, and then— this is crucial—proceed to actually do that. To do that, you have to develop the five habits of the craftsman.

Here is where I began to sit up straight and make use of my highlighter.

Newport's Step 1, "Decide What Capital Market You're In," "winner-take-all" or "auction," was something I hadn't thought about before. (He is using the term "capital" to include "human capital.") In my own case, writer of literary books, it seems to me that I'm not in as narrow a market as the television scriptwriter ("winner take all," i.e., the script is all), but close. So what I need to do is write the best book I can write. (Why blog? Because I want to clarify my own thinking, and to share that with you, dear reader.)

Two points Newport makes here: if you're not uncomfortable, you're probably not developing your skills, and you need patience. In my experience, yes, developing skills is sometimes toe-curling and yes, you need patience, shipping containers full of it. (And boy howdy am I lucky that my first efforts at literary writing date from well before the advent of the Internet.)

Rule #3 Turn Down a Promotion
Newport asserts, and I agree, that:

"Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment."

So if you want to love your work, first get good at what you do, then think about getting control over what you do.

But there are traps. First, taking control too soon, when one doesn't have adequate skill, may be unsustainable (Ye olde "don't quit your day job to write a first novel.") And second, if you really do have valuable skills, you will be sure to encounter resistance to your leaving or at least loosening the leash (from an employer, an agent, an editor). Your employer may promote you— not into a better job for you in terms of developing your skills and control over your time, but ye olde "golden handcuffs."

In developing this argument, Newport devotes a chapter to what he calls "The Law of Financial Viability," all common-sense advice for most college graduates and anyone else who needs to make regular debt payments. My one quibble with this book is here: Many people considering a new career are middle-aged or retired, and for some of them— a minority to be sure, but an important one— the financial viability of any given enterprise is not so crucial an issue. They can afford to take a year to write a novel, or open a yoga studio, or what-have-you; but this doesn't mean they want to remain at the level of a hobbyist. Furthermore, what the market pays is sometimes a poor indicator of meaningful value, and especially in the arts and politics, the best lead with vision, rather than follow the pennies and dimes and dollars and expense account steak dinners. The book would have been far stronger had it considered this demographic as well.

As for myself, before turning to writing, I had a career as an economist specializing in international and development finance. As I am sure you can imagine, dear reader, in saying adios to that for the life of a literary writer, I made some elephantine trade-offs. That said, I did not proceed until I'd already published two books on finance plus an award-winning book as a literary writer. And that said, if I could do it again, I'd do it again because, as the Estate Lady says, "the hearse doesn't have a trailer hitch."


Rule #4 Think Big, Act Small
Newport argues that "a unifying mission in your working life can be a source of great satisfaction," and he illustrates with the case of Pardis Sabeti, a happy and successful Harvard professor of evolutionary biology whose mission is "to rid the world of its most ancient and deadly diseases."

As for finding big ideas, Newport introduces the concept of "the adjacent possible" and the caveat: you cannot recognize the adjacent possible until you get to the cutting edge of your field. Writes Newport:

"If life transforming missions could be found with just a little navel-gazing and an optimistic attitude, changing the world would be commonplace. But it's not commonplace; it's instead quite rare. This rareness, we now understand, is because these breakthroughs require that you first get to the cutting edge, and this is hard— the type of hardness that most of us try to avoid in our working lives."

Newport details each step of Professor Sabeti's career, and how she focused on her training and only after achieving a high level in her field did she identify her defining mission.

That resonated with me. My mission? To bring my readers to richer levels of understanding and an awakened sense of curiosity and wonder. Sounds simple, but it took me several books to be able to articulate that so concisely. And I know the big doesn't happen without the small. As far as writing a book goes, it's one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. And sometimes— forklift in the industrial quantities of patience— after weeks of work, one has to discard the draft to start over. It might also mean reading and reading and reading and reading and... whew... more reading, not only about the subject, but the craft itself, which includes, of course, the essential task of reading other books in the same genre, not as a passive consumer, but actively, as a craftsman.

Wrapping up this fourth rule, Newport offers a last chapter on marketing. He argues that,

"[f]or a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking." 

He illustrates with "rock star" computer programer Giles Bowkett who realized that "the best way to market yourself as a programmer is to create remarkable open-source software." So he did. For Professor Sabeti, the venue was prestigious scientific journals— so she published. (Speaking of venues, this is the main reason why, for many authors, self-publishing turns into such a disappointment.)

As for his own book, Newport confesses:

 "If I had published a book of solid advice for helping recent graduates transition to the job market, you might find this a useful contribution, but probably wouldn't find yourself whipping out your iPhone and Tweeting its praises. On the other hand, if I publish a book that says 'follow your passion is bad advice,' (hopefully) this would compel you to spread the word. That is, the book you're holding was conceived from the very early stages with the hope of being seen as 'remarkable.'"

Ah, our modern fame-crazed culture. But one thing I've learned as a writer: a good blurb is gold. And word of mouth, though it can't always be quantified—(that's another subject)— is better than gold. Yes, Newport nails it.

Newport's own career is indeed remarkable. The author of a series of best-selling books, including How to Be a High School Superstar and How to Win at College (which I thought excellent and regret not having been able to read back in my day); and the host of the blog Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success, he is also a PhD from MIT, now a professor of computer science at Georgetown University. In the conclusion, itself well worth the price of the book, he recounts how he applied the four lessons to his own career.

I highly recommend So Good They Can't Ignore You for everyone from teenagers to retirees, in short, anyone looking to spend their days in a long-term commitment to satisfying, meaningful activity. You can call it "work" if you want.

And now I'm going to go work on my book.