So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Updated 20-Sep-2023

This book is badly in need of an editor. That is not surprising as it appears to be a collection of blog posts, but the redundancies and useless repetition truly get in the way of the important points. Also, stylistically the first person voice is also a bit pedantic. Agreed, the author points out that the book is in manifesto form, but there are fine manifestos without such glaring flaws (The Communist Manifesto being a good example).

The second problem with this book is the use of the metaphor of capital to represent rare and valuable skills, which are to be developed by those who will ultimately find satisfying work (as opposed to the follow your passion approach which generally ends in tears).

Unfortunately, capital precisely isn't anything like skills, hard-earned and developed over time, and people do not trade their rare and valuable skills for meaningful work. Instead, those rare and valuable skills stay with those individuals who developed them (significantly with those who continue to develop them). Capital by any definition is really not anything like unique, rare, and valuable skills.

There is an important theory of the firm which does take up the basis of competition as one based on rare, valuable, and inimitable resources, namely The Resource-Based View of the Firm invented by Edith Penrose. Since the author is not a business professor, it is understandable that he has not heard of or better deployed this theory of competition. It is unfortunate, nevertheless, as it much better fits the issue of developing skills that is the prime motivator in the book, rather than that of capital which is completely fungible, and transferable.

This book does have useful insights and cautions for navigating the world in terms of skill development, and the timing of developing one's mission as well as when to become entrepreneurial. Unfortunately the Internet startup scene has destroyed common sense and common decency and made trivial the actual work of building a meaningful life (traded for by the siren song of millions in wealth). Indeed, the capital generated by the likes of Facebook millionaires, when seen as a signpost or goal along the path of a life worth living is laughably inadequate, to not say actually destructive. The results are what we see in terms of the vast manipulation and waste produced by social media, a blight on our world.

Primary ideas and insights:

  • Passion-driven work is a mistake (do not think about what one is passionate about and then go find a job that fits that)
  • Instead, one needs basic skills and abilities, so focus on developing those
  • Mission-driven work and life only becomes possible once one is an expert and can identify an appropriate mission (in the "adjacent possible")
  • Loving one's work comes from competency, independence, success, which can be developed through a craftsman-approach to one's work.
  • "Move the focus away from finding the right work and toward working right."
  • Then it is about hard, deep work of practice and learning one's craft
  • Cannot judge things in the abstract, before doing them, and can never be sure about what is the best fit, in any case
  • We do not have pre-existing passions "waiting to be discovered" and very few people have "career-related passions" (as opposed to hobbies and athletics)
  • A mission comes from some amount of wisdom, which comes over time
  • Be so good they can't ignore you (Steve Martin)
  • Ignore any questions about whether one has found their "true calling".
  • "The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that's the hardest phase"
  • The importance of passion militates against skill
  • Look for work that provides opportunities to develop relevant skills that are rare and valuable
  • Three things that drive passion for one's work: impact, creativity, control
  • 10,000 hour rule is fine, but what one is actually doing during the 10,000 hours makes all the difference
  • "I want to spend time on what's important, not what's immediate."
  • Deliberate practice requires good goals
  • "Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands"
  • Push past what's comfortable; embrace honest feedback.
  • "Without this patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you'll derail your efforts": before you acquire the skills and experience needed to develop mastery, and therefore opportunity.
  • "Gaining control over what you do and how you do it is incredibly important."
  • "Do what people are willing to pay for."
  • "Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on your world."
  • "We grind away to expand the cutting edge, opening up new problems in the adjacent possible..."
  • Little bets to expand into adjacent possible
  • Be remarkable (Seth Godin's Purple Cow). Note also that one needs a venue to be remarked upon (e.g., open source software community)
  • "A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough -- it's an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible".

This actually contradicts the idea that there are two kinds of career "markets": winner-take-all and auction. Using economic/business jargon is the weakest part of this book. It would be better to have used terms such as "fox and hedgehog" to represent single-skill careers and multi-skill careers, or the use of I, A, and T-shaped skills (deep and narrow, two deep and narrow but connecting, and one deep and one shallow).

Sadly, while this book is about building skills, there is very little background in skill-building research, mastery, and the like.

One thing not brought up is the issue of motivation. If one is passionate, loves one's work, then motivation is intrinsic, and that emboldens both courage and endurance. Passion itself is not very interesting, but intrinsic / internal motivation certainly is. Still, it is obvious that passion is not anything that could be the basis of a career, outside of professional athletes.

  • "If life-transforming missions could be found with just a little navel-gazing and an optimistic attitude, changing teh 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."