So Good they Can’t Ignore You

This is a book review for people who don’t read books. And a recommendation. [1]

I like to think one of the keys to how an organization operates is how the people in that organization think about their work. What they do and importantly how they do it. That expresses itself in the product they make and the quality of the service they deliver. The question is: how do you get better? Specifically, how do you get better? Here’s an analogy: A fan of personal fitness might improve their performance by learning about better nutrition for their body. An artist could educate themselves on human anatomy and color theory. If you’re reading this, whether you’re a marketer, developer, strategist or entrepreneur, you most likely will consider yourself a Knowledge Worker. You’ve got goals. You’ve got priorities. You’ve got hopes. You’ve got expectations. Got it. Me too. Here’s my question: What are the resources that help you decide how you and your organization become successful? How do you tell the difference between choices that lead to healthy growth and applying outdated conventional wisdom? I want to recommend a book that I’ve found to be a refreshingly practical guide to doing your best and most rewarding work.

This is a book that’s been sitting on my Kindle, unread, for longer than it should. For a great overview, especially if you don’t intend to read the book, check out the TED Ed Talk by the author Cal Newport, 22mins. It’s not cheating to watch the video and not read the book.

I was first attracted by the title. Killer, right? “So Good they Can’t Ignore You.” Boom. I wanted that.

I first heard about this book from Merlin Mann, a San Francisco writer, speaker and podcaster.[2]

The book’s flagship premise that grabbed me was the Passion Hypothesis. In 2005 Steve Jobs gave the Stanford commencement speech[3]. The line that has been subsequently burned into so many Pinterest quotes and motivational posters was:

“You’ve got to find what you love … The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet keep looking and don’t settle.”

The first line of the book is “‘Follow you passion’ is dangerous advice”.

Newport doesn’t dismiss the value of passion, or as a previous boss of mine liked to describe it—“Fire in the belly”. Instead, he looks back at the social history of following your passion as a fundamentally and systematically flawed way to decide how to make decisions. The book takes us through a number of real world studies that re-examines the concept that if we really like to do something then we’ll be successful at it. Not to give away the conclusion but don’t follow your passion but let it follow you. “Finding the right work pales in comparison to the importance of working right”.

In school, and later during my career, the only advice I remember receiving about how you should work in order to be successful usually fell into the buckets of ‘harder’ or ‘smarter’. (The implied subtext was: both). In subsequent chapters Newport addresses these supposed common sense aphorisms with research revealing that by simply showing up and working hard you’ll soon hit a performance plateau where you fail to get any better. Limiting your success and your ability to be passionate about the value you’re getting from your effort. Newport’s response here is the concept of Deliberate Practice. The book constantly shines spotlights on ideas and hunches that you always suspected were true, and then provides useful options for making decisions based on this new understanding. A great example of this is where Newport is particularly dismissive of what he refers to as ‘Courage Culture’ where we inappropriately decide that the reason we haven’t achieved our goals is due to our lack of courage instead of our lack of capacity to deliver unique and irreplaceable value.

We’re all sitting on these powerful engines of either our career, of our creative potential or simply how we approach and define our work when we sit down at our desks each morning. The chapters looking at how you can treat your work as a craftsman were particularly satisfying. Especially when viewed through the lens of what the author refers to as “small” thinking—another counter intuitive way to attack big goals by developing concrete, bite-sized projects that will help you develop your platform rather than, as he recounts in one anecdote, the story of Jane who dropped out of college to start a “nonprofit to develop my vision of health, human potential and a life well lived”. Spoiler alert: Jane’s vaguely defined, broad reaching, “uncrafted” master project never got off the ground.

To take it back to the Steve Jobs commencement that the book starts with I’d like to call out one section of his speech that is often overlooked. It’s a phrase that much better captures the potential that we all have at our disposal and one that I believe will produce far more powerful results:

You don’t need anyone’s permission to be awesome.

Think about how you’re working. Be great.

This blog post was written by Mark Sanders, Sales Engineer at Lotame. Connect with him on LinkedIn to learn about how he likes to work. 

  1. Read the reviews on Amazon  ↩
  2. Check out Merlin’s excellent Back to Work show on 5by5. Back to Work is an award winning talk show with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin discussing productivity, communication, work, barriers, constraints, tools, and more. Hosted by Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin.  ↩
  3. VIDEO: Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech 2005, 14mins, via The Apple History Channel  ↩