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For our first-ever Popforms book review, we read a book that made a huge impact on both of us: Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

At the end of the day, this is a book about how to have a career you love. However, to get there, Newport suggests a slightly controversial thesis:

He outlines his theory throughout the book, based on four principal rules he laid out:

  1. Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion. To illustrate this point, Newport tells the story of a man who was so passionate about Buddhism that he joined a monastery and became a monk — only to discovered he felt completely unfulfilled by his new life. Pursuing your passion, he says, is actually pretty flimsy advice for finding a career you love and that loves you back.

  2. Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Instead of pursuing your passion, Newport says you need to focus on building career capital; in other words,you must first build up rare and valuable skills and then use these skills as leverage to shape you career into something you love. (In other words: be so good they can’t ignore you.)

    He talks to a television writer and a guitar player, both of whom illustrate that working in creative fields is less about following your passion and more about accumulating skills that other people find valuable, and then honing the ones that are working for you.

  3. Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion. Once you have accumulated a certain amount of career capital (which makes you a valuable commodity to employers and earns you money) you now have something to spend, which you can exchange for things you want like control, autonomy, creative freedom, etc.

    In this chapter, he talked to Lulu, a computer programmer who wanted to live a life where she could work on projects that interest her and make her own schedule. As a result, she turned down big corporate job offers (which came to her *after* she had established herself as an innovative and highly valuable engineer) in favor of being a freelancer.

  4. Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big. This final section focuses on people with career-defining missions — which tends to be the kind of career where people have great passion. That is, people who have built up career capital by honing rare and valuable skills can exert control over their careers and choose to focus down on one topic that truly fascinates them.

    The great inclination for many passion-seekers is to leap over steps 2 and 3 directly to a mission-related project, but it is only by accumulating great value that you can exchange it for the freedom to pursue something interesting to you.

We find this argument and this process extremely convincing. Throughout the book, Newport shares stories of people he meets who have careers they love, but which they approached from a value-first passion-second mindset. One after another you see how success comes from mastery of valuable skills, and passion grows out of that success.

Who is this book for?

In our discussion, we talked about how useful this book is for people who are early on in their careers (and desperate to find “their calling”) and for people who are feeling stuck in their current roles and feeling the itch to go “pursue their passion”. If you’re feeling the pull of hating your job or wanting to find your perfect fit, spend a few hours with this book first.

Favorite lessons:


I loved the stories about people who achieved success without black-and-white career paths. Early on, Newport describes Steve Jobs spending his early 20s vacillating between wanting to live on a farm and being interested in computers; he also talks about a television writer who started out taking assistant jobs, not because being an assistant was his passion, but because it was the best way to see *how* things get done in the industry he wanted to work in.

These stories are such great reminders that you should seek experiences where you can try things out, work hard, and see where you can add huge value to people. It’s not necessary to pick a perfect destination and drive directly for it; in fact, it is often better to try out different paths and see which ones take you in a fruitful direction.


When I read the book it made me think about doing more “hard” work.  Often we focus on the things we are good at, which are things that often feel easy for us to tackle (for example, the work we do when we are in a state of flow).  However, in SGTCIY Newport talks about the importance of pushing yourself and really buckling down to do the deep work.  It was a reminder for me that I needed to set aside more time to focus on hard problems and expand what information lies in my adjacent possible.

To build career capital Newport advises focusing on skills that are rare and valuable.  To do that the best way is to push yourself.  That means doing hard work.  It means doing things that aren’t always easy.  Hard work is hard for reason, but the more you do the better you become.  Maybe it is time to ask yourself what more you could be doing to push yourself out of your comfort zone?

Links to things we talked about:

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

The Big Leap, by Gay Hendricks

Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson

What’s the value of an opportunity? Kate Stull, Popforms blog

In addition, Derek Sivers (who is featured in So Good They Can’t Ignore You) wrote a review of the book that we highly recommend, which you can check out here:

What should we review next?

We would love to hear which books you’d like us to review next. Leave a suggestion in the comments!

Tags: book review, cal newport, career, growth, opportunity, so good they can't ignore you, success,

2 Responses to “So good they can’t ignore you, by Cal Newport: Popforms book review”

  1. Joe McCarthy

    Nice review of what sounds like an interesting book.

    I really like the term (and idea) of “adjacent possibles”.

    Cal Newport regularly challenges some of my cherished assumptions about the importance of pursuing one’s passions in one’s career, but he does so in such a compelling way that it offers me an unsought and uncomfortable opportunity to reflect on my understanding of passion … and work.

    • Kate Stull

      We love the idea of the “adjacent possible” too. Cal Newport is full of those slightly-uncomfortable-but-you-know-he’s-right ideas — that’s why this book was one we both couldn’t put down once we started. I’m recommending it to most people these days; definitely lots of great things to think about inside, and super actionable as well.

      Thanks for your comment Joe!