So Good They Can’t Ignore You

amazon.com – sivers.org summary – ashishb.net summary

Read this if: You’re unsure about the next steps to take in your career. If you’re early in a career, focus on the first half of the book: building “career capital”. If you’ve gotten a steady footing in a field, focus on the second half: finding a mission. This summary gives high level steps, but read the book for more details, understanding why it works, and examples of real people.

When I first read this book it must have been when I was beginning my first job out of grad school. The message was pretty simple for me: build career skills. Now that I’m a few years into my career, I’ve accumulated some of what Newport calls “career capital” and so the lessons are more nuanced. Additionally, there’s still much room to build skills (after all, I’m still on the bottom rung of software developers at Google).

The book spends a lot of time on persuading you about the benefits of building skill over following passion. I’ll focus more on the practical lessons:

  1. What skills do I build & how do I build them? (Rules #1 and #2)
  2. How do I form control & a mission for my career? (Rules #3 and #4)

Career capital

Most of the time, you can work on building skills, taking the “Craftsman Mindset”, with the job or opportunity that you already have. But there are three conditions where you may want to rethink:

The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

Newport gives six steps to the process of increasing capital (which generally takes the form a skill or deep knowledge), including identifying a skill that will impact your career and then doing deliberate practice to improve it.

  • Decide what capital market you’re in. Winner-take-all means there a few people at the top with a very specific skill: television writers with the best scripts, productivity bloggers with the most read and shared content. In an auction market, someone with a unique collection of skills may thrive.
  • Identity your capital type. That is, the type of skill that you For winner-take-all, you have the answer. For other types, take advantage of “open gates”–currently available opportunities.
  • Define “good”. Your skill building needs a specific goal. For example, a musician mastering a technique or a script being taken seriously.
  • Stretch and destroy. Your practice should feel like a stretch, not just showing up. Push past comfortable. Get feedback from someone who will tell you what’s wrong.
  • Be patient. Reject shiny new pursuits. Eventually you’ll have more practice under your belt than nearly anyone else.

Two tools that he uses:

  • Time structure: giving yourself some amount of time, like an hour, to totally focus on an open-ended and difficult task.
  • Information structure: capturing the results of your study into useful reference material. Newport’s own example is a proof map.

Control & Mission

Having gained capital via the first section, you now have opportunities for both control over your career and establishing a mission. Control comes because people actually rely on what you’re doing. Mission-finding is enabled by being at the edge of your field, making it easier to see what new developments are nearby (the “adjacent possible”).

Making career decisions requires both good judgment and experimentation. On the judgment side, apply these questions to your ideas:

  • Law of financial viability: Will people pay for what you do?
  • Law of remarkability: Will people care to comment about what you do? (Kathy Sierra illustrates this with four friends sitting around at a dinner party — what about what you’re doing will fill in the speech bubble of the guy trying to impress his friends?)

For experimentation, make little bets: projects that will take less than a month to complete.