Books Notes & Thoughts: “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” by Cal Newport


This summer I picked up a book that’s been on my “to read” list for quite awhile. I first heard about author and computer science professor Calvin Newport on an interview with Tim Ferriss, and the timing couldn’t have been better. This year is the last 500, the dissertation, the job market – a lot will likely change in the coming few months.

Newport’s focus of the book is to discover, “How do people end up loving what they do?” (p.199). Challenging the conventional wisdom to “follow your passion,” Newport instead argues that compelling careers emerge from “working right” rather than a soul-searching discovery of the “right work” (p.228). The title is from Steve Martin giving advice for people who want to make it in show business.

What I appreciate about the book is that in proposing this thesis, Newport then articulates how he puts his principles into practice in his own career. So while I’m not going to summarize his argument against the “follow your passion” advice here, but do the same “lifestyle design” with what I’ve learned to how I will organize my work in this year.

But first, I will share a long passage in which Newport describes graduate school because it so perfectly describes the post-coursework/pre-dissertation plateau I am on. He writes, 

“Musicians, athletes, and chess players, among others, know all about deliberate practice, but knowledge workers do not. Most knowledge workers avoid the uncomfortable strain of deliberate practice…. As I researched these ideas, I became increasingly worried about the current state of my academic career. I feared that my rate of acquiring career capital was tapering off. To understand this worry, you should understand that graduate school, and the postdoctoral years that often follow, provide an uneven growth experience. Early in this process, you’re constantly pushed into intellectual discomfort…. The mental strain of mustering every last available neuron toward solving a problem, driven by the fear of earning zero points on the assignment, is a nice encapsulation of exactly what the deliberate-practice literature says is necessary to improve. This is why, early in their careers, graduate students experience great leaps in their abilities. 

But at a research-oriented program … your course work winds down after the first two years. Soon after, your research efforts are expected to release themselves from your advisor’s orbit and follow a self-directed trajectory. It’s here that if you’re not careful to keep pushing forward, your improvement can taper off to what the performance scientist Anders Ericsson called an ‘acceptable level,’ where you then remain stuck. The research driving [deliberate practice] taught me that these plateaus are dangerous because they cut off your supply of career capital and therefore cripple your ability to keep actively shaping your working life.” (p.208-209)

It feels a bit like this sometimes…


I think maybe right now I’m climbing out of the sea, scrambling up the banks, desperately trying to get back to solid ground and make some overland progress toward the final climb up the ladder.

Ideas for me to apply:

Think small, act big

This is the idea to find a small niche and develop that before finding a mission in which to have big impact. He uses the term “career capital” to describe the rare and valuable skills that you need to develop to have a compelling career. In assessing my own career capital, the experience I have as a K-12 teacher and leader, it aligns with advising advice I have gotten, which is to remember my insights from this experience. Research can take us far away from practice, and  getting lost in theory and big words is the road to irrelevance. In education leadership, proximity and experience to practice is valuable. Career capital is also paired with the willingness to work hard where you are, which reminded me of a Cory Booker quote, “If you want things that other people don’t have, you have to be willing to do the things that other people don’t do.” This includes working deliberately.

Engage in deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is about continually pushing yourself out of comfort zone to learn new skills and stretch yourself to get better. Newport interviews a bluegrass guitarist who is always choosing more challenging tasks and spending time practicing music that is just a little harder than comfortable. This is also about shifting from a productivity-centric way of thinking to craft-centric approach (p.214-215). It reminds me a bit of bildung, the German idea of self-cultivation/education.

I liked four ways he suggests of structuring deliberate practice into daily work (rather than spending the day answering email):

Time structure, which for me will be writing blocks, delayed email delivery, and a default calendar.

Writing blocks are one hour long, but include 45 minutes of preparing to write and only 15 minutes of actually writing. The writing blocks are about getting words on the page – not editing. Setting up email to only be delivered at two times per day (11am and 3pm). Making a weekly default calendar that blocks off time for writing, time for meetings, and time for checking in with friends.

Alongside this time structure, Newport sets up an hour tally system to count the number of hours he spends in deliberate practice. I have tried recording everything that I do during the week but that was too hard. I like the idea of only recording this specific part of my work.

Information structure, which for me will be in Evernote and on the blog.

This strategy is about how to keep notes about information read. The amount of information I read, trying to pay attention to multiple areas of the literature, becomes overwhelming. It is one of the reasons I started writing the blog posts about the books I have read. I return quite frequently to the posts about Communities of Practice, Where Ideas Come From, and Research and Practice in Education. Newport created a “research bible” on a google doc with an entry once per week from reading a paper. I am still debating whether I’ll do this in Evernote or here on the blog. I think I’ll begin with the seminal papers from each element of my leadership framework.

I will also use an idea from one of my mentors here to create a visual map of how my research interests and papers work together, maybe in the form of a Venn diagram. This will be related to my mission, which I am also working on crafting. All this is informing how I write my job market pieces this fall. Stay tuned!

Because Newport is a computer scientist, he talks about making an argument map for the mathematical proofs. I like the idea of an argument map, which I might try out for my dissertation. Because I will be using my empirical data to validate the leadership framework I’m proposing, this will be helpful for whether my argument is sound.

Small successes, which for me will be a daily checklist using the urgent/important matrix.

This is the idea that small bits of practice add up to big actions. My productivity course this spring also took this approach – do something, however small. A bit like the debt spiral from Dave Ramsay! Start with the smallest thing I can do, and that little bit of progress will propel me forward.

Theory notebook, which for me will be a small, blank moleskin.

Newport carries a special (expensive) notebook with him to record new ideas. Importantly, he only records the result of the brainstorm, not all the notes. The notebook then becomes a place for more fully formed thoughts. I like this idea because much of the diagrams I draw up or ideas I write down get lost in the notebook that I also use for To Do lists and meeting notes. I like only carrying one notebook though, so I got a small moleskin notebook with blank pages to use as my theory notebook. Hopefully it’ll be light enough to always have with me.

Finally, Newport puts these ideas together in a pyramid, with the research mission at the top, exploratory projects in the middle, and background research at the bottom.

Top = The Career Mission

This is what guides a compelling career. He writes, “Academia is a profession well suited for mission. If you identify professors with particularly compelling careers, and then ask what they did differently than their peers, the answer almost always involves them organizing their work around a catchy mission” (p.221). My advisor’s was about how to access the wisdom of leadership practice. 

Newport continues that true missions require two things: career capital and attention to the adjacent possible. The first, career capital, requires patience. You need this so that you have “published and read enough [research] to know that there’s great potential in moving this body of theory” (p.223). “The real challenge, of course, is finding the compelling projects that exploit this potential” (p.223-224). It is what makes it remarkable, literally that people will talk about it, and allows you to launch it in a venue conducive to such remarking. The second is ceaseless attention to the adjacent possible, always looking for the next big idea in your field. “Combined, these two commitments describe a lifestyle, not a series of steps that automatically spit out a mission when completed” (p.223).

Middle = Exploratory Projects

These are about “us[ing] little bets to explore the most promising ideas turned up by the processes described by the bottom level of [the] pyramid” (p.225). Little bets are projects that are small enough to be completed in less than a month, that force you to create new value (new skill or new results), and produce a concrete result that can be shared to get feedback. You only keep 2-3 bets active at a time and use deadlines to induce a sense of urgency, perhaps even highlighting them in yellow in planning documents. And you track the number of hours spent on these bets.

Bottom = Background Research

This activity supports success at the higher levels. “Every week, I expose myself to something new about my field. I can read a paper, attend a talk, or schedule a meeting. To ensure that I really understand the new idea, I require myself to add a summary, in my own words, to my growing ‘research bible” (p.224). This is really about finding the adjacent possible.

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