⭑⭑⭑½ (3.5/5 see book reviews)

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Three-sentence summary

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport is a book about how to build a fulfilling career and it takes its title from a 2007 Charlie Rose interview with the comedian Steve Martin in which he offers the glib-sounding but completely earnest advice to young comedians – to succeed you need to be “so good they can’t ignore you.”

The most novel insight the book offers is the observation that following your passion isn’t what passionate people seem to do, rather their passion builds as they build mastery in a particular field.

The book asserts that building rare and valuable skills through deliberate practice generates a craftsman mindset which is key to a fulfilling, mission-driven, passionate career.

The nice notebook and deliberate practice

Anders Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice is touted as the means to building rare and valuable skills. This is no surprise to anyone who’s read any professional development book written after Malcom Gladwell’s high-fructose corn syrup version of Ericsson’s research: the 10,000 hour rule from his book Outliers.

Deliberate practice is a type of practice focused on perfecting techniques beyond your current abilities with the goal of improving your performance. Newport mentions that fields without strict competitive structures are often lacking for proven deliberate practice regimens. This includes fields like computer science, which is his primary focus-area.

As a strategy to gain deliberate practice he bought the nicest lab notebook he could find in the MIT bookstore.

The $45 notebook had a concentrating effect on his thinking. His desire to preserve the integrity of his weighty notebook forced him exert the effort required to refine his thinking.

The focusing effect of nice tools was a means towards gaining deliberate practice in his field.

This connects with an idea from The book Getting Things Done by David Allen:

One of the great secrets to getting ideas and increasing your productivity is utilizing the function-follows-form phenomenon — Great tools can trigger good thinking.

– David Allen Getting Things Done

The adjacent possible

Late in the book, Newport talks about a 2010 book called Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. That book explores the phenomenon of independent discovery: where two people independently make the same breakthrough discovery at the same time.

Consider the discovery of sunspots in 1611: As Johnson notes, four scientists, from four different countries, all identified the phenomenon during the same year.

Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You

This is explained by the concept of the adjacent possible. Hard problems in any particular field are well known by experts in that field. Moving past these problems is in the moment impossible as there are key ideas missing.

The adjacent possible is the space beyond the cutting-edge of what’s possible, cobbled together from the combination of ideas people stumble across in related disciplines. As humanity progresses, new ideas can be combined with old to breakthrough current problems.

This reminds me of a quote I heard recently attributed to Einstein: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”

World-changing breakthroughs rarely result from pushing forward on the same tacks, rather they arise from approaching problems from new angles. The new angles of approach, however, may not yet exist. Only when the adjacent possible space for new ideas is open are you able to make progress on ideas that have previously eluded you.


  • Title: So Good They Can’t Ignore You
  • Author: Cal Newport
  • Pages: 174
  • Format: EBook
  • Publisher: Grand Central
  • ISBN: 1455509124
  • Genre: Personal Development