Lessons from So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

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Books / Tuesday

Whenever I have a conversation with someone I haven’t met before and find that we have a connection, I’ll invariably end up asking them about what books they would suggest I read. Today’s book has by far been the one that gets recommended the most – So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. Newport is a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University and also has a really popular blog. He’s also written multiple bestsellers.

I read this book in the winter but I thought it would be good to summarize some of the learnings here. Here’s what I picked up from it:

Ability > Passion

The word passion has only recently gained a positive connotation. It’s origins were much less popular. It comes from the Latin word “pati” which means to suffer. As an emotion, we have mostly looked down upon it in the past.

Newport argues for this view of passions, one of a desire backed by nothing real. Instead, he advocates for the cause of ability. Ability doesn’t follow passion, instead passion is a by-product of ability. When you’re good at something, you enjoy doing it more. In Newport’s words:

The narratives in this book are bound by a common thread: the importance of ability. The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.

Or:

In other words, working right trumps finding the right work.

That’s some sobering news for the passion parade. It’s also closely linked to the next learning that stuck to me.

Deliberate practice

Newport brings up a story from when he and his friend were learning to play (sorry for the long edited excerpt):

Jordan Tice and I both started playing guitar at the age of twelve. I played every day—sometimes rocking blues solos to Hendrix recordings for hours at a time. I had reached the level of expertise you would expect from someone who had played an instrument seriously for the last six years.

But this is what I find fascinating: Compared to Jordan Tice’s ability at this same age, I was mediocre.

Jordan picked up guitar at the same point in his life as I did. But by the time he graduated high school, he had been touring the mid-Atlantic with a group of professional bluegrass musicians and had signed his first record deal.

The difference in our abilities by the age of eighteen had less to do with the number of hours we practiced—though he probably racked up more total practice hours than I did, we weren’t all that far apart—and more to do with what we did with those hours.

One of my most vivid memories of Rocking Chair, for example, was my discomfort playing anything I didn’t know real well. There’s a mental strain that accompanies feeling your way though a tune that’s not ingrained in muscle memory, and I hated that feeling.

Compare this to Jordan’s earliest experiences with the guitar. His first teacher was a friend from his parents’ church. As Jordan remembers, their lessons focused on picking out the leads from Allman Brothers records. “So he would write out the lead and then you would go memorize them?” I asked. “No, we would just figure them out by ear,” Jordan replied. To the high school version of myself, the idea of learning complicated lead parts by ear would have been way past my threshold of mental strain and patience.

This, then, explains why Jordan left me in the dust. I played. But he practiced.

So Newport brings up the important concept of deliberate practice. It’s one thing to go through the motions every single day – yes, that will lead to some level of proficiency, but the ability to have full awareness of what you’re doing and why is critical for mastery.

This reminded me most of how students prepare for SAT/ACT or any standardized testing. They learn long vocabulary lists, take tens of practice tests, and stress out over the whole process.

In my experience, my friends who did the best on the exams were ones who skipped any type of content memorization and took a single practice test to figure out their strengths and weaknesses. They then used that information to practice on specific sections and types of questions. That was deliberate practice and it reflected in their scores.

Iteration

This is less of a direct concept from the book but more of thought I kept having when I was reading it.

If I could make a single tweak to the education system that I am a part of, it would be to have multiple iterations on the same assignment. This is because most of the time, you’re required to do multiple iterations on your work. You start off with the kernel of an idea, you then expand it to suit your needs. Or you start off with a collection of similar ideas and a bunch of data and you cull them down to find the core insights you need.

It would be good for students to go through the same exercise. I often find my first attempt is optimized for a high grade, not for the best work.

This is obviously not a fully fleshed out idea – it clearly needs more iterations!

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