Roy Tang

Programmer, engineer, scientist, critic, gamer, dreamer, and kid-at-heart.

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Aha! I finally managed to finish a book again!

I’ve heard of Cal Newport since years ago tangentially due to his Study Hacks blog, which was pretty good at the time. I haven’t followed his career too closely, but he’s an academic at Georgetown apparently. I wasn’t looking for any career advice in particular, but I did have a recommendation for this book from somewhere so I thought I’d give it a go.

The book is So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and focuses on what it takes to have a “successful career”.

My favorite thing about this book is that from the get-go, the author discards something most self-improvement books focus on: passion. The author discards passion as non-essential. A lot of self-improvement books also lay out a bunch of principles and rules and wink at the reader and say something to the effect of “You just have to do all of this stuff, and you’ll be super successful!", as if all of those rules + a bit of passion are some sort of secret ingredient that allow you to skip past all the hard work necessary to find success. This book doesn’t shy away from the concept of hard work. Instead, it embraces it, in the form of what the author calls “career capital”. Basically, you need to earn enough “career capital” in order to then exchange that capital for the trappings of a successful career, such as more control over your time. “Career capital” is what makes you “so good they can’t ignore you.”

Like many books of this type, the ideas are presented as if the author came by them scientific analysis, but really the basis seems to be a series of anecdotal success stories of people whose career paths coincide with the author’s central thesis. This is not inherently a bad thing, though it does weaken the foundation of the books claims that it’s not backed by a detailed scientific study. But for purposes of laying out his ideas in an entertaining manner, the format is certainly sufficient. The success stories are really the meat of the book, designed to lay out the author’s rules and show how they are applicable to real, actual careers. And in most of the success stories, he traces their story for more than a decade of building up “career capital”, again emphasizing hard work over dreaming of overnight success.

I personally relate to the concept of not being defined by passion and instead working hard to earn “career capital” and the idea that you can cash that capital in for more control. This mirrors my own career path where I spent more than a decade working for some multinational company, not really specializing in anything in particular and developing a variety of interests before deciding to use that career capital to go freelance and establish more control over my life. What I don’t have yet, is the overarching “mission” described by the author’s Rule #4. I don’t have a unifying vision driving my life forward, probably a result of my being very unfocused. Or perhaps I already have one and it is yet to be clearly articulated? Hmm, we’ll see. In any case, I find the book’s contents quite relevant to my own career and the ideas presented here will probably be relevant to me personally as I try to crystallize my own plans for the future.

The book is a relatively short (Kindle version says 276 pages, and a lot of that is notes and links) and a quick read (I finished it piecemeal over 3 days, but could have easily finished in 1). I think I got it on sale a few months ago for around $4, not bad for that price, and a decent pickup for anyone looking to chart a clearer career path.

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