Ep. 185: Cal Newport – Become So Good You Can’t Be Ignored

cal newport

You’re either horrible or miserable.

Woody Allen has this joke in “Annie Hall.”

He says, “Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable.

That’s the two categories.

The horrible are terminal cases. You know? And blind people, crippled… I don’t know how they get through life… It’s amazing to me.

And the miserable is everyone else.

So you should be thankful that you’re miserable. Because that’s very lucky… to be miserable.”

I guess I’m one of the lucky ones. We complain about getting older or not having a passion, etc.

“In relatively recent history—we’re talking the 1980s and later—we got convinced into believing we all have a capital P ‘Passion,’” Cal Newport said.

Cal’s a tenured professor at Georgetown. And majored in computer science.

So did I.

Fact: You can’t pre-test a fetus to see what its passion will be.

Passion is not in your DNA.

I wasn’t born to podcast. Or write. Or be a father. I was just born…

And I have eyes.

So I see what other people are doing.

I have ears. So I hear who’s winning. And then my brain asks, “Why am I here?”

“People believe if we look inside ourselves and discover what our passion is, we’ll be happy. I studied this question in the book and that’s not how it happens,” Cal said. “Passion comes later.”

First you have to “become so good you can’t be ignored…”


1. Start with an interest

Steve Martin reinvented stand-up. He told jokes without punchlines. And let the tension linger. He didn’t start with a passion for comedy.

You start with an interest.

I never thought, “Interviewing prostitutes at 3 a.m. is my passion.” But I got good at it.

I was curious.

And I’m still asking questions today.

2. Build career capital

Cal did a study. He found a database developer who became too good to be ignored. And used that as leverage.

“She got into the computer industry with no background. At every stage, she said, ‘What would be valuable here?’”

Now she spends 4-6 months working in her cubicle job. And the other  4-6 months in Thailand.

Acquire career capital. And leverage it. This is how you get autonomy in the workplace.

“It’s what lets you get a sense of mastery,” Cal said. “It’s what makes you get a sense of impact, and this is where passion actually comes from.”

3. Focus on rare and valuable skills

The first food truck was a pretzel stand. It had wheels and food.

Now Michelin-star chefs have food trucks and pop-up shops. They didn’t learn how to make pretzels. Or follow the trend. They used rare and valuable skills to innovate the market.

I built websites in the ‘90s. That was my first company. But as soon as I heard my eighth-grade sister was learning coding in school, I sold the company.

Coding was no longer rare and valuable. And competition was about to explode.

Control competition and you’ll control the market.

4. Get to the cutting edge of an industry

Mastery leads to passion, not the other way around.

You weren’t “born” to invent the next iPhone. Nobody was. Even the people inventing the next iPhone weren’t born to invent the next iPhone.

“Innovations don’t come at the very start of your journey.”

You have to get to the cutting edge, learn what’s missing, identify room for growth and innovate.

5. Do deep work

Deep work is the process of becoming great.

“It requires hard, hard focus and pushes your skill to its limit.”

It’s what you do to become the best in your field. And discover holes in your organization. Or in the planet. It’s how you create ride-sharing, social networking, Google maps underwater.

Cal says how at [16:04].

6. Or don’t…

I asked Cal, “Do you think most people actually want to be really good at something…

Or do most people just want more time off to just do nothing?”

I don’t set goals. Or evaluate my growth.

If I can support the growth of other people, cheer them on, smile and say, “Congratulations on getting up today,” then the window gets bigger.

Maybe success isn’t “being so good you can’t be ignored.” Maybe it’s being so good you can’t ignore others.

This is what works for me. This is my deep work.

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  • Cheftunes

    I read both of his Books. Liked “Be so good they cant ignore you” really well. Deep Work was good too, a little oversized for one message, but still good.
    The thing is: i believe in his message.
    In Erich Fromms “The Art of being” there is a chapter called “No Effort, No Pain” where he basically says the same thing: we all got tricked into the believe that the good things will come through effortless joy to us. But that is simply untrue.

    Two Quotes from Erich Fromm:

    “Without effort and willingness to experience pain and anxiety, nobody grows, in fact nobody achieves anything worth achieving.”

    ― Erich Fromm, The Art of Being

    “People are confused and unsure, they seek answers to guide them to joy, tranquillity, self-knowledge, salvation―but they also demand that it be easy to learn, that it require little or no effort, that results be quickly obtained.”

    ― Erich Fromm, The Art of Being

    • thank you for the little nugget–helps a lot

  • MAKE MOVES

    THIS is good stuff!

  • Rick Prokosch

    I am a fan of Cal’s message about work life not being all about passion (which I feel is a highly overused word now) and it’s something I’ve been hearing more of in the past few years. I really hope it continues to grow.

  • Isaiah

    I’m just learning to code. I still think it’s a valuable skill

  • James Buechler

    The message and information just grows and grows with repeated listening. This is really helping my skill a great deal and also my practice to achieve great skill

  • Rama Prasad

    Started reading Deep Work. Inspired me to logout of social media for sometime !

  • Paul Kozar

    Really good at blow jobs.

  • Joe Leonard

    I like the premise but it’s too mutually exclusive. I think passion can come first. I am super passionate about jazz piano and that drives me to practice an hour every single day. And it’s paying off; I am getting better, but I still suck at piano, much less jazz piano and I’ll be lucky if I am ever competent enough to comp a few chords with a band. But I have passion for it and I’ll get enjoyment from learning jazz piano regardless. Conversely, I am an excellent bass player, top of my field with natural talent, and in high demand, and I enjoy playing bass, but I wouldn’t say it rises to the level of passion.