Book Review – So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Who is this for?Those who have struggled to find traction in their lives due to a common tendency to over prioritize passion.

Like many Back to Work listeners, I’ve just finished Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, at the recommendation of Merlin Mann. While I’m certain the book will be well examined by Merlin and his co-host Dan Benjamin, I wanted to offer up some early thoughts for those who are yet to give this book a chance.

I knew a lot about both Cal and the book going in. Last year I had the pleasure of hearing Cal give an early talk on his findings from So Good They Can’t Ignore You at the World Domination Summit. We also discussed the subject of passion at length when he came on to the Mikes on Mics podcast when the book was first released.

I purchased the book right after it was released but didn’t prioritize reading it. I thought I had gotten enough of the picture from his talk and visit to the show. Now having read it, I can safely say that I was wrong.

I see how this is the kind of book where you may feel the CliffsNotes edition is sufficient; I certainly felt this way at first. It doesn’t take all that long to grasp the idea that “following your passion is a bad idea,” that you should instead cultivate skills and build up career capital until you’re So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

That framework is useful and the stories do a great job of enhancing the premise, but the book came to life for me towards the end when Cal stopped looking out and started sharing what the experience has meant to him. He takes you on his journey, walks you through the discovery of each of the ideas presented in the book and shares how he applies many of the concepts, like deliberate practice, to his own life. While not as obviously useful as the framework presented in the early sections, it did a better job of bringing the concepts to life. It was easily the most enjoyable and enlightening part of the experience. It was also the most convincing.

Much as I enjoyed the premise, the framework and many of the takeaways, there were two aspects that continually frustrated me along the way.

Why Are We Arguing?

The first was the occasional academic tone and structure. Clearly this is Cal’s background shining through, but he kept “arguing”—a frequent term used throughout the book—his case rather than allowing the ideas to compel me. This may just be a personal preference, but the book straddles both an academic and conversational tone, and I continually found myself craving the conversational. I didn’t want an argument presented to me, I wanted to hear what he discovered, learn more about who he had met and understand what he thought it meant.

While the first challenge is clearly a personal preference, the second has more to do with the premise.

Is All Passion A Problem?

The main argument of the book is that following your passion is a bad idea. Newport makes a strong argument for this, but I think he takes the argument too far. Rather than offering up nuanced thoughts on the role that passion plays in our lives, it often felt as if he was dismissing it. He’s so busy making the argument about following passion that I think he accidentally overlooks the importance of having it. There wasn’t a single case study in the book where the person didn’t seem pretty darn passionate to me. They may not have been following their passion, but they sure as hell had it.

As I read, I came to agree that passion is a poor leader, but I also redoubled my own belief that it’s an essential ingredient. Don’t get me wrong; I wish I had read this years ago as I wasted years waiting for a passion to emerge and lead the way. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.) It wasn’t until I shifted my own focus away from finding my purpose and towards cultivating skills that I gained any kind of traction. Yet as I’ve gained skills, I’ve also discovered the passion that always seemed so elusive.

It would have been a slightly different book and would have stepped on the branding, but I wish Cal had presented a more nuanced examination of the role of passion. There was clear passion in this book about not following your passion. It just put passion in the proper perspective and context. I worry that readers taking the premise too literally may eliminate the value of passion rather than properly adjusting the role it plays.

Regardless, Cal is a smart man, a good writer and a hell of a teacher. All of this shines through in So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The ideas are clearly presented, the examples are useful and you walk away from the book with a better sense of what matters most when trying to improve your own career and life. It’s well worth your time. Especially if you’re struggling to put passion into the proper perspective.

The Right Note at the Right Time with Evernote Reminders

Who is this for? Those looking for a better way to recall important reference materials at a specific time or date.

From the Evernote Blog:

Reminders are here. Our three most requested features rolled into one small package:

  • In-app and email Alarms
  • Quick note based to-do lists
  • Pinning notes to the top of your note list

The Reminders feature is currently available on Evernote for Mac, iOS and Evernote Web.

The list features will likely only appeal to power users of the application, but there’s a lot to be excited about with the addition of in-app and email alarms.

Applications like Mailbox make it possible to have an email return at a specific time and the powerful search in Evernote makes it possible to find a well named needle in a haystack, but there’s never been a seamless solution where your tools remind you of essential information at the exact right moment. Especially if you tend to store that information in Evernote.

When someone emails me a meeting agenda and relevant attachments, they all go into a note in Evernote. In the past I’d then create an OmniFocus tasks that links to this, but the new in-app or alarm feature significantly streamlines the process. Now when creating the note, I can set a reminder and have the information I need return to me at exactly the right moment.

Reminders only currently exist within the Evernote applications themselves. I hope we don’t have to wait too long to see this functionality make its way to the Evernote web and email clippers. More often than not, the types of notes that warrant a reminder are created in my web browser or email application, so it would be helpful to set an alarm without ever having to enter Evernote.

Regardless, Reminders is a great new addition to an already powerful and useful tool.

Book Review – Manage Your Day-to-Day

Who is it for? Those struggling or looking to improve the way that they approach their most important work.

Jocelyn K. Glei, Scott Belsky and a veritable who’s who of modern creative workers have teamed up to offer up their insights on building your routine, finding your focus, taming your tools and sharpening your creative mind.

When thinking about workflow there tends to be three common mindsets:

  • I don’t need a system
  • My system isn’t working
  • My system is finely tuned

This is a rare book that manages to speak to them all. If you feel like the idea of workflow is unnecessary, Manage Your Day-to-Day will challenge your thinking. If you’re struggling, it will offer some sound advice and starting points. If you’re comfortable with your system, it will encourage you to find a few areas or opportunities to improve.

The book doesn’t offer a single approach, it offers perspectives and suggestions that center around routine, focus, tools and creativity. As editor-in-chief of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei puts it:

Rather than lay out a one-size-fits-all productivity system, we provide a playbook of best practices for producing great work.

It’s well organized, taking what could have been wildly disjointed threads and merging them into a diverse but coherent point-of-view. It shows what’s working for others, suggests what might work for you and encourages you to do better. It’s also beautifully designed (which is to be expected from the company behind Behance). Strongly consider avoiding the ebook or audiobook. You’re going to want to get your hands on the book itself.

Manage Your Day-to-Day is a fast and worthwhile read with contributions from Seth Godin, Steven Pressfield, Tony Schwartz, Leo Babauta, Todd Henry, Gretchen Rubin and many more. It seeks to help you “stop doing busywork” and to “start doing your best work” (something our very own Mike Vardy will almost certainly approve of). Where most books just attempt to encourage you to do this, the prolific contributors do go one step farther and attempt to show you how.

A Leap Forward for TextExpander on iOS

Who is this for? TextExpander users who have been hoping to see more of the functionality of the Mac come to iOS.

To date, TextExpander for iOS has primarily served as a sync engine between the snippets on a Mac and those on an iOS device. Their iOS offerings shared some of the functionality of the Mac counterpart, but it was primarily something you’d setup once and occasionally reopen to update your snippets. The real magic happened when you used it in tandem with other applications.

Today that changes with TextExpander 2.0 for iPhone and iPad. Rather than just serving as a conduit for your snippets, the latest update adds in essential functionality that has been missing from iOS including fill-ins and pop-up menus. A visit to the app makes it possible to take advantage of more advanced snippets and can send them to the clipboard, a text message or a new email message.

In addition to its own new tricks, Smile Software has also updated their SDK. This will make it possible for other applications to take advantage of this new functionality. You can already see this in action in latest version of Drafts.

While I agree with Federico Vittici’s thoughts on the design, his desire for URL Schemes to expand snippets and that it would be helpful “to build popup menus using variables as options, not just pre-defined text,” TextExpander 2.0 is a strong step in the right direction.

For more, be sure to check out Vittici’s comprehensive review over at MacStories. And if you’re yet to do so, be sure to download TextExpander for Mac, iPhone and iPad. It is easily one of the best time saving applications ever created and as you can see, it keeps getting better.

Book Review – Workflow: Beyond Productivity

Who is it for? Those looking to take a deep dive into the concepts of productivity, workflow, creativity and mastery that goes far beyond the “how to”.

Kourosh Dini has already written an incredibly useful – if not the most useful – ebook on the popular task management application, OmniFocus, with Using OmniFocus. His latest work, Workflow: Beyond Productivity is very different, and will be increidbly useful to perhaps a very different audience. It dives deep into the realm of workflow and indeed goes well beyond productivity, compelling the reader to really spend some time thinking, fostering, and mastering their own workflow.

The book clocks in at over 500 pages, so it is isn’t a quick read. Nor is it meant to be. This kind of work is something you need to dwell on as a reader, digesting it slowly. Dini calls it an “eTextbook” and that’s an apt description.

The text is composed of five “books”, each of which focuses on a particular element of workflow:

  1. Book One discusses intention and organization. This book is almost like a prologue in that it prepares you for what’s to come by putting you in the right state of mind.
  2. Book Two is where the rubber begins to really meet the road as Dini writes about stations, habits, and sessions. This is where you’ll learn how to start developing the muscles needed to enhance and embrace your ability to develop a solid workflow.
  3. Book Three is all about silence, agency, and decisions. I found that this was the book that asked the reader to work on understanding and developing the idea of mindfulness when dealing with both work – and play.
  4. Book Four focuses on mastery and magic. Once you make it to this point, you’ll start to notice an “a-ha” moment has the propensity to occur. It’s almost as if Dini guides you through all of the ’“front-end work” of productivity to get you to this portion, where workflow mastery – and the magic that comes with it – really starts to kick in.
  5. Book Five is an excellent end point, as it discusses communication, meaning, and action. I found this to be the book where awareness and mindfulness were at the forefront, especially considering that every other phase of workflow had been explored and dissected.

There is more to this book than just the sheer amount of depth, breadth, and care that went into the text. Workflow: Beyond Productivity also comes with flash cards (something I’ve not encountered in this platform before) that allow the reader to review definitions of terms and questions that are asked throughout the work so they can achieve a deeper understanding of them – which will assist in their journey to mastering workflow. There is also accompanying video, which can be used in conjunction with the music section of the text (and most certainly should be to get the most out of that section).

Let me be clear: this isn’t a book that will be for everyone. It’s not only a “how to” book but it is very much a “why to” book as well. I have found that having both elements equally explored can really take your work and life to new heights, and Dini has gone further and deeper with Workflow: Beyond Productivity than I’ve ever read in one collection. It’s an academic work, and it’s something you’ll spend time “studying” more so than simply “reading”, and it is priced as such.

Workflow: Beyond Productivity is a master class in workflow that, as indicated, goes well beyond productivity. I recommend it highly and suggest you buy this DRM-free eTextbook (and its companion materials) for the introductory price of $29.95 through the end of May (click here to purchase). It is one of those rare works that will truly help you in the quest to stop doing things and start doing the right things.