Wed | Jan 16, 2019

How to make your business 'So Good They Can't Ignore You'

Published:Sunday | December 8, 2013 | 12:00 AM

In his recent book, So Good They Can't Ignore You, Cal Newport attacks the belief that "you should only do work that you are passionate about."

Newport argues that following this credo is a mistake, and his book made me wonder: As an entrepreneur, what would I have done differently if I knew these ideas?

We all have heard the popular mantra: You have been put here on earth for a reason, and your job is to find this deeper purpose and devote your life to it. This leads to fulfilment, happiness and success. And money.

He says that following this path is a big mistake. In other words, if you want to quit your safe, but hated, corporate job to pursue your passion for selling flowers in a new business ... don't do it. At least not right away.

You lack something whose absence will cause your business to fail. Something that passion simply won't replace.


Newport calls this missing asset 'career capital' and it comprises unique, specific skills and knowledge that are developed after prolonged exposure to a single field.

When you have enough career capital, you become so good at one thing that you stand out.

Think of a world-class sprinter, or a top-flight surgeon. Neither of them just got up one morning being great. Each discipline took thousands of hours - at least 10,000 according to research cited by Malcolm Gladwell - to gain the mastery required to stand out without needing excess hype.

If this sounds like a recipe for a lot of hard work, it is. Unfortunately, our generation tends to focus on the stuff that doesn't require hard work, like courage and passion. These are useful traits, but Newport argues that they aren't absolutely necessary.

You can still be successful, even if you are afraid and cautious. What's essential is that you are becoming so good at what you do that you can't be ignored, and this makes time a vital and necessary resource.

Gladwell is clear about how this time should be used: focus it on developing improving current areas of weakness, by practising them over and over again.


Back in 1990, when I lived in New Jersey, my cousin and I turned our passion for Jamaican products into a business. We decided to import authentic Jamaican T-shirts after seeing a growing market for all things reggae-oriented. We couldn't fail, we thought.

The fact that I'm writing a column today, and not sitting atop a T-shirt empire, probably tells you that things didn't work out as planned. We knew nothing about fashion, the garment industry, or retail. We didn't know how to sell, and we couldn't manage inventory or accounts.

Our hope that authenticity would translate into success was dashed - there was just no substitute for hard-nosed industry knowledge.

Newport would suggest that instead of starting a business, find a way to apprentice for a similar company in order to gain the experience needed for lasting success.


The hunt for passion is especially ludicrous for those who are young. Our society asks 18-year-olds what they want to do with the rest of their lives, as if they will be able to make a wise decision with the little knowledge they have.

Newport argues that instead of pushing people toward their passions, we should be teaching them how to explore different options, with the goal of developing highly specialised skills.

He goes further - forget about what makes you "happy" right now. That might just be a product of television, hormones, or adrenaline. Instead, pick an area in which you are willing to build career capital, and allow happiness and passion to find you later, after the fact.

Become a skilled, professional and expert first. The feelings will come later.

In other words, he's saying that if you run after passion for its own sake, making it the highest priority, you are likely to be disappointed.

My cousin and I thought the T-shirt business would be a cool, fun adventure. Instead, we learned that we didn't know the basics about the industry, and couldn't learn them, before running out of capital.

Newport's book isn't sexy by any means, and its lessons are dry and a bit stern. We live in a time of constant stimulation, thanks to ever-changing mobile technology, which makes his message even more important. His alternative to the pursuit of passion is clear. Seek the steady satisfaction that comes from building unique skills and expertise - career capital.

We need to know that career and business success do not come from chasing fleeting emotions, but from settling into a groove in which we can become so good that we can't be ignored.

Francis Wade is president of Framework Consulting and author of "Bill's Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure". Email