A friend recently pointed me to this review of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
I read the book a couple years ago. The excellent review, above, reminded me of an email critique of the book that I sent to this same friend at that time.
First off, I want to say that it’s one of the most fascinating self-improvement books I’ve ever read. Newport is a theoretical computer scientist, and one can tell that he’s trying to come up with a rigorous algorithm for success and happiness. His ideas are brilliant. The book is truly a must-read for anyone who seeks to become better at what s/he does.
That said, my biggest complaint with So Good They Can’t Ignore You is that the book is a series of cherry-picked case studies. In the world of scientific research, it can be classified as a case series of extremely successful (and therefore extremely rare) people.
Case series suffer from the potential for bias and confounding. The reviewer, above, is basically pointing out one potential confounding variable: privilege. There could be many others. Also, in case series, there is no comparator group. This fact also diminishes the validity of the results. As far as study designs go, case series are low on the totem pole: one is usually not capable of deducing any strong conclusions from them.
This is problematic because Newport seems too eager to support his theories. Especially in the section devoted to the plastic surgery resident, I can see (since it’s closer to my domain than any of the other examples, except for researcher Sabeti’s) that he’s extrapolating arguments, in support of his ideas, that don’t necessarily hold water. In other words, I’m afraid he’s seeing patterns that don’t really exist, or those that simply support his own viewpoint. He also seems too rigid about what he extrapolates from the cases. I feel that a looser interpretation of his rigid laws is probably more effective in real life.
Additionally, the number of cases in his case series is awfully small.
Once again, however, this is hands-down one of the best self-improvement books I’ve ever read. Newport makes bold, strong forays into territory that was previously very poorly charted.