So Good They Can't Ignore You - By Cal Newport

Date read: 
October 19, 2015
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My Thoughts

Following your passion is terrible career advice. Focus on getting really good at something and becoming a craftsperson, passion will follow. Fantastic take on career advice and what it actually takes to be successful in any pursuit.

Summary Notes

The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.

If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, we would probably find him today as one of the Los Altos Zen Center’s most popular teachers. But he didn’t follow this simple advice. Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break—a “small-time” scheme that unexpectedly took off.

It takes time to get good at anything. “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase,”

The strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job. The happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a professional baseball player who doesn’t claim that he has been passionate about the sport as far back as he can remember. Observing a few instances of a strategy working does not make it universally effective. If anything, their rareness underscores my claim that for most people, “follow your passion” is bad advice.

An example of Deliberate Practice: He starts by playing slow enough that he can get the effects he desires: He wants the key notes of the melody to ring while he fills the space in between with runs up and down the fretboard. Then he adds speed—just enough that he can’t quite make things work. He repeats this again and again.

An obsessive focus on the quality of what you produce is the rule in professional music. “It trumps your appearance, your equipment, your personality, and your connections,”

The tape doesn’t lie.

Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.

When you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness.

You need to get good in order to get good things in your working life, and the craftsman mindset is focused on achieving exactly this goal.

It didn’t take long for Alex to discover what allows some scriptwriters to succeed in catching the attention of a network while so many others fail: They write good scripts. Spurred by this insight, Alex turned his attention to writing. Lots of writing.

Even prodigies like Bobby Fisher managed to fit in ten years of playing before they achieved international recognition: He just started this accumulation earlier than most

Hours spent in serious study of the game was not just the most important factor in predicting chess skill, it dominated the other factors. The researchers discovered that the players who became grand masters spent five times more hours dedicated to serious study than those who plateaued at an intermediate level. The grand masters, on average, dedicated around 5,000 hours out of their 10,000 to serious study. The intermediate players, by contrast, dedicated only around 1,000 to this activity.

Deliberate practice = an activity designed for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.

If you want to understand the source of professional athletes’ talent, for example, look to their practice schedules—almost without exception they have been systematically stretching their athletic abilities, with the guidance of expert coaches, since they were children.

It is a lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice that again and again ends up explaining excellence.

He stretched his abilities by taking on projects that were beyond his current comfort zone; and not just one at a time, but often up to three or four writing commissions concurrently, all the while holding down a day job! He then obsessively sought feedback, on everything—even if, looking back now, he’s humiliated at the quality of scripts he was sending out. This is textbook deliberate practice: And it worked.

In each stage of his path to becoming a venture capitalist he threw himself into a project beyond his current capabilities and then hustled to make it a success. He took on an ambitious master’s thesis that he then translated into leading an even more ambitious international research project. He went from the project into the harsh world of start-ups, where, without outside investment, his ability to pay his rent was dependent on him figuring things out quickly.

The Five Habits of a Craftsman

  1. Decide What Capital Market You’re In
    There are two types of these markets: winner-take-all and auction.
    In a winner-take-all market, there is only one type of career capital available, and lots of different people competing for it. An auction market, by contrast, is less structured: There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection.
  2. Identify Your Capital Type
    If you’re in a winner-take-all market, this is trivial: By definition, there’s only one type of capital that matters. For an auction market, however, you have flexibility. A useful heuristic in this situation is to seek open gates—opportunities to build capital that are already open to you.
  3. Define “Good”
    If you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, then it’s hard to take effective action.
  4. Stretch and Destroy
    Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands…. Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.

“I thought, if I stay with it, then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it.”

Without a patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your efforts before you acquire the capital you need. Here's how career capital is actually acquired: You stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.”

Researchers at Cornell followed over three hundred small businesses, half of which focused on giving control to their employees and half of which did not. The control-centric businesses grew at four times the rate of their counterparts.

Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.

When you flip through your mental Rolodex of dream jobs, control is often at the core of their appeal.

Control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable.

I follow a rule with my life that if something is scary, do it. I’ve lived everywhere in America, and for me, a big scary thing was living outside the country.

“I have this principle about money that overrides my other life rules,” he said. “Do what people are willing to pay for. Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.”

“If you’re struggling to raise money for an idea, or are thinking that you will support your idea with unrelated work, then you need to rethink the idea.”

breakthroughs require that you first get to the cutting edge, and this is hard—the type of hardness that most of us try to avoid in our working lives.

Many people have lots of career capital, and can therefore identify a variety of different potential missions for their work, but few actually build their career around such missions.

Kirk is someone who is not afraid to try something bold if it holds out the promise of making his life more interesting.

you need career capital before you can identify a realistic mission for your career. Just because you have a good idea for a mission, however, doesn’t mean that you’ll succeed in its pursuit.

A career untamed can bring you into dangerous territory, such as being bored while writing computer code for an investment bank. He needed a mission to actively guide his career or he would end up trapped again and again.

“You’re either remarkable or invisible,”

For his mission to build a sustainable career, it had to produce purple cows, the type of remarkable projects that compel people to spread the word.

If you want to make a name for yourself in software development—the type of name that can help you secure employment—focus your attention on making quality contributions to open-source projects. This is where the people who matter look for talent.

For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.

To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers. Mission is one of those traits.

You can’t skip straight into a great mission without first building mastery in your field. The best ideas for missions are found in the adjacent possible—the region just beyond the current cutting edge.

If your goal is to love what you do, I discovered, “follow you passion” can be bad advice. It’s more important to become good at something rare and valuable, and then invest the career capital this generates into the type of traits that make a job great. The traits of control and mission are two good places to start.

While my classmates contemplated their true calling, I went seeking opportunities to master rare skills that would yield big rewards. I started by hacking my study skills to become as efficient as possible.

If you’re not putting in the effort to become “so good they can’t ignore you,” you’re not likely to end up loving your work—regardless of whether or not you believe it’s your true calling.

Feynman had a compulsion to tear down important papers and mathematical concepts until he could understand the concepts from the bottom up. It’s possible, in other words, that his amazing intellect was less about a gift from God and more about a dedication to deliberate practice.

To combat resistance, I deployed two types of structure. The first type was time structure: “I am going to work on this for one hour,” I would tell myself. “I don’t care if I faint from the effort, or make no progress, for the next hour this is my whole world.”

The second type was information structure—a way of capturing the results of my hard focus in a useful form.

Strain, I now accepted, was good. Instead of seeing this discomfort as a sensation to avoid, I began to understand it the same way that a body builder understands muscle burn: a sign that you’re doing something right.

“If it’s not in writing, it doesn’t count.”

“When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, ask yourself whether people are willing to pay you for it. If so, continue. If not, move on.”

True missions require two things. First, career capital, which requires patience. Second, you need to be ceaselessly scanning your always-changing view of the adjacent possible in your field, looking for the next big idea.

A little bet has the following characteristics:

  • It’s a project small enough to be completed in less than a month.
  • It forces you to create new value (e.g., master a new skill and produce new results that didn’t exist before).
  • It produces a concrete result that you can use to gather concrete feedback.

Working right trumps finding the right work. He didn’t need to have a perfect job to find occupational happiness—he needed instead a better approach to the work already available to him.

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