It’s no secret to those of you who’ve read this blog and follow me on Twitter that I’m a huge fan of Cal Newport.
His book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” changed the way I work. And, if you’re curious, I extracted 90+ insights from that book here.
The pre-cursor to Deep Work was “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.” In the book Cal debunks the long-held belief that “follow your passion” is good advice. He argues that not only is the cliché flawed, but preexisting passions are rare and have little to do with how most people end up loving their work— but it can also be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job hopping.
I’ve found this to be particularly true of my generation, Millennials, and many of the young people I periodically mentor.
In order to understand this phenomenon further, I dove into Cal’s book. His insights and takeaways ring true. I’ve highlighted many below. Some of the thoughts and ideas will be a bit repetitive. That’s intentional. These are extremely important concepts. Adopting this mentality will set you apart from 95% of people in this world.
If you’re an unfulfilled cubicle dweller or a frustrated young person who’s been intent on “chasing your passion,” I highly recommend you check out the notes below and pick up Cal’s book.
Believing, as many do, that the key to happiness is identifying your true calling and then chasing after it with all the courage you can muster is frighteningly naive.
When it comes to creating work you love, following your passion is not particularly useful advice.
In fact, conventional wisdom on career success — follow your passion — is seriously flawed.
The things that make a job great are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. You need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.
RULE #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion
Passion is Rare
It’s hard to predict in advance what you’ll eventually grow to love.
There are many complex reasons for workplace satisfaction, but the reductive notion of matching your job to a pre-existing passion is not among them.
A job is to pay the bills, a career is a path toward increasingly better work, and a calling is work that’s an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity.
The strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job.
Passion is Dangerous
The passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them. The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as a chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.
RULE #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You
There was no real shortcut to actor and comedian Steve Martin’s eventual fame.
“[Eventually] you are so experienced [that] there’s a confidence that comes out,” Martin explained. “I think it’s something the audience smells.”
Passion vs. Craftsman
It’s critical to understand the difference between the passion mindset and the craftsman mindset.
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 hyper-aware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness.
The deep questions driving the passion mindset — “Who am I?” and “What do I truly love?” — are essentially impossible to confirm.
Put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career; you need to earn it.
Adopting the craftsman mindset will be the foundation on which you’ll build a compelling career.
The Power of Capital
The traits that make a great job great are rare and valuable and therefore, if you want a great job, you need to build up rare and valuable skills.
Abandon the passion mindset (“what can the world offer me?”) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (“what can I offer the world?”)
Great work doesn’t just require great courage (i.e. chasing a passion), but also skills of great (and real) value.
Three disqualifiers for applying the craftsman mindset:
- The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
- The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
- The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.
Becoming a Craftsman
Deliberate practice provides the key to excellence in a diverse array of fields.
It is a lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice that again and again ends up explaining excellence.
Let’s assume you’re a knowledge worker… If you can figure out how to integrate deliberate practice into your own life, you have the possibility of blowing past your peers in your value, as you’ll likely be alone in your dedication to systematically getting better.
Focus on stretching your ability and receiving immediate feedback.
Take on projects that are beyond your current comfort zone. Discomfort with mental discomfort is a liability.
The Five Habits of a Craftsman
- Step 1: Decide What Capital Market You’re In
Start focusing on something people really care about — which is where your energy should be if you want to succeed.
- Step 2: Identify Your Capital Type
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. Seek to open gates.
- Step 3: Define “Good”
- Step 4: Stretch and Destroy
If you show up and do what you’re told you will reach an “Acceptable level” of ability before plateauing. Deliberate practice will push you past this plateau and into a realm where you have little competition. Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.
The continuous and harsh feedback you receive will accelerate the growth of your ability.
- Step 5: Be Patient
It’s less about paying attention to your main pursuit, and more about your willingness to ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you.
Without this patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your efforts before you acquire the capital you need.
Summary of Rule #2
There’s little evidence that most people have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered and believing that there’s a magical right job lurking out there can often lead to chronic unhappiness and confusion.
You need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. These rare and valuable skills are career capital.
With this in mind, it’s important to adopt the craftsman mindset, where you focus relentlessly on what value you’re offering the world. This stands in stark contrast to the much more common passion mindset, which has you focus only what value the world is offering you.
Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion
Control over what you do, and how you do it, is one of the most powerful traits you can acquire when creating work you love.
The dream of leaving the rat race to start a farm, or otherwise live in harmony with the land, is the perennial fantasy of the cubicle-bound.
The vast majority of people don’t have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered and matched to a job.
People with compelling careers instead start by getting good at something rare and valuable — building what I called “career capital” — and then cashing in this capital for the traits that make great work great.
Control turns out to be one of the most universally important traits that you can acquire with your career capital.
Daniel Pink summarizes the literature: more control leads to better grades, better sports performance, better productivity and more happiness.
Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.
Control generates resistance.
The First Control Trap:
Control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable.
The Second Control Trap:
The point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change.
In most jobs you should expect your employer to resist your move toward more control. They will try and convince you to take more money and prestige instead of more control.
How do you know when you should pursue a bid for more control?
Use money as a “neutral indicator of value.” Unless people are willing to pay you, it’s not an idea you’re ready to go after.
Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big (Or, the Importance of Mission)
Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on you world. People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.
“Follow your passion” is bad advice. You must first build up “career capital” by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the traits that define great work.
Hardness scares off the daydreamers and the timid, leaving more opportunity for those like us who are willing to take the time to carefully work out the best path forward and the confidently take action.
The Capital-Driven Mission
A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough — it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field.
If life-transforming missions could be found with just a little navel-gazing and an optimistic attitude, changing the world would be commonplace.
The art of mission, we can conclude, asks us to suppress the most grandiose of our work instincts and instead adopt patience.
Missions Require Little Bets
Try something bold if it holds the promise of making life more interesting.
Successful innovators, “make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant wins.” Rapid and frequent feedback, Peter Sims argues, “allows them to find unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes.”
To maximize your chances of success, you should deploy small, concrete experiments that return concrete feedback.
If career capital makes it possible to identify a compelling mission, then it’s a strategy of little bets that gives you a good shot of succeeding in this mission.
Mission Requires Marketing
The Law of Remarkability:
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.
Summary of Rule #4:
Mission is one of the most important traits you can acquire with your career capital. Once you have the capital to identify a good mission, you must still work to make it succeed. By using little bets and the law of remarkability, you greatly increase your chances of finding ways to transform your mission from a compelling idea into a compelling career.
Most knowledge workers avoid the uncomfortable strain of deliberate practice like the plague, a reality emphasized by the typical cubicle dweller’s obsessive e-mail checking habit for what is this behavior if not an escape from work that’s more demanding.
Rule #1 argued that “follow your passion” was bad advice, which provides the motivation for your quest to figure out what does matter.
Rule #2 concludes that the things that make great work great are rare and valuable and if you want them in your career you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. You have to put in the effort to be “so good they can’t ignore you.” This entails acquiring career capital — likely leveraging deliberate practice.
Rule #3 argued that control over what you do and how you do it is such a powerful force for building remarkable careers that it could rightly be called a “Dream-job exlir.”
Finally, Rule #4 explained that a career mission is an organizing purpose to your working life. True missions require two things: First you need 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.
In summary, don’t obsess over discover your true calling. Instead, master rare and valuable skills. Once you build up the career capital that these skills generate, invest it wisely. Use it to acquire control over what you do and how you do it, and to identify and act on a life-changing mission.