This year I’ve joined a Mastermind-style online support group.
One of the books members are strongly recommended to read is Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
Newport explores how some people end up loving what they do in their careers, and sets out strategies that can help the reader develop a compelling career.
The core idea of this book is simple:
To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills. You then cash-in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers.
Having read the book I have several takeaway insights, the first of which is:
Blindly “following your passion” is a fallacy, and very bad advice.
We’ve all heard, and perhaps given, advice sounding like “do what you love, and the money will follow.”
This is bad advice that potentially can be counterproductive and damaging to your career. Such a mindset focuses on “what can the world offer me?” instead of considering what value you can offer others.
Described in the book as “the Passion Mindset”, this attitude also makes you very conscious of (and unhappy over) what you don’t like about your jobs.
The passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, but not a moment before.
Why is this the wrong approach? And what’s the right one?
“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before.”
Floyd Mayweather famously says that “skills pay the bills.” For Newport, it is our rare and valuable skills — our career capital — that need to be offered in return to secure great work.
The fundamental traits that define this great work, or make a great job are:
You’ll notice these traits are also rare and valuable. They are not on offer for most people, and are even rarer for those building up experience early in their careers.
This is basic economics, supply and demand.
Instead of the Passion Mindset, Newport recommends we adopt the “Craftsman Mindset” to build up this career capital so it is of real value to us and others.
The Craftsman Mindset is a relentless focus on becoming so good they can’t ignore you. You concentrate, laser-like on the quality of what you produce.
Its the mindset for acquiring as much career capital as possible. The most successful people seldom arrive at their outstanding roles by following a clear passion. Instead they carefully and persistently gather this career capital, confident that valuable skills will translate into valuable opportunities.
But how do we decide how best to amass and deploy this career capital?
When you are acquiring career capital in your field, you are doing so in a specific type of career ‘capital market.’
There are two types of these markets: winner-take-all and auction.
In the former, there is only one type of career capital available, and lots of different people competing for it. For example if you are competing for a scriptwriting role for a new TV show, the ONLY thing that is worthwhile is the raw quality of your scriptwriting. When looking through the applicants, the hiring team won’t care how slick their presentation skills are, how assiduously organised they may be or how many languages they can speak. In other words, a winner-take-all market is a market in which the best performers can capture a very large share of the rewards, and the remaining competitors are left with very little.
The auction market is much less structured. There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique, diverse collection. There are a variety of other types of relevant skills that can also lead to a job in these fields.
From my own personal experience, the field of politics is unquestionably a winner-take-all market. One word (among many) I use to describe backroom politics is “arbitrary.”
Having friendships and arbitrary connections with a tiny group of people is virtually the sole determinant of progression in backroom politics. And this tiny group of people also came to wield this arbitrary leverage through, arbitrary friendships, relationships and connections. Winner-take-all.
Deciding which of these markets you’re operating in will help you build a strategy for what type of deliberate practice you need to hone and develop your skills.
To underline the value of being productive with your time, Newport compares the way he approached learning how to play the guitar, with his friend Jordan’s more intelligent approach.
Newport wanted to cling fiercely to the familiar, easy-to-play songs he had learnt reluctantly when he was younger.
By contrast, Jordan was more open to experimenting and improvising off-the-cuff. He was dedicated to playing his way through the mental strain that comes from doing something new. Jordan made himself uncomfortable by repeating the harder tracks, eventually developing muscle memory so he could be more relaxed when he played — and therefore the better his music sounded.
On the other hand Newport, as the more contrived guitarist, acknowledges that his “discomfort with mental discomfort was a liability in the performance world.”
Jordan engaged in deliberate practice, constantly stretching himself beyond what was comfortable — and improving through the instant feedback that was being provided.
Deliberate practice involves a craft- rather than productivity-centric approach. Most of us love getting things done, ticking things off our to-do list. Here we often confuse the urgent for the important. But this productivity mindset can distract you from deliberate practice-inducing tasks.
Getting better at what you do matters more than getting small things done.
Money is not only an indicator of value, but also an effective judge of it.
Therefore, you should only make a bid for more control in your career if you have evidence that it’s something that people are willing to pay you for.
In plainer terms: do what people are willing to pay for.
When you’re deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit and attain more worklife autonomy, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it.
This flexible definition of “willing to pay” can mean customers paying you money for a product or a service. It could also mean being approved for a bank loan, receiving an external investment or convincing an employer to hire you, or to continue paying your salary.
The principle of doing what people are willing to pay for is what Newport calls the “Law of Financial Viability.”
Control is the illusive, powerful trait that shows up so often in the lives of people who love what they do. So much so it is described as the ‘dream-job elixir.’
However, people encounter two common pitfalls when pursuing more control over what they do and how they do it.
These pitfalls, known as ‘control traps’ are:
1) It is dangerous trying to gain more control in your working life before you have enough career capital to offer in exchange to back it up.
2) Once you have enough of this capital, you become valuable enough to your employer that they will fight your efforts to gain more autonomy.
Now let’s say you have an idea for pursuing more control in your career, and you’re encountering resistance. You can’t tell whether this resistance is useful for avoiding the first trap, or is something to ignore as it is the result of the second trap?
The answer lies in the Law of Financial Viability, where you use money as a neutral indicator of value to determine whether you have enough career capital to succeed with a pursuit.
Unless people are willing to pay you, it’s not an idea you’re ready to go after.
Geneticist Dr Pardis Sabeti has managed to avoid the grinding cynicism in her very demanding academic field.
When the Ebola epidemic began in West Africa, Dr Sabeti led a team that sequenced virus samples from infected patients almost as soon as the outbreak began. This marked the first in-depth use of real-time DNA sequencing in the midst of such a deadly pandemic.
She also plays volleyball, the acoustic guitar and is the lead singer for the rock band Thousand Days.
An impressive rap sheet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly she says she truly loves what she does.
Newport says Pardis’ happiness comes from the fact that she built her career on a clear and compelling mission. Something that gives meaning to her work but also provides the energy needed to embrace life outside the laboratory.
Her goal, put simply, is to rid the world of its most ancient and deadly diseases.
And to have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career.
A mission can span multiple job roles and provides an answer to the question: What should I do with my life?
And as your expertise, confidence, and passion grows, you will begin to see your work as a vocation or calling.
“Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on your world — a crucial factor in loving what you do. 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.”
Because you have developed such mastery of rare and useful skills, you have the perspective and context to discern the “cutting edge” of your field.
You can then begin making distinct connections and projections into what has been dubbed, “the adjacent possible.”
Steven Johnson describes this as “a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”
In other words, this is how you become an innovator and a shaper of societal and global change.
The best ideas for missions are found in this adjacent possible — the region just beyond the current cutting edge.
To find challenging work that provides you with a sense of respect, impact and autonomy don’t try to match your work to your passion.
Do your work well and then strategically cash in the capital it has generated.
“Don’t obsess over discovering 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.”
I will leave you with the genesis of the title of the book, actor Steve Martin in this interview.
Thanks for reading!
Originally published at medium.com