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🏅 So Good they Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport

Instead of following your passion, you should develop skills and experience, then leverage them to have more autonomy and control over the work you do and your day-to-day schedule.

Goodreads link

I really enjoyed this book, both as a good thought exercise and a collection of compelling stories from people working on cool things.

This book has come up a few times in the past six months, and then listening to Cal Newport’s podcast (Deep Questions) really sold it.

🚀 3-Sentence Summary

Don’t chase your passion because you will be disappointed with entry level jobs and probably many jobs until you get to the top of the ladder.

Develop a marketable skill, which he calls career capital, and you will slowly find work that brings you satisfaction (key recipe of control, competence, and impact).

The most successful “mission-driven” work lies at the intersection of your skills and interest.

👍🏼 Who should read / watch / listen to it

People who want to be more intentional about their career trajectory. Even if you disagree with some of his points, he has lots of good examples and talks to some very interesting people. He even explains how to be remarkable.

✍️ How it changed me

This book introduced me to the goal of climbing up the ladder of career autonomy, which is much more appealing than earning more money every year. I now see my work goals as ways to focus more intentionally on the work that I want to do, with the schedule that I want to have. Maybe that won’t happen tomorrow, but I like having that as something to try to attain.

💬 Top 3 Quotes

1. Steve Jobs followed his own path

“Like Jobs, should we resist settling into one rigid career and instead try lots of small schemes, waiting for one to take off? Does it matter what general field we explore? How do we know when to stick with a project or when to move on? In other words, Jobs’s story generates more questions than it answers. Perhaps the only thing it does make clear is that, at least for Jobs, follow your passion’ was not particularly useful advice.”

2. Study showing that college students can’t identify a passion job

“In 2002, a research team led by the Canadian psychologist Robert J. Vallerand administered an extensive questionnaire to a group of 539 Canadian university students. The questionnaire’s prompts were designed to answer two important questions: Do these students have passions? And if so, what are they? … In fact, less than 4 percent of the total identified passions had any relation to work or education, with the remaining 96 percent describing hobby-style interests such as sports and art.”

3. On Deliberate Practice

“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. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.” — Geoff Colvin

** You might also like my book summary of Made to Stick:
Full of actionable lessons on how to share information clearly and so that it spreads. **

📔 Summary + Notes

1) Don’t Chase Passion

Story of Thomas, who studied philosophy and theology and after teaching English abroad and other jobs, ended up cleaning the floors at a Buddhist monastery in the Catskills. It sounds brutal.

“Thomas had followed his passion to the Zen Mountain Monastery, 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. But as Thomas experienced that late Sunday afternoon in the oak forest, this belief is frighteningly naïve. Fulfilling his dream to become a full-time Zen practitioner did not magically make his life wonderful”

Steve Jobs chased cash more often than he sought spiritual enlightenment. He says in commencement speeches that you should follow your passion, but did he?

“Like Jobs, should we resist settling into one rigid career and instead try lots of small schemes, waiting for one to take off? Does it matter what general field we explore? How do we know when to stick with a project or when to move on? In other words, Jobs’s story generates more questions than it answers. Perhaps the only thing it does make clear is that, at least for Jobs, “follow your passion” was not particularly useful advice.”

It takes hard work to gain competence at activities. Just take Ira Glass as an example:

“Glass emphasizes that it takes time to get good at anything, recounting the many years it took him to master radio to the point where he had interesting options. “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase,” he says.”

Career passions are rare:

“In 2002, a research team led by the Canadian psychologist Robert J. Vallerand administered an extensive questionnaire to a group of 539 Canadian university students. The questionnaire’s prompts were designed to answer two important questions: Do these students have passions? And if so, what are they? … In fact, less than 4 percent of the total identified passions had any relation to work or education, with the remaining 96 percent describing hobby-style interests such as sports and art.”

Conclusion – college students have no idea what passion could turn into a job!

Passion Takes Time:

“[Amy Wrzesniewski] surveyed the assistants to figure out why they saw their work so differently, and discovered that the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job. In other words, the more experience an assistant had, the more likely she was to love her work.”

Passion Is a Side Effect of Mastery

The actual things that motivate you for work, (called nutriments by Wrzesniewski)

  • Control – having autonomy over your schedule
  • Competence / creativity – a sense of skill at what you do
  • Impact – either feeling that what you do is valuable to society as a whole or to your community, which may just be your other coworkers.

2) Clarity of the Craft

Stop focusing on the little details. Focus instead on becoming better.

Cal Newport tracks the hours he spends dedicated to thinking hard about research problems (deep work) and he wants that effort to translate into high-quality work.

One example is studio musicians – when you lay down a track, everyone can hear how well you play. The tape doesn’t lie – a good summary of focusing on what counts. Being so good they can’t ignore you.

Problems with Passion Mindset:

  1. If you are looking for what your job can do for you, you will be disappointed, especially with entry-level jobs, where most people start.
  2. When you tell yourself that your job communicates your passion, it constantly brings up the question of who am I and what do I love, which are moving targets. This can leave a person constantly searching for an answer, or worse yet, just confused.

If you want a great job, you need to offer something unique in exchange, and that’s where career capital comes in. When you develop a marketable skill, then you can leverage that value to get the job you want, with the conditions you desire (vacation, four day weeks in the summer, etc)

3) It matters how you work

Charness did the study that led to the 10,000-hour rule, but one thing people often miss is that it also matters what type of work was done during that time. Looking at chess players that invested the same amount of time, the ones that ended up grandmasters spent five times more hours in serious study of the game. Not just playing games, but studying the difficult parts.

And Malcolm Gladwell did the same thing – he spent 10 years writing for Washington Post before he moved to the New Yorker and started writing The Tipping Point.

Deliberate Practice

Just showing up will only get you so far, and then you’ll face a performance plateau. An important ingredient to developing skills is committing to deliberate practice.

Another way to evaluate if you are improving is to get honest feedback from peers.

4) Mission Driven Work

Best when it is a discovery of something at the intersection of your skills.

Breakthroughs – these come most often from systematic work grinding away and learning and uncovering new information. Dedicated practice! And Steve Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From) calls these the adjacent possible.

To make your work remarkable, you want to work on something worthy of remarks from others, but it also should encourage people to share it.

E.g. making a new programming language.

Law of Financial Viability

From Derek Sivers – if you want to go do something, first ask if people will be willing to pay for that thing.

“Do what people are willing to pay for” — Derek Sivers

Control trap

One challenge is that as you acquire more career capital, employers will want more of your time. Meanwhile, you want to leverage your skills to get more control. Therein lies the challenge of pushing against the tide to get what you want.

Little Bets

There’s an argument that tech innovation was all progressed through little bets, that follow these criteria. Use them for innovation!

  • 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.

5) Cal Newport does Deep Work

Inspired by Feynman’s technique of tearing down important papers and mathematical concepts until he could understand them from the bottom up. His intellect was a result of dedication to deliberate practice.

He teaches himself that strain is good, sometimes by setting aside just one hour at a time for deep work. And then he forces himself once a week to summarize a paper that is relevant to his research. He also notes the strategies he used to figure out the result or reverse engineer the conclusions of the paper.

“Here’s my rule: Every week, I expose myself to something new about my field. I can read a paper, attend a talk, or schedule a meeting. To ensure that I really understand the new idea, I require myself to add a summary, in my own words…”

❇️ More Resources

🎙 Podcasts

Improving Concentration, Influential Books, and Figuring Out What to Focus On | DEEP QUESTIONSCal Newport’s podcast, good questions at 41 minutes is “How do you determine areas that are worth pursuing?”

Cal Newport | Art of Charm (Ep 482)I haven’t listened to this one

📚 Bibliography Highlights

The goal is to always find at least one interesting book in the bibliography!

Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin – Book about Deliberate Practice

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims (New York: Free Press, 2011).

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t – Robert I. Sutton – For more details about the Control Trap and its dangers

Land and Water: an ecological study of Teotihuacan valley of Mexico – an interesting-sounding documentary from 1961

“An Hour with Steve Martin” (originally aired on PBS, December 12, 2007), available online at: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/8831.

Interview with Ira Glass, Roadtrip Nation Online Episode Archive, 2005, http://roadtripnation.com/IraGlass.

“ROWE Business Case,” Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) website, http://gorowe.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/ROWE-Business-Case.pdf

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