So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Cal Newport contends that “following your passion” is bad advice. Why? Because many interesting careers have complicated origin stories (13). It’s not just, “Hey, I loved doing this, and then found the perfect job which matched my love. Often, people stumble into a field. Being passionate about often takes time and mastery  (17). Telling people to “find their passion” is also dangerous because it can leave them adrift (24).

So if following our passion is bad, what should be done instead to find a good job? Well, first, in order to get a good job you need to be “so good they can’t ignore you” (33). Good jobs don’t hand themselves out freely. You need to earn them. And you earn them by adopting a Craftsman Mindset: “[you] put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good” (39).

When you get really good at something, you build up what Newport calls “career capital.” Career capital is rare and valuable skills that you “trade” for a really good job (44). A really good job is going to have three characteristics: creativity, impact, and control (43). Newport does warn, however, that “bad” jobs do exist too (56): jobs where you can’t “move up” or actively harms the world or has a terrible work culture.

If becoming really good lands you a good job, then how you do become good? Newport tells us that it’s through “deliberate practice”–practice which pushes you (86). But even if you want to deliberately practice in your field, it can be difficult to know how to do this. So Newport lays out five steps to really honing focus on what and how to practice.

First, you need to know what kind of skills “market” are you in: winner-take-all or auction (91-92). In other words, does only one skill matter or does acquiring many different skills matter. For example, in the music industry, the only thing that matters is producing good music (winner-take-all). But in the pastorate, however, you can acquire many different traits that make you successful (preaching, counseling, leadership, etc.). Auction markets are often filled with “open gates”–opportunities to build on a foundation (94). Use those.

Second, you need to define what it means to be “good.” You need clear goals to hit (96).

Third, you need to stretch yourself beyond what you think is possible (97). Then you need to get feedback (coaching) on how you’re doing (98). Finally, you need to be patient. Keep pushing the sled, day-in-day-out, week after week. Be focused and “reject shiny new pursuits” (99).

Once you get really good, what is the key to a good job? What is so powerful that Newport calls it the “dream-job elixir”? It’s control. Control over your work life is central to having work you love (111). When you don’t have people telling you when you come in, when you leave, and what to do, you’ll be happier in your work life. There are, however, certain traps that come with pursuing more control. One trap is that many people try to leverage more control without the requisite “career capital” (117). You need to be in a position of strength in the negotiation. Another trap is that once you have enough career capital, there will be resistance to you exerting control (112). How do you avoid these control traps? Summarizing Derek Sivers, Newport says, “Do what people are willing pay for” (137). In general, if people will pay for it, then it’s a valuable job and skill (139).

A final piece of having good work is putting one’s work into the context of a larger mission (152). Essentially: What are you all about and why is your work important? Everyone wants to believe their life matters. But developing a larger mission for your work, however, is very hard (154). So how do you do this? First, you gotta get really good at something so you can have a “breakthrough” or innovate (161). Your breakthrough will be your “thing” that you’re all about. Your breakthrough will be your mission. Breakthrough’s come just beyond the “cutting edge” in a place that’s known as the “adjacent possible” (160). Getting good also requires focus (thinking small) but then pushing through the cutting edge to your breakthrough (acting big) (167).

As you search for your mission, operate out of a place of strength but make little bets (small but significant wins) (179). For example, someone shouldn’t leave their corporate job for an organic farm until they’ve built up enough skill to be really, really good at farming. A little bit for this person might be working on the farm on a weekend and learning as much as they can. They still operate out of a place of strength (they’re still getting a paycheck from their corporate job) but they’re able to make little bets. Once they become really good at farming, they might be able to find their breakthrough in the “adjacent possible.” (This is very Taleb’s barbell method).

Once you narrow down your search as to what will be your “thing,” you need to have it be “remarkable”–people want to talk about it (190). But you also need a way of spreading the word about your project (191).

Applications for me:

Adopt a Craftsman Mindset: Get really, really at preaching and leadership. This means deliberate practice. This means setting aside time blocks for “Leadership Learning.” Here are the practices that I will adopt: Closing “open-loops” on morning book. Every morning, I will read a portion of an interesting book rather than surfing the internet. I will then perform a “finishing move” on the book which will let me move on to the next one. The “finishing move” for a book is writing analysis and application and then posting it to my blog. Once it is complete, I can move on to the next book. I will focus on learning from others at Church Fuel and performing the exercises prescribed in their videos in order to push my leadership skill. If I am caught up on all their content, I will read preaching books and begin writing arresting introductions and submitting them for feedback.

I will make “little bets” in my leadership more often. I will attempt do try new things out of a position of strength and solicit feedback.

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