Now in my late 40s, I’ve seen several of my peers doubt whether they want to work in the same field for the rest of their lives. I’ll confess I’ve had doubts over the years, which I think is normal for any thinking being. So I’m interested in people who remain steadfast in their field, who crack some kind of code for doing work they love and dedicate their lives to it. This is what drew me to So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport which investigates what makes a compelling career and how to create one. The book gives an excellent case study to illustrate.
In 2004, Kirk French was an archaeology student who was interviewed by the History Channel’s Lost Worlds programme about the subject of his thesis: Mayan waterways. The experience of working with a TV crew struck a chord and became a potential mission for his career: to bring modern archaeology to a mass audience. He set about trying to make this a reality. First, he acquired the original 16mm reels of a classical documentary about Mexico and planned on filming an update to the story. Still with the idea for his mission in his head, he followed up on a random call to his university department by a member of the public who found bones in their garden. He went to meet them to explain the principles of archaeology while filming the encounter with the goal of producing a documentary. Around the same time, the Discovery channel put word out that they wanted a reality show of something to do with archaeology. A TV production company contacted the university and he sent in his footage. The Discovery Channel loved it and funded a preliminary 8 episodes, called American Treasures.
The central thesis of the book is encapsulated in Kirk’s story: you don’t stumble across work you love; you create it.
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, and then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers.
One of those traits, Newport says, is having a mission for your career – a central focus to your career that leaves you energised at the end of the day rather than drained.
This flies in the face of common career advice that tells you to follow your passion to find work you love. Just do what you love and the money will follow.
The passion hypothesis is not just wrong, it’s also dangerous. Telling someone to “follow their passion” is not just an act of innocent optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.
The passion hypothesis myth
Newport’s first chapter is dedicated to dismantling this myth: the notion that the key to doing work you love is to follow your passion. In other words, first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion. He points out that there are indeed many cases when people grow up knowing what they want to do for the rest of their lives, such as successful golfers, singers, and artists. But these are rare. For most of us, passion takes time, and the rest of the book is dedicated to figuring out how people really end up loving what they do. Spoiler alert: they involve developing skills to build career capital, having control over what you do and pursuing a career mission.
Career capital is an asset you develop that becomes valuable to employers. For something to become valuable, it needs to be in demand, and preferably, in short supply. So, to proactively develop career capital, you develop skills that are rare and valuable to employers.
The good news is that you can build up this career capital in any job. Instead of searching for THE job, you should put more emphasis on finding a job where you can build up valuable skills and eventually career capital.
Working right trumps finding the right work-it’s a simple idea, but it’s also incredibly subversive, as it overturns decades of folk career advice all focused on the mystical value of passion. It wrenches us away from our daydreams of an overnight transformation into instant job bliss and provides instead a more sober way toward fulfillment.
In other words, you have to “put in the reps” to develop a set of rare and valuable skills, which become your career capital. In other words, by choosing the right skill to develop, and then putting in the practice until you become good at it.
Choosing the right skills to practice
Rare and valuable skills are different for every industry and sector, so identifying the right ones is a challenge. If you’re a basketball player, it’s obvious you need to practise shooting hoops. But if you’re a knowledge worker, it isn’t so clear.
In his podcast, Deep Questions, Cal Newport gives some advice on how to identify the skills you should develop. He suggests identifying someone in your field that has reached a level of success that you admire and then interview them like a journalist. Don’t ask for their advice—people are terrible at giving advice—ask them to tell you their story and get them to explain what enabled them to move from step to step. Try to figure out the skills they were good at and enabled them to make the big leaps in their career. In other words, why them and not someone else? The skills you identify are the ones that really matter and those which you should develop
As an academic, Newport practices ‘background research’ in his general field of expertise.
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, to my growing “research bible” … I also try to carve out one walk each day for free-form thinking about the ideas turned up by this background research ….
Having control over what you do
Once you have built up your career capital, to do work you love you should cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers. One of those traits is ‘control’. Newport studied many people doing work they love and they all had control over what they do and when they do it. For many people, this means working for yourself by starting a business or going freelance. But starting a business before you have the requisite skills and experience can be folly. In other words, it can be dangerous to try to gain more control without enough capital to back it up. In one example, a man started a farm selling local produce only after he’d been working at it on a smaller scale for several years. In other words, he didn’t give up his job to be a farmer overnight (which I’m sure many a city worker has tried). Instead, he chipped away at his dream over years and eventually took the plunge.
But Newport goes on to say that having a career mission is the ultimate achievement.
To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions. It provides an answer to the question, What should I do with my life? Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximises 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.
To me, this chimes with Victor Frankl’s advice that the meaning to life differs from one person to the next, rather than the same for all. It’s a very personal thing, whether that be a specific problem to solve or a person to live for. As Frankl says in Man’s Search for Meaning:
…being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfil or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.
Newport describes several people who have career missions. I shared the story of Kirk French above who wanted to bring archaeology to a mass audience by making it accessible and entertaining. He also describes Pardis Sabeti, an academic whose research into crippling diseases in Africa catapulted her to the top of her field and became the single focus for her life. The people he describes are those that have made the leap to a career mission on the back of a breakthrough event that brings a kind of attention-grabbing success.
Having this external validity and prominence, he argues, is what can transform your career into something compelling. Then this becomes your mission in life – something that will feature in your obituary and people will talk about long after you’re gone.
The case studies also highlight another point: that you first need to start with a general mission to develop your skills in and work on specific projects to identify a breakthrough.
Once you identify a general mission, however, you’re still left with the task of launching specific projects that make it succeed. An effective strategy for accomplishing this task is to try small steps that generate concrete feedback – little bets – and then use this feedback, be it good or bad, to help figure out what to try next.
These little bets Newport argues, come from systematically experimenting with different missions to seek out a direction worth pursuing.
The important thing about little bets is that they are bite sized. You try one, it takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps.
But what should these little bets be of? Here, Newport talks about the ‘adjacent possible’, an idea coined by science writer Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From.
The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas.
In other words, 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.
Ideas that spread
But a breakthrough doesn’t launch your career unless people know about it. And this is where the law of remarkability comes in, taken from Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow which said “you’re either remarkable or invisible”. This law says that for a project to transform a mission into a success, it should be remarkable in two ways. First, it must literally compel people to remark about it. Second, it must be launched in a venue conducive to such remarking.
The project first needs to cause someone to remark about it and say to their friends “you have to see this!“ It must also be launched in a venue that is suitable for making remarks, like a conference or online community.
For those in my sector, publishing a paper in a peer reviewed journal is oftentimes the place where career missions are launched. But it can also spread through word of mouth, and eventually reach a news outlet which takes it mainstream.
Putting it all together
Newport sums this process up nicely:
In sum, mission is one of the most important traits you can acquire with your career capital. But adding this trait to your working life is not simple. 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.
This is useful food for thought. This is certainly one way to achieve a compelling career, and I’m sure there are several others. There are elements of this book that I’ll take forward, such as building rare and valuable skills through repetition and practice, like writing this blog. The book has an interesting take on what it means to build a meaningful career and there are plenty of stories which makes it easy to read. I’d recommend it for anyone thinking deeply about why we work, at any stage of their career.