So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport

This might be the best book about career advice written to date, especially for young people who are just getting started, who are trying to figure out what to do with their lives, or what they’re passionate about. This book explores answers to the questions: Why do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal? And how do we end up passionate about our careers? And the author’s thinking is extremely clear, as he lays out an air-tight argument for how to create a great working life. You’ll find yourself nodding along, saying to yourself: “Yes! That totally makes sense, I never thought about it that way.” It will completely change the way you approach your career, if you let it.

The book in three sentences

Don’t obsess over finding your passion, instead focus intensely on mastering rare and valuable skills. Once you build up the career capital that these skills generate, invest it wisely. Use it to acquire greater control over what you do and how you do it, and to identify and act on a life-chasing mission.


- Don’t “follow your passion.” Stop soul-searching and trying to figure out what your true calling is ahead of time. Leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. Instead of focusing on what value your job can offer you, focus relentlessly on what value you’re offering the world and have an obsessive focus on the quality of what you produce. Regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer.

- Be so good they can’t ignore you. Focus on getting really good at rare and valuable skills — not on finding your passion — and then use the career capital this process generates to invest in acquiring the traits that make for a compelling career (i.e. control and mission).

- Regardless of how you feel about your job right now, do whatever you do really well, thus ensuring that you come away from each experience with as much career capital as possible. After each working experience, stick your head up to see who is interested in your newly expanded store of capital, and then jump at whatever opportunity seems most promising.  

- Figure out how to integrate deliberate practice in your life. Introduce some practice strategies into your working life that will force you to make deliberate practice a regular companion in your daily routine (e.g. research bible, hour-tally, theory-notebook routines, etc). Approach your career like an elite musician, professional athlete, or chess grandmaster would — with a dedication to deliberate practice. Develop a systematic and painstaking practice regime for your field of work that’s designed — ideally by a teacher — for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of your performance. Schedule time every week for deliberately practicing the skills that matter most in your field.

- Practice in a way where (a) the materials are deliberately chosen or adapted such that the problems to be solved are at a level that is appropriately challenging, carefully chosen to stretch your abilities just beyond what is comfortable in the areas that most need stretching, and (b) where you immediately receive ruthless feedback on your performance: be it from looking up the answer in a book, online, an expert coach, or from professionals in your field.

- Out of every 10,000 hours of practice, spend at least 5,000 investing in serious study (aka deliberate practice) of your field — systematically pouring over books and using teachers to help identify and eliminate weaknesses.

- Accustom yourself to hardship. Learn to become comfortable with the mental discomfort and strain that accompanies deliberate practice. Put strain and feedback at the core of your practice regime, and be happy to practice like this for hours at a time.

- Notice when you inevitably hit a performance plateau. When you do, carve out time in your schedule for deliberate practice, where you stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and receive ruthless feedback on your performance.

- Constantly be soliciting feedback from colleagues and professionals. Choose projects where you’d be forced to show your work to others.

- Throw yourself into a project that’s just beyond your current capabilities and where you’re receiving direct feedback. And then hustle to make it a success.

- To build a deliberate practice strategy:

  • (1) Figure out whether you’re competing in a winner-takes-all market or an auction market.
  • (2) Identify the specific type of career capital to pursue (seek open gates — opportunities to build capital that are already open to you).
  • (3) Clearly define what “good” means. You need a clear goal. If you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, then it’s hard to take effective action.
  • (4) When you engage in deliberate practice, remember to stretch and destroy. Deliberate practice is the opposite of enjoyable, and if you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.” Stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.” And embrace honest feedback - even if it destroys what you thought was good. It’s in honest, sometimes harsh feedback that you learn where to retrain your focus in order to continue to make progress. Get feedback from professionals who won’t hesitate to let you know what’s working and what’s not in what you’re producing. Continuous and harsh feedback will accelerate the growth of your ability.
  • (5) Be patient and stay diligent. Recognize there will be frustrating months of hard work and mediocre performing ahead. Ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you. Acquiring career capital can take time. Without this patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your efforts before you acquire the capital you need.

- 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. But make sure you always have enough career capital to back you up before you make a bid for more control in your working life.

- Once you’ve acquired enough career capital, you will face resistance from your employer, friends and family as you try to invest it to get meaningful control over your working life - they will try to prevent you from making the change, offering more money and prestige instead of more control. This is precisely the time to be courageous, stay the course and push through those demands and temptations.

- Do what people are willing to pay for. Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable. When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on. If you’re struggling to raise money for an idea, or are thinking that you will support your idea with unrelated work, then you need to rethink the idea.

- If you want to identify a mission for your working life you must first get to the cutting edge, so you can see the adjacent possible beyond — the only place where these missions become visible. First start by mastering a promising niche — a process that requires patience and that may take years of work — and only then, once you’ve acquired enough capital, turn your attention to seek a mission.

- To make the leap from identifying a realistic mission to succeeding in making it a reality: deploy a methodical series of little bets — small, bite-sized, concrete experiments about what might be a good direction — that return concrete feedback and allow you to learn critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant wins (rather than believing you have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance). 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.

- Before launching a mission-driven project, make sure it’s remarkable in the two following ways: (1) it should compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others (i.e. to take notice and spread the word, to write their friends and tell them, “You haveto see this!”), and (2) it must be launched in a value that supports such remarking (i.e. where there’s an established infrastructure in the community for noticing and spreading the word about interesting projects).

- Resist the lure of distraction and to work on things that don’t matter. Fight against the internal resistance your mind feels and the intense wave of neuronal protest it unleashes when it realizes the effort you’re about to ask it to expend on deliberate practice. It’s much easier to redesign your website than it is to grapple with a mind-melting problem/project. Tell yourself: "I am going to work on this for one hour. I don’t care if I faint from the effort, or make no progress, for the next hour this is my whole world." It takes about 10 minutes for the waves of resistance to die down.

Book notes


- Follow your passion is dangerous advice

- Thomas nurtured his conviction that Buddhism held the key to his happiness. Over time, this daydream evolved into the idea of him living as a monk. “I had built up such an incredible fantasy about Zen practice and living in a Zen monastery. It came to represent my dream come true.” All other work paled in comparison to this fantasy. He was dedicated to following his passion.

- We build up these romanticized fantasies that only exist in our mind, before we even know what the day to day is like doing that thing, and if we’d enjoy the process of doing it

- 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 this belief is frighteningly naive. Fulfilling his dream to become a full-time Zen practitioner did notmagically make his life wonderful. As Thomas discovered, the path to happiness — as least as it concerns what you do for a living — is more complicated than simply answering the classic question “What should I do with my life?"

- Why do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal?

- When it comes to creating work you love, following your passion is not particularly useful advice. So what doesgenerate a passion for one’s livelihood? How do people end up loving what they do? And if “follow your passion” is bad advice, what should I do instead? What matters and what doesn’t when building a compelling career?

- The conventional wisdom on career success — follow your passion— is seriously flawed. It not only fails to describe how most people actually end up with compelling careers, but for many people it can actually make things worse: leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst when, as it did for Thomas, one’s reality inevitably falls short of the dream.

- The narratives in this book are bound by a common thread: the importance of ability. The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job (or a meaningful and fulfilling career).

- Mastery by itself is not enough to guarantee happiness: the many examples of well-respected but miserable workaholics support this claim. Accordingly, this main thread of my argument moves beyond the mere acquisition of useful skills and into the subtle art of investing the career capital this generates into the right types of traits in your working life.

- This argument flips conventional wisdom. It relegates passion to the sidelines, claiming that this feeling is an epiphenomenon of a working life well lived. Don’t follow your passion; rather, let it follow youin your quest to become, in the words of Steve Martin, “so good they can’t ignore you.”


Chapter 1: The “passion” of Steve Jobs

- The Passion Hypothesis: The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches that passion.

- Do what Steve Jobs did, not what he said. In Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech he famously said “You’ve got to find what you love. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.” The problem is Jobs didn’t apply that advice in his own life. If you had met a young Steve Jobs in the years leading up to his founding of Apple Computer, you wouldn’t have pegged him as someone who was passionate about starting a technology company. In the months leading up to the start of his visionary company, Jobs was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash. Jobs and Woz first started by designing circuit boards for model-kit computers and selling them to local computer hobbyists for $50 a piece, and made $1000 profit. Neither Woz nor Jobs left their regular jobs: this was strictly a low-risk venture meant for their free time. Next, Paul Terrell said he’d pay $500 for fully assembled computers to sell in his store, and wanted fifty as soon as they could be delivered. Jobs jumped at the opportunity to make an even larger amount of money and began scrounging together start-up capital. It was in this unexpected windfall that Apple Computer was born. Their plans were circumspect and small-time. They weren’t dreaming of taking over the world. If Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, we would probably find him today as one of the Los Altos Zen Center’s most popular teachers. But he didn’t follow this simple advice. Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break — a small-time scheme that unexpectedly took off. I don’t doubt that Jobs eventually grew passionate about his work If you’ve watched one of his famous keynote addresses, you’ve seen a man who obviously loved what he did. But so what?All that tells us is that it’s good to enjoy what you do.This advice, though true, borders on the tautological and doesn’t help us with the pressing question that we actually care about: How do we find work that we’ll eventually love?

Chapter 2: Passion is rare

- It turns out Jobs’s complicated path to fulfilling work is common among interesting people with interesting careers

- In an interview with Roadtrip Nation, where a group of four recent college grads set out on a cross-country toad trip to interview people who lived lives centered around what was meaningful to them, NPR host Ira Glass was pressed for wisdom on how to “figure out what you want” and “know what you’ll be good at.” Glass told them, “In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream. But I don’t believe that. Things happen in stages.” 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. I feel like your problem is that you’re trying to judge all things in the abstract before you do them. That’s your tragic mistake.”

- It’s hard to predict in advance what you’ll eventually grow to love

- Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion

- Why do some people enjoy their work while so many other people don’t?

  • 1. Pre-existing career passions are rare - The most commonly identified passions don’t have much to offer when it comes to choosing a job (i.e. dance, skiing, reading, swimming). How can we follow our passions if we don’t have any relevant passions to follow?
  • 2. Passion takes time - The type of work alone does not necessarily predict how much people will enjoy it. The strongest predictor of someone seeing their work as a calling (rather than a job or a career) was the number of years spent on the job. In other words, the more experience we have, the more likely we are to love our work. The happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.
  • 3. Passion is a side-effect of mastery - Self-determination theory tells us that motivation, in the workplace or elsewhere, requires that you fulfill three basic psychological needs — factors described as the “nutriments” required to feel intrinsically motivated for your work:
  • Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important
  • Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do
  • Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people

- It’s clear that autonomy and competence are related. In most jobs, as you become better at what you do, not only do you get the sense of accomplishment that comes from being good, but you’re typically also rewarded with more control over your responsibilities.

- It takes time to build the competence and autonomy that generates this enjoyment.

Chapter 3: Passion is dangerous

- Even if you accept my argument that the passion hypothesis is flawed, it’s at this point that you might respond “Who cares!” If the passion hypothesis can encourage even a small number of people to leave a bad job or experiment with their career, you might argue, then it has provided a service. The fact that this occupational fairy tale has spread so far should not cause concern. I disagree. The more I studied the issue, the more I noticed that the passion hypothesis convinces people that where there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.

- The more we focused on loving what we do, the less we ended up loving it.

- The passion hypothesis is not just wrong, it’s also dangerous.


Chapter 4: The clarity of the craftsman

- The Passion Mindset - a focus on what value your job offers you

- The Craftsman Mindset - a focus on what value you’re producing in your job

- “I don’t derive any arrogance from that specific thing.”

- I told him I was impressed by the speed of the licks. “No, this is slow,” he replied. He then showed me the pace he’s working toward: it’s at least twice as fast. “I can’t quite make the trail yet,” he apologized after it slipped away from him. “I guess I could do it, but I can’t get the notes to pop out yet like I want it.” At my request, Jordan laid out his practice regimen for this song. He starts by playing slow enough that he can get the effects he desires: he wants the key notes of the melody to ring while he fills the space in between with runs up and down the fretboard. Then he adds speed — just enough that he can’t quite make things work. He repeats this again and again. “It’s a physical and mental exercise,” he explained. “You’re trying to keep track of different melodies and things.” He called his work on this song his “technical focus” of the moment. In a typical day, if he’s not preparing for a show, he’ll practice with this same intensity, always playing just a little faster than he’s comfortable, for two or three hours straight. I asked him how long it will take to finally master the new skill. “Probably like a month,” he guessed.

  • I’ve never found the origin stories of performers’ careers to be all that relevant to the rest of us. Musicians’ career paths are idiosyncratic, often relying on unusual circumstances and lucky breaks early in life. Here’s what does interest me about Jordan: how he approaches his work on a daily basis.
  • He’s happy to spend hours every day, week after week, in a barely furnished monastic room, exhausting himself in pursuit of a new flat-picking technique, all because he thinks it will add something important to the tune he’s writing.
  • This dedication to output, I realized, also explains his painful modesty. To Jordan, arrogance doesn’t make sense. “Here’s what I respect: creating something meaningful and then presenting it to the world,” he explained.
  • If you spend any time with professional entertainers, especially those who are just starting out, one of the first things you notice is their insecurity concerning their livelihood. Jordan had a name for the worries about what his friends are doing with their lives and whether his accomplishments compare favorably: “the cloud of external distractions.” Fighting this cloud is an ongoing battle.

- “Nobody ever takes note of my advice, because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’ people are going to come to you.” — Steve Martin

- This is exactly the philosophy that catapulted Martin into stardom. He was only twenty years old when he decided to innovate his act into something too good to be ignored... It took Martin, by his own estimation, ten years for his new act to cohere, but when it did, he became a monster success. It’s clear in his telling that there was no real shortcut to his 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.”

- Stop focusing on the little, insignificant details. Focus instead on becoming better at what you do.

- I turned my attention from my research website to a habit that continues to this day: I track the hours spent each month dedicated to thinking hard about research problems. This hour-tracking strategy helped turn my attention back, above all else, to the quality of what I produce.

- An obsessive focus on the quality of what you produce is the rule. It trumps your appearance, your equipment, your personality, and your connections. “The tape doesn’t lie. Immediately after the recording comes the playback; your ability has no hiding place.”

- If you’re not focusing on becoming so good they can’t ignore you, you’re going to be left behind.

- Irrespective of wat type of work you do, the craftsman mindset is crucial for building a career you love.

- The craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you. The latter is how most people approach their working lives.

- When you focus only on what your work offer you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness. This is especially true for entry-level positions, which, by definition, are not going to be filled with challenging projects and autonomy — these come later. When you enter the working world with the passion mindset, the annoying tasks you’re assigned or the frustrations of corporate bureaucracy can become too much to handle.

- The craftsman mindset asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it — and the process won’t be easy.

- I am suggesting that you put aside the question of whether your job is your true passion, and instead turn your focus toward becoming so good they can’t ignore you. That is, regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer.

- Regardless of how you feel about your job right now, adopting the craftsman mindset will be the foundation on which you’ll build a compelling career. You adopt the craftsman mindset first and THEN the passion follows.

Chapter 5: The power of career 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 — aka career capital — to offer in return.

- Traits that define great work:

  • Creativity - Ira Glass, for example, is pushing the boundaries of radio, and winning armfuls of awards in the process.
  • Impact - From the Apple II to the iPhone, Steve Jobs has changed the way we live our lives in the digital age.
  • Control - No one tells Al Merrick when to wake up or what to wear. He’s not expected in an office from nine to five. Instead, his Channel Island Surfboards factory is located a block from the Santa Barbara beach, where Merrick still regularly spends time surfing. (Jake Burton Carpenter, founder of Burton Snowboards, for example, recalls how negotiations for the merger between the two companies happened while he and Merrick waited for weaves in a surf lineup.)

- Most jobs don’t offer their employees great creativity, impact, or control over what they do and how they do it. Basic economic theory tells us that is you want something that’s both rare and valuable, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return — this is Supply and Demand 101. It follows that if you want a great job, you need something of great value to offer in return. Now that we know what to look for, this transactional interpretation of compelling careers becomes suddenly apparent.

- When you produce something of great value, in return your career gets an injection of creativity, impact, and control.

- “All of us who do creative work… you get into this thing, and there’s like a ‘gap.’ What you’re making isn’t so good, okay?… It’s trying to be good but… it’s just not that great. The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase.” —Ira Glass

- Glass exchanged a collection of hard-won, rare, and valuable skills for his fantastic job.

- With Al Merrick, not surprisingly, we get the same style of story. The rare and valuable skill that launched Merrick’s career as a professional surfboard shaper is crystal clear: his boards won competitions. What’s important to note is that this was not always the case. Merrick picked up the trade of fiberglass shaping from his years spent as a boatbuilder, and he knew about surfing from his own on-again, off-again relationship with the sport, but it took an abundance of hard work to get his board-crafting skills to the place where they were valuable. Having an office a block from the beach, with the freedom to take off to surf on a moment’s notice, sounds great, but it’s not the type of job that is just being handed out. To get it, Merrick realized he needed a rare and valuable skills to offer in exchange. Once he had surf pros like Kelly Slater riding his boards — and winning — he became free to dictate the terms of his working life.

- The career capital theory of great work:

  • The traits that define great work are rare and valuable
  • Supply and demand says that if you want these traits you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. Think of these rare and valuable skills you can offer as your career capital.
  • The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming so good they can’t ignore you, is a strategy well suited for acquiring career capital. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is the create work you love. It’s exactly the mindset you would adopt if your goal was to acquire as much career capital as possible. You need to get good in order to get good things in your working life, and the craftsman mindset is focused on achieving exactly that goal

- Great work doesn’t just require great courage, but also skills of great (and real) value.

- Once you’ve developed enough career capital, you can invest it to gain more autonomy.

- Part of what makes the craftsman mindset thrilling is its agnosticism toward the type of work you do. The traits that define great work are bought with career capital, the theory argues; they don’t come from matching your work to your innate passion. Because of this, you don’t have to sweat whether you’re found your calling — most any work can become the foundation for a compelling career.

- Three disqualifies for applying the craftsman mindset (certain jobs are better suited for applying career capital theory that others):

  • 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.

- A job with any combination of these disqualifying traits can thwart your attempt to build and invest career capital. If it satisfies the first trait, skill growth isn’t possible. If it satisfies the second two traits, then even though you could build up reserves of career capital, you’ll have a hard time sticking around long enough to accomplish this goal.

Chapter 6: The career capitalists

- It didn’t take long for Alex to discover what allows some writers to succeed in catching the attention of a network while so many others fail: they write good scripts — a task that’s more difficult than many imagine. Spurred by this insight, Alex turned his attention to writing. Lots of writing.During the eight months he spent as an assistant he dedicated his nights to working on a trio of different writing projects. “I might finish writing at two or three a.m., then have to leave at eight the next morning to get back to my job at NBC on time." It was a busy period.

- After eight months as an assistant, he heard about a job opening for a script assistant. He jumped at the chance to observe professional TV writers up close, even though it was still a low-level position. On the side he also added to his portfolio a spec script for an HBO series, aggressively seeking feedback on his early drafts. While working as a script assistant, he started to pitch episode ideas to the room. He finally caught the attention of the room and ended up working with one of the staff writers on the show to produce a draft of the episode. With his first produced TV script now in hand, things began to move quickly. After the show he was working on was cancelled, he took another low-level job working with a producer for the run-up for a new show for Fox. Given his writing credit and a collection of increasingly polished spec scripts, this job became an informal tryout for Alex: he was given a chance to impress the producer - which he did. When a spot opened on the writing staff, it was given to Alex: his first official position as a staff writer. He went on to write and air two episodes before the show was canceled. After the cancellation, a mutual friend set up a meeting between Alex and Michael Eisner, who, fresh from leaving Disney, was looking to create a tv comedy as his first project as an independent producer. Alex got the meeting because he was a former staff writer for a network show, but it was his HBO script that convinced Eisner to ask him to write a pilot for his new idea. Eisner liked the pilot draft, and Alex went on to help him cocreate the show which aired for two seasons as a flagship program for Nickelodeon’s “Nick at Night” block. It was as this show was winding down that Alex sold his pilot to USA and was staffed on one of their hit shows, Covert Affairs.

- Alex’s fast rise is not one of passion triumphing over setbacks: it’s much less dramatic. Alex, the former debate champion, coolly assessed what career capital was valuable in his market. He then set out with the intensity once reserved for debate prep to acquire this capital as fast as possible. What this story lacks in pizazz, it makes up in repeatability: there’s nothing mysterious about how Alex broke into Hollywood — he simply understood the value and difficulty of becoming good.

- Be the kind of person who is serious about doing what you do really well.

Chapter 7: Becoming a craftsman

- Jordan Tice and I both started playing guitar at the age of twelve. Why, even though we had both played seriously for the same amount of time, did I end up an average high school strummer while Jordan became a star? The difference in our abilities by the age of eighteen had less to do with the number of hours we practiced — though he probably racked up more total practice hours than I did, we weren’t all that far apart — and more to do with what we did with those hours.

- There’s a mental strain that accompanies trying to play something you don’t know real well, that’s not already ingrained in your memory, and I hated that feeling. I learned songs reluctantly, then clung to them fiercely once they had become easy for me. I realized that my discomfort with mental discomfort was a liability in the performance world.

- Not only did Jordan’s early practice require him to constantly stretch himself beyond what was comfortable, but it was also accompanied by instant feedback. The teacher was always there, Jordan explained, “to jump in and show me if I junked up a harmony.” Watching Jordan’s current practice regime, these traits — strain and feedback — remain central. To get up to speed on the wide picking style he needs for his new tune, he keeps adjusting the speed of his practicing to a point just past where he’s comfortable. When he hits a wrong note, he immediately stops and starts over, providing instant feedback for himself. While practicing, the strain on his face and the gasping nature of his breaths can be uncomfortable to watch— I can’t imagine what it feels like to actually do. But Jordan is happy to practice like this for hours at a time. This, then, explains why Jordan left me in the dust. I played. But he practiced. With a dedication to constantly stretching his abilities.

- “I develop muscle memory the hard way, by repetition. The harder I work, the more relaxed I can play, and the better it sounds.” —Jordan Tice

- These observations, of course, are about more than just guitar playing. This focus on stretching your ability and receiving immediate feedback provides the core of a more universal principle — one that I increasingly believe provides the key to successfully acquiring career capital in almost any field.

- The 10,000 hour rule, which is commonly referred to in today’s pop culture, says it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice, or ten years, to develop excellence in performing a complex task. However, further research conducted by Neil Charness moves beyond the 10,000 hour rule by asking not just how long people worked, but also what type of work they did. In more detail, they studied chess players who had all spent roughly the same amount of time playing — around 10,000 hours. Some of these players had become grand masters while others remained at an intermediate level. Both groups practiced the same amount of time, so the difference in their ability must depend on how they used these hours. The results of the study found that the number of hours spent in serious study of the game — pouring over books and using teachers to help identify and then eliminate weaknesses — was not just the most important factor in predicting chess skill, it dominatedthe other factors (which included tournament play). The researchers discovered that the players who became grand masters spent five times more hoursdedicated to serious study than those who plateaued at an intermediate level. The grand masters, on average, dedicated around 5,000 hours out of their 10,000 to serious study. The intermediate players, by contrast, dedicated only around 1,000 to this activity.

- On closer examination, the importance of serious study becomes more obvious. In serious study, Charness concluded, “materials can be deliberately chosen or adapted such that the problems to be solved are at a level that is appropriately challenging.” This contrasts to tournament play, where you are likely to draw an opponent who is either demonstrably better or worse than yourself: both situations where “skill improvement is likely to be minimized.”

- Furthermore, in serious study, feedback is immediate: be it from looking up the answer to a chess problem in a book or, as is more typically the care for serious players, receiving immediate feedback from an expert coach. The Norwegian chess phenom Magnus Carlsen, for example, paid Garry Kasparov over $700,000 a year to add polish to his otherwise intuitive playing style.

- The "serious study” employed by top chess players and musicians are both focused on difficult activities, carefully chosen to stretch your abilities where they most need stretching and that provide immediate feedback.

- Like the intermediate players in the Charness study, more people let satisfying work pile up ineffectively, while those who will become top performers during these same ages, are painstakingly squirreling away the serious study that will make them exceptional.

- Charness and his colleague Ericsson coned the term “deliberate practice” to describe this style of serious study, defining it formally as an “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” As hundreds of follow-up studies have since shown, deliberate practices provides the key to excellence in a diverse array of fields, among which are chess, medicine, auditing, computer programming, bridge, physics, sports, typing, juggling, dance, and music.

- If you want to understand the source of professional athletes’ talent, for example, look to their practice schedules — almost without exception they have been systematically stretching their athletic abilities, with the guidance of expert coaches, since they were children. Outside a handful of extreme examples — such as the height of professional basketball players and the girth of football linemen — scientists have failed  to find much evidence of natural abilities explaining experts’ successes. It is a lifetime of accumulation of deliberate practice that again and again ends up explaining excellence.

- Here’s what struck me about deliberate practice: it’s not obvious. Outside of fields such as chess, music, and professional athletics, which have clear competitive structures and training regimes, few participate in anything that even remotely approximates this style of skill development. As Ericsson explains, “Most individuals who start as active professionals… change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work… is a poor predictor of attained performance.” Put another way, if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better. This is what happened to the chess players who stuck to tournament play, and to most knowledge workers who simply put in the hours: we all hit plateaus.

- In most types of work — that is, work that doesn’t have a clear training philosophy — most people are stuck. This generates an exciting implication. Let’s assume you’re a knowledge worker, which is a field without a clear training philosophy. 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. That is, deliberate practice might provide the key to becoming so good they can’t ignore you. To successfully adopt the craftsman mindset, therefore, we have to approach our jobs in the same way Jordan approaches his guitar playing or Garry Kasparov his chess training — with a dedication to deliberate practice.

  • The question is, what rare and valuable skill will I dedicate to a systematic process of deliberate practice? How does one make this assessment and choose the few skills that actually matter in their field?

- Consider Alex Berger’s two-year rise from assistant to cocreator of a national tv series. He told me that getting your writing to “network quality” can take from a couple of years at the minimum to as many as twenty five. The reason he was on the fast track, he explained, was his debate-champ-style obsession with improving. “I have a never-ending thirst to get better,” he said. “It’s like a sport, you have to practice and you have to study.”

- Learning is not done in isolation: “You need to be constantly soliciting feedback from colleagues and professionals.” Choose projects where you’d be forced to show your work to others. In Alex’s case, people were waiting to see his scripts — there was no avoiding having them be read and dissected.

- “When I look back now, I’m humiliated I ever showed it to anyone,” recalled Alex. But it was necessary if he was going to get better. “I hope I can look back ten years later and say the same about what I’m writing now.”

- Throw yourself into a project that’s just beyond your current capabilities and then hustle to make it a success. And make sure you’re also receiving direct feedback. When running a start-up, this feedback takes the form of how much money comes through the door.

- The five habits of a craftsman (or, how to apply deliberate practice to a knowledge work setting):

  1. Decide what capital market you’re in- There are two types of career capital markets. In a winner-take-all market, there is only one type of career capital available, and lots of different people competing for it (i.e. television writing, where the only thing that matters is your ability to write good scripts). An auction market, by contrast, is less structured. There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection (i.e. the clean tech space, where capital could include expertise in renewable energy markets and entrepreneurship, but there are a variety of other types of relevant skills that also could have led to a job in this field). With this in mind, the first task in building a deliberate practice strategy is to figure out what type of career capital market you are competing in. When you correctly understand the market you’re competing in, you stop spending time on all the minutiae that doesn’t matter, and start focusing instead on developing the skills that really matter — which is where your energy should be if you want to succeed.
  2. Identify your capital type- Once you’ve identified your market, you must then identify the specific type of career capital to pursue. If you’re 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. A useful heuristic in this situation is to seek open gates — opportunities to build capital that are already open to you. The advantage of open gates is that they get your farther faster, in terms of career capital acquisition, than starting from scratch. It helps to think about skill acquisition like a freight train: getting it started requires a huge application of effort, but changing its track once it’s moving is easy. In other words, it’s hard to start from scratch in a new field.
  3. Define “good”- Once you’ve identified exactly what skill to build, you can begin to draw from the research on deliberate practice for guidance. The first thing this literature tells us is that you need clear goals. If you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, then it’s hard to take effective action. There should be little ambiguity about what getting “good” means to you at any moment. For example, for an aspiring tv script writer at an early stage of his career capital acquisition, “good” might mean writing a script good enough to land her an agent.
  4. Stretch and destroy- As Geoff Colvin said, “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.” If you show up and do what you’re told, you will reach an “acceptable level” of ability before plateauing. The good news about deliberate practice is that it will push you past this plateau and into a realm where you have little competition. The bad news is that the reason so few people accomplish this feat is exactly because of the trait Colvin warned about: deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable. I like the term “stretch” for describing what deliberate practice feels like. When I’m learning a new mathematical technique, the uncomfortable sensation in my head is best approximated as a physical strain, as if my neurons are physically re-forming into new configurations... But this stretching is the precondition to getting better. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.” The other half of the story of embracing honest feedback - even if it destroys what you thought was good. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.” It’s in honest, sometimes harsh feedback that you learn where to retrain your focus in order to continue to make progress. Get feedback from professionals who won’t hesitate to let you know what’s working and what’s not in what you’re producing. Continuous and harsh feedback will accelerate the growth of your ability.
  5. Be patient- Here’s how Steve Martin explained his strategy for learning the banjo: “I thought, if I stay with it, then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it.” This is a phenomenal display of patience, and a recognition of the frustrating months of hard work and mediocre playing ahead. Martin also talks about the importance of “diligence,” and redefines the word so that 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. The final step for applying deliberate practice to your working life is to adopt this style of diligence. Acquiring career capital can take time. Without this patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your efforts before you acquire the capital you need. I think the image of Martin returning to his banjo, day after day, for forty years, is poignant. It captures well the feel of how career capital is actually acquired: You stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.”


Chapter 8. The dream-job elixir

- 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.

- People wil compelling careers start by getting good at something rare and valuable (aka building career capital) and then cashing in this capital for the traits that make great work great.

- Many people who end up loving what they do stumble into their profession, and then find that their passion for the work increase along with their expertise.

- Ryan didn’t just decide one day that we was passionate about farming and produce and then courageously head off into the country side to start farming. Instead, by the time he made the plunge into full-time farming, when he bought his first land, he had been painstakingly acquiring relevant career capital for close to a decade.

- Ryan is shy. But I noticed that as Ryan explained his crops, much of his early wariness fell away. Once he got going on his farming strategies, explaining the difference between Merrimack sandy loam and Paxton silt loam, for example, or his new weeding strategy for the carrot beds, his shyness gave way to the enthusiasm of a craftsman who knows what he’s doing and has been given the privilege of putting this knowledge to work.

- What’s so appealing about Ryan’s lifestyle? Control. Ryan and Sarah invested their (extensive) career capital into gaining control over what they do and how they do it. Their working lives aren’t easy — if I learned anything from my visit to their farm, it’s that farming is a complicated and stressful pursuit — but their lives are their own to direct, and they’re good at this. They live a meaningful life on their own terms.

- Control is one of the most universally important traits that you can acquire with your career capital — something so powerful and so essential to the quest for work you love that I’ve taken to calling it the dream-job elixir.

- More control leads to better grades, better sports performance, better productivity, and more happiness.

- Researchers at Cornell followed over three hundred small businesses, half of which focused on giving control to their employees and half of which did not. The control-centric businesses grew at four time the rate of their counterparts.

- Look toward companies embracing a radical new philosophy called Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). In a ROWE company, all that matters is your results. When you show up for work and when you leave, when you take vacations, and how often you check e-mail are all irrelevant. They leave it to the employee to figure out whatever works best for getting the important things done. “No results, no job: it’s that simple,” as ROWE supporters like to say. “I love the ROWE environment… it makes me feel like I’m in control of my destiny,” said one employee.

- Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.

- If your goal is to love what you do, your first step is to acquire career capital. Your next step is to invest this capital in the traits that define great work. Control is one of the most important targets you can choose for this investment.

Chapter 9: The first control trap

- The first control trap - control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable. In fact, it’s dangerous to pursue more control in your working life before you have career capital to offer in exchange.

- Control is powerful. But there’s a pre-requisite — you need something valuable to offer in return for this powerful trait. If you try to obtain control without any capital to offer in return, you’ll end up with a mere shadow of real autonomy. Ryan, by contrast, avoided this trap by building up a decade’s worth of relevant career capital beforetaking the dive into full-time farming.

- Here’s a common mistake: assuming that generating the courage to pursue control is what matters, while everything else is just a detail that is easily worked out.

- Enthusiasm alone is not rare and valuable and is therefore not worth much in terms of career capital. Many people in the “lifestyle design” category fall into this trap, for example, investing in a valuable trait without having the means to pay for it.

- If you embrace control without having the career capital to pay for it, you’re likely to end up enjoying all the autonomy you can handle but unable to afford your next meal.

Chapter 10: The second control trap

- Once you have enough career capital to acquire more control in your working life, you have become valuable enough to your employer that they will fight your efforts to gain more autonomy.

- Lulu case study: page 122 - 126. QA tester —> head software developer —> freelance software developer with many paying clients

- Control generates resistance. The path to acquiring freedom in your working life generates conflict. Almost every time you invest your career capital to obtain the most control, you will also encounter resistance. If you’ve developed the necessary career capital, your employer won’t be able to say no, but they probably won’t like it, and people in your life may not understand. It will take nerve on your part to push through that demand. As you successfully deploy control in your career, you will meet resistance from your employers, friends, and family.

- This is the irony of control. When no one cares what you do with your working life, you probably don’t have enough career capital to do anything interesting. But once you do have this capital, you’ve become valuable enough that your employer will resist your efforts.

- 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.

- This second trap makes sense. Acquiring more control in your working life is something that benefits you but likely has no direct benefit to your employer. You should expect your employer to resist your move toward more control; they have every incentive to try to convince you to reinvest your career capital back into your career at their company, obtaining more money and prestige instead of more control, and this can be a hard argument to resist.

- In light of this, courage is not irrelevant to creating work you love. It requires quite a bit of courage to ignore the resistance generated by the second control trap. The key, it seems, is to know when the time is right to become courageous in your career decisions. Get this timing right, and a fantastic working life awaits you, but get it wrong by tripping the first control trap in a premature bid for autonomy, and disaster lurks.

Chapter 11: Avoiding the control traps

- Derek Sivers’ whole career has been about making big moves, often in the face of resistance, to gain more control over what he does and how he does it. What criteria does Derek use to decide which projects to pursue and which to abandon? “You mean, the type of mental algorithm that prevents the lawyer, who has had this successful career for twenty years, from suddenly saying, ‘You know, I love massages, I’m going to become a masseuse.’?” he asked. “I have this principle about money that overrides my other life rules. Do what people are willing to pay for.” Derek made it clear that this is different from pursuing money for the sake of having money Instead, he explained: “Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.” When it comes to decisions affecting your core career, money remains an effective judge of value. “If you’re struggling to raise money for an idea, or are thinking that you will support your idea with unrelated work, then you need to rethink the idea.”

- He started pursuing music at night and on the weekends while working a day job at Warner Bros. “I didn’t quit my day job until I was making more money with my music.” He didn’t turn his attention full-time to CD Baby until after he had built up a profitable client base. Doing also what people are paying for in much less risky.

- The law of financial viability - When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on.

- The definition of “willing to pay” varies. In some cases, it literally means customers paying you money for a product or service. But it can also mean getting approved for a load, receiving an outside investment, or, more commonly, convincing an employer to either hire you or keep writing you paychecks.

- When you look at stories of people who were unsuccessful in adding more control to their careers, you often find that this law has been ignored.


Chapter 12: The meaningful life of Pardis Sabeti

- A unifying mission to your working life can be a source of great satisfaction.

- The bulk of Pardis’s research focuses on Africa, with studies ongoing in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and most of all, Nigeria. To Pardis, this work is about more than just the accumulation of publications and grant money.

- Pardis avoided the grinding cynicism the traps so many young academics, and has instead built an engaging life. But how did she pull off this feat? As I spent time with her, I realized that there happiness comes from the fact that she built her career on a clear and compelling mission — something that not only gives meaning to her work but provides the energy needed to embrace life beyond the lab. In the overarching style typical of Harvard, her mission is by no means subtle: her goal, put simply, is to rid the world of its most ancient and deadly diseases, to use new technology to fight old diseases.

- This research is clearly important, but whats important to note is the her mission provides her a sense of purpose and energy, traits that have helped her avoid becoming a cynical academic and instead embrace her work with enthusiasm.

- 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 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.

- How do you make mission a reality in your working life? Mission is one of the desirable traits that define great work, and like any such desirable trait, it too requires that you first build career capital — a mission launched without expertise is likely doomed to sputter and die.

- But capital alone is not enough to make a mission a reality. Plenty of people are good at what they do but haven’t reoriented their career in a compelling direction.

Chapter 13: Mission requires capital

- Missions are tricky. Just because you really want to organize your work around a mission doesn’t mean that you can easily make it happen.

- Researchers from Columbia University found just shy of 150 different examples of prominent scientific breakthroughs made by multiple researchers at nearly the same time. Big ideas are almost always discovered in the “adjacent possible.” We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. 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. The reason important scientific discoveries often happen multiple times is that they only become possible once they enter the adjacent possible, at which point anyone surveying this space — that is, those who are at the current cutting edge — will notice the same innovations waiting to happen. Innovation does not strike us in a stunning eureka moment. Instead, we grind away to expand the cutting edge, opening up new problems in the adjacent possible to tackle and therefore expand the cutting edge some more, opening up more new problems, and so on.

- Scientific breakthroughs require that you first get to the cutting edge of your field. Only then can you see the adjacent possible beyond, the space where innovative ideas are almost always discovered.

- 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 you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge — the only place where these missions become visible.

- This insight explains the struggles of a new cognitive science grad student who became paralyzed by her work’s lack of an organizing mission: she was trying to find a mission before she got to the cutting edge of her field (she was still in her first two years as a graduate student when she began to panic about her lack of focus). From her vantage point as a new grad student, she was much too far from the cutting edge to have any hope of surveying the adjacent possible, and if she can’t see the adjacent possible, she’s not likely to identify a compelling new direction for her work. She was trying to identify a mission before she got to the cutting edge and she predictably didn’t come up with anything that could turn people’s heads. She would have been better served by first mastering a promising niche — a process that requires patience and that may take years of work — and only then turning her attention to seek a mission.

- Changing the world is rare. This rareness is because these breakthroughs require that you first get to the cutting edge, and this is hard — the type of hardness that most of us try to avoid in our working lives.

- Getting to the cutting edge of a field can be understood in these terms: this process builds up rare and valuable skills and therefore build up your store of career capital. Similarly, identifying a compelling mission once you get to the cutting edge can be seen as investing your career capital to acquire a desirable trait in your career. In other words, mission is yet another example of career capital theory in action. If you want a mission, you need to first acquire capital. If you skip this step, you might end up with lots of enthusiasm but very little to show for it.

- Having passion for your work is vital, but it’s a fool’s errand to try to figure out in advance what work will lead to this passion.

- It was at Oxford that Pardis decided that Africa and infectious diseases were also a potentially interesting topic to study. This was the third field that at some point in her student career attracted her — math, medicine, and infectious disease. This is why she’s wary of the strategy of trying to identify your one true calling in advance — in her experience, lots of different things can, at different times, seem compelling.

- This long period of training, starting with her undergraduate biology classes and continuing through her PhD and then postdoctoral work at the genetics lab, while simultaneously finishing her MD, was when she was building up her stores of career capital. When she took a professorship at Harvard, she was finally ready to cash in this capital to obtain the mission-driven career she enjoys today.

- Advancing to the cutting edge in a field is an act of “small” thinking, requiring you to focus on a narrow collection of subjects for a potentially long time. Once you get to the cutting edge, however, and discover a mission in the adjacent possible, you must go after it with zeal: a “big” action.

- Pardis Sabeti thought small by focusing patiently for years on a narrow niche (the genetics of diseases in Africa), but then acting big once she acquired enough capital to identify a mission (using computational genetics to help understand and fight ancient diseases). Most other people reverse this order. They start by thinking big, looking for a world-changing mission, but without capital they can only match this big thinking with small, ineffectual acts. The art of mission asks us to suppress the most grandiose of our work instincts and instead adopt the patience required to get this ordering correct.

Chapter 14: Missions require little bets

- Great missions are transformed into great successes as the result of using small and achievable projects — little bets — to explore the concrete possibilities surrounding a compelling idea.

- Why don’t I have a personal mission-driven career? I had notebooks filled with potential missions, yet I had resisted devoting myself to any one in particular. And I’m not alone in this reluctance to act. Many people have lots of career capital, and can therefore identify a variety of different potential missions for their work, but few actually build their career around such missions.

- Once you have the capital required to identify a mission, you must still figure out how to put the mission into practice. If you don’t have a trusted strategy for making this leap from idea to execution, then like me and so many others, you’ll probably avoid the leap altogether.

- Kirk’s path to American Treasures was incremental. He didn’t decide out of nowhere that he wanted to host a television show and then work backward to make that dream a reality. Instead, he worked forward from his original mission — to popularize archaeology — with a series of small, almost tentative steps. He tried releasing a DVD, filming a documentary, and putting together a film series for his students. The latter ended up being the most promising, but Kirk couldn’t have known this in advance.

- Rather than believing you have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance, 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.

- When Chris Rock prepares a comedy set for one of his acclaimed HBO specials, he will make somewhere between forty to fifty unannounced visits to a small New Jersey-area comedy club to help him figure out which material works and which doesn’t. He shows up on stage with a yellow legal pad, working through different jokes, taking notes on the crowd’s reaction. Most of the material falls flat. It’s not uncommon for Rock to look up and say “This needs to be fleshed out more,” which the crowd laughs at the awkwardness of Rock’s flops. But these little failures, combined with the little victories of the jokes that connect, provide the key information required for Rock to put together an extraordinary set.

- The important thing about little bets is that they’re 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. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of choosing a bold plan and making one big bet on its success.

- To make the leap from identifying a realistic mission to succeeding in making it a reality, deploy small, concrete experiments that return concrete feedback. These bets allow you to tentatively explore the specific avenues surrounding your general mission, looking for those with the highest likelihood of leading to outstanding results.

Chapter 15: Missions require marketing

- Great missions are transformed into great successes as a result of finding projects that satisfy the law of remarkability, which requires that an idea inspires people to remark about it, and is launched in a value where such remarking is made easy.

- How do you make the leap from a general mission to a specific, fame-inducing project? In addition to using little bets to feel out a good way forward, approach the task of finding good projects for your mission with the mindset of a marketer, systematically studying books on the subject to help identify why some ideas catch on while others fall flat.

- A career untamed, he realized, can bring you into dangerous territory, such as being bored while writing computer code for an investment bank. He needed a mission to actively guide his career or he would end up trapped again and again.

- "You’re either remarkable or invisible. The world is full of boring stuff — brown cows — which is why so few people pay attention… A purple cow… now that would stand out. Remarkable marketing is the art of building things worth noticing.” —Seth Godin

- He had an epiphany: for his mission to build a sustainable career, it had to produce purple cows, the type of remarkable projects that compel people to spread the word.

- The job seeker should leverage the open-source software movement. This movement brings together computer programmers who volunteer their time to build software that’s freely available and modifiable. This community is well respected and highly visible. If you want to make a name for yourself in software development — the type of name that can help you secure employment — focus your attention on making quality contributions to open-source projects. This is where the people who matter look for talent.

- "The best way to market yourself as a programmer is to create remarkable open-source software. So I did.”

- Giles came up with the idea for an AI music creator. “I don’t think there was anybody else with my combined backgroun,” he said. “Plenty of Ruby programmers love dance music, but I don’t think any of them has sacrificed the same ridiculous number of hours to tweaking breakbeats and synth patches over and over again, releasing white-label record that never made a dime, and studying music theory.” In other words, Giles’s ability to produce a Ruby program that produced real music was unique: if he could pull it off, it would be a purple cow.

- For a mission-driven project to succeed, it must be remarkable in two different ways: (1) it should compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others, it must inspire people to take notice and spread the word, and (2) it must be launched in a value that supports such remarking.

  • 1. Giles had previously worked on another open-source project. He collected popular command-line tools for Ruby and combined them into one package with consistent documentation. if you asked a Ruby programmer about this project, he would tell you that this is solid, quality, useful work. But it’s not the type of achievement that would compel this same Ruby programmer to write his friends and tell them, “You haveto see this!” This early project was a brown cow.
  • 2. Giles didn’t just find a project that compels remarks, but he also spread the word about the project in a value that supports these remarks. In this case, his venue was the open-source software community. There’s an established infrastructure in this community for noticing and spreading the word about interesting projects. Without this conduciveness, a purple cow, though striking, may never be seen.

- Before starting a project, ask yourself: Is this a project that compels people to take notice and spread the word? Is it a purple cow or a brown cow?

- Examples of how Cal Newport, Pardis Sabeti, and Kirk French applied this principle to their career on pages 192 - 195


- How do people end up loving what they do?

- If your goal is to love what you do, “follow your passion” can be bad advice. It’s more important to become good at something rare and valuable, and then invest the career capital this generates into the type of traits that make a job great. The traits of control and mission are two good places to start.

- What actions can you take right now to start applying the lessons of this book in your own working life, to re-form a career to match this new way of thinking about creating work you love?

How I applied rule #1

- The traits that can make your life interesting have very little to do with intensive soul-searching. Occupational happiness does not require a calling.

- Once I arrived at college, my classmates began to wring their hands about the question of what they wanted to do with their lives. For them, something as basic as choosing a major became weighted with cosmic significance. I thought this was nonsense. To me, the world was filled with opportunities (like the web design company I started in high school even though I wasn’t necessarily passionate about web design) waiting to be exploited to make your life more interesting — opportunities that have nothing to do with identifying predestined dispositions.

- Driven by this insight, while my classmates contemplated their true calling, I went seeking opportunities to master rare skills that would yield big rewards. I started by hacking my study skills to become as efficient as possible. This took one semester of systematic experiments and subsequently earned me three consecutive years of 4.0 GPA, a period during which I never pulled and all-nighter and rarely studied pas dinner. I then cashed in this asset by publishing a student advice guide. These experiences helped me build an exciting student life — I was, I imagine, the only student on Dartmouth’s campus taking regular calls form his literary agent — but neither came from the pursuit of a pre-existing passion. Indeed, the motivation to write my first book was an idle dare leveled by an entrepreneur I admired whom I met one night for drinks: “Don’t just talk about it,” he scolded me when I offhandedly mentioned the book idea. “If you think it would be cool, go do it.” This seemed as good a reason as any for me to proceed.

- This Rule #1 mindset saved me from needless fretting about which of these paths forward was my true calling. If tackled correctly, I was absolutely confident that either could yield a career I love.

How I applied rule #2

- If you’re not putting in the effort to become so good they can’t ignore you, you’re not likely to end up loving your work — regardless of whether or not you believe its your true calling.

- Musicians, athletes, and chess players know all about deliberate practice, but knowledge workers do not. Most knowledge workers avoid the uncomfortable strain of deliberate practice like the plague, a reality emphasized by the typical cubicle dweller’s obsessive email checking habit — for what is this behavior if not an escape from work that’s more mentally demanding?

- If you’re not careful to keep pushing forward, your improvement can taper off to an “acceptable level,” where you then remain stuck. These plateaus are dangerous because they cut off your supply of career capital and therefore cripple your ability to keep actively shaping your working life. Introduce some practice strategies into your working life that will force you to make deliberate practice a regular companion in your daily routine.

- Feynman’s amazing intellect was less about a gift from God and more about a a dedication to deliberate practice — his compulsion to tear down important papers and mathematical concepts until he could understand the concepts from the bottom up. Focusing your attention on a bottom-up understanding of your own field’s most difficult results would be a good way to add to your career capital stores.

- To revitalize my own stores of career capital, I chose a paper that was well cited in my research niche, but that was also considered obtuse and hard to follow. The paper focused on only a single result — the analysis of an algorithm that offers the best-known solution to a well-known problem. Many people have cited this result, but few have understood the details that support it. I decided that mastering this notorious paper would prove a perfect introduction to my new regime of self-enforced deliberate practice (spent 15 hours of deliberate practice over 2 weeks)

  • This type of skill development is hard. When I got to the first tricky gap in the paper’s main proof argument, I faced immediate internal resistance. it was if my mind realized the effort I was about to ask it to expend, and in response it unleashed a wave of neuronal protest, distant at first, but then as I persisted increasingly tremendous, crashing over my concentration with mounting intensity.
  • Strategy #1: Time structure - I am going to work on this for one hour. I don’t care if I faint from the effort, or make no progress, for the next hour this is my whole world. It takes about 10 minutes for the waves of resistance to die down.
  • Strategy #2: Information structure - A way of capturing the result of my hard focus in a useful form. For example, build a map to capture the dependencies between the different pieces, short self-administered quizzes that force you to memorize the key definitions used, and then take each section and walk through each step of its proofs — filling in the missing steps. Conclude by writing a detailed summary in your own words.
  • Immediate benefits - (a) Allowed me to understand whole swaths of related work that had previously been mysterious. (b) I could now solve problems that previously only a few people were able to. (c) Using this understanding, I went on to prove a new result which I published at a top conference in my field.

- Strain, I now accepted, was good. Instead of seeing this discomfort as a sensation to avoid, I began to understand it the same way that a bodybuilder understands muscle burn: a sign that you’re doing something right.

- I promised myself to do more large-scale paper deconstructions of this type with a trio of smaller habits designed to inject even more deliberate practice into my daily routine (pg 213):

  • The research bible routine - Once a week I require myself to summarize in my “bible” a paper I think might be relevant to my research.
  • The hour-tally routine - For each month I keep a tally of the total number of hours I’ve spent that month in a state of deliberate practice.
  • The theory-notebook routine - Purchase the most expensive notebook I could find at the bookstore: an archival quality lab notebook that cost me forty-five dollars. I use this notebook when brainstorming new theory results. At the end of each of these brainstorming sessions I require myself to formally record the results, by hand, on a dated page. The expense of the notebook helps signal the important of what I’m supposed to write inside it, and this, in turn, forces me into the strain required to collect and organize my thinking. The result: more deliberate practice.

- It’s must easier to redesign your website than it is to grapple with a mind-melting proof/problem/project.

- Getting better and better at what I did became what mattered most, and getting better required the strain of deliberate practice.

How I applied rule #4

- If you identify professors with particularly compelling careers, and then ask what they did differently than their peers, the answer almost always involves them organizing their work around a catchy mission.

- It’s extremely tricky to turn a mission into a successful reality in your working life. The more you try to force it, the less likely you are to succeed. True missions require two things: (1) You need career capital, which requires patience. (2) You need to be ceaselessly scanning your always-changing view of the adjacent possible in your field, looking for the next big idea. This requires a dedication to brainstorming and exposure to new ideas. Combined, these two commitments describe a lifestyle, not a series of steps that automatically spit out of a mission when completed.

- Once you identify a promising mission (even if it’s just tentative), the real challenge is finding small compelling projects (little bets) that exploit this potential.

- 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. The choice of what material to expose myself to is guided by my mission.

- A little bet, in the context of mission exploration, has the following characteristics:

  • 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 a new result that didn’t exist before)
  • It produces a concrete result that you can use to gather concrete feedback

- I try to only keep 2 or 3 bets active at a time so they can receive intense attention. I also use deadlines to help keep the urgency of their completion high. Finally, I track my hours spent on these bets in the hour tally. Without these accountability tools, I tended to procrastinate on this work, turning my attention to more urgent but less important matters.

Final thoughts

- Working right trumps finding the right work. You don’t need to have a perfect job to find occupational happiness. You need instead a better approach to the work already available to you. This wrenches us away from our escapist fantasies and daydreams of an overnight transformation into instant job bliss and provides indeed a more sober way toward fulfillment.

- 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.

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