Summary So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love - Cal Newport
Thomas studied philosophy and theology in college and became interested in Buddhism. He nurtured a fantasy of becoming a Zen monk for years.
After college, Thomas traveled and worked various jobs, including teaching English in South Korea and data entry in London. He remained dedicated to following his passion for Zen Buddhism.
Thomas learned about the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York and spent nine months applying to live and practice there. When he arrived, he felt he was finally getting the "amazing meal" he had been hungering for.
Life at the monastery was strictly regimented, beginning at 4:30 am. Thomas struggled at first with the koans, especially the Mu koan. After months of struggle, he had a breakthrough while walking in the forest and passed the Mu koan.
Soon after, while walking in the same forest, Thomas realized the lectures all expressed the same insight as the Mu koan. He realized "this was it"—this was what life as a Zen monk offered. His fantasy about Zen crumbled at that moment, and he began to cry.
Thomas concluded that "follow your passion" can be dangerous advice. The reality of following his passion for Zen did not match the fantasy he had nurtured for so long.
Here is a summary:
The conventional wisdom for finding career happiness is to "follow your passion." This is known as the passion hypothesis. Steve Jobs promoted this view in his famous Stanford commencement speech.
However, this advice needs to be revised. The reality is much more complicated. Finding and matching a passion is the challenging path to happiness or career success. Several issues undermine the passion hypothesis:
Passion is rare. Most people do not have preexisting passions waiting to be discovered. They develop interests and passions over time through work.
Interests are not fixed. People's interests change as they age and gain experience. It is unrealistic to expect to find one true lifelong passion.
Passion may fade on the job. Even those lucky enough to get a job in their passion field often find that their passion fades or changes once it becomes a job. The realities of any job tend to diminish passion over time.
You need to be good at something before you can get a good job. Having passion is not enough. You need a rare and valuable skill to offer in exchange. Mastery comes before passion.
Passion follows mastery. Lasting passion builds over the long run by acquiring career capital through gradually improving skills. Do not follow your passion; let it follow you.
In summary, the passion hypo needs to be more complex plastic. Finding fulfilling work is a complex process that unfolds over time. It is dangerous to rely on passion alone as a guide. A better principle is: become so good they cannot ignore you. Mastery and skill provide the foundation for developing passion and happiness on the job.
The message that we should "follow our passion" and find work we love has become ubiquitous. However, looking closely at examples of people like Steve Jobs, the path to finding fulfilling work is messy and complicated.
Steve Jobs himself did not found Apple Computer out of a passion for technology or entrepreneurship. He was a seeker exploring Eastern spirituality. He almost accidentally started Apple as a small-scale opportunistic scheme to make money. Only later did he grow passionate about the work.
The stories collected by Roadtrip Nation further demonstrate that passion is rare and nonlinear. Ira Glass, for example, acknowledges he had no grand passion for radio when he started. Passion developed over years of persevering at the craft. Cal Newport argues that we need to reject the "passion hypothesis."
Seeking examples of people who found work they were always passionate about leads to a "revelation" that these cases are rare exceptions, not the rule. "Follow your passion" is not helpful advice for most people. Work you love is usually the result of effort and skill gained over time, not preexisting passion. The quest to "find your passion" can be counterproductive.
In summary, developing rare and lucrative skills through practice and persistence, then finding ways to apply them to work that fits your values and interests, may be better advice than "following your passion" for building a fulfilling career. Passion often results from work we pour ourselves into, not a precondition.
Ira Glass and other interviews emphasize that compelling careers often p gradually over time through hard work and mastery, not by sim following preexisting passions.
Scientific research on workplace satisfaction also contradicts the notion that matching work to passion is critical. Some key findings:
Few people have passions directly relevant to work. A study of Canadian students found that that only 4% of identified passions related to work or education.
How much people enjoy their work depends more on the time spent in a role than the type of work. A study of college admins found those in the role longer were most likely to see it as a "calling."
Feeling motivated and passionate about work depends more on achieving autonomy, competence, and relatedness than matching work to passion. The more we master a role, the more autonomy, and competence we gain.
- In summary, compelling careers are often complex and develop over time through gaining experience and mastery. The notion of matching work to a preexisting passion is an oversimplification not supported by research. Autonomy, competence, and relatedness - achieved through mastery - are more significant drivers of workplace satisfaction.
Here is a summary:
The idea of "following your passion" became popular in the 1970s with the publication of What Color Is Your Parachute? This book encouraged people to pursue work they enjoyed and found meaningful.
The passion hypothesis has become increasingly popular but has not led to greater happiness. Surveys show declining job satisfaction over recent decades, especially among young people.
Anecdotally, many stories show how the passion hypothesis leads to feelings of confusion and angst when people cannot find work they are passionate about. The author argues that this shows that the passion hypothesis is flawed and dangerous advice.
However, passion does work for some people in their careers, like professional athletes or film critics. However, these are exceptions, not the rule. For most, developing passion for their work is more complex.
The author recommends mastering your craft (the craftsman mindset) rather than following your passion (the passion mindset). Developing rare and valuable skills is the more reliable path to finding work you love.
The author illustrates the craftsman mindset using the example of bluegrass musicians. They focus on mastering their instruments and getting better at their craft. As their skills improve, their passion for playing also deepens. This shows how passion can emerge from craftsmanship.
In summary, the passion hypothesis is appealing but misguided. "Follow your passion" is not helpful advice for most people. The craftsman mindset, acquiring valuable skills and achieving excellence, is a better guideline for finding fulfilling work.
Jordan Tice is a 24-year-old bluegrass musician. He signed his first record deal in high school and has released three albums. Despite his success, he is extremely modest.
The author visited Jordan at the "bluegrass frat house" where he lives with other musicians. Jordan's room is tiny, with just enough space for a bed, desk, and guitar. He spends hours per day practicing and writing new music.
After hearing Steve Martin's advice in an interview, the author was inspired to look into Jordan's work habits: "Be so good they cannot ignore you." Martin spent years innovating and perfecting his comedy act to become undeniably good. The author sees this same dedication in how Jordan tirelessly practices and focuses on the quality of his work.
Jordan can spend weeks practicing a new guitar technique to get a few seconds of a tune precisely as he wants. He focuses intensely on his craft and output, not on self-promotion or the origin story of his career. This dedication to skill and quality has made him successful, just as it did for Steve Martin.
The author initially struggled with self-promotion as a graduate student, but was inspired by Martin's advice to focus on becoming better at what he does instead of convincing others of his worth. The author sees Jordan as someone who has fully embraced this mindset.
In summary, the critical insight is that "be so good they cannot ignore you" is a helpful mindset for doing work you love. By focusing intensely on developing skill and producing high-quality work, you can build a career based on what you do rather than on how much you promote yourself. Jordan Tice is an exemplar of this craftsman mindset.
The author argues that significant rare, and valuable traits like creativity, impact, and control define great, compelling jobs. Most jobs do not offer these traits. Therefore, if you want a great job, you need to acquire rare and valuable skills to offer in exchange. The author calls these skills "career capital."
To build career capital, adopt the "craftsman mindset" - focus on what you can offer the world, not what the world can offer you. Approach your work like an artisan or performer, dedicating yourself to becoming very good. Forget about finding your "passion" or true calling. Just get good. As your skills improve, your job prospects will improve.
The craftsman mindset is how people like Steve Jobs, Ira Glass, and Al Merrick built compelling careers. At first, their work likely was not a "passion." However, they gained career capital through dedication to mastery and ultimately loved what they did. You can follow the same path.
So in summary, the key message is follow the craftsman mindset, build up rare and valuable skills (your "career capital"), and gain more control, impact, and creativity in your work. The passion and compelling work will follow.
The traits that define great, meaningful work - creativity, impact, control - are rare and valuable.
According to the law of supply and demand, if you want these rare and valuable traits in your work, you must have rare and valuable skills and talents to offer in return - your "career capital."
The "craftsman mindset" - becoming so good at what you do that people cannot ignore you - is the best strategy for building career capital. This mindset focuses on developing skills and mastery, not "following your passion."
The examples of Steve Jobs, Ira Glass, and Al Merrick show how adopting the craftsman mindset and developing valuable, rare skills allowed them to do work they loved.
The "passion mindset" - blindly following your passions - often does not lead to significant, meaningful work and can even be counterproductive. The story of Lisa Feuer shows how the passion mindset led her to quit her job to start a yoga business, even though she lacked the necessary skills and experience. She ended up struggling financially.
The "courage culture" pushes the harmful idea that courage and passion are all you need to do work you love. In reality, you need to develop actual skills and talents first. Passion and courage alone are not enough.
The key argument is that developing valuable and rare skills - your career capital - through deliberate practice and mastery is the valid key to finding work you love. Passion and courage are secondary and not enough on their own. The craftsman mindset trumps the passion mindset.
The passage argues against blindly following "other people's definition of success" and instead pursuing your passion. While this may seem like good advice, it has some downsides. Following your passion often means disregarding the career capital and skills you have built up in your current career. This can leave you vulnerable, with little leverage or skill to fall back on.
The story of Lisa Feuer illustrates this well. Feuer left a career in advertising to start a yoga studio. However, with only a month of yoga training, she needed more career capital to make her new venture successful. When the recession hit, her business struggled, and she applied for food stamps. In contrast, Joe Duffy, another advertising executive, leveraged his skill and experience to gain more autonomy and eventually started his successful agency. By age 45, Duffy was able to purchase a large retreat property—showing the rewards of developing career capital.
However, the passage notes that career capital theory does not apply in all situations. Three traits disqualify a job from allowing you to build career capital:
The job offers little opportunity to develop valuable and rare skills.
The work focuses on something you believe is useless or harmful.
The job forces you to work with people you dislike.
Career capital investment will not be accessible if a job satisfies one or more of these conditions. The passage gives the example of the author turning down job offers from Wall Street firms, even though the pay was high because the work did not satisfy his values.
The key message is that "working right"—developing valuable skills and career capital—is more important for career success and satisfaction than "finding the right work" or following your passion. However, some jobs make this problematic and should potentially be avoided.
Alex Berger is a successful television writer. He had advantages coming into the industry, including solid writing skills developed as a champion debater in college.
Breaking into television writing is highly competitive. There are many aspiring writers but few jobs available. Success requires developing much "career capital" through solid writing skills and experience.
Alex took an entry-level job at National Lampoon when he first moved to LA. He pitched them an idea for a show called Master Debaters but nothing came of it. He then worked as an assistant to an NBC development executive to learn more about the industry.
While working as an assistant, Alex wrote multiple scripts during his off hours to build up his portfolio, including a screenplay and pilots for two shows. He worked long hours to balance his day job and writing.
Alex then got a job as a script assistant on Commander in Chief, where he could observe professional writers. He also wrote a spec script for Curb Your Enthusiasm to build his experience further.
Through diligent practice and persistence, Alex developed his craft and built enough career capital to sell a pilot to USA Network, marking his breakthrough as an established television writer. His experience shows that success in a competitive field like television writing requires continuous improvement of your skills, not just passion. Success is the result of good work, not the cause of it.
The key message is that Alex focused on systematically developing expertise and experience in his craft rather than chasing a preexisting passion. His experience illustrates how the "craftsman mindset" can be applied to build a compelling career, even in a complex, competitive industry. Success is generated through the diligent buildup of career capital, not discovered through some initial passion.
Alex Berger broke into Hollywood and became a television writer by accumulating valuable career capital. While working as a low-level assistant, he pitched an episode idea to his show's writers' room. His idea was selected, and he was able to co-write the episode. This first credit and developing strong writing skills through practice enabled him to get a job as a staff writer on another show after his first show was canceled. His experience and writing ability then allowed him to co-create a show with Michael Eisner. Persistently honing his craft and seeking opportunities to gain experience, Alex built up the capital necessary for a successful career.
Like Alex Berger, Mike Jackson acquired career capital without a fixed end goal in mind. Mike earned a master's degree in biology and earth systems at Stanford. For his thesis, he studied India's natural gas sector. After graduating, he continued leading research on the topic, traveling frequently to India and China. Through this project, Mike developed a deep understanding of international energy markets. He then started his own small business focused on carbon offsets and renewable energy credits. Though the business never thrived, it gave Mike valuable experience.
A chance encounter led Mike to interview for a job at a venture capital firm, though he realized he needed to be a better match for the firm's focus. However, the interviewer connected him with a cleantech venture capital fund, The Westly Group. Mike interned with them and was hired full-time, working his way up to become a director. Like Alex, Mike gained career capital through developing expertise and taking opportunities to learn, which ultimately enabled his success as a venture capitalist.
In summary, Alex Berger and Mike Jackson achieved desirable careers by accumulating valuable career capital over time, not passionately pursuing a fixed goal. They developed in-demand skills, took opportunities to gain experience, and built professional networks. Their persistence and ability to do excellent work, combined with some luck, allowed them to find career success.
The key to becoming highly skilled in a field is deliberate practice, not just routine or play. Deliberate practice involves constantly pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, giving immediate feedback, and gradually refining your technique through repetition.
The author contrasts his experience learning guitar as a teenager with Jordan Tice, a professional bluegrass musician. While the author played a lot and learned many songs, he avoided stretching himself or receiving critical feedback. In contrast, Tice focused on learning complicated solos by ear, received constant feedback from his teacher, and practiced repetitively to build muscle memory. This allowed Tice to become highly skilled while the author remained mediocre.
Studies of chess players, who can be ranked objectively, also show the importance of deliberate practice. While grandmasters do not have special memory abilities, they engage in far more deliberate practice. A study found that chess players at all levels practiced similar hours per week, but lower-ranked players spent more of that time playing casual games. In contrast, higher-ranked players focused on deliberate practice, like studying master games and solving chess problems.
Deliberate practice is complex and often uncomfortable but is the only path to highly developed skill and expertise. You will need more than routine practice or play to get you there. You can systematically improve your ability and acquire career capital by pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, giving yourself feedback, and building skills through repetition.
Research shows that it takes around 10,000 hours or 10 years of deliberate practice to become highly skilled in a complex domain.
A study of chess players found that the key factor separating intermediate players from grandmasters was not total hours of practice but hours spent in serious study, receiving coaching and feedback. Grandmasters spent five times more hours in serious study.
Serious study, or deliberate practice, involves engaging in challenging activities designed by a teacher to specifically improve performance with immediate feedback. It is critical to excellence in many fields.
Most people plateau at an "acceptable" level of performance, and further improvement is unpredictable. Deliberate practice is required to continue progressing.
Adopting the craftsman mindset requires approaching your work with a dedication to deliberate practice like top performers do. Two examples:
Alex Berger became a TV writer in 2 years through obsessive deliberate practice - seeking criticism and studying to improve constantly.
Mike Jackson avoided distractions like email to focus on deliberate practice - honing his programming skills through working on challenging, feedback-intensive projects.
Deliberate practice may provide the key to quickly becoming so good at your work that "they cannot ignore you." However, most people are stuck at a plateau, needing a clear training philosophy.
In summary, research shows that deliberate practice - not just working hard or having an innate talent - is critical to achieving excellence and career success in complex, knowledge-based fields. However, most people fail to advance beyond an "acceptable" level, while top performers dedicate themselves to constant skill improvement through deliberate practice.
The writer interviewed Alex Berger, a successful television writer, and Mike Jackson, a venture capitalist, to understand their paths to success. Alex and Mike displayed the traits of deliberate practice, as defined by the researcher Anders Ericsson.
They took on projects beyond their current abilities and comfort zone. Alex worked on multiple writing projects simultaneously while holding down a day job. Mike took on an ambitious master's thesis, ran an international research project, and started a challenging startup.
They obsessively sought feedback. Alex shared his scripts with colleagues and asked them to scrutinize his work. Mike's startup would only succeed if he figured things out quickly. Now as a VC, Mike tracks how he spends every hour and reviews the data weekly to see how he can improve.
They focused on stretching their abilities, not just doing what was easy or immediate. Alex chose projects that would force him to improve his craft. Mike limits time spent on email and required tasks to focus on high-value work like fundraising and investment vetting.
To emulate their deliberate practice, the author recommends the following five habits:
Determine if you are in a "winner-take-all" or "auction" market. In winner-take-all (like TV writing), only one skill (e.g. scriptwriting ability) matters. In an auction (like cleantech), many skills are relevant.
Define your capital type. Figure out the most important skill or ability in your market. In winner-take-all markets, focus on developing that single skill.
Explore the edge of your abilities. Take on projects that push you outside your comfort zone. Like Alex and Mike, do work where you must get feedback to succeed.
Define feedback loops. Figure out ways to get regular feedback on your work in progress. Track key metrics like Mike does to see where you can improve.
Stretch and repeat. Focus on developing the most critical skill, incorporating feedback, and repeating. Progress will be slow but steady. Over time, you will build up your "career capital."
In summary, deliberate practice requires understanding the types of markets and skills that matter in your industry. You can systematically build expertise and career capital over time by taking on challenging work, getting feedback, and relentlessly focusing on the critical skill your role requires. However, progress demands pushing outside your comfort zone—and a dedication to lifelong learning.
An auction market is a winner-take-all. The only thing that matters is whether your posts compel the reader. Successful blogs in this space often have basic designs but inspire readers. Focus on saying something people care about, not metrics like bounce rates.
Identify the type of capital, or skills, that will be valuable in your market. Look for "open gates" - opportunities to build skills you already can access. Starting from scratch is hard, so leverage what you have. For example, a student could work with a professor to gain experience, which is more accessible than an outside job.
Define what "good" means for acquiring that capital. Set clear goals so you know if you are making progress. It could be getting an agent or producing a script for a writer and a musician, mastering a new technique.
Use "deliberate practice" to acquire the capital:
Stretch yourself outside your comfort zone. Do more than just do what you are told - push past plateaus. This is hard work, not enjoyable, but how you improve.
Get honest feedback, even if it is critical. You cannot evaluate your progress. Learn from professionals and be open to "harsh" feedback.
- Be patient. Acquiring valuable skills takes time - often years. Stay diligent and focused, avoiding distractions. Success is often gradual, as skills compound over time through practice. For example, Steve Martin practiced clawhammer banjo for 40 years to become good.
In summary, to do work you love, acquire rare and valuable skills through deliberate practice. Adopt a craftsman mindset, define your goals, stretch yourself, get feedback, and be patient as you build career capital.
The author visited Red Fire Farm to understand the appeal of the farmers' lifestyle. He wanted to identify the traits that made their work compelling so he could integrate them into his own life.
Ryan Voiland, the farmer, needed to follow his passion for farming. Instead, he stumbled into it and developed a passion over time as he gained expertise. As a kid, he had an entrepreneurial streak and made money through various small businesses, eventually settling on selling produce. He read extensively about farming, took out loans to buy equipment, went to college to study horticulture, and spent years acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge.
What makes the farmers' lifestyle appealing is their control and autonomy over their work. Though farming is difficult and stressful, Ryan and Sarah can direct their lives and work on their terms. They invested time in gaining the expertise and skills to gain more control and autonomy. The appeal is not about working outside or avoiding computers but rather the meaningful life they built for themselves through their hard-won expertise.
In summary, the key to finding work you love is not following your passion but gaining career capital through deliberate practice and then using that capital to gain more autonomy and control. Ryan and Sarah built expertise over many years and were then able to shape meaningful lives and work on their terms. Passion often follows mastery.
The key takeaways are: gain career capital through deliberate practice, use that capital to gain more control and autonomy, build expertise and mastery, and passion will follow. Finding work you love is about working right, not finding the proper work. Autonomy and control are some of the most compelling traits of work people end up loving.
Ryan and Sarah, the farmers from Red Fire Farm, have a lot of control and autonomy in their work. This control is a significant factor in what makes their lifestyle so appealing.
Extensive research shows that having more control and autonomy leads to higher happiness, productivity, and job satisfaction. Giving employees more control has boosted company growth and student performance. The "Results-Only Work Environment" philosophy gives employees radical amounts of control and autonomy.
Jane, an adventurous and ambitious young woman, recognized the importance of control and autonomy. She envisioned an exciting life of world travel and adventure. To finance this, she planned to build some websites to generate income. However, she struggled to generate this income and support herself after dropping out of college.
The "First Control Trap" refers to gaining control and autonomy without having the relevant career capital and skills to back it up. This often leads to needing help in sustaining that control and lifestyle. Jane and Lisa Feuer, who started a yoga business after a short training course, fell into this trap by gaining control without enough career capital.
The "lifestyle design" movement encourages people to reject and design traditional life paths. While this philosophy can work well for some, many of its followers fall into the trap of gaining control and autonomy without the skills or career capital to sustain their new lifestyle. Natural, sustainable control requires having something valuable to offer in exchange.
In summary, while control and autonomy are crucially important traits for happy and fulfilling work, you must build up relevant career capital before gaining significant control. Gaining control with capital to offer in exchange often leads to difficulty.
Lulu Young is a software developer who has consistently fought for more control and autonomy in her career. She has avoided the first control trap by carefully acquiring career capital before making bids for more freedom.
Lulu's first job was as a software tester, an unfulfilling role with little responsibility. Rather than quitting in frustration, she built up her skills by learning to automate testing processes. This allowed her to gain promotions and eventually demand a part-time schedule to pursue a degree.
After the degree, Lulu found a job at an exciting startup. When that company was acquired, she turned down an offer for a big promotion to management in favor of joining another small startup. She wanted more autonomy over her work.
At the new startup, Lulu became the head software developer. When the company was acquired again and instituted rules she did not like, she demanded and received a three-month leave. She then left to become an independent contractor, gaining extreme flexibility and control over her work.
Lulu's story shows how she systematically gained career capital through building skills and experience. At each step, she used this capital to negotiate for more control and autonomy in her work. By avoiding the control traps, she achieved a fulfilling freelance career on her terms.
The key lessons are: gain career capital before pursuing more control, be wary of the control traps, and negotiate from a position of strength. Lulu provides an inspiring example of gaining control of your working life in a thoughtful, empowering way.
Lulu's story shows that gaining meaningful control over your career often generates resistance from employers and others.
There are two "control traps" to watch out for:
The first control trap: Pursuing control before you have enough career capital often leads to disaster.
The second control trap: Gaining enough career capital to pursue control but then facing resistance from employers who don't want to lose you.
The second control trap requires courage to overcome, but the "courage culture" tends to underestimate how hard this is to do well. The key is timing - you need enough career capital, but you must also correctly gauge when resistance is a sign you should hold off vs. when you should push through.
A heuristic that can help determine which control trap you are in is the "law of financial viability," proposed by entrepreneur Derek Sivers. This says you should only pursue more control if there's evidence people will pay you for it. You are likely in the first control trap if you still need to. If so, you can have more confidence in ignoring the resistance, as you are in the second control trap.
In summary, while control is critical to the work you love, gaining meaningful control is challenging and complex. The two control traps and law of financial viability provide a valuable framework for navigating this challenge. Control can be achieved with the right timing and judgment, but more complex answers exist. Courage is essential, but it must be balanced with prudent career planning.
Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, gave a TED talk about leaders and followers. He said leaders dare to stand alone and look foolish until followers join in, at which point the leader's movement gains momentum.
Derek himself has repeatedly played the role of the first leader, making unconventional moves in his career that turned out successful once others followed.
His guiding principle is "Do what people are willing to pay for." This means pursuing paths showing evidence that people will pay you for the work through direct payment, loans, investments, or continued employment.
Derek did not only pursue music full-time once he made more money from it than from his day job. He focused on something other than CD Baby when it was profitable. This approach reduced the risk in his unconventional moves.
The "law of financial viability" means seeking evidence of willingness to pay before making a bold career move to gain more control and autonomy. This evidence could be actual payment, loans, investment, or continued employment.
Examples of this law include Ryan Voiland, who got a loan to start his farm, and Lulu, who measured her bold moves by whether employers would hire or retain her. Ignoring this law often leads to failure to gain career control and autonomy.
The summary of Rule #3 is that gaining control and autonomy over your work is critical to loving your job. The "law of financial viability" is one way to invest your career capital by making bold moves toward more control and autonomy in a responsible way.
Gaining control in your career is tricky as there are two traps:
The first control trap: It is pursuing more control with more capital or leverage to back it up is dangerous. You must have career capital to succeed and avoid facing resistance.
The second control trap: Once you have enough capital and leverage, your employer will likely fight to keep you on a traditional path, as giving you more control is good for you but not for them.
To determine if the resistance you face is valid or should be ignored, use this rule suggested by Derek Sivers: "Do what people are willing to pay for." See if people value and are willing to pay for your idea or new role. If not, you likely need more career capital, which is not the right time. If they are willing to pay, the resistance is likely due to the second control trap.
In summary, gaining control in your career requires building up enough capital and leverage to overcome the two control traps. The law of financial viability, doing what people will pay for, can help determine if you have enough capital and if resistance should be heeded or ignored.
The key takeaway is that gaining meaningful control in your work requires diligently building up your career capital over time through valuable skills, relationships, reputation, and experience. With enough capital, you gain leverage to navigate the control traps better. However, use the law of financial viability to cautiously test how much control you are genuinely ready to take on. Think small but act big. Build up control in stages, not through sudden moves that lack support. A unifying mission or purpose to your work can also provide the motivation and energy to build capital and sustainably gain more control.
The author attended a computer science conference where four researchers presented on the same narrow topic using the same technique. This surprised the author but is explained by the concept of "multiples" in scientific discovery and the "adjacent possible."
The "adjacent possible" refers to the space of innovations close to and built upon the current cutting edge. New ideas emerge from this space; therefore, multiple researchers may discover them simultaneously.
Examples of famous scientific multiples include the discovery of sunspots in 1611, the invention of the electrical battery, and the isolation of oxygen. These became possible once new tools or ways of thinking defined the adjacent possible.
The technique that the four researchers presented had only recently become known in the author's field. Therefore, it defined the new cutting-edge, and multiple researchers noticed its potential and applied it, leading to the four presentations.
The author's interest in this concept stems from trying to understand what allowed Pardis Sabeti to develop a successful mission-driven career, unlike Sarah and Jane, who struggled. The adjacent possible provides part of the explanation.
In summary, significant breakthroughs and new directions often emerge from the adjacent possible space closely connected to the current cutting edge. To develop a mission, you must first build up knowledge and skills that define your own adjacent possible. Without this "career capital," your mission is unlikely to succeed.
The key takeaway is that missions require relevant career capital. You must first achieve a level of mastery to define your own adjacent possible before a compelling new direction, like Pardis's mission, can emerge and have a chance of success. You are lacking with Sarah and Jane, a mission attempt may lack this capital and need to be revised.
Pardis Sabeti believes passion is essential for happiness in your work, but she cautions that people often incorrectly believe they know in advance what work they will be passionate about. Her own story illustrates this well. In high school, she was passionate about math. Then she had a great biology teacher and decided biology was for her. At MIT, she chose to major in biology. Then she decided she wanted to be a doctor. At Oxford, she became interested in infectious diseases and Africa.
It took many years of building up career capital through her education and training before she finally identified her mission of using computational genetics to study infectious diseases. She went through undergraduate studies, earned a Ph.D., went to medical school, did postdoctoral work, and had her breakthrough publication before finally committing to this mission by accepting a professorship at Harvard.
The critical point is that identifying a compelling mission requires first advancing to the cutting edge of a field by building up rare and valuable skills or career capital. Pardis's story illustrates this well. She explored many areas and built up career capital for years before finding her mission. The message is: "Think small, act big." Focus on advancing in a field, build career capital, and eventually, the mission will become apparent in the adjacent possible that opens up. However, this process requires patience - it can take years. Those who try to identify a mission too quickly, without first building career capital by advancing in a field, will likely end up frustrated like Sarah and Jane.
In summary, identifying a meaningful and impactful mission requires building career capital by advancing in a field and getting close to the cutting edge. Only then does the adjacent possible open up, revealing new opportunities and directions that can point to a compelling mission. However, this is a gradual process that often takes years. Patience and persistence are required.
Kirk French is an archaeologist who wanted to popularize modern archaeology to a mass audience. After getting a Ph.D., he identified this as a potential mission for his career.
To explore this mission, he started by focusing on a classic 1961 documentary about the Teotihuacan Valley in Mexico. He created an online course based on the film to teach people about archaeology and ecology. This "little bet" allowed him to start pursuing his mission in a concrete, achievable way.
The online course was successful, giving Kirk the confidence and experience to pitch a TV show called American Treasures. The show allowed him to pursue his mission further and share archaeology with a broad audience.
Kirk's story shows that great missions require "little bets" - small, concrete projects that allow you to explore the possibilities around an idea. The little bets build up your confidence and experience, allowing you to take more significant actions toward the mission.
Kirk and his cohost Jason De Leon were driven by their mission to educate the public about archaeology. While similar shows were focused on exchanging cash for artifacts, American Treasures avoided that. Kirk and Jason genuinely enjoy pursuing their mission.
Kirk French's story demonstrates that once you identify an exciting mission or possibility, little bets can help turn that idea into action and success. G, great missions are achieved through these small, concrete steps.
The key takeaway is that more than big ideas and ambitions are needed. It would help if you had a systematic strategy, like little bets, to explore the concrete possibilities surrounding an idea and ultimately achieve great success. Little bets build the experience and confidence to take more extensive and significant actions.
Kirk Sanders discovered old film reels from a 1960s documentary called Land and Water that he had shot in Mexico's Teotihuacan Valley. He launched two projects: digitizing the footage, releasing a DVD, and filming new footage to create an updated documentary version.
Kirk's breakthrough came when he decided to follow up on calls to his university's archaeology department from people claiming to have made discoveries. He decided to visit them, film the encounters, and produce a documentary on the most exciting cases. He called this project The Armchair Archaeologist.
A production company contacted Kirk after seeing his Armchair Archaeologist footage. They refilmed his visit to a site where a man claimed to have found Templar treasure. The History Channel agreed to finance a pilot, but Discovery Channel offered to film eight total episodes. They asked Kirk for a cohost, and he suggested his friend Jason De León. This became the show American Treasures.
Kirk's path to hosting American Treasures was incremental. He made a series of small bets to feel out how to achieve his mission of popularizing archaeology. He tried releasing a DVD, filming a new documentary, and creating a film series for students. The last bet, The Armchair Archaeologist, proved most promising. This incremental, experimental approach is known as "little bets."
Successful innovators like Steve Jobs, Chris Rock, and Pardis Sabeti have used the little bets strategy. They make many small, tentative steps, learning from failures and small wins. This provides feedback to guide future steps, and allows extraordinary outcomes to emerge unexpectedly. In contrast, choosing a bold plan and making one big bet is riskier.
Like Kirk, Pardis Sabeti used little bets to achieve her mission of tackling infectious diseases in Africa. She tried working in different labs and on different projects before finding success with her computational approach to seeking natural selection in the genome. Tentativeness, not boldness, helped transform her general mission into a specific success.
In summary, you need career capital before identifying a realistic mission. However, a general mission is not enough—you need to use little bets to convert it into a specific path to success. Little bets provide feedback to help you find the right path forward.
Giles Bowkett initially struggled in his career, working at jobs he did not enjoy. He realized he needed a mission to guide his career and settled on combining his interests in art and technology.
To figure out how to turn this general mission into a reality, Giles read Seth Godin's Purple Cow, which argues that you need to produce "remarkable" projects that compel people to spread the word. He also read Chad Fowler's My Job Went to India, which recommended leveraging the open-source software movement.
Giles combined these insights. He would produce a remarkable open-source project for the Ruby programming community. This led him to create Archaeopteryx, an AI program that generates its dance music.
Archaeopteryx made Giles a star in the Ruby community. This fame and credibility allowed him to find work he loved, like writing, speaking, and working for startups.
The critical lesson is that missions require marketing. To succeed in a mission, you must find and launch a remarkable project in a venue, like the open-source community, where people will spread the word. Giles approached this systematically, using marketing books to identify the traits of viral ideas.
The key takeaway is that missions require marketing to succeed. You need to identify and launch a remarkable project in a venue where people will spread the word. Giles approached this in a systematic, marketing-centric fashion, using books to determine the traits of viral ideas.
To have a compelling career guided by the mission, you first need to build up career capital by developing rare and valuable skills. You cannot only skip straight to a mission with mastery.
The best mission-driven projects are found in the "adjacent possible" - the region just beyond the current cutting edge. To get there, you need expertise. Trying to devise a mission without skills and expertise puts the cart before the horse.
The "law of remarkability" suggests that for a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two ways:
It must compel people who encounter it to spread the word to others. It needs to be a "purple cow" that inspires people to take notice and talk about it.
It must be launched in a venue that supports spreading the word. Infrastructure must be in place for good ideas to be noticed and shared quickly.
Examples of the law in action:
Pardis Sabeti's mission is to use genetics to fight disease in Africa. Her project of tracking the human evolution of disease resistance was remarkably compelling, as evidenced by widespread media coverage. She launched it in the venue of a peer-reviewed science publication built to spread good ideas.
Kirk French's mission to popularize archaeology. His project of helping families uncover the significance of heirlooms on TV was remarkably compelling. He launched it in the television venue, where good ideas spread widely by people discussing what they have watched.
In summary, to have a compelling mission-driven career, build up career capital, then apply the law of remarkability to devise a remarkably compelling project and launch it in a venue designed for spreading good ideas. This can transform your work into something that both inspires you and brings you success.
The author was unsure about his career path, and "following your passion" did not resonate with him. His experience starting a web design company in high school showed him that developing rare and valuable skills could lead to exciting opportunities and experiences, even if you were not passionate about the work.
The author applied to 20 academic jobs in the fall of 2010 during a bad economy. He received an offer from Georgetown University in March 2011 and accepted it, giving him four months before starting the job to figure out how to create work he loved.
The author conducted interviews during this time that formed the basis of the rules in the book. The timing allowed him to finish writing the book and start his new job with confidence in how to push his career in a fulfilling direction.
For Rule #1, the author argues that "follow your passion" is terrible advice for most people. His experience with the web design company showed him that passion is optional to finding an exciting and meaningful career. Developing rare and valuable skills, or "career capital," can open up opportunities to gain control and pursue missions that lead to loving your work.
The author will now share how he applies the rules in his new role as a professor. The applications are tentative since he is just starting the job, but they provide examples of concrete actions readers can take to apply the lessons to their careers.
For Rule #1, the author is applying the lesson that "following your passion" is not the only or best path to a meaningful career. His experience starting the web design company inoculated him to the idea that you must have a preexisting passion for finding fulfilling work. Developing rare and valuable skills through his research and teaching will allow him to gain more control and pursue missions that could lead to loving his new job.
The author argues against the notion that you need to find your "calling" or passion to have a satisfying career. He believes any career path can lead to work you love if you acquire rare and valuable skills, which he calls "career capital."
The author first developed this mindset in high school and college. Instead of worrying about finding his passion, he sought opportunities to gain experience and develop expertise. This led him to publish a student advice book and have an exciting student life. After college, he had opportunities at Microsoft and MIT and chose MIT to stay close to his girlfriend, confident either path could lead to a rewarding career.
When the author faced career uncertainty as a professor, Rule #1 saved him from worrying about finding his calling. However, he realized he needed strategies to continue gaining career capital. Research on deliberate practice showed him the importance of continually pushing himself outside his comfort zone. The author worried his rate of gaining career capital was slowing down after the demanding early years of graduate school.
To address this, the author chose a notoriously difficult research paper to master through deliberate practice. He deployed time limits and information structures like proof maps, quizzes, and detailed summaries to overcome his mind's resistance to the effort required. Over two weeks and 15 hours of practice, he gained a deep understanding of the paper. This experience showed him that deliberate practice could reignite his career capital acquisition.
The author argues that you do not need a calling to love your work. You need to gain rare and valuable skills through deliberate practice. By applying deliberate practice strategies, the author could resume progress in his career.
The author read a research paper that allowed him to understand a whole area of research that had previously been unclear to him. He then built on this new understanding, proved a new result, and published it. He also found two mistakes in the original paper that had yet to be noticed. This experience showed the author the value of deliberate practice and discomfort to improve his skills.
The author then instituted three habits to increase deliberate practice in his daily routine:
A "research bible" routine where he summarizes a relevant paper each week. This induces strain but at a more manageable level than thoroughly deconstructing a paper.
An "hour tally" where he tracks the number of hours per month he spends in deliberate practice. This motivates him to increase that time.
A theory notebook where he formally records theoretical ideas and results by hand. This signals the importance of the work and induces strain.
The author says these insights changed his mindset from "productivity-centric" to "craft-centric"—focused on continuous improvement. This has improved his career trajectory.
When the author had a job offer from Georgetown and an interview invitation from another university, he evaluated the options through the lens of Rule #3: Control over your work leads to dream jobs. He noticed two things:
Georgetown's new Ph.D. program in computer science gave him more potential control and influenced the program's direction as it grew. Established programs offer less control, especially for junior faculty.
Georgetown's tenure process focused less on direct comparisons to other experts and more on developing its star researchers. This offered more flexibility and control over the direction of his research.
The author recognized the traps of pursuing too little career capital and too much autonomy too soon. However, overall, the opportunity for control at Georgetown made it more attractive. He accepted their offer.
In summary, a critical insight from his quest—the value of deliberate practice and discomfort—led the author to change his skills and mindset. Another insight—the importance of control over your work—guided his evaluation of job opportunities and helped him choose a path to maximize his control and potential impact.
The second trap refers to facing resistance from others when you gain more control and flexibility in your career. The author applied the "law of financial viability" to determine whether to take an opportunity with more control: if people are willing to pay you for it, continue; if not, move on. The author took a position at Georgetown because he had enough career capital for the flexibility; it paid well and supported his research initiatives.
The author was fascinated by the idea of a career mission, an organizing purpose that can lead to remarkable opportunities. Academia is well-suited for developing a mission. The author gives the example of Alan Lightman, an MIT physics professor turned writer, who organized his work around exploring the human side of science. This led Lightman to create an unconventional career with much freedom and flexibility.
Developing a mission requires career capital (which takes patience) and constantly looking for new ideas in the "adjacent possible" of your field (which requires dedication and exposure to new ideas). The author created a "mission development system" with three levels:
A tentative research mission: The authors are "To apply distributed algorithm theory to interesting new places to produce interesting new results."
Background research: Every week expose yourself to something new in your field, summarize it, and think about the ideas. This exposes you to potentially relevant material and facilitates combining ideas.
Exploratory projects: Use "little bets," small projects that can be completed quickly, create new value, and provide concrete feedback. The author limits himself to 2-3 active little bets at a time, uses deadlines, and tracks his hours to maintain urgency.
The exploratory little bets, guided by the tentative mission and fueled by background research, help leap a tentative mission to compelling accomplishments. This system follows principles from Where Good Ideas Come From about the importance of liquid networks and the adjacent possible.
Ran his own successful branding and design firm before retiring
Loved his work because he had control over which projects he took on and was well compensated
Built up career capital by becoming an expert in branding and logos, which allowed him to gain more control and independence over his work
Is a successful TV writer
Loves his work because it is creative, reaches a large audience, and provides lengthy breaks
Gained career capital by systematically improving his scriptwriting skills through practice and feedback, which led to his first scripts being produced and then to staff writing jobs
Is a director at a cleantech venture capital firm
Loves his work because he finds investing in new energy technologies meaningful and impactful
Built up career capital through work experience, education, and networking, which ultimately allowed him to land his dream job investing in clean energy startups
In summary, these individuals gained control and meaning in their work by building up career capital through developing expertise, skill, and strong professional networks. Rather than relying on "finding their passion," they focused on working right by strategically investing in becoming valuable to the type of work they found most meaningful.
Works at clean-energy venture capital firm called Westly Group
Built up expertise in carbon markets and green energy through master's thesis and startup work
Focused on acquiring valuable skills, not finding his "true calling."
Runs organic farm called Red Fire Farm with his wife
Loves the control and independence of running his farm
Spent over a decade acquiring farming skills before starting his farm
Works as a freelance software developer
Enjoys the flexibility and control over her schedule as a freelancer
Gradually gained more autonomy in her career by acquiring valuable skills and experience at a series of jobs
Entrepreneur, writer, and thinker
Values the control over his time and work that his success has afforded him
Only pursued new projects and bids for more independence once they became financially viable
Professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard
Loves that her work contributes to the critical mission of ending infectious diseases
Took years of education and skill development before identifying her compelling mission
Archaeology professor and TV show cohost
Passionate about educating the public on archaeology through teaching and media work
Stumbled into media work through chance opportunity, but had skills and experience to take advantage of it
In summary, these individuals love their work because it gives them control, independence, and the ability to pursue meaningful missions. However, in each case, it took years of skill development and experience before they achieved this type of work. They focused on becoming valuable in their fields, not finding their "true calling," and were willing to start small and build up to more autonomy and independence over time. Their stories show that finding work you love is a gradual process that unfolds as you gain experience and expertise.
Here is a summary of the key terms, theories, and laws introduced in the book:
The passion hypothesis: The belief that you should find work you are passionate about. This book argues that this hypothesis is wrong and potentially harmful.
"Be so good they cannot ignore you": A quote from Steve Martin that captures the necessity of building valuable career capital. It means focusing on developing rare and valuable skills, not "following your passion."
A craftsman mindset is an approach to work where you focus on the value you provide to the world. This stands in contrast to the passion mindset.
The passion mindset: An approach to work where you focus on what your job is offering you. This mindset leads to dissatisfaction and daydreaming about other jobs.
Career capital: The rare and valuable skills you offer in the working world. This is key to creating work you love.
The career capital theory of great work: The theory that the key to loving your work is developing rare and valuable skills (career capital), not following your passion. This requires a craftsman mindset, focusing on your value to the world. The three parts of the theory are:
Great work requires rare and valuable traits.
To acquire these traits, you need rare and valuable skills (career capital) to offer in exchange.
A craftsman mindset, focusing on becoming "so good they cannot ignore you," is critical to developing career capital.
Passion follows mastery: As you build career capital and become a master in your field, passion for your work tends to follow. Mastery comes first, then passion.
Control: One of the three traits that define great work, along with creativity and impact. We all want control and autonomy over what we work on and how we do it.
Impact: One of the three traits that define great work. We want our work to impact the world positively.
Creativity: One of the three traits that define great work. We want opportunities to exercise our creativity.
Career missions: Passion for some meaningful question or problem that drives your working life. This alternative is more valuable than "following your passion" for a particular job or industry. Career missions provide direction and motivation for developing career capital.
Remarkability ("the law of remarkability" ): For a project or idea to spread and gain traction, it must be remarkable in two ways: 1) It must compel people to remark on it, and 2) It needs to exist in a format optimized for spreading these remarks.
Here is a summary of the key concepts and terms introduced in the passages:
The 10,000-hour rule: The idea that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a complex field. Malcolm Gladwell introduced it.
Deliberate practice: Difficult practice aimed at improving specific skills. It requires stepping outside your comfort zone and receiving feedback. Necessary for building career capital.
Career capital markets: The markets where you build career capital. There are two types:
Winner-take-all markets: Only one type of career capital is valued. You need to figure out how to acquire it.
Auction markets: Many types of career capital are valued. You can build a unique collection of career capital.
Control: Having influence over what you do and how you do it. An important trait to acquire along with career capital.
The first control trap: Gaining control with enough career capital is sustainable.
The second control trap: When you have enough career capital to gain control, your employer will try to prevent you from using it.
Courage culture: The belief that courage alone can lead to a dream job. Underplays the importance of career capital. This can lead to bad outcomes.
The law of financial viability: When deciding whether to pursue more control, ask if people would pay for the result. If so, continue. If not, move on.
Mission: A unifying goal that spans multiple jobs. Provides an answer to "What should I do with my life?"
The adjacent possible: The space beyond the cutting edge contains new combinations of existing ideas. Where good career missions are often found, we need to get to the cutting edge first.
Little bets: Methodical little failures and wins that help explore new directions—a good strategy for turning a vague mission into specific projects.
The law of remarkability: For mission-driven projects to succeed, they must be remarkable in two ways: compel others to spread the word and be launched where spreading is possible.
Passion is rare: Most people do not need preexisting passions for their work. Passion often emerges from mastery and perceived impact.
Passion is dangerous: The belief that "following your passion" is enough can lead to poor outcomes. Passion needs to be balanced with developing career capital.
Does this summary accurately reflect the key ideas and terms from the selected passages? Let me know if you wantwant me to clarify or expand on any summary part.
Here is a summary of The Good Jobs Strategy by Zeynep Ton:
The book's main argument is that companies can operate with a "good jobs strategy" where they provide high-quality jobs with good wages and opportunities for advancement while maintaining low costs and high profitability. The author identifies four operational choices that enable this strategy:
Offer excellent operational support. This means investing in training, tools, and management support that enable employees to be highly productive. This high productivity offsets the cost of higher wages and benefits.
Standardize and simplify roles. Establishing clear job responsibilities, workflows, and standard operating procedures makes it easier to train employees and enables them to be highly effective. This, in turn, allows for higher pay.
Cross-train employees. Training employees across different roles gives them more varied and engaging work while making the workforce more flexible. This further enhances productivity and service.
Operate with Slack. Having some extra staff or resources provides flexibility for better customer service. It also reduces strain on employees which helps with both retention and productivity.
The book provides several case studies of companies that follow this "good jobs strategy," like Costco, Trader Joe's, QuikTrip, and Mercadona. They demonstrate that companies can offer sound, well-paying jobs with the right operational choices while maintaining strong performance on costs, growth, and profits. This type of strategy leads to a "virtuous cycle" with low employee turnover, high customer satisfaction, and long-term financial success.
The critical argument is that operational excellence and good jobs do not have to be mutually exclusive. With intelligent operational choices, companies can have both and gain a competitive advantage. An excellent job strategy can be very profitable when appropriately implemented.
Did you find this article valuable?
Support Literary Insights by becoming a sponsor. Any amount is appreciated!