Cal Newport Shows How To Love Your Work

Over the last couple of days I read Cal Newport’s recent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Written by someone who has made a career out of doing difficult things, the book makes the case for why good careers (whether you have a job, a business, or some other creative pursuit) come from doing what’s difficult, not doing what you love. His idea is that just pursuing what you love to do is a big gamble. For a few people it works out, but for many more it fails.

In showing why this is risky he points out examples of people who have quit their regular jobs (or college) to start lifestyle design blogs, small businesses, and other new things. They quickly ran into the challenge of not having anything of value to offer and they discovered that you can’t get something for nothing. This is compared with stories of people who started in a similar position, but stayed where they were and spent a few years developing a valuable skill. Once they had that skill they used it to start getting the freedom they wanted.

Over time those who have valuable skills are in a position to demand the lifestyle freedom they want, as well as steer themselves into the work that’s most interesting to them. This leads to the combination that gives them the ultimate job, even though they may not have been very interested in the field to begin with.

This comes at a great time since I’ve been trying new things to practice new skills, make my work more interesting, and get some more freedom (hmm, sounds familiar). The book provides a lot of useful examples and tactics to help develop valuable skills and leverage them to do the work you want. For example one section focuses on why it’s important to do things that people will pay for, even if you don’t need the money. When people are actually willing to pay for what you’re doing, that shows that they value it.

Going a bit against some conventional advice, Cal also recommends trying lots of little experiments to see if things are valuable and interesting, and dropping them after a few months if they aren’t working as expected. But it’s important to understand when you’ve found the right thing and run with it, and also to prepare enough that you can credibly try these things.

One area where I could improve quite a bit is having more written plans and even a journal. I’ve tried several versions of this over time but haven’t really stuck with much consistently. With this new framework, I can see more value in having a written outline of what I’ve accomplished and what I still need to do, and a record of various things I’ve tried. The book has a few references to different ways to do this which I will try out.

There are a few areas that could be in question. For example Cal cites a musician who has clearly practiced to develop exceptional skills. However this musician is nowhere near as well-known as a band such as KISS, which by some reports were not all that talented when they started out. The musician in the book will likely make a good career but never achieve that level of popularity. It underplays the value of marketing and the limits of skills development.

That might be the whole point though. You can make a great career being well-known among a few thousand people. There are a lucky few people who are born with an exceptional talent and meet the right people at the right times to develop it at an early age. In a similar way some lifestyle bloggers have exceptional success with little apparent work. They are famous because this is rare. The rest of us might not experience a life of constant bliss, but using basic economics we can find very rewarding things to do and the freedom to practice them in the way we prefer.

I highly recommend reading this book if you have questions about what is the ideal work for you or how to get there.

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