Cal Newport on Building a Remarkable Career

Last weekend, I attended the World Domination Summit. It’s a brilliant “un-conference” but together by Chris Guillebeau, whose blog and adventures I’ve been following for many years.

One of the speakers at the conference was Cal Newport, who I’ve been following since my time at Georgia Tech. Cal has finished his PhD (and post-doc) studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is now an assistant professor at Georgetown University.

I attended Cal’s breakout session on Saturday afternoon and his main keynote on Sunday afternoon, and I wanted to present some takeaways from Cal’s talks.

“Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice

Cal Newport came into the conference professing that his argument might stir up some controversy at WDS, since it’s a bit unorthodox. The gist of his argument about building and leading a remarkable career: “the follow your passion” advice is not only bad, it is wrong. Newport’s claim can further be broken down:

Sitting down to figure out what you’re passionate about and then being disappointed when you try it and it doesn’t work out is a mistake. Instead of following your passion, you should pick something that is of interest to you you and that is going to give you interesting options. Once you get into this interest, build it into a craft with hard work and dedication. Once you are skilled in that arena, leverage your knowledge and skills to prioritize the things that matter to you in life. This is the foundation for what can be a remarkable life.

This isn’t just a hokey hypothesis put on by Newport. He has spent significant amount of his free time (the guy isn’t on Facebook, Twitter, or any social media: any effort that he doesn’t put into his work goes into this other interest of Newport’s, namely, how students think, behave, and choose their careers).

How To Develop a Remarkable Career

Cal Newport summarized the path to a remarkable career (and doing what you love):

1. Get good at something that is rare and valuable. 

2. After you get good, leverage yours skill for things that really matter to you (e.g. a lifestyle with more autonomy, freedom), allowing yourself to focus on the parts of that skill that truly matter, or convert that value into a part of your life you really care about. Understand that you cannot convert anything to what matters to you unless you have first developed necessary and valuable skills, because otherwise you’ve got nothing to leverage.

3. But it is only when you become really good at something and have the opportunity to leverage your skills that you will face the most resistance from outside forces (family, internal struggles, your boss). In other words, at the moment when you can take    the leap and do something extraordinary, you’ll have the greatest resistance to stay complacent (in status quo), continuing on your current path.

4. What you do for your work might be a lot less important than you think. The general traits you leverage are more important than the work itself, as counterintuitive as that might appear. Cal talked about a number of things that Steve Jobs could have done and been successful at, besides starting Apple Computer. In fact, Steve Jobs was successful in leading another company: Pixar.

Case Study: Bill McKibben

To drill down to Cal’s hypothesis, Cal offered the example of one of his favorite authors: Bill McKibben. McKibben went to Harvard University, where he worked for the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. After a strong career at the paper (where he ended up becoming an editor), McKibben went on to write at The New Yorker. He spent six years working at The New Yorker, developing his career and honing his skills as a writer.

But then McKibben did something unexpected. Instead of taking a promotion at The New Yorker, he quit his job and moved to Adirondocak Mountains in upstate New York to write a book called End of Nature. The book became a critical success, cementing McKibben as one of the authorities on environmentalism. What’s important to realize here is that McKibben used his leverage that he developed pursuing his writing career to go out on his own. At perhaps the apex of his career, instead of choosing to continue on his path at The New Yorker, he had enough attention (and skill) to know that he can go out on his own and write this book. When he quit his job, he already had an “in” with various publishers and other notables in the publishing industry such that he could get a big advance and go out and write End of Nature. Had McKibben not paid his dues, so to speak, at The New Yorker and decided to write this book right out of Harvard, he would have probably been ignored. At the same time, McKibben faced massive resistance from those around him when he decided to go out on his own and spend time writing End of Nature.

Conclusion

The key to building a remarkable career isn’t following your passion, necessarily. It’s doing something interesting, developing valuable skills, and then leveraging your opportunities. On Saturday’s conclusion to his keynote, Cal offered this brilliant advice to the audience: Do as Steve Jobs did, not as he said.

Cal Newport has written about his experience speaking at World Domination Summit in this post.

If you are interested in this topic, then I recommend giving Cal Newport’s upcoming book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love a closer look. It comes out in September.

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