Cal Newport holds a PhD from MIT and is an assistant professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University.
He runs the popular blog Study Hacks (which I highly recommend) and is the author of four books including, most recently, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.
Cal and I talked about the secrets to becoming an expert, how deliberate practice works and why following your passion can be a *bad* idea.
My conversation with Cal was over 45 minutes, so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post edited highlights here.
If you want the extended interview I’ll be sending it out with my weekly newsletter on Sunday.
Don’t Follow Your Passion
I set out to research a simple question: How do people end up loving what they do? If you ask people, the most common answer you’ll get is, “They followed their passion.” So I went out and researched: “Is this true?” From what I found, “Follow your passion” is terrible advice. If your goal is to end up passionate about what you do, “Follow your passion” is terrible advice.
So the first fundamental misunderstanding is this idea that we all have a pre-existing passion that’s relevant to a career, and if we could just discover it, then we would be fine. Research says actually most people don’t have one.
The second problem is that it’s built on this misbelief that matching your work to something you have a very strong interest in is going to lead to a long-term satisfaction and engagement in your career. It sounds obvious that it should be true, but actually the research shows that’s not at all the reality of how people end up really enjoying and gaining great satisfaction and meaning out of their career.
If you study people who end up loving what they do, here’s what you find and if you study the research on it, you find the same thing: Long-term career satisfaction requires traits like a real sense of autonomy, a real sense of impact on the world, a sense of mastery that you’re good at what you do, and a sense of connection in relation to other people.
Now, the key point is those traits are not matched to a specific piece of work and they have nothing to do with matching your job to some sort of ingrained, pre-existing passion.
How To Become An Expert At Something
What you need is a clearly identified sort of skill you’re working on. You need some notion of feedback. So you have to have some notion of, “How good am I at this now, and am I any better now that I’ve done this versus not doing it?” So that’s sort of the coaching aspect of things. And then when actually working, you have to work deeply, which means you have to sort of work on the skill with a persistent, unbroken focus, and you have to try to push yourself a little bit beyond where you’re comfortable. So you should not really be able to easily get to the next step in what you’re doing. At the same time, you should, with enough strain, be able to make some progress.
What You’re Doing Wrong When Trying To Become An Expert
I think when people want to get better at something the biggest mistake they make is seeking flow. It’s a very enjoyable state. It’s where you’re lost in what you’re doing, you’re applying your skills seamlessly and fluidly, and you feel like you have control.
But we know from research on how people actually gain expert levels of performance that the actual state in which you’re getting better is one of strain, and that’s different than flow. It’s a state where you actually feel like you’re being stretched. It’s uncomfortable. You’re doing things beyond your current abilities. It’s not fluid. You’re not necessarily lost. Your mind might be saying, “This is terrible. This is terrible. Check your e-mail. This is terrible. What if there is something on Facebook?“
We avoid that for the most part, but we know that if you just keep doing what you know how to do already, you’ll hit a plateau almost immediately. So I think the avoidance of strain is the biggest mistake people make in trying to get better.
What Books Should You Read If You Want To Be An Expert?
Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers: The Story of Success
Stephen Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
Frans Johansson: The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World
The Secret To Success Is The “Craftsman’s Mindset”
My advice is to abandon the passion mindset which asks “What does this job offer me? Am I happy with this job? Is it giving me everything I want?” Shift from that mindset to Steve Martin’s mindset, which is “What am I offering the world? How valuable am I? Am I really not that valuable? If I’m not that valuable, then I shouldn’t expect things in my working life. How can I get better?“ Like a craftsman, you find satisfaction in the development of your skill and then you leverage that skill once you have it to take control of your working life and build something that’s more long-term and meaningful… When I talk about the habits of the craftsman mindset, it’s really the habits of deliberate practice. So someone who has the craftsman mindset is trying to systematically build up valuable skills because that’s going to be their leverage, their capital for taking control of their career and they share the same habits you would see with violin players or athletes or chess players.
The craftsmen out there are not the guys checking their social media feeds every five minutes. They’re not looking for the easy win or the flow-state. They’re the guys that are out there three hours, pushing the skill. “This is hard but I’m going to master this new piece of software. I’m going to master this new mathematical framework.” That’s the mindset, the habit of the craftsman.
If you want the extended interview (where Cal explains the first step to expertise and the main skill you’ll need to be competitive in the future) I’ll be sending it out with my weekly newsletter on Sunday.