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 developing expertise, how deliberate practice works and why following your passion can be a *bad* idea.
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.
THE FIRST STEP
If someone says ‘I want to take this path,’ what is the best piece of advice that you would give them?
I would say identify, in some sense, what is the area in your life you’re going to become so good that people can’t ignore you? That’s sort of an active focus. You say ‘this is the skill that I want to become world-class at’ and everything else, I’m sure you’ll have other responsibilities, you still have your e-mail, you still have the boss, but it gives you this sort of wonderful sense of clarity, that the organizing principle in my working life is pushing this skill, pushing it kind of relentlessly better and better.
FOCUS IS THE NEW IQ
What are the implications for the future of these type of ideas? Like what are the trends that these point out? What should a young person think about today who’s just starting their training, given all these ideas? I would probably answer I’m increasingly convinced that focus is the new IQ.
So in early knowledge-work, IQ was the big deal. “How intrinsically smart are you? Can you handle the complex information of the knowledge-work there?” I’m increasingly convinced that in today’s economy and especially given the reality of how people do remarkable things, the ability to focus persistently on hard things is becoming increasingly valuable exactly at the time that people are becoming worse at it, so we’re entering this world where, really, the ability to pick up really complex skills and stretch yourself is becoming more and more crucial and at the exact same time we have smartphones.
So the college student today versus a college student even when I started college has significantly less ability and training and just persistently focusing on something hard so, for example, when I was a college student, especially the first couple years of college, I didn’t have a laptop. I didn’t even have a cell phone. You went to a library and there was nothing you could but actually read and do the work that you were supposed to do. [laughing] I was much more used to this notion of ‘yeah, this is hard. My mind is strained, I’m struggling and that’s fine, that’s normal.’
So instead of trying to moralize about it, I think it’s a fantastic economic opportunity, that if you can systematically train your ability to focus persistently on hard things, you’re going to become incredibly valuable in the economy of the near future because there’s not going to be that many people that can do it at exactly the time that they need that ability.
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