Shockingly smart thoughts about your career. A must-read for anyone who is not loving their work, wanting to quit their job, and follow their passion, or not sure what to do next.
How do people end up loving what they do?
The narratives in this book are bound by a common thread: the importance of ability. The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.
Mastery by itself is not enough to guarantee happiness: The many examples of well-respected but miserable workaholics support this claim. The main thread of my argument moves beyond the mere acquisition of useful skills and into the subtle art of investing the career capital this generates into the right types of traits in your working life.
He had reached the zenith of his passion-he could now properly call himself a Zen practitioner-and yet, he was not experiencing the undiluted peace and happiness that had populated his daydreams. “The reality was, nothing had changed. I was exactly the same person, with the same worries and anxieties.” He believed, as many do, that the key to happiness is identifying your true calling and then chasing after it with all the courage you can muster.
The path to happiness – at least as it concerns what you do for a living – is more complicated than simply answering the classic question “What should I do with my life?”
When it comes to creating work you love, following your passion is not particularly useful advice.
The conventional wisdom on career success – follow your passion – is seriously flawed. It not only fails to describe how most people actually end up with compelling careers, but for many people it can actually make things worse: leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst.
“Follow your passion” might just be terrible advice.
If “follow your passion” is bad advice, what should I do instead?
Passion is an epiphenomenon of a working life well lived. Don’t follow your passion; rather, let it follow you in your quest to become so good that they can’t ignore you.
Move your focus away from finding the right work, toward working right, and eventually build a love for what you do.
If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, he would probably have been one of the Los Altos Zen Center’s most popular teachers. But he didn’t follow this simple advice. Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break – a “small-time” scheme that unexpectedly took off.
Ira Glass: “In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream, but I don’t believe that. Things happen in stages. It takes time to get good at anything” – the many years it took him to master radio to the point where he had interesting options. “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase.”
There are many complex reasons for workplace satisfaction, but the reductive notion of matching your job to a pre-existing passion is not among them.
The strongest predictor of someone seeing their work as a calling is the number of years spent on the job. The more experience they have, the more likely they are to love their work.
The happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.
Motivation requires that you fulfill three basic psychological needs:
– Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important
– Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do
– Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people
Notice, scientists did not find “matching work to pre-existing ability, interests, passions, or personality” as being important for motivation.
The passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.
The craftsman mindset is crucial for building a career you love.
When you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it.
The deep questions driving the passion mindset – “Who am I?” and “What do truly love?”-are essentially impossible to confirm. “Is this who I really am?” and “Do I love this?” rarely reduce to a clear yes-or-no response. In other words, the passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused
There’s something liberating about the craftsman mindset: It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it – and the process won’t be easy.
Put aside the question of whether your job is your true passion, and instead turn your focus toward becoming so good they can’t ignore you.
Regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer.
The source of these performers’ craftsman mindset is not some unquestionable inner passion, but instead something more pragmatic: It’s what works in the entertainment business. As Mark Casstevens put it, “the tape doesn’t lie”: If you’re a guitar player or a comedian, what you produce is basically all that matters. If you spend too much time focusing on whether or not you’ve found your true calling, the question will be rendered moot when you find yourself out of work.
Regardless of how you feel about your job right now, adopting the craftsman mindset will be the foundation on which you’ll build a compelling career.
Adopt the craftsman mindset first and then the passion follows.
If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (“what can the world offer me?”) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (“what can I offer the world?”).
TRAITS THAT DEFINE GREAT WORK:
These traits are rare. Most jobs don’t offer their employees great creativity, impact, or control over what they do and how they do it.
If you want something that’s both rare and valuable, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return.
When Steve Jobs walked into Byte Shop he was holding something that was literally rare and valuable: the circuit board for the Apple I, one of the more advanced personal computers in the fledging market at the time. The money from selling a hundred units of that original design gave Jobs more control in his career, but to get even more valuable traits in his working life, he needed to increase the value of what he had to offer. It’s at this point that Jobs’s ascent begins to accelerate. He takes on $250,000 in funding from Mark Markkula and works with Steve Wozniak to produce a new computer design that is unambiguously too good to be ignored. There were plenty of other engineers in the Bay Area’s Homebrew Computer Club culture who could match Jobs’s and Wozniak’s technical skill, but Jobs had the insight to take on investment and to focus this technical energy toward producing a complete product. The result was the Apple II.
Ira Glass started as an intern and then moved on to become a tape cutter for All Things Considered. He turned his focus on making his skills more rare and more valuable. He got the opportunity to host a few of his own segments on air. He began to win awards for his segments. “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase,” he said.
The more experience you have, the more likely you are to love your work.
The traits that define great work are rare and valuable.
Supply and demand says you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return.
These rare and valuable skills are your career capital.
The craftsman mindset leads to acquiring career capital.
You need to get good in order to get good things in your working life, and the craftsman mindset is focused on achieving exactly this goal.
To those enthralled by the myth of a true calling, there’s nothing more heroic than trading comfort for passion.
Courage culture: a growing community of authors and online commentators pushing the following idea: The biggest obstacle between you and work you love is a lack of courage to follow your dream.
The downside of the passion mindset is that it strips away merit.
Great work doesn’t just require great courage, but also skills of great (and real) value.
When she left her advertising career to start a yoga studio, not only did she discard the career capital acquired over many years in the marketing industry, but she transitioned into an unrelated field where she had almost no capital.
Instead of fleeing the constraints of his current job, he began acquiring the career capital he’d need to buy himself out of them. As his ability grew, so did his options. He invested his capital to gain more autonomy, this time by starting his own fifteen-person shop: He started his own company with enough career capital to immediately thrive, and had a waiting list of clients.
The traits that define great work are bought with career capital.
Because of this, you don’t have to worry about whether you’ve found your calling – most any work can become the foundation for a compelling career. But certain jobs are better suited for applying career-capital theory than others.
Three Disqualifiers for Applying the Craftsman Mindset
1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
3. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.
Most individuals who start as active professionals change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable.
This learning is not done in isolation: You need to be constantly soliciting feedback from colleagues and professionals.
Do projects where you’ll be forced to show your work to others.
The traits that Anders Ericsson defined as crucial for deliberate practice.:
He stretched his abilities by taking on projects that were beyond his current comfort zone – up to three or four writing commissions concurrently, all the while holding down a day job!
He then obsessively sought feedback, on everything-even if, looking back now, he’s humiliated at the quality of scripts he was sending out.
This is textbook deliberate practice: And it worked.
When running his start-up, this feedback took the form of how much money came through the door. If he ran the company poorly, there would be no escaping this fact: His critique would arrive in the form of bankruptcy.
A spreadsheet, which he uses to track how he spends every hour of every day. “At the beginning of each week I figure out how much time I want to spend on different activities. I then track it so I can see how close I came to my targets.”
THE FIVE HABITS OF A CRAFTSMAN
1: DECIDE WHAT CAPITAL MARKET YOU’RE IN
Winner-take-all or auction. (Diverse collection of skills, or one killer skill.)
Mistaking a winner-take-all for an auction market is common. (Hollywood is winner-take-all. Don’t get job at National Lampoon thinking you’re building skills.)
Blogging in the advice space is winner-take-all. The only capital that matters is whether or not your posts compel the reader.
(stop calculating your bounce rate and start focusing instead on saying something people really care about)
Auction: There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate their own unique collection.
2: IDENTIFY YOUR CAPITAL TYPE
Identify the specific type of capital to pursue.
In a winner-take-all market, this is trivial: By definition, there’s only one type of capital
For an auction market, however, seek open gates: opportunities to build capital that are already open to you. Open gates get you farther faster.
Think about skill acquisition like a freight train: Getting it started requires a huge application of effort, but changing its track once it’s moving is easy. In other words, it’s hard to start from scratch in a new field.
3: DEFINE “GOOD”
For a script writer, the definition of “good” was clear: his scripts being taken seriously.
4: STRETCH AND DESTROY
Deliberate practice: the uncomfortable sensation in my head is best approximated as a physical strain, as if my neurons are physically re-forming into new configurations.
5: BE PATIENT
Look years into the future for the payoff.
It’s less about paying attention to your main pursuit, and more about your willingness to ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you.
Reject shiny new pursuits.
You have to get good before you can expect good work.
It’s dangerous to pursue more control in your working life before you have career capital to offer in exchange.
A hard truth of the real world: It’s really hard to convince people to give you money.
Just because you’re committed to a certain lifestyle doesn’t mean you’ll find people who are committed to supporting you.
Control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable.
She tried to obtain control without any capital to offer in return, and ended up with a mere shadow of real autonomy.
Build up a decade’s worth of relevant career capital before taking the dive into full-time farming.
Do what people are willing to pay for.
“I didn’t quit my day job until I was making more money with my music.”
“We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape,” he explained. The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas.
A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough – it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge-the only place where these missions become visible.
Sarah was trying to find a mission before she got to the cutting edge of her field. From her vantage point as a new graduate student, she was much too far from the cutting edge to have any hope of surveying the adjacent possible, and if she can’t see the adjacent possible, she’s not likely to identify a compelling new direction for her work. Sarah would have been better served by first mastering a promising niche, and only then turning her attention to seeking a mission.
If you want a mission, you need to first acquire career capital. If you skip this step, you might end up with lots of enthusiasm but very little to show for it.
Pardis decided to build a research career focused on her use of computational genetics to combat ancient diseases. She took a professorship at Harvard, finally ready to commit to a single focus in her working life.
Advancing to the cutting edge in a field is an act of “small” thinking, requiring you to focus on a narrow collection of subjects for a potentially long time. Once you get to the cutting edge, however, and discover a mission in the adjacent possible, you must go after it with zeal: a “big” action.
Once you have the career capital required to identify a mission, you must still figure out how to put the mission into practice. If you don’t have a trusted strategy for making this leap from idea to execution, then like me and so many
others, you’ll probably avoid the leap altogether.
Little bets: He tried releasing a DVD, filming a documentary, and putting together a film series for his students. The latter ended up the most promising, but Kirk couldn’t have known this in advance. The important thing about little bets is that they’re bite-sized. You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps.
To maximize your chances of success, you should deploy small, concrete experiments that return concrete feedback. Explore the specific avenues surrounding your general mission, looking for those with the highest likelihood of leading to outstanding results.
The synthesis of Purple Cow and Passionate Programmer is that the best way to market yourself as a programmer is to create remarkable open-source software. There’s an established infrastructure in this community for noticing and spreading the word about interesting projects.
For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.
Pardis Sabeti’s general mission was to use genetics to help fight infectious disease in Africa. This is a fine mission, but by itself it does not guarantee the type of fulfilling life Pardis leads. Lots of researchers share this mission, and are doing good, basic science, but don’t have particularly compelling careers. Pardis, by contrast, pursued this mission by launching an arresting project: using powerful computers to seek out examples of humans evolving resistance to ancient diseases. If you want evidence of the remarkability of this approach, look no farther than the catchy headlines of the many articles: “5 Questions for the Woman Who Tracks Our DNA Footprints” , “Picking up Evolution’s Beat”, and “Are We Still Evolving?” This is a project that compels people to spread the word. It is a purple cow.
Kirk French’s general mission was to popularize modern archaeology. There are lots of non-remarkable ways to pursue this mission. Instead, Kirk decided to head straight into people’s homes and use archaeological techniques to help them uncover the significance (if any) of family treasures. This approach is remarkable. His venue conducive to remarking was TV.
Working right trumps finding the right work.