Review of Cal Newport’s So Good book
Last weekend, I read Cal Newport’s latest book – “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and was very happy that I read it – it was just the sort of book that helps a person who is a few years into his/her career and is beginning to question many things about his/her own career. Of course, the book is relevant to people in all stages of their career, but I think people who are in this stage are more likely to grok what the book is talking about.
The book starts off by destroying the “passion hypothesis” which states that you “should find work that you love”. The book aptly demonstrates why that is a wrong premise and that loving what you do comes AFTER you’re good at it. He emphasizes:
Compelling (i.e. inspiring) careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.
This is where Cal starts talking about career capital:
Basic economic theory tell us that if you want something that’s both rare and valuable, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return – this is Supply and Demand 101. It follows that if you want a great job, you need something of great value to offer in return.
Acquiring career capital requires the craftsman mindset which is about working day in and day out on getting better at your craft. Achieving flow is a good thing, but something equally important is deliberate practice, i.e. intensive work aimed at stretching yourself at your craft:
Geoff Colvin wrote: Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands… Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate”, as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.
Cal goes on to explain:
If you show up and do what you’re told, you will reach an “acceptable level” of ability before plateauing. The good news about deliberate practice is that it will push you past this plateau and into a realm where you have little competition. The bad news is that the reason so few people accomplish this feat is exactly because of the trait Colvin warned us about: Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.
I like the term “stretch” for describing what deliberate practice feels like, as it matches my own experience with the activity. When I’m learning a new mathematical technique – a classic case of 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. As any mathematician will admit, this stretching feels much different than applying a technique you’ve already mastered, which can be quite enjoyable. But this stretching, as any mathematician would also admit, is the precondition to getting better.
This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of “good”. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”
Pushing past what’s comfortable, however, is only one part of the deliberate-practice story; the other part is embracing honest feedback – even if destroys what you thought was good.
I had a big a-ha moment as I read this passage:
- I used to “stretch” myself regularly long ago when I used to read many computer science papers and I was constantly trying out new technology, these days I’m just stuck when it comes to reading papers, for example, Out of the Tar Pit and On Lisp papers have been on my reading list for a long time and perhaps I’ve been avoiding it exactly because it is not an enjoyable activity if your mind is being stretched.
- Atul Chitnis once said that most people innovate in two phases of their lives – one is when they are in college, the other is after retirement. Sigh.
- The reality of engineers in India is so far away from all this.
- When people say I’m “not learning anything new”, it is because there is no deliberate practice in their lives. We are more comfortable doing what we already know rather than learning something new which will possibly makes our work simpler and better. This is the “simple vs. easy” that Rich Hickey (obligatory mention) talks about.
- This is what Leo Babauta is referring to in the Habit of Starting: “You are comfortable with what you’re doing (reading online, probably), and the habit is less comfortable (it’s too hard). We cling to the comfortable.”
- Open source programmers tend to be better programmers because of the feedback they get from people they collaborate with – who are people who care about their craft, and not the type of colleagues or managers whose sole goal is to mark a task as done without attention to how it has been implemented.
- This is what Chad Fowler talked about in the Passionate Programmer book : “Practicing may include learning more about your programming environment (APIs, libraries, methodologies, etc.), sight reading (reading new pieces of open source code to improve your ability to read and understand code), improvisation (introduce new constraints in small projects to improve your thinking abilities) and so on.”
- I’ve been kicking myself that I know all these concepts but have not yet been able to put it into practice. There’s always hope that I’ll start chanting the mantra “deliberate practice” everyday for an hour or two.
The point is that “hard work” is not the answer, “hard work deliberately intended to improve your craft” is the answer.
And what do you do after you keep acquiring career capital? You invest it on yourself in a few ways such as acquiring more control:
At this point, Lulu’s skills were so valuable that finding clients was no problem. More importantly, working as a contractor also gave her extreme flexibility in how she did her work. She would travel for three or four weeks at a time when she felt like getting away. “If the weather was nice on a Friday,” she told me, “I would just take the day off to go flying” (she obtained her pilot’s license around this time). When she started work and when she ended her days were up to her. “A lot of these days I would take a niece or nephew and have fun. I went to the children’s museum and zoo probably more than anybody else in the city,” she recalls. “They couldn’t stop me from doing these things, as I was just a contractor.”
This story sounds familiar because I started freelancing with some of the same mindset – at that stage of my career after having worked at Yahoo!, Adobe, my own startup (creating a product) and Infibeam (in the hot area of ecommerce), I had acquired enough career capital that I was getting good job offers but I wanted to experience freedom of cutting down the miscellaneous corporate activities and focus purely on coding and that is what my life has been about – that was how I was able to work out of Goa in a road trip.
Of course, that career capital is not going to last forever. That is where I need to work even harder and start acquiring more career capital.
If control is not what you’re seeking, there is another thing that you could invest in : a mission:
A mission is a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions. It provides an answer to the question, What should I do with my life? Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on the world – a crucial factor in loving what you do. People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.
How do you get to finding a mission? That’s where you need significant career capital to be at the cutting-edge of your work:
The examples of joint discoveries in scientific breakthroughs [where multiple people make the same scientific discoveries around the same time] surprised me, but it would not have surprised the science writer Steve Johnson. In his engaging 2010 book, “Where Good Ideas Come From”, Johnson explains that such multiples are frequent in the history of science. Consider the discovery of sunspots in 1611: As Johnson notes, four scientists, from four different countries, all identified the phenomenon during that same year. The first electrical battery? Invented twice in the mid-eighteenth century. Oxygen? Isolated independently in 1772 and 1774. In one study cited by Johnson, researchers from Columbia University found just shy of 150 different examples of prominent scientific breakthroughs made by multiple researchers at near the same time.
Big ideas, Johnson explained, are almost always discovered in the “adjacent possible“. We take the ideas that 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. The reason important discoveries often happen multiple times, therefore, is that they only become possible once they enter the adjacent possible, at which point anyone surveying this space – that is, those who are the current cutting edge – will notice the same innovations waiting to happen.
Scientific breakthroughs, as we just learned, require that you first get to the cutting edge of your field. Only then can you see the adjacent possible beyond, the space where innovative ideas are almost always discovered. 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.
When you reach the cutting edge of your field, you start seeing the new possibilities combining old and new ideas, and that’s where innovative new ideas come and that’s where your mission is found.
For example, using “big data” to make breakthroughs in understanding of genes requires someone to have observed the “big data” phenomenon and applying them to medical field and that becomes their mission in advancing that science. Of course, all this doesn’t apply only to science, it can apply to any field, whether it is material fabrics in fashion industry or new kinds of crowdsourcing for philanthropy or innovation (think Kiva, Kickstarter, Quirky). For example, why did Zynga come up with the idea of social games on top of Facebook? Because they were at the cutting edge when they saw Facebook rise and wanted to take advantage of it in games and they knew how to do that. And so on.
I think I should stop here because I have quoted enough from the book and don’t want to be sued by the publisher or anything like that. There is a lot more interesting concepts and learnings from the book. I recommend that you go buy and read it!