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.
Do What Steve Jobs Did, Not What He Said
These interviews emphasize an important point: Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.
Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, has made a career studying how people think about their work. Her breakthrough paper, published in the Journal of Research in Personality while she was still a graduate student, explores the distinction between a job, a career, and a calling.7 A job, in Wrzesniewski’s formulation, is a way to pay the bills, a career is a path toward increasingly better work, and a calling is work that’s an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity.
But Wrzesniewski wasn’t done. She surveyed the assistants to figure out why they saw their work so differently, and discovered that the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job. In other words, the more experience an assistant had, the more likely she was to love her work.
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
Some people I’ve talked to about my ideas have used examples of this type to dismiss my conclusions about passion. “Here’s a case where someone successfully followed their passion,” they say, “therefore ‘follow your passion’ must be good advice.” This is faulty logic. Observing a few instances of a strategy working does not make it universally effective. It is necessary instead to study a large number of examples and ask what worked in the vast majority of the cases. And when you study a large group of people who are passionate about what they do, as I did in researching this book, you find that most—not all—will tell a story more complex than simply identifying a pre-existing passion and then pursuing it. Examples such as Peter Travers and professional athletes, therefore, are exceptions. If anything, their rareness underscores my claim that for most people, “follow your passion” is bad advice.
“Focus instead on becoming better.” Inspired, I turned my attention from my website to a habit that continues to this day: I track the hours spent each month dedicated to thinking hard about research problems (in the month in which I first wrote this chapter, for example, I dedicated forty-two hours to these core tasks). This hour-tracking strategy helped turn my attention back above all else to the quality of what I produce. At the same time, however, it also felt incremental, as if I hadn’t yet grasped the full implications of Martin’s radical idea.
Listening to Tice talk about his routine, I was struck by his Martin-esque focus on what he produces. As you’ll recall, he’s happy to spend hours every day, week after week, in a barely furnished monastic room, exhausting himself in pursuit of a new flat-picking technique, all because he thinks it will add something important to the tune he’s writing. This dedication to output, I realized, also explains his painful modesty. To Jordan, arrogance doesn’t make sense. “Here’s what I respect: creating something meaningful and then presenting it to the world,” he explained.
When I told Mark about Jordan, he agreed that an obsessive focus on the quality of what you produce is the rule in professional music. “It trumps your appearance, your equipment, your personality, and your connections,” he explained. “Studio musicians have this adage: ‘The tape doesn’t lie.’ Immediately after the recording comes the playback; your ability has no hiding place.”
Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you. This mindset is how most people approach their working lives.
As I concluded after meeting Jordan Tice, 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.
In which I justify the importance of the craftsman mindset by arguing that the traits that make a great job great are rare and valuable, and therefore, if you want a great job, you need to build up rare and valuable skills—which I call career capital—to offer in return.
“All of us who do creative work … you get into this thing, and there’s like a ‘gap.’ What you’re making isn’t so good, okay? … It’s trying to be good but … it’s just not that great,” he explained in an interview about his career.1 “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase,”
THREE DISQUALIFIERS FOR APPLYING THE CRAFTSMAN MINDSET The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.
Mike literally tracks every hour of his day, down to quarter-hour increments, on a spreadsheet. He wants to ensure that his attention is focused on the activities that matter. “It’s so easy to just come in and spend your whole day on e-mail,” he warned. On the sample spreadsheet he sent me, he allots himself only ninety minutes per day for e-mail. The day before we last spoke he had only spent forty-five. This is a man who is serious about doing what he does really well. In the end, Mike’s focus on capabilities over callings obviously paid off. He has a fantastic job, but it was one that required a fantastic store of career capital to be offered in exchange.
These observations, of course, are about more than just guitar playing. The central idea of this chapter is that the difference in strategy that separates average guitar players like me from stars like Tice and Casstevens is not confined to music. This focus on stretching your ability and receiving immediate feedback provides the core of a more universal principle—one that I increasingly came to believe provides the key to successfully acquiring career capital in almost any field.
Put another way, if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better. This is what happened to me with my guitar playing, to the chess players who stuck to tournament play, and to most knowledge workers who simply put in the hours: We all hit plateaus.
The problem, however, is that blogging in the advice space—where his site existed—is not an auction market, it’s winner-take-all. The only capital that matters is whether or not your posts compel the reader. Some top blogs in this space have notoriously clunky designs, but they all accomplish the same baseline goal: They inspire their readers. When you correctly understand the market where blogging exists, you stop calculating your bounce rate and start focusing instead on saying something people really care about—which is where your energy should be if you want to succeed. Mike Jackson, by contrast, correctly identified that he was in an auction market. He wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do, but he knew it would involve the environment, so he set out to gain any capital relevant to this broad topic.
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.
If you show up and do what you’re told, you will, as Anders Ericsson explained earlier in this chapter, 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.
In his 2007 interview with Charlie Rose, here’s how Steve Martin explained his strategy for learning the banjo: “[I thought], if I stay with it, then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it.”
What’s interesting is that Martin redefines the word so that 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. The final step for applying deliberate practice to your working life is to adopt this style of diligence.
In which I argue that control over what you do, and how you do it, is one of the most powerful traits you can acquire when creating work you love.
You have to get good before you can expect good work.
If you want to observe the power of control up close in the workplace, look toward companies embracing a radical new philosophy called Results-Only Work Environment (or, ROWE, for short). In a ROWE company, all that matters is your results. When you show up to work and when you leave, when you take vacations, and how often you check e-mail are all irrelevant. They leave it to the employee to figure out whatever works best for getting the important things done. “No results, no job: It’s that simple,” as ROWE supporters like to say.
At a high level, of course, there’s nothing wrong with this philosophy. The author Timothy Ferriss, who coined the term “lifestyle design,” is a fantastic example of the good things this approach to life can generate (Ferriss has more than enough career capital to back up his adventurous existence). But if you spend time browsing the blogs of lesser-known lifestyle designers, you’ll begin to notice the same red flags again and again: A distressingly large fraction of these contrarians, like Jane, skipped over the part where they build a stable means to support their unconventional lifestyle. They assume that generating the courage to pursue control is what matters, while everything else is just a detail that is easily worked out.
This is the irony of control. When no one cares what you do with your working life, you probably don’t have enough career capital to do anything interesting. But once you do have this capital, as Lulu and Lewis discovered, you’ve become valuable enough that your employer will resist your efforts. This is what I came to think of as the second control trap: The Second Control Trap The point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change.
Derek made it clear that this is different from pursuing money for the sake of having money. Remember, this is someone who gave away $22 million and sold his possessions after his company was acquired. Instead, as he explained: “Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.”
The Law of Financial Viability When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on.
Investing your capital in control, however, turns out to be tricky. There are two traps that commonly snare people in their pursuit of this trait. The first control trap notes that it’s dangerous to try to gain more control without enough capital to back it up. The second control trap notes that once you have the capital to back up a bid for more control, you’re still not out of the woods. This capital makes you valuable enough to your employer that they will likely now fight to keep you on a more traditional path. They realize that gaining more control is good for you but not for their bottom line.
The Meaningful Life of Pardis Sabeti In which I argue that a unifying mission to your working life can be a source of great satisfaction.
To have a mission is to have 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 your world—a crucial factor in loving what you do.
Hardness scares off the daydreamers and the timid, leaving more opportunity for those like us who are willing to take the time to carefully work out the best path forward and then confidently take action.
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.
The scientists who ended up presenting papers on this technique at my conference had all noticed its potential around the same time. Put in Johnson’s terms, this technique redefined the cutting edge in my corner of the academic world, and therefore it also redefined the adjacent possible, and in this new configuration the information dissemination problem, like the discovery of oxygen many centuries earlier, suddenly loomed as a big target waiting to be tackled.
he found a strategy common to all. “Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance,” he writes, “they make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant wins” [emphasis mine]. This rapid and frequent feedback, Sims argues, “allows them to find unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes.”
As Sims notes, he shows up on stage with a yellow legal pad, working through different jokes, taking notes on the crowd’s reaction. Most of the material falls flat. It’s not uncommon for Rock to look up and say, “This needs to be fleshed out more,” while the crowd laughs at the awkwardness of Rock’s flops. But these little failures, combined with the little victories of the jokes that connect, provide the key information required for Rock to put together an extraordinary set.
“At this point I basically just put two and two together,” Giles told me. “The synthesis of Purple Cow and My Job Went to India is that the best way to market yourself as a programmer is to create remarkable open-source software. So I did.” Following Godin’s advice, Giles came up with the idea for Archaeopteryx, his AI-driven music creator. “I don’t think there was anybody else with my combined background,” he said. “Plenty of Ruby programmers love dance music, but I don’t think any of them has sacrificed the same ridiculous number of hours to tweaking breakbeats and synth patches over and over again, releasing white-label records that never made a dime, and studying music theory.” In other words, Giles’s ability to produce a Ruby program that produced real music was unique: If he could pull it off, it would be a purple cow. Drawing from Fowler’s advice, Giles then decided that the open-source community was the perfect place to introduce this purple cow to the world. In addition to releasing the Archaeopteryx code as open source, he took to the road to spread the word. “I basically took Chad Fowler’s advice way too far and went to speak at almost every user group and conference that I could—at least fifteen in 2008,” Giles recalled. This hybrid Godin/Fowler strategy worked. “I got offers from all over the place,” Giles recalled. “I got to work with stars in my industry, I got approached to write a book on Archaeopteryx, I could charge a lot more money than I used to.” It was, in other words, a strategy that made his mission into a success.
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.
In the first chapter of this rule, I reinforced the idea that this trait, like all desirable career traits, really does require career capital—you can’t skip straight into a great mission without first building mastery in your field. Drawing from the terminology of Steven Johnson, I argued that the best ideas for missions are found in the adjacent possible—the region just beyond the current cutting edge. To encounter these ideas, therefore, you must first get to that cutting edge, which in turn requires expertise. To try to devise a mission when you’re new to a field and lacking any career capital is a venture bound for failure.
According to popular legend, Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize–winning theoretical physicist, scored only a slightly above-average IQ of 125 when he was tested in high school. In his memoirs, however, we find hints of how he rose from modest intelligence to genius, when he talks about his compulsion to tear down important papers and mathematical concepts until he could understand the concepts from the bottom up. It’s possible, in other words, that his amazing intellect was less about a gift from God and more about a dedication to deliberate practice. Motivated by my research and examples such as Feynman, I decided that focusing my attention on a bottom-up understanding of my own field’s most difficult results would be a good first step toward revitalizing my career capital stores.
My third strategy was the purchase of the most expensive notebook I could find at the MIT bookstore: an archival-quality lab notebook that cost me forty-five dollars. This notebook boasts a nice thick cardboard cover, mounted on double-wire spirals, that falls open flat. The pages are acid-free, thick, and gridded. I use this notebook when brainstorming new theory results. At the end of each of these brainstorming sessions I require myself to formally record the results, by hand, on a dated page. The expense of the notebook helps signal the importance of what I’m supposed to write inside it, and this, in turn, forces me into the strain required to collect and organize my thinking. The result: more deliberate practice.
The insights of Rule #2 fundamentally changed the way I approach my work. If I had to describe my previous way of thinking, I would probably use the phrase “productivity-centric.” Getting things done was my priority. When you adopt a productivity mindset, however, deliberate practice-inducing tasks are often sidestepped, as the ambiguous path toward their completion, when combined with the discomfort of the mental strain they require, makes them an unpopular choice in scheduling decisions.
This was the trap tripped, for example, by the many fans of lifestyle design, who left their traditional jobs to try to make a living on passive income-generating websites. Many of these contrarians quickly discovered that the income-generating piece of that plan doesn’t work well if you don’t have something valuable to offer in exchange for people’s money.
While researching Rule #3, I came across a useful tool for navigating between these two traps. I called it the law of financial viability, and described it as follows: “When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, ask yourself whether people are willing to pay you for it. If so, continue. If not, move on.”
This background-research process, which combines exposure to potentially relevant material with free-form recombination of ideas, comes straight out of Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, which I introduced in Rule #4 when talking about his notion of the adjacent possible. According to Johnson, access to new ideas and to the “liquid networks” that facilitate their mixing and matching often provides the catalyst for breakthrough new ideas.
I think it’s fitting to end on Thomas’s story, as it sums up the message at the core of this book: Working right trumps finding the right work—it’s a simple idea, but it’s also incredibly subversive, as it overturns decades of folk career advice all focused on the mystical value of passion. It wrenches us away from our daydreams of an overnight transformation into instant job bliss and provides instead a more sober way toward fulfillment. This is why I left this conclusion to Thomas’s saga until the end of the book. I wanted the chance to first explore with you, through the four rules that came before, the nuances of “working right,” providing example after example of how this approach can lead to increased enjoyment of your own working life. Now that you’re armed with these insights, it’s my hope that the end to Thomas’s story is no longer so surprising.
the adjacent possible (introduced in Rule #4): A term taken from the science writer Steven Johnson, who took it from Stuart Kauffman, that helps explain the origin of innovation. Johnson notes that the next big ideas in any field are typically found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas. The key observation is that you have to get to the cutting edge of a field before its adjacent possible—and the innovations it contains—becomes visible. In the context of career construction, it’s important to note that good career missions are also often found in the adjacent possible. The implication, therefore, is that if you want to find a mission in your career, you first need to get to the cutting edge of your field.
It started with her first job as a software tester—the bottom of the developer heap. Lulu figured out how to automate much of the testing process. The capital this generated allowed her to then bargain for a thirty-hour workweek so she could take philosophy classes on the side.
He next applied the law when starting CD Baby, the company he eventually sold for millions. He didn’t drop everything to pursue his entrepreneurial ambition. Instead, he started small. When the company made a little money, he used this money to expand it so it could make a little more. When it started to make a lot of money, only then did he decide to make it into his full-time job.