I am a big fan of Cal Newport’s side job of researching better ways to study. I say side job because he is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. In addition to his blog, Study Hacks, he has published several books about performing efficiently in high school, college, and career.

I recently finished his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which deals with the last thing: career. He has long-espoused not following your passion, but learning a set of skills so well that they… you can figure out the rest. The book follows him looking for his first post-PhD job (he’s not terribly old) in a depressed economy that is full of under- or un-employed PhD wannabe academics, which is interesting for other reasons.

The book lays out a number of strategies:

  • Skills trump passion, and for career-planning, it should proceed passion (because it can generate passion).
  • Adopt a craftsmen mindset instead of a passion mindset (what you can offer the world vs. what the world can offer you)
  • Rely on deliberate practice (improving skills in an efficient manner)
  • Avoid the ‘control trap’ where you get so good your employer tries to control you
  • Leverage your skills to gain autonomy (so good they can’t afford to lose you)

This is interesting to me from two vantage points: personally and sociologically. Personally, I have seen this approach work over and over, often accidentally. People become stars in a workplace because of specific skills they have. People with a lot of passion, not a lot of skills, who are looking to check the box and follow the hot projects, drift away, often without reward. Students who use deliberate practice are the ones who seem like they ‘never have to study.’ They aren’t geniuses for memorizing their chemistry textbook, they have figured out how to go about studying it efficiently.

And happiness? Yes, career satisfaction, happiness, etc. all seem to flow from a stronger place when you have skill mastery, and people recognize you for such, than from being in the throes of inexperienced vocational passion. For the throngs of people who don’t have a passion to follow, focusing on acquiring skills could be a better approach psychologically.

Sociologically, I wondered what if we taught kids this from an early age? We toss a lot of substance at them in school, which is good, but very little in the way of skills for how to excel at school. No classes in how to study, how to learn a skill, how to become efficient and productive.

What if most people followed this skills-approach, instead of stumbling upon it, or never discovering it? How much more happy, employed, and productive would the workforce be? Probably immensely more than they are now.

Finally, Cal posted recently wondering if knowledge workers should work like novelists. I feel eminently qualified to answer this one (not). Actually, if he did a poll, I am willing to bet $20 that the majority of novelists would say that they have the worst productivity of any group of workers. They wait for the muse, they fart around on the internet, they do ‘research’, they complain about their writing, etc. In short, most novelists could learn a lot by studying Cal’s habits rather than the other way around. However, those that have taken a craftsmen approach are the amazingly prolific and terrifically good ones that other writers wonder how the hell they can do it.

So good you can’t ignore it