If you aren’t already familiar with Cal Newport, it’s time to get to know this computer science professor, author and blogger. In college, Newport founded the popular Study Hacks blog, and now that he’s graduated, he balances his time between blogging, teaching and writing books -- his most recent, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
Recently, I had a chance to chat with Newport about the lessons he’s learned throughout these different transitions, and one interesting theme came up: fulfilling work. This seems to be an idea that most people think of in the abstract rather than in concrete terms that can actually be applied in the real world. The ideas he shared are relevant not just to those who are seeking a fulfilling career, but to those who are currently in a job they don’t quite love.
Fall into one of those two categories? Here’s some great advice from Newport:
1. Don’t follow your passion.
It seems like every career blog these days is bent on encouraging readers to find jobs that align with their passions. Love writing? Become an author. Love helping people? Work for a nonprofit.
Of course, there are some pretty glaring issues with this suggestion. Few people grow up with a passion for sanitation, road repair or bus driving, and yet we still need workers with these skills for society to function. But according to Newport, there’s a bigger issue with this idea that careers should be built around a set of predefined passions.
According to his research, the people who are happiest are not those who went out and chased a pre-existing passion -- it’s the people who found meaningful work after they began their careers. They used these experiences to pursue jobs that ultimately left them happy with the work they were doing.
Newport holds Steve Jobs up as an example of this phenomenon. Although most people think of Apple’s founder as the quintessential illustration of passion at work, Jobs wasn’t necessarily passionate about tech startups when he launched Apple. At the time, he likely would have identified eastern mysticism as a passion, and yet his work with Apple became something he was very passionate about.
“It’s what you do with the opportunities you have to transform them into a source of passion,” Newport says.
2. Embrace deliberate practice.
Newport is quick to emphasize the benefits of what he calls “deliberate practice.” Essentially, this involves improving your skill set by intentionally stretching yourself to reach new heights.
Newport gives the example of writing. You can produce article after article, but if you’re writing the same thing every time, your skill set isn’t going to get better. Pushing yourself to write on different subjects or for publications that are above your current skill level, on the other hand, will take your abilities to the next echelon.
If that sounds like a lot of extra work, that’s because it is.
“Deliberate practice is hard, and very few people are doing it," Newport says. "So if you put forth the effort to practice it, you’ll have a big advantage.”
3. Expect it to be hard.
Given Newport’s focus on challenging, deliberate practice, it’s no surprise that, when I asked him what advice he’d give to his 25-year-old self, he replied, “Everything is harder than you think.”
In many ways, our focus on productivity hacks and the popularity of books such as Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Work Week have done our culture a disservice. Everybody expects to find an easier way to get more done, in less time, with half the effort. But the truth of the matter is that achieving great things requires a tremendous amount of work.
Newport’s solution to this dilemma? Focus on fewer things and hone in on them even more intensely.
“The earlier you start trying to master something and do it really well, the better changes are going to happen in your life,” he says.
So, with that in mind, I want to challenge you to really dig deep and identify the handful of core competencies you should be focusing on. What do you want to achieve in your life? What skills do you need to reach these goals, and how can you use deliberate practice to develop your abilities and bring you closer to the things you’re passionate about in your work?
These aren’t easy questions, and I don’t expect you to have answers right away. But by spending some time thinking about them and aligning your daily activities with your answers, you’ll bring about the kinds of success you’ve only dreamed about before.