Hi everyone, today’s interview is with Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore, Computer Science Professor at Georgetown University, and the brain behind the popular blog Study Hacks, which helps people decode the patterns of success in both school and the working world. He’s been featured in major publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Post.
He gives some amazing advice on finding passion for the work you do, how to dig deep to develop a valuable skill set, and how to stop yourself from getting distracted.
Dual Career Paths That Help Each Other Out
Throughout his career in academia as a student, grad student, and then professor, Cal’s been writing blog posts and books the entire way.
The dual paths for writer and professor interact really well with each other, he says since he writes books about things he does in his career, and in turn, his career gives him more fuel and ideas to write more books.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You & Why “Following Your Passion” is Bad Advice
In his most recent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal explores the thesis that following a pre-existing passion for your career is bad advice, and that your ultimate goal instead should be to wind up happy with what you do for a living.
There’s a really important distinction between ending up passionate about what you do and identifying a pre-existing passion you have and using that to make career choices.
When he did research for his book on how people actually ended up passionate about what they do, he said it became really clear that the idea of chasing a pre-existing passion wasn’t useful at all. He said that the paths people who found meaningful work in the real world were far more complicated than, “I figured out I was meant to do X, and then I did X and loved it.”
In short, it’s usually better to start with work first, and then let the felling of passion come as a side effect of running your career the right way.
Passion is not a noun, he says—it isn’t something you can possess or identify and point to. Rather, it’s a side effect of a career that has all the right traits.
For Example, Steve Jobs
Most people love to point towards Steve Jobs as the canonical example of following your passion in your career to be good advice, especially as that seems to be what he said during his famous Stanford Commencement Address.
But if you actually study Steve’s life, says Cal, you see he didn’t have a pre-existing passion for starting a technology company that would change the world. Instead, he stumbled onto it at a time when his interests were much more wide-spread.
At the time, if you would have asked Steve Jobs what he was most passionate about, he probably would have said something along the lines of eastern mysticism rather than computers.
He didn’t follow a pre-existing passion, but ended up incredibly passionate about what he was doing.
“It’s what you do with the opportunities you have to transform them into a source of passion,” says Cal.
Cal on His Passion for Teaching
I asked Cal if he thought his passion was educating and teaching in general, and he was quick to point out that using the phrase “your passion” can be dangerous, especially when you equate it with an easily identifiable trait that every person must have like “your eye color” or “your blood type.”
“Passion becomes non-useful when you start thinking about it like a noun or personality trait,” he says. Instead, he would say that he has a passion for teaching and writing, but it took him a while and some hard work to get to that point.
To date, Cal estimates that he’s sold a third of a million books across all the titles he’s published.
But rather than having a 17-point strategy for a book launch that catapults sales the first month it is on the market, he prefers to use a book marketing strategy that creates a slow burn over time: so each book is selling more copies five years after it was published than it ever did in the first year.
He does this by writing timeless books that say something important and new for people to tell others about. And with this strategy, he still sells a decent number of copies.
How Does Study Hacks (His Blog) Help People?
Cal started the blog in 2007 after he’d written two books on student advice, and the blog itself was also a student blog for several years, full of advice about getting serious in your studies and being a more effective student.
As he neared the end of his student career, the blog went under a content shift in 2009-2010 to talk about career issues because he was about to enter the working world and wanted to understand how people were both successful and passionate about their work.
From that evolution, So Good They Can’t Forget You was published.
In the last two years, it’s undergone another shift that focuses on being more successful in your job with a particular focus around the notion of deep work.
And since his books tend to follow his blog, he says he’s currently in the editing process of his next book, which is on those same topics.
Deep Work vs. Flow vs. Deliberate Practice
Deep work, says Cal, is focus without distraction on a demanding task.
Flow is connected to deep work, but one of the key attributes of flow is effortlessness: getting lost in your work, it seems effortless, and time rolls on without you noticing it.
Flow is a state you can get into when you’re doing deep work, but it’s not the only state.
Another state of deep work, for example, which is in no way seemingly effortless is deliberate practice, which is when you’re trying to improve your skills… and the experience can often feel rather unpleasant.
But, if you can cultivate the skill of deep work, Cal says he’s convinced that you’ll do exceptionally well in the economy.
Deliberate Practice: The Secret to Success
Cal says that deliberate practice comes out of the study of musicians, chess players, and athletes—all people who need well-defined expert skills.
The idea of deliberate practice is to actually get better and improve at a particular skill set, because simply doing a lot of one thing isn’t what’s going to make you good at it.
For example, if you want to be a better writer, writing and writing and writing day after day isn’t what will make you improve. Instead, you’ll need to stretch yourself to write for publications that are above your skill level to create a state of stretch that actually results in better writing.
Deliberate practice is hard, and very few people are doing it, says Cal. So if you put the effort forth to practice it, you’ll have a big advantage.
If you keep doing the same thing, you hit a plateau. But if you put yourself in an uncomfortable situation, you move forward fast.
No Social Media: A Huge Productivity Hack
One of Cal’s biggest productivity hacks is to prioritize deep work over shallow work… shallow work being something that can easily be replicated by someone else.
For example, he says there’s a lot out there in the tech world designed to distract us away from deep work (like social media) to lure your attention away from what’s actually important.
Cal himself doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter profile, and he says he can go for days without checking his email.
Everyone likes to talk about how important these things are, but Cal says it frees up an incredible amount of time for him to focus on things that actually matter.
But when you want to be honest about it, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are nothing more than companies in California who make loads of money if they can convince people to do two things:
- Give them loads of information about themselves for free so they can in turn feed it to advertisers
- Spend a lot of time looking at their platforms so they can have loads of ads shown to them
Also, at the end of the day, a good social media presence can’t turn a good book into a bad one, and it’s not going to make the difference of a great book becoming a bestseller or pop culture phenomenon.
Advice to His 25-Year-Old Self
“Everything is harder than you think.”
He would tell himself to choose a smaller number of things to focus on, and narrow in on those things more intensely.
The earlier you start trying to master something, he says, and do it really well, the better changes are going to happen in your life.
For task management and workflow, Cal recommends Getting Things Done and Work the System.
For focusing on work that matters, he recommends The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Walter Issacson’s Einstein Biography.
Resources from this interview:
- Stanford Commencement Address by Steve Jobs
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You
- How to Become A Straight A Student
- Study Hacks
- Getting Things Done
- Work the System
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
- Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
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