The Journey of Continuous Improvement: Cal Newport on Acquiring Career Capital to Find the Work You Love

Over the past decade, I have been on a messy journey. I have been trying to become so valuable that I will never be at the mercy of someone else’s agenda. Yes, I have made progress towards that mission, specifically a handful of wins.

Unfortunately, the journey has been carpet bombed by failure. I have recently, come to understand that I have been following flawed advice. Traditional advice that you and I have been given as a prepackaged solution to the terrifying question, “What is my life’s purpose?”

When I asked that question, the guidance was swift and authoritative, “If you want to do the work you love then follow your passion.”

Yes! Of course! I thought, ”My life’s purpose is my passion.” I feverishly set out find my passion. I searched. I explored. I scoured. I asked. I even waited patiently, but I did not find my passion; nor did it find me.

I did find some curiosities, writing, photography, leadership and the Internet of Things but no passion. It was depressing as I saw friends and family doing work they love as I wondered directionless.

Then by accident or perhaps blind fate I found Cal Newport’s book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” The theme of Newport’s book is ”Why do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal?”

Cal continues:

“the conventional wisdom on career success— follow your passion— is seriously flawed. It not only fails to describe how most people end up with compelling careers but for many people, it can make things worse: leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst..”

The passage is a revelation but the advice of not following your passion is difficult to digest. Why, because if you’re not following your passion then what do you do?”

Maria Popova explains, “If you’re looking for a formula for greatness, the closest we’ll ever get, I think, is this: Consistency driven by a deep love of the work.”

As I re-read Popova’s statement, my mindset began to shift, unlearning poor advice so I can make room for the new counsel. I began to focus on two words “consistency” and “work.” These were two words the rarely graced my lips. I spent the majority of my search looking but never understanding that to find a great job I needed to grow consistently, or as Cal Newport explains:

”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.”

Newport continues his argument on obtaining career capital:

”But now we’re moving into well-trod territory. Basic economic theory tells 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.”

Unfortunately, I had nothing rare or valuable to offer a great job. Yes, I acquired a few skills, but there was no deep learning or mastery so I would not be able to solve interesting problems. So my next actions were clear – I must build career capital, the rare and valuable skills that I can cash in for a great job.

And this practice as Newport attests to needs to be deliberate:

“The style of difficult practice required to continue to improve at a task. Florida State University professor Anders Ericsson, who coined the term in the early 1990s, describes it formally as an “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” Deliberate practice requires you to stretch past where you are comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance. In the context of career construction, most knowledge workers avoid this style of skill development because, quite frankly, it’s uncomfortable. To build up large stores of career capital, however, which is necessary for creating work you love, you must make this style of practice a regular part of your work routine.”

So I went to work on developing a curriculum for myself, one that would give me the necessary career capital to invest into a great job. I began investing time in these rare skills:

  • Extreme leadership
  • Solving interesting problems
  • Getting things done
  • Writing

In consistently improving your skills you give yourself leverage to choose what you want to work on and when. So invest wisely in your skills, as they will increase your control so you can act on a life-changing mission.