When I first read the title of this book, I rejected it immediately. Only after I had become a fan of Cal Newport’s having read his Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, I went back for it. I loved it immediately. It really isn’t what the title makes you expect at all. Rather than a quick fix “you can do it” narrative, Newport stresses how some pretty unspectacular things, like hard work and skill, will make you successful.
This review sums up some of the main arguements and tips while trying to adapt them for the academic field. Because this book, unlike the later works of Cal Newport doesn’t contain frequent references to Academia and it’s not always obvious how an Academic can implement those very ‘market-oriented’ tips.
The craftsman mindset
The most important concept of the book is the ‘craftsman mindset’, a mindset opposed to the ‘passion hypothesis’. That is the idea that you should go for a job you are passionate about. If only you bring the passion and motivation, you will succeed. The most imporant point of Newport’s is probably, that this is the most stupid idea ever. Because, contrary to this optimistic new-age rhetoric, motivation alone will get you nowhere without skill.
Newport systematically investigated what approaches successful people had to their success and work, and also interviewed some believers in the ‘passion hypothesis’ who failed. In all his examples, those who had fallen for the passion hypothesis went on to make some truly horrible business decisions. Like start a freelance yoga business after a four week crash course to become a yoga teacher. And ended up out of work not much later.
Newport’s argument is that this happened because the ‘passion hypothesis’ just doesn’t work and you won’t get anywhere on happy thoughts alone. I think this is an essential thing to realize in Academia as well. People will hire you because you contribute rare skill and a hard-working mindset. Not because you have fascinating dreams. Academia rewards results, not effort or motivation. Nobody cares if you’re more motivated than your competitors unless this motivation is a driver for more actual results.
Newport shows examples of hugely successful people who approach their job like a craft. They show up for hours and hours of practice. They do ‘deliberate practice’, that is to say strategically look for imperfections and eliminate them. Like, say, a professional musician would approach daily practice. This is what he means by “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
Newport then mentions something he calls ‘control traps’, that means things which can go wrong when you want to take more control over your life. Like mentioned before, you need skills before you can make big steps. So before making a bid for control, acquire career capital. No bold, premature bids for freedom. People from the ‘Lifestyle designer’ community often go for freedom without skill and thus, fail. When interviewing all the ‘overnight successes’, it mostly turns out that many years of skill honing actually led up to this ‘sudden success’, so it really wasn’t all that sudden after all.
But once you have the skills, your boss will naturally try to hold you back from independence because you will have become too valuable. What makes your life better no longer benefits your boss, so they will hold you back. In Academia this might mean that a boss will give you lots of nice projects because they know you will do the job well. But none of those projects are probably high value enough to really advance or kick-start your career. To do this, you would have to move away, apply for a high-profile job or something. Once you don’t need your boss anymore, you’re ready and valuable, so there will be resistance when you try to leave for a new opportunity. Once you have enough skills, finding clients, or in our case, job opportunities, should be no problem.
Law of financial viability
Newport also brings up the ‘law of financial viability’. That is to mean that you should do what people are willing to pay for. Don’t switch to a new occupation full time unless you are sure you can live from it. So in this case, money would be used as an indicator of value and he suggests yout test the ‘finanical viability’ of an idea using “little bets”. That means that you try your idea on a small scale and see if it works.
Translated to Academia, this could mean that you try out a new project in a poster presentation or something else with a low entrance boundary. You don’t spend huge amounts of time on it and seek feedback early on in the process. If people like it, you can decide to investigate further. But also, in Academia you need to be careful not to blurt out great project ideas or somebody might ‘steal them’. So maybe, if you new idea is a new method, try it out on your own old data and remain silent about which corpus it could be applied to according to you. Before you go all-in on an idea, make sure to test if there’s a ‘market’ for it with small-scale, small investment but quick feedback ‘small bets’.
You find your mission in the ‘adjacent possible’
Newport thinks that we can find great new ideas in the ‘adjacent possible’; so right beside the current cutting edge. In order to find those new ideas, you need a good overview of the current cutting edge. Then, by recombining what’s there, you might find the new hot combination. Getting to te cutting edge requires, yet again, that you become ‘so good they can’t ignore you’ in your subject area. He recounts a few scientists’ life stories who found opened new fields by combining multiple exisiting ones in a creative way.
The law of remarkability
In addition to the ‘craftsman mindset’, Newport suggests you also adopt the ‘mindset of the marketer’. So when you have an idea, it needs to be something people will remark about because it stands out (like Milka’s purple cows). Your venture needs to favour word-of-mouth marketing like this. Participating in a poster or science slam with a fun contribution might do the trick here.
Newport’s book may be summed up in a five step process:
- Build career capital, i.e. rare and valuable skills, using the craftsman mindset.
- Cash it in for independence and mission.
- Mission ideas can be found in the adjacent possible beside the current cutting edge. Finding them, however, requires expertise.
- Once you think you might have found something, follow up with systematic exploration using ‘little bets’ before you go all-in on your idea.
- Then, once you’re settled on an idea, you need a marketer mindset to generate ‘remarkability’.
Most experiences can be career capital later. So go for tons of experiences and explore. However, acquisition of career capital happens mostly via deliberate practice and deep work (book review to come!).
Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. (Victor Hugo)
Systematically practise for improvement. Explicitly note down results from deliberate practice. Measure your progress. Income or success generation require for you to have something to trade in return. Thus: Be so good they can’t ignore you.
And the book is a definite recommendation – I loved it and thought it was something real, for once, in a jungle of self help bullshit. It all comes down to the fact that people become happy with their jobs who have the skills required. Those who just blindly pursue their supposed ‘passion’ will end up miserable. So maybe, when deciding what job you want to do, first look where your skills are.