How do people end up loving what they do for a living?

My dad was a copywriter so I’m always on the lookout for great copy. Cal’s principal question in this talk is “How do people end up loving what they do for a living?” Not quite as catchy as that headline, but he’s been researching and writing on the topic for a few years and knows his stuff. Cal is also a bright guy, a theoretical computer scientist by day and an author by night.

Cal challenges the prevailing wisdom that goes something like this: In order to be happy in your work life you need to find what your passion is and do that for a living. He references Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford speech, which has over 7.5 million views on Youtube.

If you don’t know Cal he’s an author of 2 great books with a focus on being more productive and getting great results in whatever you do. How to Become a Straight-A Student is his first book. His latest is titled So Good They Can’t Ignore You – what a great title, eh? The subtitle is “Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love” which gives you a pretty good idea of Cal’s position.

Video highlights

The video is just under 22 minutes long so here are some of my highlights:

  • Cal starts from a philosophical standpoint and moves to practical suggestions on how to achieve work life happiness.
  • Cal goes on to reference research done at a Canadian university. The idea of following your passion assumes that you have a pre-existing passion that can be converted to a viable business. In fact, most of the students’ pre-existing passion was ice hockey and less than 5% had a skill that could be translated into a job. Oops!
  • According to Cal, the argument for pre-existing passion goes something like this: “The only way you’re going to persist in developing a rare and valuable skill is if you have a huge amount of passion for the topic.”
  • He discovered unsurprisingly that people love what they do when they’re good at it. He found that these people had, over a period of time, developed rare and valuable skills. How do we develop rare and valuable skills? With lots and lots of regular practice and hard work over a sustained period of time.

How do you get really good at something?

As a daily Ashtanga yoga practitioner, this concept of sustained regular practice really resonated with me. I’m on my yoga mat at 6:30am five or six days a week and have been doing this since 2006. I’ve also spent nearly every day for the last 18 years working in marketing and digital media.

So, over time, those who love their work have systematically built up their skills and experience and then leveraged this to change their life. Cal goes on to state that you can’t expect a really good working life until you’re really good at something.

This begs the question – How does anyone get good at something? Cal has 3 suggestions:

  1. Don’t automatically follow your passion (this is too simplistic an approach).
  2. Go deep with building up skills and rituals.
  3. Focus and persist.

In order to get really good at something you need to do what Cal describes as deep work. He defines this as: “Focusing persistently and without distraction on a cognitively demanding and valuable task.”

He goes on to add that persisting even when it’s uncomfortable is exactly the point at which you improve at a cognitive skill. For me, this is exactly the point where I quit learning the guitar: trying to play a barre chord. My guitar teacher called it the quitter’s chord – and he was right.

Where Steve Jobs fits in

In his talk Cal uses 2 high profile examples to make his case:

Steve Jobs

In his Stanford address Jobs encourages his audience to find what they love and not to rest until they do. But this wasn’t how it happened for Jobs himself. He actually stumbled across success with Apple – he became obsessive and got better and better at it until his passion grew.

Bill McKibben

Cal’s next example is the celebrated environmental writer, Bill McKibben. He was renowned for his work ethic as a student and refined his skills as a writer over time. His first book The End of Nature became a modern classic in environmental books. By the time he wrote it, McKibben had become one of the most talented environmental writers of his generation, working as a staff writer for the New Yorker. He got a book deal with Random House and his book was serialised by The New Yorker. This got him a lot of eyeballs and allowed him to leverage his skill and reputation in order to change his life. He quit his job and moved to an idyllic town in Vermont to become a full-time author.

Cal suggests that it’s perhaps not how you get started that’s important but what you do when you get going. He also highlights McKibben’s work ethic.

What practical steps can we take today?

Cal goes on to make 3 suggestions of what we can do practically in our working life to facilitate deep work:

  1. Time blocking (this is a technique from Cal’s first book How to Become a Straight-A Student).
  2. Have a clear outcome or artefact.
  3. Systematically focus – and increase this gradually by only 10 minute increments.

He touches on something that I’ve found essential to becoming more effective and productive: developing rituals and habits that support your goals.

Cal Newport closes his talk with a bang: “If you want to love what you do, do what Steve Jobs did and not what he said.”

Need some help writing blog posts?

If writing blogs for your business is one of those things you wish you were good at, we can help! As Cal says, you need to focus and persist with regular practice over a sustained period of time. So why not sign up to our Blogging for Business email course? It’ll give you all the tools you need to get started and tips on how to write and publish consistently high quality, regular blog posts. Who knows, you might actually end up finding a passion for it!