When asked for advice, comedian Steve Martin likes to say, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
Whether you’re just starting out in your career or trying to get to the next level, your goal should be to master your craft to the point where people can’t help but notice.
In his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,”
Georgetown University professor Cal Newport shares his insights on how people can achieve their goals and use their skills to create a fulfilling and passionate career.
Here are five steps to becoming so good they will have to pay attention.
1. Don’t follow your passion.
Being passionate about your work is a great goal. However, “following your passion” is not going to get you there because it has two fundamental problems.
The first is that “follow your passion” assumes that people have a pre-existing passion they can identify and use to make career decisions. However, most people have no idea what they want to do and can end up feeling lost.
The second problem lies in the assumption that if you really like something, then you’ll really like doing it for a job. “We don’t have much evidence that’s true,” says Newport. “If you really study people with meaning and passion in their work, it has little to do with whether the topic of their job matches their pre-existing passions.”
He gives an example of amateur photographers or bakers who open up businesses but end up facing extreme financial difficulty that leads to unhappiness. “That’s because having work that you love is a lot more complicated than, ‘Hey, I like this thing! If I do it for work, I’ll like my work!'” explains Newport.
Don’t follow your passion. Instead, “let your passion follow you, in your quest to become so good you can’t be ignored,” says Newport.
2. Find a skill and career path to pursue.
Now that you understand the dangers of blindly pursuing your passion, you need to build skills. “Try something that’s interesting to you,” Newport advises. “It doesn’t have to be your one true passion or calling.” If you’re stuck between two paths, flip a coin.
The only criteria you should have for your career is that it fits your values and rewards skill with more options and flexibility.
Contrary to popular belief, there are no set skills that are intrinsically more practical than others, he says. Even if skills don’t seem directly valuable, you can make up for them by making yours more rare or by reaching a high level of expertise.
For example, many people look down on English majors for being impractical. But if you can become very good at a particular type of writing, that makes you stand out, says Newport.
Don’t worry about loving your job from the start. Newport believes that passion is a side effect of mastery. “If you study how people end up passionate about their work, the most common answer is that their passion developed over time, after they built up skills that are rare and valuable,” he says.
If you don’t feel your engagement or interest in your work growing as you work on the skill, you’re probably not developing the skill fast enough, not becoming rare or valuable enough, or you didn’t choose a field that matches your values. If you recognise this, don’t be afraid to switch career paths.
3. Master that skill through deliberate practice in order to gain career capital.
Once you’ve settled on a career path, it’s time to master the skills you need to become irreplaceable. Once you do, you’ll gain career capital that you can offer in return for a great job.
“Until you become good, you don’t have leverage,” says Newport. The more mastery you have over your skill, regardless of the field, the more control and satisfaction it will give you in your career.
When working to improve your skill, watch out for a common mistake: If you simply show up and work hard every day, you’ll hit a performance plateau and stop getting better. “Many workers build their basic skills quickly at first, but once they’re comfortable, they stop getting better because they’re not stretching themselves,” says Newport.
To avoid this, you need to use deliberate practice. “People need to train their skills like an athlete, musician, or chess player would,” says Newport. Identify a clear, specific stretch goal based on something that you’re not quite able to do yet, and push yourself beyond your comfort zone to get there. Strive to tackle ambitious projects, ask for brutally honest feedback, and experiment with new ways to develop your skills.
To make sure you’re on the right track, use money as a neutral indicator of the value of your skill. “People will only give you money if they’re getting value for it,” says Newport. “You know you’re getting better at something if more money is being offered to you.”
Newport calls this idea “the law of financial viability.” The point is not that money is the goal, but that money is a great source of honest feedback. If you don’t see people giving you an increasing amount of money for what you’re doing, then you’re not getting that much better at it.
4. Use your mastery to negotiate for more control in your job.
“Once you’re really good at something, that by itself isn’t enough,” says Newport. “You have to use your skills as leverage to take control of your working life, whether through your work hours, vacation time, or projects.”
Take control of your career to gain benefits that resonate with you. For example, if you are a television writer, once you have established a strong portfolio, you will have the opportunity to choose the specific shows you want to work on and collaborate with any big name you desire. When your skills become valuable enough, finding clients will never be a problem again.
The better you are, the more doors will open for you. You’ll have the freedom and flexibility to jump for whatever opportunity seems most promising to you.
5. Find your mission.
“One way to find great meaning and satisfaction in your work is to end up with a mission that organizes your goals and working life,” says Newport. You don’t need to have a mission to love your work, but it’s a common thing that most people want to pursue.
However, finding your mission is one of the last steps you should think about. “The most important thing to recognise is that you don’t just start with the mission and go off and pursue it,” says Newport. “If you study people who actually have meaningful missions in their life, they start by getting really good in their field at first.”
This is because a career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough — it’s an innovation at the very cutting edge of your field, so you can’t know about it until you get there. Only when you establish strong expertise can you really identify a real, sustainable, impactful mission.
There’s no way to escape it: You have to get really good at something before big things start to happen.
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