Profiles in Awesomeness: An Introduction to Cal Newport

You should assume that any time I recommend a product or service on this blog that I'm being paid millions of dollars and flown out to cruises and conferences in all world's greatest warm-weather locales-- not because such an assumption is accurate, but because it's pretty awesome. In fact, I haven't been paid to recommend anything-- until now.  Cal Newport recently sent me a copy of his new book "So Good They Can't Ignore You" and I agreed to review it for my blog. However, that's not quite what I'm going to do.  Instead, I want to give an introduction to Cal and many of his ideas, not simply the ones that made it into his most recent book.

Cal Newport wrote a book about succeeding in high school when he was in college, a few books about succeeding in college when he was in grad school, and, now that he’s graduating, he’s– naturally– turned his attention to success in the working world.  The book is called So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

If it’s not clear from the fact that he’s had four publishing deals before the age of 30, Cal Newport is good at life.  From the very first time I read his blog, it was clear that he was a nerd in the best sense– someone who, given an interesting problem and enough time, could simply think unthought thoughts– and then produce value from them.

Cal does something interesting with these thoughts.  Something incredibly simple and powerful.  He names them.

I’ll take the bait.  I’ve read a lot of Cal’s strategies and postulations in the last two years, and some of them have stuck with me since the day I first read them.  Here are a few of my favorite idea’s of Cal’s, including a bit on the book at the end.

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Failed Simulation Effect

This is perhaps my favorite advice from Cal’s older writing.  It’s about how to be “impressive”.  And his idea goes like this:

The things that sound the most impressive are not the things that require the most work– they’re the things that are the hardest for someone else to imagine doing.

Let’s dissect that.  Let’s imagine, as Cal often does, two students trying to get into college:

  • One student is the president of an academic club at her high school, an all-state athlete, an award-winning trombone player, and has an ungodly number of volunteer hours with local charities
  • The other student published a non-fiction book on oatmeal and was CEO of a half-million dollar business

Which one sounds more interesting?  Which will you let into your college?  I’d go for the second– and so do admissions officers.

The thing that makes the second so impressive compared to the first is that most people have no idea how the second achieved those things.  For the first– the club leader, the athlete, band-member, etc.– yeah, everyone knows an overachiever like that.  Someone addicted to motion.  It’s hard to be her, but it’s pretty easy to figure out how to be her.

But that second student, we have no idea how she got to where she is.  In high school and running a six-figure business and has published a book.  What makes her an expert on oatmeal?  How is she such a strong leader?  Because we can’t figure out how she does those things, she seems way more impressive and way better a candidate for our college.

As Newport says:

An easy way to represent yourself as a medium ability candidate (be it for college, grad school, or a job) is to present a laundry list of activities none of which are all that difficult to achieve; e.g., club memberships, a summer program, a two-week mission trip.

Send good signals, he says, not mediocre ones.

(From “The Art of Activity Innovation)

The Textbook method

Want to develop an intuitive understanding of difficult concepts?  Cal recommends “The Textbook Method”– that is, writing your own “textbook” on the subject.  Of course, this doesn’t mean a 600-page magnum opus on a broad subject.  Instead, he’s simply advising you rephrase explanations of difficult topics in your own words and write them down.  You know what you write.

This is perfect for students in the math and sciences, but I’ve found that it works for less abstract concepts as well.  I’ve used the textbook method to remember what the various settings on DSLR cameras are for (and how they interact), to keep straight important periods in geology (actually, there are eras, periods, and epochs!), and regularly at work to understand complex proposals to solving difficult technical problems.

This is not a new idea though– the scientists among us might remember Einstein’s chiding “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother” and Feynman’s habit of asking dumb questions until he could break down complex concepts into simple and visual analogies.  It’s all good though– this advice remains as cogent as ever.

(From “You Know What You Write)

Time Arbitrage

Arbitrage is the idea of buying something for a low price and selling it somewhere where the price is higher.  Custom-made suits are cheap in India; they can be sold at a profit to US customers.  Well Cal applies this concept to time.  You’re given 24 hours every day, but some of those hours can be exchanged for more valuable activities.  The trick is to “sell” your best hours for more productivity.

For instance, most people have more energy in the morning than the evening.  If you want to do something important, like work on a goal, try doing it before you’ve taken care of all your other commitments for the day.  You’ll get more done in that hour.  And that means it’s more valuble– you sold those 60 minutes for more than other 60 minutes will be sold for.

He also brings up the example of consecutive hours vs. single hours.  If you study for 8 hours straight, you may have pretty good focus the first hour, decent focus the next few, but by the end, you’re zoning out regularly.  It’s just tough to focus on something that long.  Instead of burning yourself out on super-long study sessions where those last few hours are exchanged for hardly anything at all, study a little every day.  Same hours spent either way, but the second strategy is far more productive.

A lot of the goals that readers talk to me about are things that take a long time– getting degrees, building houses, writing novels, etc.  For endeavors like that, it’s worth working on goals before you’re busy with the rest of your duties (just like Anthony Trollope did writing a record number of novels while working a full-time job)– and not burning yourself out with marathon focus sessions.

(From “How to Use Time Arbitrage to Master Your Productivity Profit)

The ESS Method for Accomplishing Big Tasks

When most people are working on a large project, they tend to think about it way too much at one time– mostly because they thought about it way too late, and therefore don’t have time to do incremental work.

The human brain doesn’t do well with cramming.  Nor does it like overwhelming piles of work.  You’re much better off organizing work by the ESS method– early, small, soon.  Figure out when you need to have the work done by, then start early on the smallest piece of the project you can think of.  Even if the project is due far in the future, start that small piece of it soon.

This should sound familiar to reader’s of this blog, which is founded on the principle of start tonight.  Enough said.

(From “Pulverize Large Assignments with the ESS method)

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In his new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal argues a ballsy proposition– that “follow your passion” is actually terrible life advice.

There’s a joke about two young fish swimming along when an older fish swims past and says to them “Morning, boys.  How’s the water?”  One of the two younger fish looks at the other and says “What the hell is water!?”

That’s about the same feeling I got when I realized that when it comes to career advice, there really is no alternative to “follow your passion”– that’s all we hear.  We hear it from college counselors, from advertising, from the career-advice bestsellers– even from the world’s best CEO.  When I was bragging that Cal is good at thinking unthought thoughts, I was serious.  I want you to try and remember someone told you not to follow your passion.

Now let me clarify a thing here.  Cal’s argument is not that passion is bad.  It’s not that we should all take jobs we hate.  It’s that work and life satisfaction are due to and predicted better by way more than just whether a job seems appealing as an amateur.

Instead, the things that determine how much we like a job are things that psychology predicted long ago.  Cal enumerates the following:

  • Autonomy refers to control over how you fill your time. As Deci [the quoted researcher] puts it, if you have a high degree of autonomy, then “you endorse [your] actions at the highest level of reflection.”
  • Competence refers to mastering unambiguously useful things. As the psychologist Robert White opines, in the wonderfully formal speak of the 1950s academic, humans have a “propensity to have an effect on the environment as well as to attain valued outcomes within it.”
  • Relatedness refers to a feeling of connection to others. As Deci pithily summarizes: “to love and care, and to be loved and cared for.”
So what is Cal’s advice for having a rewarding career?  He recommends the following basic pattern, which he calls the career craftsman philosophy:
  1. Master a skill that is rare and valuable.  Get good at something that few people can do.  Get so good at it that the company you work for or the market you’re in has no choice but you.  This gels with the three points above, as mastering a rare skill is the very definition of achieving competence.
  2. Cash in the career capital this generates for the right rewards.   Once you’re valuable to a company, you can choose how you want to get paid.  Cal calls it “turning down a promotion”.  Unless you want your boss’s job more than you want your own, promotions are probably not the best currency to receive.  In his book, Cal tells stories of people who trade their rare and valuable skill (“career capital”) for location independence (“Don’t promote me– instead, let me work from anywhere”), extra time (“Don’t promote me– instead, take me down to 30 hours a week and pay for my grad degree is philosophy I’ve always wanted to do”), and various other currencies.

I’ve read an ungodly number of non-fiction books on life advice, and I can say with some certainty that Cal Newport is absolutely one of the best self-improvement thinkers and writers out there.  Not to mention his blog is one of the top three I’ve ever seen for consistently generating new and interesting thought.  I’m disappointed I hadn’t heard of him in high school, but at least he’s one wicked awesome Profile in Awesomeness for now!

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