So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Amazing book, it changed my life forever. Thanks to this book, I decided to start working on my skills, instead of focusing on “my passions” (which, obviously, were mostly about making money and traveling the world). I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who’s trying to progress in their life. It’s the best advice you’ll ever get.

Author: Cal Newport.

Finished on: 30/09/13

Here’s a link to the Amazon page.

The Central Idea of this Book

The narratives in this book are bound by a common thread: the importance of ability. The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.

Don’t follow your passion; rather, let it follow you in your quest to become, in the words of my favorite Steve Martin quote, “so good that they can’t ignore you.”

Steve Jobs Quote

You’ve got to find what you love…. [T]he only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.

The Passion Hypothesis

The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.

The Reality of Chasing Dreams

The messy nature of Steve Jobs’s path is more the rule than the exception. In an interview with the public radio host Ira Glass, for example, a group of three undergraduates press him for wisdom on how to “figure out what you want” and “know what you’ll be good at.”

In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream, Glass tells them. “But I don’t believe that. Things happen in stages.”

Glass emphasizes that it takes time to get good at anything, recounting the many years it took him to master radio to the point where he had interesting options. “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase,” he says.

I feel like your problem is that you’re trying to judge all things in the abstract before you do them. That’s your tragic mistake.

Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

The Science of Passion

There are many complex reasons for workplace satisfaction, but the reductive notion of matching your job to a pre-existing passion is not among them.

To give you a better sense of the realities uncovered by this research, here are three of the more interesting conclusions I’ve encountered:

Conclusion #1: Career Passions Are Rare

Conclusion #2: Passion Takes Time

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, explores the distinction between a job, a career, and a calling. A job, in Wrzesniewski’s formulation, is a way to pay the bills, a career is a path toward increasingly better work, and a calling is work that’s an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity.

In Wrzesniewski’s research, the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do. On reflection, this makes sense. If you have many years’ experience, then you’ve had time to get better at what you do and develop a feeling of efficacy. It also gives you time to develop strong relationships with your coworkers and to see many examples of your work benefiting others. What’s important here, however, is that this explanation, though reasonable, contradicts the passion hypothesis, which instead emphasizes the immediate happiness that comes from matching your job to a true passion.

Conclusion #3: Passion Is a Side Effect of Mastery

The Craftsman Mindset

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’… but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ ”

In response to Rose’s trademark ambiguous grunt, Martin defended his advice: “If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’ people are going to come to you.”

Martin’s axiom gave me a reprieve from this self-promotion. “Stop focusing on these little details,” it told me. “Focus instead on becoming better.”

“Here’s what I respect: creating something meaningful and then presenting it to the world,” he explained.

I’ll call this output-centric approach to work the craftsman mindset. My goal in Rule #2 is to convince you of an idea that became clearer to me the more time I spent studying performers such as Tice: Irrespective of what type of work you do, the craftsman mindset is crucial for building a career you love.

The Passion Mindset

The passion mindset. Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you. This mindset is how most people approach their working lives.

There are two reasons why I dislike the passion mindset (that is, two reasons beyond the fact that, as I argued in Rule #1, it’s based on a false premise). First, when you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness. This is especially true for entry-level positions, which, by definition, are not going to be filled with challenging projects and autonomy—these come later. When you enter the working world with the passion mindset, the annoying tasks you’re assigned or the frustrations of corporate bureaucracy can become too much to handle.

Second, and more serious, the deep questions driving the passion mindset—“Who am I?” and “What do I truly love?”—are essentially impossible to confirm. “Is this who I really am?” and “Do I love this?” rarely reduce to clear yes-or-no responses. In other words, the passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused.

Adopting the Craftsman Mindset

As I concluded after meeting Jordan Tice, there’s something liberating about the craftsman mindset: It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.

But here’s the core argument of Rule #2: You shouldn’t just envy the craftsman mindset, you should emulate it. In other words, I am suggesting that you put aside the question of whether your job is your true passion, and instead turn your focus toward becoming so good they can’t ignore you. That is, regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer.

The argument from pre-existing passion. At its core is the idea that the craftsman mindset is only viable for those who already feel passionate about their work, and therefore it cannot be presented as an alternative to the passion mindset.

I don’t buy it.

First, let’s dispense with the notion that performers like Jordan Tice or Steve Martin are perfectly secure in their knowledge that they’ve found their true calling. If you spend any time with professional entertainers, especially those who are just starting out, one of the first things you notice is their insecurity concerning their livelihood. Jordan had a name for the worries about what his friends are doing with their lives and whether his accomplishments compare favorably: the cloud of external distractions.

Fighting this cloud is an ongoing battle.

The source of these performers’ craftsman mindset is not some unquestionable inner passion, but instead something more pragmatic: It’s what works in the entertainment business. As Mark Casstevens put it, “the tape doesn’t lie”: If you’re a guitar player or a comedian, what you produce is basically all that matters. If you spend too much time focusing on whether or not you’ve found your true calling, the question will be rendered moot when you find yourself out of work.

Second, and more fundamental, I don’t really care why performers adopt the craftsman mindset.

In other words, forget why Jordan adopted this mindset and notice instead how he deploys it.

Traits That Define Great Work

  • Creativity: Ira Glass, for example, is pushing the boundaries of radio, and winning armfuls of awards in the process.
  • Impact: From the Apple II to the iPhone, Steve Jobs has changed the way we live our lives in the digital age.
  • Control: No one tells Al Merrick when to wake up or what to wear. He’s not expected in an office from nine to five. Instead, his Channel Island Surfboards factory is located a block from the Santa Barbara beach, where Merrick still regularly spends time surfing.

This list isn’t comprehensive, but if consider your own dream-job fantasies, you’ll likely notice some combination of these traits. We can now advance to the question that really matters: How do you get these traits in your own working life? One of the first things I noticed when I began to study this question is that these factors are rare. Most jobs don’t offer their employees great creativity, impact, or control over what they do and how they do it.

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.

The Career Capital Theory Of Great Work

  • The traits that define great work are rare and valuable.
  • Supply and demand says that if you want these traits you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. Think of these rare and valuable skills you can offer as your career capital.
  • The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming “so good they can’t ignore you,” is a strategy well suited for acquiring career capital. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is to create work you love.

The traits that define great work require that you have something rare and valuable to offer in return—skills I call career capital. The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on what you produce, is exactly the mindset you would adopt if your goal was to acquire as much career capital as possible. Ultimately, this is why I promote the craftsman mindset over the passion mindset. This is not some philosophical debate on the existence of passion or the value of hard work—I’m being intensely pragmatic: You need to get good in order to get good things in your working life, and the craftsman mindset is focused on achieving exactly this goal.

One Courage Culture Example

Rebuild Your Backbone is an example of the courage culture, a growing community of authors and online commentators pushing the following idea: The biggest obstacle between you and work you love is a lack of courage—the courage required to step away from “other people’s definition of success” and to follow your dream. It’s an idea that makes perfect sense when presented against the backdrop of the passion mindset: If there’s some perfect job waiting for us out there, every day we’re not following this passion is a wasted day.

The downside of the passion mindset is that it strips away merit. For passion proponents like Slim, launching a freelance career that gives you control, creativity, and impact is easy—it’s just the act of getting started that trips us up. Career capital theory disagrees. It tells us that great work doesn’t just require great courage, but also skills of great (and real) value.

When Craftmanship Fails

Part of what makes the craftsman mindset thrilling is its agnosticism toward the type of work you do. The traits that define great work are bought with career capital, the theory argues; they don’t come from matching your work to your innate passion. Because of this, you don’t have to sweat whether you’ve found your calling—most any work can become the foundation for a compelling career.

Three Disqualifiers For Applying The Craftsman Mindset

  • The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  • The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
  • The job forces you to work with people you really dislike

Deliberate Practice

In the early 1990s, Anders Ericsson, a colleague of Neil Charness at Florida State University, coined the term “deliberate practice” to describe this style of serious study, defining it formally as an “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” As hundreds of follow-up studies have since shown, deliberate practice provides the key to excellence in a diverse array of fields, among which are chess, medicine, auditing, computer programming, bridge, physics, sports, typing, juggling, dance, and music.

Here’s what struck me as important about deliberate practice: It’s not obvious. Outside of fields such as chess, music, and professional athletics, which have clear competitive structures and training regimes, few participate in anything that even remotely approximates this style of skill development. As Ericsson explains, “Most individuals who start as active professionals… change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work… is a poor predictor of attained performance.” Put another way, if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better.

When I first encountered the work of Ericsson and Charness, this insight startled me. It told me that in most types of work—that is, work that doesn’t have a clear training philosophy—most people are stuck. This generates an exciting implication.

To successfully adopt the craftsman mindset, therefore, we have to approach our jobs in the same way that Jordan approaches his guitar playing or Garry Kasparov his chess training—with a dedication to deliberate practice.

How Alex and Mike Became Craftsmans

Consider Alex Berger’s two-year rise from assistant to cocreator of a national television series. The reason he was on the fast track, he explained, was his debate-champ-style obsession with improving. “I have a never-ending thirst to get better,” he said. “It’s like a sport, you have to practice and you have to study.” Alex admitted that even though he’s now an established writer, he still reads screenwriting books, looking for places where his craft could stand improving. “It’s a constant learning process,” he said.

The other thing I noticed about Alex is that this learning is not done in isolation: “You need to be constantly soliciting feedback from colleagues and professionals,” he told me.

In his current position as a venture capitalist, Mike maintains his dedication to stretching his ability, guided by feedback. His new tool of choice is a spreadsheet, which he uses to track how he spends every hour of every day. “At the beginning of each week I figure out how much time I want to spend on different activities,” he explained. “I then track it so I can see how close I came to my targets.” On the sample spreadsheet he sent me, he divides his activities into two categories: hard to change (i.e., weekly commitments he can’t avoid) and highly changeable (i.e., self-directed activities that he controls.)

Mike’s goal with his spreadsheet is to become more “intentional” about how his workday unfold. When you look at Mike’s spreadsheet, you also notice that he restricts the hours dedicated to required tasks that don’t ultimately make him better at what he does (eighteen hours). The majority of his week is instead focused on what matters: raising money, vetting investments, and helping his fund’s companies (twenty-seven hours). Without this careful tracking, this ratio would be much different.

This is a great example of deliberate practice at work. “I want to spend time on what’s important, instead of what’s immediate,” Mike explained. At the end of every week he prints his numbers to see how well he achieved this goal, and then uses this feedback to guide himself in the week ahead. The fact that he’s been promoted three times in less than three years underscores the effectiveness of this deliberate approach.

The Five Habits of a Craftsman

Step 1: Decide What Capital Market You’re In

For the sake of clarity, I will introduce some new terminology. When you are acquiring career capital in a field, you can imagine that you are acquiring this capital in a specific type of career capital market. There are two types of these markets: winner-take-all and auction. In a winner-take-all market, there is only one type of career capital available, and lots of different people competing for it.

An auction market, by contrast, is less structured: There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection.

With this in mind, the first task in building a deliberate practice strategy is to figure out what type of career capital market you are competing in.

Step 2: Identify Your Capital Type

Once you’ve identified your market, you must then identify the specific type of capital to pursue. If you’re in a winner-take-all market, this is trivial: By definition, there’s only one type of capital that matters. For an auction market, however, you have flexibility. A useful heuristic in this situation is to seek open gates—opportunities to build capital that are already open to you.

The advantage of open gates is that they get you farther faster, in terms of career capital acquisition, than starting from scratch. It helps to think about skill acquisition like a freight train: Getting it started requires a huge application of effort, but changing its track once it’s moving is easy. In other words, it’s hard to start from scratch in a new field.

Step 3: Define “Good”

It’s at this point, once you’ve identified exactly what skill to build, that you can, for guidance, begin to draw from the research on deliberate practice. The first thing this literature tells us is that you need clear goals. If you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, then it’s hard to take effective action.

Step 4: Stretch and Destroy

Returning to Geoff Colvin, in the article cited above he gives the following warning about deliberate practice:

Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands…. Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate,” as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.

The good news about deliberate practice is that it will push you past this plateau and into a realm where you have little competition. The bad news is that the reason so few people accomplish this feat is exactly because of the trait Colvin warned us about: Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.

This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of “good.” If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”

Pushing past what’s comfortable, however, is only one part of the deliberate-practice story; the other part is embracing honest feedback—even if it destroys what you thought was good.

It’s so tempting to just assume what you’ve done is good enough and check it off your to-do list, but it’s in honest, sometimes harsh feedback that you learn where to retrain your focus in order to continue to make progress.

Step 5: Be Patient

Learning clawhammer banjo is hard, and because of this, Martin was willing to look forty years into the future for the payoff—a recognition of the frustrating months of hard work and mediocre playing ahead. In his memoir, Martin expounds on this idea when he discusses the importance of “diligence” for his success in the entertainment business. What’s interesting is that Martin redefines the word so that it’s less about paying attention to your main pursuit, and more about your willingness to ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you. The final step for applying deliberate practice to your working life is to adopt this style of diligence.

The logic works as follows: Acquiring capital can take time. This is why Martin’s diligence is so important: Without this patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your efforts before you acquire the capital you need. I think the image of Martin returning to his banjo, day after day, for forty years, is poignant. It captures well the feel of how career capital is actually acquired: You stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.”

The Power of Control

Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment. It’s no wonder, then, that when you flip through your mental Rolodex of dream jobs, control is often at the core of their appeal.

To summarize, if your goal is to love what you do, your first step is to acquire career capital. Your next step is to invest this capital in the traits that define great work. Control is one of the most important targets you can choose for this investment.

The First Control Trap

Control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable.

The Second Control Trap

The point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change.

This is the irony of control. When no one cares what you do with your working life, you probably don’t have enough career capital to do anything interesting. But once you do have this capital, as Lulu and Lewis discovered, you’ve become valuable enough that your employer will resist your efforts.

Revising Courage

In light of the second control trap, I need to moderate my previous disdain. Courage is not irrelevant to creating work you love. Lulu and Lewis, as we now understand, required quite a bit of courage to ignore the resistance generated by this trap. The key, it seems, is to know when the time is right to become courageous in your career decisions. Get this timing right, and a fantastic working life awaits you, but get it wrong by tripping the first control trap in a premature bid for autonomy, and disaster lurks. The fault of the courage culture, therefore, is not its underlying message that courage is good, but its severe underestimation of the complexity involved in deploying this boldness in a useful way.

The Law of Financial Viability

When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on.

Do what people are willing to pay for.

Derek made it clear that this is different from pursuing money for the sake of having money. Remember, this is someone who gave away $22 million and sold his possessions after his company was acquired. Instead, as he explained: “Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable”.

When it comes to decisions affecting your core career, money remains an effective judge of value.

In some cases, it literally means customers paying you money for a product or a service. But it can also mean getting approved for a loan, receiving an outside investment, or, more commonly, convincing an employer to either hire you or keep writing you paychecks. Once you adopt this flexible definition of “pay for it,” this law starts popping up all over.
The Power of Mission
To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions. It provides an answer to the question, What should I do with my life? Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on your world—a crucial factor in loving what you do. People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.

Mission Failure

Missions are tricky. As Sarah and Jane learned, just because you really want to organize your work around a mission doesn’t mean that you can easily make it happen.

Where to Find the Big Ideas

The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas. The reason important discoveries often happen multiple times, therefore, is that they only become possible once they enter the adjacent possible, at which point anyone surveying this space—that is, those who are the current cutting edge—will notice the same innovations waiting to happen.

We like to think of innovation as striking us in a stunning eureka moment, where you all at once change the way people see the world, leaping far ahead of our current understanding. I’m arguing that in reality, innovation is more systematic. We grind away to expand the cutting edge, opening up new problems in the adjacent possible to tackle and therefore expand the cutting edge some more, opening up more new problems, and so on. “The truth,” Johnson explains, “is that technological (and scientific) advances rarely break out of the adjacent possible.”

The Capital Driven Mission

A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough—it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge—the only place where these missions become visible.

This insight explains Sarah’s struggles: She was trying to find a mission before she got to the cutting edge (she was still in her first two years as a graduate student when she began to panic about her lack of focus). From her vantage point as a new graduate student, she was much too far from the cutting edge to have any hope of surveying the adjacent possible, and if she can’t see the adjacent possible, she’s not likely to identify a compelling new direction for her work. According to Johnson’s theory, Sarah would have been better served by first mastering a promising niche—a task that may take years—and only then turning her attention to seeking a mission.

If life-transforming missions could be found with just a little navel-gazing and an optimistic attitude, changing the world would be commonplace. But it’s not commonplace; it’s instead quite rare. This rareness, we now understand, is because these breakthroughs require that you first get to the cutting edge, and this is hard—the type of hardness that most of us try to avoid in our working lives.

Getting to the cutting edge of a field can be understood in these terms: This process builds up rare and valuable skills and therefore builds up your store of career capital. Similarly, identifying a compelling mission once you get to the cutting edge can be seen as investing your career capital to acquire a desirable trait in your career. In other words, mission is yet another example of career capital theory in action. If you want a mission, you need to first acquire capital. If you skip this step, you might end up like Sarah and Jane: with lots of enthusiasm but very little to show for it.

Rule #4 is entitled “Think Small, Act Big.” It’s in this understanding of career capital and its role in mission that we get our explanation for this title. Advancing to the cutting edge in a field is an act of “small” thinking, requiring you to focus on a narrow collection of subjects for a potentially long time. Once you get to the cutting edge, however, and discover a mission in the adjacent possible, you must go after it with zeal: a “big” action.

The art of mission, we can conclude, asks us to suppress the most grandiose of our work instincts and instead adopt the patience—the style of patience observed with Pardis Sabeti—required to get this ordering correct.

The Importance of Little Bets

When Sims studied a variety of successful innovators, from Steve Jobs to Chris Rock to Frank Gehry, as well as innovative companies, such as Amazon and Pixar, he found a strategy common to all. “Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan out a whole project in advance,” he writes, “they make a methodical series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small but significant wins” [emphasis mine]. This rapid and frequent feedback, Sims argues, “allows them to find unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes.”

The important thing about little bets is that they’re bite-sized. You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of choosing a bold plan and making one big bet on its success.

If career capital makes it possible to identify a compelling mission, then it’s a strategy of little bets that gives you a good shot of succeeding in this mission.

The Law of Remarkability

For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.

What Giles discovered, I decided, is that a good mission-driven project must be remarkable in two different ways. First, it should be remarkable in the literal sense of compelling people to remark about it.

There’s also, however, a second type of remarkability at play. Giles didn’t just find a project that compels remarks, but he also spread the word about the project in a venue that supports these remarks.

The Book’s Core Idea

The core idea of this book is simple: To construct work you love, you must first build career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the type of traits that define compelling careers. Mission is one of those traits.

I argued that the best ideas for missions are found in the adjacent possible—the region just beyond the current cutting edge.

To encounter these ideas, therefore, you must first get to that cutting edge, which in turn requires expertise. To try to devise a mission when you’re new to a field and lacking any career capital is a venture bound for failure.

Once you identify a general mission, however, you’re still left with the task of launching specific projects that make it succeed. An effective strategy for accomplishing this task is to try small steps that generate concrete feedback—little bets—and then use this feedback, be it good or bad, to help figure out what to try next. This systematic exploration can help you uncover an exceptional way forward that you might have never otherwise noticed.

The little-bets strategy, I discovered as my research into mission continued, is not the only way to make a mission a success. It also helps to adopt the mindset of a marketer. This led to the strategy that I dubbed the law of remarkability.

This law says that for a project to transform a mission into a success, it should be remarkable in two ways. First, it must literally compel people to remark about it. Second, it must be launched in a venue conducive to such remarking.

In sum, mission is one of the most important traits you can acquire with your career capital. But adding this trait to your working life is not simple. Once you have the capital to identify a good mission, you must still work to make it succeed. By using little bets and the law of remarkability, you greatly increase your chances of finding ways to transform your mission from a compelling idea into a compelling career.

My quest, of course, uncovered several surprising ideas. If your goal is to love what you do, I discovered, “follow you passion” can be bad advice. It’s more important to become good at something rare and valuable, and then invest the career capital this generates into the type of traits that make a job great. The traits of control and mission are two good places to start.

The Mission-Development System

True missions, it turns out, require two things. First you need career capital, which requires patience. Second, you need to be ceaselessly scanning your always-changing view of the adjacent possible in your field, looking for the next big idea. This requires a dedication to brainstorming and exposure to new ideas. Combined, these two commitments describe a lifestyle, not a series of steps that automatically spit out a mission when completed. As I entered the summer of 2011, I leveraged this new understanding to try to transform my approach to work into one that would lead to a successful mission. These efforts generated a series of routines that I combined into a mission-development system. This system is best understood as a three-level pyramid. I’ll explain each of these levels below.

Top Level: The Tentative Research Mission

My system is guided, at the top level of the pyramid, by a tentative research mission—a sort of rough guideline for the type of work I’m interested in doing. The real challenge, of course, is finding the compelling projects that exploit this potential. This is the goal the other two levels of the pyramid are designed to pursue.

Bottom Level: Background Research

We now dive from the top level of the pyramid to the bottom level, where we find my dedication to background research. Here’s my rule: Every week, I expose myself to something new about my field. I can read a paper, attend a talk, or schedule a meeting. To ensure that I really understand the new idea, I require myself to add a summary, in my own words, to my growing “research bible”.

I also try to carve out one walk each day for free-form thinking about the ideas turned up by this background research.

Middle Level: Exploratory Projects

We arrive now at the middle level of the pyramid.

I use little bets to explore the most promising ideas turned up by the processes described by the bottom level of my pyramid. I try to keep only two or three bets active at a time so that they can receive intense attention. I also use deadlines, which I highlight in yellow in my planning documents, to help keep the urgency of their completion high. Finally, I also track my hours spent on these bets in the hour tally I described back in the section of this conclusion dedicated to my application of Rule #2. I found that without these accountability tools, I tended to procrastinate on this work, turning my attention to more urgent but less important matters.

When a little bet finishes, I use the concrete feedback it generates to guide my research efforts going forward. This feedback tells me, for example, whether a given project should be aborted and, if not, what direction is most promising to explore next. The effort of completing these bets also has the added side benefit of inducing deliberate practice—yet another tactic in my ever-growing playbook dedicated to making me better and better at what I do.

Ultimately, the success or failure of the projects pursued in this middle level helps me evolve the research mission maintained by the top level. In other words, the system as a whole is a closed feedback loop—constantly evolving toward a clearer and better supported vision for my work.

Working Right vs. Finding the Right Job

Working right trumps finding the right work. He didn’t need to have a perfect job to find occupational happiness—he needed instead a better approach to the work already available to him.

Working right trumps finding the right work—it’s a simple idea, but it’s also incredibly subversive, as it overturns decades of folk career advice all focused on the mystical value of passion. It wrenches us away from our daydreams of an overnight transformation into instant job bliss and provides instead a more sober way toward fulfillment. This is why I left this conclusion to Thomas’s saga until the end of the book. I wanted the chance to first explore with you, through the four rules that came before, the nuances of “working right,” providing example after example of how this approach can lead to increased enjoyment of your own working life.