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Weekly 3: Choosing what to work on

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Summary: Don't fall for the passion trap. Take advantage of compounding. Don't double-down on a dog.
 

Idea Journal Weekly 3

August 4 · Issue #98 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Don’t fall for the passion trap. Take advantage of compounding. Don’t double-down on a dog. (~5 min read)

#1. Answer the right question
Author and computer science professor Cal Newport writes on his blog that career advice recommending that you follow your passion can be misleading, and even “dangerous.”
To illustrate his point, he shares the following note that he received from a college career counselor: 
“I regularly counsel students on their career paths and I was having a hard time giving a student guidance today without referencing passion. ‘What are you good at?”’ I asked instead, and she replied that she didn’t know. She doesn’t know because she hasn’t tried enough things.”
The career counselor’s effort to lessen the influence of passion is helpful, but for Newport, the question What are you good at? is no better than What’s your passion?
With both questions, you’re making your career satisfaction dependent on matching your job to some intrinsic trait. If you lead someone to believe that making the right job choice is what matters for career satisfaction, then “you’re setting them up for confusion when they don’t feel immediate and continuous love for their work.”
Instead, Newport’s research suggests that sustainable career satisfaction almost always follows 2 factors:
  1. Building a rare and valuable skill
  2. Using that skill as leverage to take control of your working life
With these findings in mind, when you’re trying to choose a particular job or career, a better question to ask yourself is: What are you willing to get good at?
Here’s how Newport would rework the career counselor’s note from the example above: 
“Pick something that you wouldn’t mind investing years in mastering. If you already have some skills, then it might make sense (though is by no means necessary) to start there, as you already have a head start on mastery, but you should still expect years of deliberate improvement before deep passion can blossom for your work.”
#2. "Compound yourself"
In an article about how to be successful, entrepreneur and investor Sam Altman writes that the process of compounding acts like magic: “Exponential curves are the key to wealth generation.”
For example, a medium-sized business that grows 50% in value every year becomes huge in a short period of time.
You want your career to follow a similar up-and-to-the-right trajectory.
As Altman points out, most careers progress linearly – you want to avoid this. You don’t want to be in a career where the people who have been doing it for 2 years can be just as effective as those who have been doing it for 20 years.
Instead, you want to ensure that you always maintain a high rate of learning and productivity. As your career progresses, each unit of work you do should generate increasing results. For Altman, there are several ways to achieve this kind of leverage, including brand, capital, managing people, network effects, and technology.
As you’re applying leverage to compound yourself and your career, Altman offers 2 tips: 
1. Add another zero to whatever you use as a success metric
This can be money, status, your impact on the world, or something else – however you define and measure your success. 
Many people get stuck chasing linear opportunities, but it’s more effective to pass on small opportunities so that you can focus on “potential step changes.” 
This is how Altman approaches his own work: “I am willing to take as much time as needed between projects to find my next thing. But I always want it to be a project that, if successful, will make the rest of my career look like a footnote.”
2. Focus on the long-term
For Altman, the biggest competitive advantage in business, whether for a company or an individual, is long-term thinking and taking a broad view of how different systems are going to interact.
That’s because a key aspect of compound growth is that years furthest into the future are also the ones that are most important: “In a world where almost no one takes a truly long-term view, the market richly rewards those who do.”
#3. “If it’s not a hit, switch”
Entrepreneur and musician Derek Sivers writes in his book Anything You Want that it took him years to learn the right lesson about being persistent: “Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently doing what’s not working.”
As Sivers notes, we all have a lot of ideas and projects. When you present one of them to the world, if the response is lackluster, don’t keep pushing it as-is. Instead, go back and keep improving it and inventing.
Then present each new improvement to the world. If multiple people are saying some version of “Wow, I need this!” or “I’d be happy to pay you for this!” then you should probably pursue it. But if the response is anything less, you need to make it better.
It’s not worth wasting years fighting uphill battles against locked doors.
For Sivers, creating the music distribution company CD Baby was his first notable success: “For the first time in my life, I had made something that people really wanted.”
Before that, he had spent 12 years struggling to promote his various projects. He tried numerous marketing approaches, networking, and pitching: “It always felt like an uphill battle, trying to open locked or slamming doors. I made progress, but only with massive effort.”
Quote of the Week
“I realized the other day that most people grow up thinking in terms of professional affiliations. ‘I’m going to be an accountant.’ ‘I’m going to work for General Dynamics.’
Somehow, I always thought of my career as a series of projects, not jobs. Projects… things to be invented, funded and shipped. Sometimes they take on a life of their own and last, other times, they flare and fade. But projects, one after the other, mark my career. Lucky for me, the world cooperated and our entire culture shifted from one based on long-term affiliations (you know, ‘jobs’) to projects.”
- Author and marketing guru Seth Godin writing on his blog
Idea Journal
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