After catching a video review of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport I thought I’d give it a try as a possible follow up to “Talent is Overrated.” I’m glad I did. The book expanded on some of the similar research and since I’m very focused on how can I improve my skill, I’m going to skip over the first half of the book sum that up with one quote: Working right trumps finding the right work. That you need the craftsman mindset to succeed at your work. That is, to focus relentlessly on what value you are offering to the world. To use deliberate practice (thus tying into “Talent is Overrated”) to stretch beyond where you are comfortable in your abilities and to receive often and ruthlessly honest feedback on your performance. This is particularly important with writing, a “winner take all” market, because good writing is the ONLY career capital that matters.
The Role of Deliberate Practice
In general when you do something over and over, you improve. However, if all you do is show up and work hard, eventually you’ll hit a performance plateau, beyond which you won’t continue to gain skills. Deliberate practice is when you stretch your abilities and then pull apart the results with constructive criticism. In order to be deliberate practice, you have to stay in a zone where you are uncomfortable, it’s not a mental state the brain enjoys. While I’ve wanted to introduce more deliberate practice into my writing, I’ve been unsure how. I found the author’s personal experience trying to apply this very helpful.
Cal Newport is a mathematician. So, to introduce deliberate practice, he picked mathematical papers on some of the basic and most difficult concepts of his field and studied and broke them down until he could understand the concepts from the bottom up. Initially trying this he experienced massive internal resistance each time he sat down to attempt this. On average, it would take a full 10 minutes before these waves of resistance would die down and he could work.
Afterwards he tried to capture the results of his study in several ways. He created a proof map that captured the dependence between different pieces of the proof. He gave himself quizzes to memorize key definitions and parts of the proofs. He also wrote detailed summaries of the material in his own words in his “research bible.” Each summery contained a description of the result, how it compared to the previous work, and the main strategies used to attain it. he also kept a tally of all his deliberate practice on his office wall and designated a special notebook in which he brainstormed new ideas that were inspired by his research and set aside time each week for brainstorming.
The Importance of Control
To be good at something is only the first step in enjoying it. Control over what you are producing is another important factor in loving your work. However, in the search for control there are two traps. The first control trap is that control that’s acquired without career capital is not sustainable. In the case of writing, this generally means if your writing is not there, that is NOT the time to seek publication, self-publish or quit your day job. Also, it seems to me part of this is that you need to follow the rules before you can break them! Keep point of view, avoid be verbs and adverbs, show don’t tell, don’t start with your character waking up and so on. Only once you later are a master writer, can you go back and break these rules and keep you writing powerful and engaging.
The second trap happens later. Once you have the capital you are valuable and people fight to keep you on a more traditional path and deny you that control. This is the point at which you need to ignore conventional wisdom and make the bold and brave moves that will propel your career forward. How do you know now is the time? Consider, are people willing to pay money for what you’ve written? If they are, this might be the moment to buck off conventional wisdom and take a risk.
Exploring the Adjacent Possible
One of the most fascinating new concepts the book introduced me to was the “adjacent possible.” It seems most advances are found historically just past the cutting edge of whatever field is in question. Only when the cutting edge becomes adjacent to the next big advance can you see the innovation waiting to be discovered. Thus the adjacent possible is the place to investigate and explore to uncover ways forward that might not have been noticed before.
Newport’s strategy here suggests first that you create a tentative mission related to the edge of your field. Then, dive into background research. Explore something new and interesting, understand how it works, and then ruminate on it. Walks are a great way to ruminate on material (although carry a small pocket notebook if you might forget your ideas). Then, make “little bets” to further explore the most promising ideas your research discovered. These are projects small enough to be completed in less the an a month. They force you to create new value and master new skills and produce a concrete result that can generate feedback. He recommends only keeping 2-3 bets active at a time. Use the feedback to guide your research and decide if the project should be aborted or not, and which direction it should go in.
The Right Approach to Marketing
Finally, I found the book’s approach to marketing interesting. It focuses on the “law of remarkability” that is, something that compels people to remark about it to others. Word of mouth is really the best marketing. Once you have a product that’s remarkable though, you need to launch it into a venue that supports such remarking.
Overall I found the book a fast but thought provoking read. I recommend picking it up either as an ebook or from your public library.