Of all the people I’ve never met, Cal Newport has shaped my life the most.
When I question my career trajectory, I return to Cal’s ideas on building career capital and thinking like a craftsman and becoming so good you can’t be ignored.
When I feel overwhelmed with my workload or underwhelmed with my work output, I return to Cal’s ideas on deep work and sequential processing and embracing boredom.
When I sense I’m not realizing the full potential of my time and attention, I return to Cal’s ideas on solitude and high-quality leisure and attention residue.
The problem is that Cal proves his ideas work. Despite (or, he might say, as a consequence of) his day job as a theoretical computer scientist, he’s prolific: seven books, thousands of articles, podcast episodes, podcast appearances, and on and on, and counting. So when I want to return to his ideas or when I often find myself wanting to suggest his work to others, I don’t know where to tell us to start.
So this page** will be the destination for when I need to return to Cal’s ideas and (I hope) for when others need somewhere to start with Cal’s work. Let’s start with passion…
Don’t Follow Your Passion
People who give the advice to “follow your passion” are often far removed from the complex origins of their occupational happiness. They didn’t simply find a job that matched to a pre-existing passion. The social science research shows that most people don’t have pre-existing passions.
In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal cites the research of organization psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski. Wrzesniewski found that people identify their work one of the three ways: a job (a way to pay the bills), a career (a path to increasingly better work), or a calling (a vital part of their life/identity). To explore what leads people to experience work as a calling, Wrzesniewski studied college administrative assistants—a group you’d expect would, by and large, experience their work the same. Surprisingly, there was about an even split in how these employees identified with their work. And the strongest predictor of experiencing work as a calling, of loving what they do, was the number of years worked. Passion, in other words, follows. It’s a byproduct, a side effect, spun out of a complex web of elements that are agnostic to the specific type of work a job requires. Competence, autonomy, connection, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of usefulness, a sense of continual improvement—these are some of the ingredients in the concoction that makes up a compelling career. How do you get them?
Understand The Economics of Great Jobs
When you get concrete about the traits that make a great job great, you can’t escape the reality that, like passion, it takes time to get a great job. (More time than those who subscribe to the “follow your passion” advice stick around before job-hopping, continuing their relentless search for the thing they were meant to do). Some creative freedom, impact, control over what you do and when you do it and who you do it with—these are some of the traits people want (and people who love what they do have) in their job.
In a word, valuable—the traits that define a great job are valuable. How do you acquire something valuable? “Basic economic theory tells us,” Cal writes in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, “you need something rare and valuable to offer in return—this is Supply and Demand 101.” In classic economic terms, to get valuable traits in your working life, you must offer something valuable in return. Skills. In exchange for the valuable traits that define great work, you need valuable skills (what Cal refers to as “career capital”) to offer in return. This gives us a clear focus…
Trust The Persistent Acquisition of Career Capital
Cal’s philosophy around crafting a compelling career is rooted in the advice nobody took from one of the most wildly successful comedians/performers/entertainers of all time, Steve Martin. Reading Martin’s Born Standing Up very powerfully crystallized something in my brain: the prize never goes to the person who shows up with the most talent, it goes to the person who sticks around longest. “Despite a lack of natural ability,” Martin writes, he would go on to put together one of the most decorated careers in the history of entertainment (five Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award, a couple of Lifetime Achievement Awards, an Honorary Oscar, and so on and so on). Someone stood up in an audience once and asked, how do you become successful? “You have to become undeniably good at something,” he said. “Nobody ever takes my advice, because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear…but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”
In Cal’s terminology: acquire a lot of career capital. There was a fourteen-year stretch where you probably would have seen Martin as a failing stand-up comedian, while, as Cal would see it, “he carefully and persistently gathered career capital, confident that valuable skills would translate into valuable opportunities.” With this trust in the persistent acquisition of career capital, “fame fell on me as a by-product,” Martin writes. “The course was more plodding than heroic: I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps…I was not naturally talented,” he repeats. What’s interesting is that Martin is of an era in which he couldn’t have conceived of fame potentially falling on his lap for doing what he was doing. He was doing it for the sake of doing it. He had…
Adopt The Craftsman Mindset
Is this what I’m really meant to do? Do I love this? What do I truly love? If you’re asking these kinds of questions, you’re looking for worth and for quality and for meaning and for a sense of satisfaction, and you’re expecting to find their source in you. But, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly write in All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (an influence throughout the “Deep Work Is Meaningful” chapter in Cal’s Deep Work), “the fact of the matter is out in the world.”
For most of human history, you didn’t have a job, you had a craft or a trade. You were a carpenter or a blacksmith or a mason or a potter or a sculptor or a shoemaker. And you found the source of meaning and satisfaction just about everywhere but in you. “The task of the craftsman,” Cal writes that Dreyfus and Kelly wrote, “is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there.” To the craftsman, wherever there is a choice between doing it well or doing it poorly, there is an opportunity for meaning. Because anything—however lowly, however noble—done well is satisfying. “You don’t need a rarified job,” Cal writes in Deep Work, “you need a rarified approach to your work.”
When a craftsman is performing their craft, they are in a state of what Cal calls deep work. When a blacksmith is forging their metal, when a wheelwright is working their wood, when a stonemason is shaping their stone, they are in a distraction-free depth of concentration. This state of unbroken concentration is intrinsic to activities in which you’re physically occupied in producing something concretely through manual skill.
When we shift our focus from traditional craftsmanship to the modern world of knowledge work, deep work is no longer a naturally slipped-into state. Instead, it is a skill calling out to be cultivated and cared for. And I’m not sure one can read Deep Work in earnest and not decide firmly to want to answer that call. Producing at a peak level, learning hard things, making creative insights, creating things that matter—these all follow from extended periods of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration. To cultivate and amplify the ability to go deep, Cal writes, “is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your life.” In the way a baseball batter cultivates the ability to go long by strengthening their physical muscles away from the ballpark, a knowledge worker cultivates the ability to go deep by strengthening their mental muscles away from the workplace…
Treat Your Brain Like An Athlete Treats Their Body
You can get in shape and fall out of shape. You can gain and lose muscle. You can help and hurt your body’s ability to perform at a high level. And a serious athlete hardly does anything without considering how it might help or hurt their body’s ability to perform at a high level. Their eating, drinking, sleeping, weight training, conditioning, recovery, recreational, and you-name-it habits are formed and maintained to enhance athletic performance.
A similar seriousness is required of those who want to extract as much value as possible from their brain. Because an important reality about deep work is that you can get in cognitive shape and fall out of cognitive shape, you can gain and lose mental muscle, you can help and hurt your brain’s ability to concentrate at a high level. The second half of Deep Work is all about “how to take advantage of this reality” with habits of mind that enhance cognitive performance. In my experience, the most helpful, simplest, and hardest is to…
Train Your Brain To Tolerate Boredom
Every morning, when we get back from a walk, before I say “food” or grab his bowl, my dog starts drooling. Drool is a reflex—he can’t control it. I’ve conditioned him to create a connection: walking through the door after a walk means food is coming soon. This is what’s known as Pavlovian Conditioning, named after Ivan Pavlov and his experiments with dogs, which illuminated the mechanics of the human brain. As Pavlov told a journalist after winning the 1904 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, “That which I see in dogs, I immediately transfer to myself, since, you know, the basics are identical.”
If you’ve ever reflexively reached for your phone for relief from even a moment of boredom or cognitive challenge, you’ve created a Pavlovian connection: the absence of novel stimuli (one definition of boring) means novel stimuli (one definition for much of what is on your phone) is coming soon. In the way I’ve rewired my dog’s brain by relieving his drool with food every time we get back from a walk, Cal writes in Deep Work, “If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired.” You are Pavlovian Conditioned to not tolerate the absence of stimuli or novelty (one definition of deep work). You are cognitively conditioned to not do deep work. To help your brain’s ability to concentrate at a high level, you must train it to tolerate boredom. You must rewire it to be OK in the absence of novel stimuli. Sometimes, when you start to reach for your phone, before you relieve that mental drool, you must catch yourself and say, as I daily do, “No, the absence of novel stimuli does not always mean novel stimuli is coming soon.” “Minimizing the number of times you give in to distraction,” Cal writes, “can be understood analogously as [strengthening] the mental muscles.” And speaking of minimizing…
Minimize Attention Target Switches
You are concentrating on a task then in a moment of cognitive challenge, you click the email icon for just a quick check of your inbox. There’s an email with a reminder of that call you agreed to jump on, there’s an email with a new assignment/obligation, and an email with an irrelevant notification from LinkedIn. After just a quick check, you bring your attention back to the task. A few minutes in, you realize your attention is divided: while trying to focus on the task, your mind is also writing potential replies to get out of that call or cursing that new assignment dropped on you or wondering what you did that led LinkedIn to believe you might be a good fit for that Pharmaceutical Sales Representative job in Missouri.
This psychological effect has a name: attention residue. When you switch your attention from one target (task) to another (inbox), there’s a cognitive cost: a “residue” of your attention doesn’t make the switch. Every time you shift from attention target to attention target, you’re reducing your cognitive capacity. “If, like most,” Cal writes in a blog post about attention residue and the classic arcade game, Snake, “you rarely go more than 10 – 15 minutes without a just check, you have effectively put yourself in a persistent state of self-imposed cognitive handicap. The flip side, of course, is to imagine the relative cognitive enhancement that would follow by minimizing this effect.”* I have it written on a notecard where I can see it when I need to: try to minimize residue-slathering attention target switches. Now, let’s switch our attention to a target to try to maximize…
*One of Cal’s solutions to the problem of attention residue: time blocking.
Free Your Mind From Input From Other Minds
Unlike unidirectional processes such as time, the brain has bidirectional capability. But the brain, at its best, works in a sequential, unidirectional way. It’s like a one-way street but that can pivot 180* in a fraction over an instant. One implication of this neural infrastructure is that every idea you’ve had, every discovery about yourself, every goal you’ve set, every word you’ve written, every decision you’ve made, every thought you’ve had—share something in common. That something: for some duration—however brief or long, however fragmented or sustained—your mind was free of inputs from other minds. You were in a state of solitude.
In Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal borrows this definition of solitude from the book Lead Yourself First, coauthored by U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge and former army officer Michael Erwin. When we think of solitude, we think: a state of physical isolation. Really, solitude has little to do with where the body happens to be and has everything to do with what’s happening in the brain. Solitude is, here’s Cal, “a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.” Solitude means you’re not processing input from someone else’s mind. If you are alone, in a cabin, in the Australian Outback, listening to a podcast—not solitude. If you are walled in, on a city subway, by a rip-roaring little league baseball team fresh off a win over their crosstown-rival, journaling—solitude. Though solitude can be accessed on demand, so can smartphones and podcasts and audio books and YouTube videos and etc. “It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life,” Cal writes before compellingly/alarmingly detailing the ill-effects of “chronic solitude deprivation” and the alienation from our own minds. If you want to produce ideas, creative thoughts, some understanding of the self, some clarity of purpose, regular doses of solitude is a prerequisite. Through its fusion of mind and soul, “solitude is the school of genius,” Cal writes Edward Gibbon wrote. Solitude is a fundamental of human thriving. Procrastination, on the other hand, is not…
Know Why You’re Procrastinating
One of the reasons we Homo sapiens survived and other species of human didn’t is because of one crucial Homo sapiens’ adaptation: complex planning. This is unique to our human brain: it can come up with a plan or an idea, then it can think about it abstractly, then it can evaluate if it’s going to be successful or not, then it can decide to put energy/motivation into it or not. The example Cal always uses: the caveman has the idea to charge the mammoth and jump on its back and bash in its head with a rock. The brain goes, I don’t think that’s a reasonable plan, so I’m not going to make you feel motivated to do that. Then the caveman has the idea to sharpen a spear and throw it at the mammoth from a distance. The brain goes, I believe that could work, I’ll put some motivation behind that.
This still happens today. When you have some sort of busy work on your plate, until you feel like there is a threat—e.g. if I don’t get this done today, my boss is going to yell at me—of negative consequences, it can be hard to get the motivation. When you come up with some ambitious but arbitrary self-development initiative—e.g. I’m going to get up at 4:30 am every morning and work on my novel before work—it can be hard to sustain the motivation. Cal’s theory of procrastination is that when you procrastinate, your brain is calling you out. It believes that your idea or your plan is as unreasonable or haphazard an idea or plan as charging the mammoth with a rock. It is not convinced that the effort will lead to something positive in the future. So “procrastination is not a character flaw but instead a finely-tuned evolutionary adaptation,” Cal writes. “You shouldn’t lament procrastination, but instead listen to it. Treat it as a sign…[as] a constructive source of criticism — a voice from our paleolithic past telling us that although it likes our goals, we need to put a little bit more thought into how we’re going to get there.” If you want motivation or discipline or energy, convince your brain. That what you’re trying to accomplish is important. And that you have the right plan for accomplishing it. Speaking of energy…
Spend Energy To Have Energy
It’s a paradox (and so familiar from experience): your energy level is often proportional to your energy expenditure. After a relaxing vacation, you’re exhausted. After weeks in quarantine doing nothing, you’re exhausted. After a day idly watching Netflix and scrolling and tapping a screen, you’re exhausted. On the flip side: after a hard workout, you’re energized. After straining your brain with a good book, you’re energized. After practicing an instrument then a hike with your dog then a couple hours of deep work then cooking for and hosting some friends, you’re energized.
This intuition-reversing idea—that you have to spend energy to have energy—is what Cal calls The Bennett Principle, named after Arnold Bennett. In his short volume How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, Bennett zeroed in on the question of how one realizes the full potential of the hours outside of work. Essentially, bias towards mentally or physically strenuous activity. “What? You say that full energy given to those [non-working] hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.” As Cal crystallizes: Prioritize demanding activity—“the value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested.”
**When I come across a useful idea from a new Cal book, article, podcast, etc., I update this page.