How to Develop the Skills Your Work Depends On

I’m fascinated by the premise of Cal Newport’s new book: So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Cal tackles a topic that plagues much of my generation. The idea that following your passion is the key to success in your work. Or what Cal calls The Passion Hypothesis.

When you look past the feel-good slogans and go deeper into the details of how passionate people like Steve Jobs really got started, or ask scientists about what actually predicts workplace happiness, the issue becomes much more complicated. You begin to find threads of nuance that, once pulled, unravel the tight certainty of the passion hypothesis, eventually leading to an unsettling question: “Follow your passion” might just be terrible advice. — Cal Newport

Cal goes on to to argue that if you look closely at how most people who are successful and passionate about their work gained their passion, it’s almost always preceded by a rigorous process of skill development.

In other words, becoming really good at something is the breeding ground for meaningful work.

The Excruciatingly Difficult Path to Mastery

Writing is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The fear associated with putting words on paper for the world to see, especially under your own name, is debilitating.

But there’s no way around it. To get better at writing, you have to stare that fear in the face and do it anyways. Facing the fear won’t make you a better writer. It’s a prerequisite to becoming a better writer. It’s a right of passage.

The path to becoming a better writer isn’t unique to writing at all. It’s the same path that Mozart, Van Halen, and even Cal Newport took to become masters of their own crafts. The secret lies in developing a ritual of consistent 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. — Geoff Colvin

But what makes deliberate practice deliberate? How can you get more out of the hours you’re already putting in to develop your skills?

I like the term “stretch” for describing what deliberate practice feels like, as it matches my own experience with the activity. When I’m learning a new mathematical technique — a classic case of deliberate practice — the uncomfortable sensation in my head is best approximated as a physical strain, as if my neurons are physically re-forming into new configurations…. 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. — Cal Newport

That’s what this blog is about. Stretch and feedback.

Writing is a skill that already brings meaning to my work. And if the theory holds true, the better I get at it, the more I’ll get out of it.

This is my deliberate practice. What’s yours?

Starting is the Hardest Part

“All day long you’re emailing or tweeting or liking or meeting… and every once in a while, something tangible is produced. But is there a mark of your passage? — Seth Godin

I read this post on Seth Godin’s blog over a year ago.

It’s about leaving behind a trail of work. An ‘online artifact’ that’s useful not just to yourself, but to those interested.

I was intrigued. With all the ideas that run through my head on a daily basis — surely some of them are worth writing down, documenting, and sharing with others.

So I started thinking about what to call it, how to position it, and what to talk about. I looked at it from every angle, bought several domain names, and started the process over from scratch too many times to count.

I got bogged down in details. And I didn’t start a damn thing.

It’s been 15 months since I read that post. And looking back at the process — I can’t help but wish I’d left a trail.

I think that’s called irony. But here’s the point: beginnings are scary.

When we start something, we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But that’s exactly why we need to start. We need to acknowledge that this might not work and do it anyways.

I’m not really sure what this blog is about. I have plenty of ideas. But the only way to really figure it out is to get started.