Category Archives: Self-Improvement

Book Review – So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Who is this for?Those who have struggled to find traction in their lives due to a common tendency to over prioritize passion.

Like many Back to Work listeners, I’ve just finished Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, at the recommendation of Merlin Mann. While I’m certain the book will be well examined by Merlin and his co-host Dan Benjamin, I wanted to offer up some early thoughts for those who are yet to give this book a chance.

I knew a lot about both Cal and the book going in. Last year I had the pleasure of hearing Cal give an early talk on his findings from So Good They Can’t Ignore You at the World Domination Summit. We also discussed the subject of passion at length when he came on to the Mikes on Mics podcast when the book was first released.

I purchased the book right after it was released but didn’t prioritize reading it. I thought I had gotten enough of the picture from his talk and visit to the show. Now having read it, I can safely say that I was wrong.

I see how this is the kind of book where you may feel the CliffsNotes edition is sufficient; I certainly felt this way at first. It doesn’t take all that long to grasp the idea that “following your passion is a bad idea,” that you should instead cultivate skills and build up career capital until you’re So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

That framework is useful and the stories do a great job of enhancing the premise, but the book came to life for me towards the end when Cal stopped looking out and started sharing what the experience has meant to him. He takes you on his journey, walks you through the discovery of each of the ideas presented in the book and shares how he applies many of the concepts, like deliberate practice, to his own life. While not as obviously useful as the framework presented in the early sections, it did a better job of bringing the concepts to life. It was easily the most enjoyable and enlightening part of the experience. It was also the most convincing.

Much as I enjoyed the premise, the framework and many of the takeaways, there were two aspects that continually frustrated me along the way.

Why Are We Arguing?

The first was the occasional academic tone and structure. Clearly this is Cal’s background shining through, but he kept “arguing”—a frequent term used throughout the book—his case rather than allowing the ideas to compel me. This may just be a personal preference, but the book straddles both an academic and conversational tone, and I continually found myself craving the conversational. I didn’t want an argument presented to me, I wanted to hear what he discovered, learn more about who he had met and understand what he thought it meant.

While the first challenge is clearly a personal preference, the second has more to do with the premise.

Is All Passion A Problem?

The main argument of the book is that following your passion is a bad idea. Newport makes a strong argument for this, but I think he takes the argument too far. Rather than offering up nuanced thoughts on the role that passion plays in our lives, it often felt as if he was dismissing it. He’s so busy making the argument about following passion that I think he accidentally overlooks the importance of having it. There wasn’t a single case study in the book where the person didn’t seem pretty darn passionate to me. They may not have been following their passion, but they sure as hell had it.

As I read, I came to agree that passion is a poor leader, but I also redoubled my own belief that it’s an essential ingredient. Don’t get me wrong; I wish I had read this years ago as I wasted years waiting for a passion to emerge and lead the way. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.) It wasn’t until I shifted my own focus away from finding my purpose and towards cultivating skills that I gained any kind of traction. Yet as I’ve gained skills, I’ve also discovered the passion that always seemed so elusive.

It would have been a slightly different book and would have stepped on the branding, but I wish Cal had presented a more nuanced examination of the role of passion. There was clear passion in this book about not following your passion. It just put passion in the proper perspective and context. I worry that readers taking the premise too literally may eliminate the value of passion rather than properly adjusting the role it plays.

Regardless, Cal is a smart man, a good writer and a hell of a teacher. All of this shines through in So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The ideas are clearly presented, the examples are useful and you walk away from the book with a better sense of what matters most when trying to improve your own career and life. It’s well worth your time. Especially if you’re struggling to put passion into the proper perspective.

Agreeing With The Essence While Disagreeing With The Details

It’s a difficult thing when someone you respect speaks out against something you’ve been seriously considering.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out two things: how to move forward with the work I’ve been doing online and what to do about the work I’ve already created. Just when I finally felt like I figured things out, Shawn Blanc had to go and make some truly excellent points about attempting to evolve your future work by eliminating your current project.

As he puts it:

Recently I was talking with a friend who was considering deleting his weblog and starting all over. Tossing his archives into the trash, changing the domain, and re-focusing on the sort of writing that he most wants to do.

His premise was that a new domain and new “brand” would help set the tone for the new voice he wants to write with. And that by trashing his archives of the work he’s written so far, there will be nothing on his new site which he’s embarrassed about. Nothing juvenile or off topic.

I told him he was being silly and then linked him to this article by Zeldman where he writes: “If your old work doesn’t shame you, you’re not growing.”

Now this is a damn fine point and one that gave me pause. While embarrassment isn’t really the issue here, there are plenty of parallels between what Shawn describes and my current situation. Essentially I’ve been planning to move on from a current project in order to focus on a similar one. Before reading this, I was not only ready, but actively preparing to completely shutter a multi-year project in order to focus on something new. But what do I do now that someone whose advice and instincts I trust has suggested the exact opposite?

Consider What Others Are Saying, But Don’t Always Follow The Exact Advice

All too often, we read blogs, listen to podcasts, and seek out books and advice to find answers. We’re not sure what to do and we hope that someone we respect will know what’s best. There’s nothing wrong with this, but occasionally we let our respect for others (and our own fears) replace, rather than inform, our own opinions and instincts. This is never the writer’s intent; it’s just a common reaction to a well thought-out point. There’s no harm in seeking inspiration, but it can be dangerous to take the advice of others as gospel.

Here’s an alternative approach that I’ve always found useful. Use advice that contradicts your current course of action or line of thinking to first challenge and then strengthen your own thoughts. There’s a temptation to either embrace everything they’ve said or dismiss it. Don’t. Take a step back, think about what they’ve said and then consider if they are right. If you still feel like they aren’t, don’t just move on. Try to figure out what gave you pause and what they may be right about or hinting at that caused you to question your current approach.

Ignore the details that do not fit, but question how the essence might help improve your own thinking.

In my case, I’ve created a situation where I have two sites—A Better Mess and Workflowing—yet have come to the realization that I only have the bandwidth to effectively create for one. Shawn’s advice and conventional wisdom would probably lead me to keep A Better Mess, a site I’ve spent years building, while backing down from the newer project. Upon reading his thoughts, I found it easy to build a case to refine what’s already working rather than reinventing it. But even as I found myself agreeing with what Shawn was saying, I still felt that the better course of action would be to shelve something I’ve spent years creating to focus on a project that I believe is a better fit for my future.

As much as I agreed with much of what he said, the advice wasn’t an exact fit (it wasn’t aimed at my exact situation, after all). Embarrassment isn’t what’s causing me to want to make this move. Don’t get me wrong, A Better Mess has plenty of pieces I’m embarrassed by, but it’s also a project I love, and I am extremely proud of the work as a whole. But it has come to feel limiting. It was a project I created to help myself. I wanted to capture my struggle to get things done and chronicle my attempt to improve. It’s a very real struggle and one I continue to face, but it’s not the site I want to be writing right now.

As it says on the site:

A Better Mess serves as a journal or record of one ADHD-addled mess (that’s me!) to find the best way to do the best possible work.

As I’ve grown, my interest in the the way we work has moved beyond my own difficulties, and my focus has shifted away from the first part of that previous mission. Today I’m far more focused on finding the best way to do the best possible work.

Now could I evolve this site to meet that mission? You bet. But everything in me tells me I’m better off doing that on a platform that is better suited to the mission. One that wasn’t created to achieve a similar, yet different goal.

So, What Happens Next?

This will be the last post on A Better Mess.

Over the next few days, I will be rolling over the site’s feed to Workflowing. If you like what I’ve written here, you’ll like what I write there. If not, it’s very easy to unsubscribe. Unlike A Better Mess, Workflowing will look to share and create work that looks to help others to do better, not just me.

Even though I will be moving on, Shawn’s right. I shouldn’t dismiss my old work by destroying what I’ve built here. There’s nothing to be embarrassed of, even the embarrassing stuff. I need to figure out what I’ll do with this site and the work I’ve created for it (even if that is just leaving it up and leaving it alone), but it will live on in some way, warts and all.

That said, I still plan to focus on Workflowing. I want to give my future work what I believe to be the best possible chance for success. A Better Mess means the world to me, but from a personal standpoint, it’s also run its course. In the same way that attempting to erase previous “embarrassing” work will hold you back, so will clinging to the work you’ve outgrown.

I cannot thank those of you enough who have been kind enough to spend your time and attention here. I also hope you’ll follow along or at least stick around to see what comes next.

Hold The Light

Who is this for? Those looking to improve at their own craft or to learn more from the time spent studying the work of others.

I just had one of the better personal learning experiences in my recent history. For two awkward hours I held an iPhone across my lap in order to provide Mike Rohde with enough light to sketchnote two main stage talks at the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon.

Now, I’ve read Mike’s book on the subject. I’ve watched his videos. I’ve followed his work, and I’ve had him on a podcast to discuss his process. But nothing came close to watching the man work.

The experience did so much to enhance my understanding. I’d heard him share about capturing the essence. It made sense to me when I read it in his book, but the concept came to life when I saw what he captured and what he had to overlook. Reading his encouragements to not worry about mistakes helped, but it paled in comparison to watching the man fearlessly attack his own work. I’d heard about how he would get the bones of a sketchnote down, adding details and additional thoughts to it later, but I didn’t truly appreciate how he approached this until I sat beside him and watched him.

Instead of just enjoying the talk and then seeing his notes, I was able to observe—up close and personal—how they come together. I was fortunate to experience the process, rather than just enjoying the results.

Now I still can’t draw to save my life, but I learned so much from the experience. Observing Mike’s process will inform the way I take in conferences and is causing me to rethink many of the ways I approach my writing. Rather than obsessing over every detail, I want to obsess over the essence. Rather than fearing mistakes, I need to remember that I can always find ways to fix them later. Rather than worrying that I’ve missed a key fact, I’ll look to get my idea down and continue to improve upon it later. None of these ideas are new. I’d heard them all before—in fact I’d heard them directly from Mike—but didn’t fully understand them until I saw him in action.

I’m not certain that there’s a better way to learn from others how to improve our game than by watching as they play their own. All too often we’re obsessed with getting them to tell us their secrets. We want things spelled out and told to us. We want a three step process on how we can do as they do. While there’s a fair amount to be learned from someone sharing their process, those two uncomfortable hours were a great reminder of the power of just sitting back and watching someone with a gift use it.

It was a gift to hold the light. It was a gift to watch him work and to learn, but more than anything I was encouraged to go out and the get the man a better light, so I could get back to doing more of my own. Learning about others is one thing, but the last and most important thing I took away from watching Mike bring a conference to life in the pages of his Moleskine is that nothing helps you improve at your craft quite like doing it.

Creating A Clearer Picture

Regular readers of the site will have noticed a slight drop-off in the writing here. By slight drop off, I mean that I haven’t posted in over a month. There are a few reasons for this, but one big one.

I find myself at an interesting moment in my life. For 13 years, I’ve worked for my family’s jewelry business. Our company is in the process of being acquired. It brings great change, has created new opportunities for the future and has required a tremendous amount of work in the present.

Preparing a 68 year-old entity for an acquisition is no easy feat. Neither is getting your head around what this kind of a change means to the vision of my career that I’ve held since I was 12 years old. This is all good news, but it’s required a lot of work, both professionally and personally. It’s taken much more of my time and attention than I expected. It also looks like it will continue to do so going forward.

What exactly I will be doing going forward hasn’t been solidified as of yet, but I like the direction things are heading and am very interested by the shape that the opportunity before me is taking. I also know that, much like the acquisition itself, making the most out of this opportunity will require more of me.

So what does that mean for this site? What about the other projects I’ve been working on across the web? The honest answer: I don’t know yet, but I know it will bring change. I need to let things play out a little longer. I need to get a clear picture of what I want and need to do to make the most of this new opportunity. Then I need to figure out how to continue doing work I’m proud of on the web.

I hope you’ll stick with me through the quiet and I’ll be sure to let you all know as the picture becomes just a little bit clearer.

If you’d like learn more about what’s going on in my world, I invite you to check out this week’s episode of Mikes on Mics. I’ve been struggling to talk about everything that’s going on (both to find the words and the time to do it justice), but I do my best to start sharing more in this conversation about creating and taking advantage of new opportunities. It’s also our first episode on the 5by5 podcast network, which by itself is no small opportunity.

There’s a lot to figure out. I’m looking forward to getting clear, cleaning things up and then getting back to work.

Create Your Alternative Settings

Who is this for? Those looking to make more of the time they spend (or waste) waiting.

I’m captivated by the video that was created from a 2005 commencement speech from David Foster Wallace.

Like some, I’ve been fortunate enough to change some harmful default settings. This isn’t always easy. It forced me to observe habits and routines that were deeply ingrained and then decide to remake them.

For far too long my default setting was “Waiting.” I commute for over 80 minutes a day, there are long lines at the supermarket regardless of when I shop and there are often lulls between projects at work. All of this time spent “Waiting” was wasted. Without even realizing it, I let my situation limit my opportunities.

At some point I got fed up. I chose to no longer allow circumstance to dictate my choices. Just because I had to wait in line, on the train or at my desk didn’t mean that I had to wait. Since I didn’t want to change jobs or pay even more to get groceries delivered, I had to change the one thing I could control, my own default setting.

Rather than change circumstances—a common overreaction to a real-life limitation—I set out to make better choices. I changed my default settings for the previously squandered moments spent “Waiting.”

Now when I find myself “Waiting” in line, on the train or temporarily without anything to do at work or home, I choose between the following settings:

  • Making: While you can’t do everything while waiting in line or sitting in a car, you can do a lot more than you’d think. When I decided to write regularly, I still had the realities of a job and a family to manage. Deciding to watch way less TV went a long way towards freeing up some creative time, but it would not have been enough had I not found a way to write while on the subway or expand on an idea while waiting in line.
  • Learning: Long commutes and checkout lines are ideal places to learn. Rather than encouraging your brain to go numb, pick something better to capture your attention. Just about every smartphone and tablet out there gives you access to a wide range of books, blogs, audiobooks and documentaries. Take advantage of them.
  • Maintaining: This isn’t ideal when waiting in line or stuck in a daily commute, but it’s the perfect choice for downtime at home or at work. With 90% certainty, there is some level of cleaning up, filing or organizing that you could be doing right now. There’s value in regularly scheduling this kind of maintenance to ensure that it gets done, but getting it out of the way when you have downtime give you more free time.
  • Enjoying: All too often, we overlook the value of that which cannot be tied to a tangible result. Vegetating in front of the TV is often the thing that keeps you from doing what you really want to be doing, but in moderation it can also be a treat that allows your mind to wander somewhere unexpected. You’d also be surprised by what you’ll notice when keeping a watchful eye online at a supermarket or stuck in a daily commute.

Your default setting and your alternatives may differ from mine; that’s fine. Take a hard look at your own, determine the ones that are holding you back, then create the alternatives that help you to do better.

Learning Shouldn’t Be Relegated

Who is this for? Anyone trying to learn a new skill while attempting to balance the realities of a busy schedule.

From Brett Kelly:

I was deferring my learning until I had almost zero energy and practically no time to start putting my new knowledge into practice.

[…]

Trying to wrap your head around multi-variable calculus after you’ve been breaking rocks apart all day is a recipe for not learning multi-variable calculus, no-how.
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> Learning shouldn’t be relegated to your leftover time and attention. The best way to give learning and improvement the best chance of sticking is to treat them like any other obligation or responsibility you have. Put them on the calendar if you have to, but trying to excise any sort of value out of the crumbs of your day is going to make learning far more challenging than it already is on its own.

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