The rhetoric surrounding career advice is saturated with calls for “courage.” Here are a few representative quotes I grabbed at random from the web:
“[S]ensational and successful entrepreneurs…had the courage to pursue what makes their heart sing.”
“As we move out of our comfort zones towards either accomplishing new things or approaching new levels of greatness, it’s normal to lack courage…”
“A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage.”
“In our day-to-day lives, the virtue of courage doesn’t receive much attention…Instead of setting your own goals, making plans to achieve them, and going after them with gusto, you play it safe. Keep working at the stable job, even though it doesn’t fulfill you.”
The storyline told by such quotes is simple: You know what career decisions would leave you happy and fulfilled, but “society” and “your family” are fearful, dull, stupid, and devoid of useful wisdom, and will therefore try to scare you out of following this good path. You must, therefore, build the courage to overcome their fear-mongering so you can live happily ever after.
The influence of this narrative, and the broader courage culture (as I named it in SO GOOD) that supports it, provides me a ceaseless source of annoyance. Given that it’s graduation season, and the topic of career happiness is therefore relevant, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about why this trope irks me so much, and why you should treat it with caution.
Acting on this equation, however, can be surprisingly difficult.
Here’s a simple hack (that came out of my recent anti-planning stretch) that has helped me rack up more deep work toward my computer science research: I append my list of active projects with a code indicating the next step I’m trying to reach (see the left column in the image above).
Having this extra column greatly simplifies my transition into a deep work mode, as my goal for these sessions is now simple: try to advance to the next steps on these projects.
This hack also works, in part, because specificity is crucial for deep work (your mind needs a crystal clear target before it will marshal the resources needed to go deep). It also works because the simple positive feedback (updating my board every time I move to the next step of a project) taps into our brain’s habit circuitry (c.f., Duhigg).
When it comes to deep work, there’s no magic bullet that will make it effortless. This work is hard. But hacks of this type can help keep these efforts from sliding toward impossible.
Every few years I re-read On Writing, Stephen King’s professional memoir. It helps me reorient to the reality of becoming better at creative endeavors.
Here’s King, talking about his initial efforts to publish his short stories in magazines:
“When I got my rejection slip…I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor [phonograph]…and poked [the rejection slip] onto to the nail…By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with handwritten notes a little more encouraging.”
It would be another ten years before King sold his first novel, Carrie.
The obvious lesson of this story is that King wrote a lot before he became good. The visual of rejection slips filling a spike is vivid.
But there are two other important elements lurking, uncovered only with a deeper reading of On Writing.
First, King didn’t just write, he tried to get people to pay for his writing, by submitting it to magazines. The nice thing about money (as I elaborate in SO GOOD) is that people don’t like to give it up. Therefore, when you ask people to give you money in exchange for your product, you’re going to get brutally honest feedback.
Second, King was careful to always aim above, but just barely above, his current skill level. His first published story was in a fanzine — the 1960’s version of a blog. He moved from fanzines to second-tier mens magazines like Cavalier and Dude. After he cracked that market he moved on to top-tier mens magazines and top-tier fantasy and science fiction publications. Only once he could consistently hit those targets did he succeed in selling his first novel to Doubleday.
Let’s step back and summarize these key points of King’s training: lots of practice, driven by honest feedback and challenges just beyond his current skill level.
I'm a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of technology and society. I’m particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work and lead satisfying lives. If you’re new to my writing, a good place to start is the about page. You can access over a decade's worth of posts in the blog archive.
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