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Building a Career that Matters

A reader recently asked me the following question:

“You talk about developing rare and valuable skills specially those which the market values, but at what point do find yourself doing something meaningful? Yes, society would value you and compensate you, but at what costs. I know many people that are highly skilled, but hate their job/life. Is there an equilibrium in which you can develop rare and value skills while still being happy/proud about what you do?”

This question is important. In fact, it’s so important that I dedicated the fourth and final rule of my book So Good They Can’t Ignore You to this topic. Since it’s been nearly eight years since that book came out, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief summary of the answer I provided back then.

I started this rule noting that for many people, having a “unifying mission” to your working life can be a source of great satisfaction. To illustrate this point, I then told the story of Pardis Sabeti, a brilliant biology professor at Harvard who uses advanced algorithms to help find cures to deadly viral diseases.

“As I spent time with Pardis,” I wrote, “I recognized that her happiness comes from the fact that she built her career on a clear and compelling mission — something that not only gives meaning to her work but provides the energy needed to embrace life beyond the lab.”  The question I then tackled is how one finds the type of mission that sustains Pardis Sabeti.

My answer spans four chapters, but here’s the main idea: it’s very difficult to identify a truly impactful and satisfying mission until you master useful skills. As I argued, cribbing a term from the systems biologist Stuart Kauffman, the really interesting missions, like Pardis Sabeti using cutting-edge algorithm theory to cure old diseases, are usually found in the adjacent possible — the space just beyond the cutting-edge of the relevant skills.

The conclusion is that if you want to do something truly useful with your professional life, don’t start by figuring out your “mission.” Instead, identify some potentially useful-looking skills, then push yourself to the cutting edge with a single-minded intensity. It’s only then, once you’ve mastered the foundational abilities, that you’ll be able to find that spot in the adjacent possible where the meaningful mission lurks, waiting for its champion.

23 thoughts on “Building a Career that Matters”

  1. It seems much of that advice applies if you’re going to have a breakthrough as the capstone of your career. Most of us will be occupying the nice fat middle part of the Bell curve, but still want to find meaning.

    I think most of can hope to *contribute* to advancement. So, for example, instead of working on designs for consumer electronics that are just going to be taking up landfill space in a few years, I want to be designing software and hardware that has immediate produce impacts against the various environmental problems.

    • I think this can be covered by the idea of little bets, taking small actions towards discovering a mission, which I believe could apply before you get to the cutting edge. I think Cal Newport is actively fighting against this idea of “one day you’ll wake up and suddenly know what your mission is”. In terms of finding meaning, I think you can ensure your work is value driven and towards skill development. I believe with a craftsman like mindset, you can learn to enjoy the process of developing skills and find that inherently meaningful. I think there is some aspect of society today that leaves people to believe they must take on grandiose missions to make the world a better place (I definitely personally fall into this trap) without necessarily having the skills or value to offer to contribute meaningfully. Perhaps it is okay there is an incubation period, and you can be intentional about choosing a path of skills that feels aligned with your values.

  2. I see your point Cal and that is one way to do it…However suppose you have already identified your “mission” as a young person, maybe it’s environmental policy. Then you can research which skills are valued in the environmental policy field and devote yourself to acquiring them as a first step.

    • I’ve seen there is often a misunderstanding between the field that one is interested in and the skills or job that one takes. Environmental policy may be something that someone becomes knowledgeable about, for sure. However there are a number of different avenues, jobs and skills that you could use to develop a career in environmental policy. For instance, maybe you need to study law. Maybe you need to study geology and environmental science. Maybe you can enter environmental policy as a writer, a motivational speaker, politician, etc. Maybe you will be an Environmental Policy subject expert – that is still a job, though it is different from the subject itself. I’ve had to work through a similar sort of question myself. Here is the hard truth I will tell you though: Environmental Policy is not a job, it is a field. If Environmental Policy is one of your goals, then you need to have a skill, an expertise to have a great career in this field.

  3. I’m with MB. Really appreciating being able to read something new from you each day. As MB has noted, hope you and your family are doing well.

  4. Hi Cal,

    I have recently read your book and find your ideas really inspiring. I am a scientist myself, working in the oncology field. Despite having a meaningful career, I still struggle with job satisfaction. Often than not, I find work frustrating and get stuck with no progress. Maybe my skills are mediocre and researchers like me are dime a dozen, how do you suggest we make a breakthrough at times like these?

    • Hi Serena, I think the only answer is diagnosing why you find it unsatisfying and finding a new way to think of what you do. I was in the same boat but fortunately eventually came to see my expectations where unrealistic and this cleared the blockage that kept me from seeing what there was to appreciate what I did like about my work. Before I could mostly only see what I didn’t. Because the reality is that all work has its downsides. I also learned that most employers are happy to allow (if they even realize) me to incorporate skills I’ve developed outside the workplace that I enjoy into the work. They appreciate well rounded employees and see it’s value. Many times the only things stopping us from satisfying work is ourselves.

  5. Very clearly articulated point. If I may add, another limitation to seeking out a mission first is that without a solid framework, the attempt is completely arbitrary and the possibilities nearly infinite.

    Becoming highly proficient in a narrow range of skills not only provides one with more insight into what will substantially as value, but it sufficiently narrows the scope of your mission to a range of non trivial possibilities for which one has developed the capacity to excel in.

    • I think the advice is aimed at people who find meaning in their work primarily by seeing the direct effects of it. Most people who pursue something like art or pure math do it because they enjoy it and find meaning in being really good at it, creating a great piece of art or proving a difficult conjecture which has no applications just for the process of it. I wonder if most of us are combination of these two motivations.
      Some might argue that math eventually finds applications and the same isn’t true for art, but I think that art does play a role – it inspires, value isn’t just found in materialistic things.

    • I’m a designer and went to art school– I still think Cal’s advice is very, very relevant in the field considering all art is built on the pursuit of skill in some way. There’s a great quote by Ira Glass that I’m going to cut a little short but I think it speaks to Cal’s point:

      “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.”

      I’m about ten years into my design career and that still rings really true for me. As I master certain creative skills doors are opened in my career. I’m getting better at recognizing what makes sense to learn and what to skip to get myself where I want to go. I’m not where I thought I’d be when I graduated art school but being intentional has put me in a position where I get meaning from my work and have flexibility where I want/need it.

      • Emma, thank you for providing that quote, I’ve read it before and of course it’s true. I think I’m struggling most with the mission aspect, or with bringing the two together. It can be very hard to find meaning in your art when you’re doing commercial work, at least that’s what I have found in my career (illustration) so far. And projects that bring potential meaning will more often than not not see the light of the day, or not get funded, or with ridiculous payment that artists can’t make a living from.

  6. This seems strategically optimal, but I don’t think it accounts for much of human behavior. It’s hard for many to single-mindedly work on something very difficult without some sense of purpose (beyond future leverage).

    I think instead, it would do people good to embrace that one can have many missions throughout one’s life. This isn’t marriage, you don’t have to pick just one Most Important Thing. You can find the intersection of what you want to learn, and your current opportunities that would do some good in the world. And you can change the balance of those two things throughout your life.

  7. Cal, I want to also thank you for contributing non-corona content right now. I’ve been revisiting digital minimalism in an attempt to refine my habits once more, which have slipped recently due to the news. Your daily contributions have been enormously helpful in giving me something else to focus on.

    Thank you again for your work!

  8. The original question feels like a false dilemma. Either I make money, or contribute to a mission. Now I can’t decide, so delay and procrastination ensues.
    Do real stuff, that changes the real world. Make software, or pottery. Mastery brings rewards.
    Procrastination brings misery.

  9. Yes, as an artist, Cal, your book ‘So Good .. ‘ was very helpful in going from ‘what is my passion’ to finding my true skills and becoming passionate about that, because this way I became more happy. But my question is do you use the word mission here in place of the word passion? The other thing that was helpful from your book was to combine all this with finding a mentor, which is something I did without knowing it. So I went back in time to revisit those notes and experiences and picked up again from taking that for granted.

    By the way, with your last paragraph in this blog post would you say is similar to that of Rabbi Daniel Lapin? He says: “Look for the widest impact: find how you can serve the most people in the most profound way, then learn to be passionate about that.” Rabbi Lapin was good friends with the late Zig Ziglar, by the way, so I like to think you are in the same company as them.

  10. I started reading your back around my senior year of high school. I was about 19 years old.

    After reading memoirs such as the Heart and The Fist, I was in a deep rut over what major to choose or what career to go for. I would binge listen to podcast episodes, read self help books, etc and never really found the answer.

    My career anxiety did not go away till I got married in 2019. My husband just gave me 2 counseling sessions and believe it or not, I have not had mental break down since.

    One thing he said was that if I have the money I can do whatever I worry about. (From writing my novels to traveling to joining dance classes;etc). He reminded me that once I get my job (QA tester), I would be in a routine, which would take away my overwhelm and most of all my financial worries and do whatever the heck I want.

    Second question he would say is Why do I need to be doing something? (One anxiety that used to nag me and haunt me was this urge to do something : I need to be blogging; I need to be gaining audience on social media platforms; I need to start making YouTube videos; I need to be a girl boss and be self employed, I need to finish my novel and publish it this year; I need to also learn belly dancing, do a year in the life challenge and so on).

    I stopped binge watching lifestyle contents on YouTube (I actually unsubscribes all those videos from planner flip through to how to set goals; to a productive day in the life etc) and stopped daydreaming about them too.

    And honestly, I feel so much better.

    Before I was anxious over finding the right major to get my job that would be my passion blah blah. Now, I have realized that a lot of those ideas were put into my head by you tubers’ I used to watch.

    Now I feel more confident in myself. Also, those messages seem to be saying that a specific kind of job = a life well lived. But lately I am realizing how awful that message is. My parents are not doctor or engineer or a blogger who earns six figures from working just 4 days a week. She is a housewife, and then also had to work extra when my dad became sick. This does not make her not living her life to the full potential. Or someone lacking a mission or passion in life.
    Same with my relatives who are back home, who are business owners. Just because they are not earning money from a hobby they love so much or it is not directly related to a “worthy” cause does not mean their life doesn’t count.

    Another thing I noticed is that, I felt this pressure of “finding my passion” when I was in NYC vs in VA. I live in VA now, and I actually feel the difference. Mentally I feel so much better. More at peace.

    • Hi Onika,

      I’m also a QA tester and experience very similar angst to you. How did you incorporate digital minimalism alongside such work? Do you find meaning in your QA work now?

  11. This is great.

    However, are those who fail to reach the cutting edge of their field “doomed” to a non-meaningful career? If so, how would career capital theory account for people who are certainly not at the top of their field yet still find great meaning or satisfaction in their work?

  12. I read this advice of yours over and over during college year (freshmen and sophomore esp) and it used to give me relief when I used to have meltdowns from intense anxiety over that exact question. It was a really horrible year.

    If another student is reading, And taking their first Java class or pre cal and are failing etc, I will add this:

    1. Do not worry about things like omg I need to learn this or that simultaneously while I also master this class. I gave into so many worries that I would stop and cry the moment I had an error on my code and head home and order take out and put on Friends. Once the anixety would pass, I would realize, why didn’t I just stay there and try again?
    If a thought or worry is causing you to put a pause on your current task such as your course homework, remind yourself that you don’t have to worry about that now.

    2. Unless you are already good in Java, don’t start tackling MOOC or any other online stuff and just focus on your own class.

    3. Nothing will makes sense. You will crave to see the big idea esp in Stats class. But just focus on the concept. Don’t care about what the heck x even matters// Just try to learn the concepts.

    I got lucky that I got a teacher who would pause and reassure us those lessons the moment students would start to ask about things that are not being covered in class. Don’t overwhelm yourself with other things at least until you have learned the basics.

    These constant reminders (esp for someone who has anxiety) helped to not fall into despair and help bounce back quickly.

  13. Hi Cal,
    I really really have to know this, What skills count as rare and valuable ? Can you please also provide a few examples. As someone who has found decision making really tough, I have struggled with choosing a career path for myself given that most people can do most jobs well enough or definitely learn to do them. It was a huge relief to find some valuable advice in your book. It would be of a lot help if you could please answer this query.



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