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Disruptive Thinkers: Marty Nemko Wants You To Forget Your Boring Passions

Disruptive Thinkers is a semi-regular series that features interesting people with interesting ideas about college, achievement, or life in general.

How to Become GoodMarty Nemko

Marty Nemko is good at becoming good. As he outlined in a recent blog post, when he set his sights on becoming a career coach he eventually logged over 2800 clients. When he decided to parlay this expertise into writing, he landed a career columnist gig first for the San Francisco Chronicle, then the Los Angeles Times, then transformed this into a contributing editor slot at U.S. News & World Report. He wanted to learn the art of rose hybridizing, now three of his varieties are sold nationwide. He wanted to try playwriting and won the “Roar of the Crowd” award for the best Bay Area entertainment of the week. His first screenplay caused a stir. He has a radio show.

And the list continues…

To use Study Hacks parlance, Marty is a finisher. He doesn’t just tackle projects that pique his interest, but he also manages that rarest of the rare skills: to consistently push them into the elite strata of noteworthy accomplishment. Fascinated by his approach, I asked Marty to share some of his famously unconventional advice on how to become good at becoming good.

What do most people get wrong when they set out to become good?

The average person isn’t smart enough to tackle lots of things, yet they try and thus become dilettantes. They need focus, unrelenting focus — until the world has provided sufficient signs that it is interested or not interested in that person’s focus.

What’s the role of talent versus strategy in becoming good?

Strategy is absolutely necessary….but insufficient. Talent and drive (or luck — damn those lucky people) are required.

Many people who focus on something for a long time can get pretty skilled, but have a hard time making that transition to the big-time. How does one make that final push from amateur to expert?

Become an amazing and relentless marketer. That skills is usually orthogonal to (the less accurate term is “incompatible with”) becoming expert at something, yet it is critical, alas, especially in this society where the stupid public responds to marketing hype more than to excellence. Why else would dishonest idiots like Oprah be more beloved than, for example, Christopher Hitchens on the Left or Larry Kudlow on the right..

What advice would you give a young college student looking to make a name for himself in something?

Forget passion unless it’s a rare one. Too many other people will be passionate about it, eviscerating your chances of “making a name for yourself.” Don’t be a lemming. Make a name for yourself in some pursuit that top people rarely pursue: Be the most amazing undertaker, industrial acid broker, advocate for the most under-served and worthy kids (in my opinion: intellectually gifted boys in elementary school.) Even if the field seems mundane, you will feel more rewarded and better about your life being a vanguard in a dull field than a soldier in a “cool” one.

[For more on Marty, check out his popular website, which includes, among other content, his new blog and a collection of his most popular articles on life, goals, work and achievement.]

8 thoughts on “Disruptive Thinkers: Marty Nemko Wants You To Forget Your Boring Passions”

  1. I think this is only partially correct. He thinks that what makes a passion boring is it’s popularity. I say it’s a failure to pursue a problem that hasn’t been undertaken in that passion. In other words, the extent to which you can use your knowledge/experience to carve out a niche for yourself in your field is a more valid predictor of success within your passion/field than simply the number of people in it.

    A subtle point in this idea is the difference between new solutions to old problems and new perspectives on old problems. For example, one of the posts here talked about living an Automatic lifestyle
    I’ve seen this idea of breaking down tasks into their smallest, non-trivial steps before several times, but I’ve never seen someone relate the ideas of mechanism and policy in computer science to lifestyle design. This framework has actually proven to be more conducive to helping me understand why it’s good to do this than just telling myself “I need to break down my tasks.”

  2. @David:

    Nice nuance. I think you’re on to something there. Saying “I want to help poor people,” for example, sounds, on its face, boring. However, if your approach was to invent micro-lending — then you win a Nobel Prize.

  3. @Grad Hacker:

    Yeah, it’s weird with Oprah, people either seem to love her or hate her. I wonder what it is about her that makes her so polarizing? I guess, if you’re a TV personality, better to inspire strong emotions than for people to not care about you?

  4. This guy sounds like a fame-monger who is willing to sacrifice principle for the vague notion of ‘being great’. Being the best acid broker simply because it’s not a very popular career? Please.

    My motto is “If I have to do something, I might as well do it well”. Working in a pet store, for example. I need the money for school and I certainly don’t want to work in a pet store as a career but if I have to spend 30 hours a week there, I might as well strive to be the best worker they ever had.


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