We talk a lot at Citadel about how extraordinary colleagues act and how extraordinary teams jell together. The following Forbes article outlines how you can build up enough “career capital” to succeed in an extraordinary way. Read on for tips on how to strengthen your career capital, including advice from renowned comedian Steve Martin who puts it simply, “be so good they can’t ignore you.”
In 2007, Steve Martin was on the Charlie Rose show to talk about his memoir Born Standing Up. He talked about his rise in comedy, and Rose asked him for his advice to aspiring performers.
His response? “Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ . . . but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ ”
Cal Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown, became intrigued by this notion, and set out to find out how people do just that. One of the concepts he lit upon, while writing his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is career capital.
“Career capital are the skills you have that are both rare and valuable and that can be used as leverage in defining your career,” Newport said by phone. It is crucial to developing a successful career, one that Newport describes as being marked by creativity, impact and control, or autonomy.
“Basic economic theory tells us that if you want something that’s both rare and valuable,” he writes, “you need something rare and valuable to offer in return—this is Supply and Demand 101. It follows that if you want a great job, you need something of great value to offer in return.”
Earlier this month, when I wrote about the seven ways successful people approach their work, one of the concepts that intrigued a number of readers was the notion of career capital. While that article used a broad definition that includes skills, a portfolio of work and a network of people loyal to you, Newport’s research — and this article — will show you how to develop the “skills” portion of career capital with these seven tips.
1. Adopt the craftsman mindset, not the passion mindset.
Newport says one of the biggest fallacies being promoted in the career world today is that occupational happiness comes from finding a job that corresponds with a preexisting passion. “Passions don’t come before skills,” Newport explains. “That’s often a roadblock — it’s hard to get around this idea that we all have a preexisting strong passion, and it’s just whether or not we follow it.”
The problem with the passion mindset is that it leads people to approach their work asking, “What can the world offer me?” — and that results in a lot of job hopping.
“First, when you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness,” he writes. This is especially true for entry-level positions, which rarely offer fulfilling challenges. He also objects to the passion mindset, because the questions it prompts — “Who am I?” “What do I truly love?” “Is this who I really am?” — are not only hard to answer but are, as he writes, “almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused.”
Instead, he says, embrace the craftsman mindset, in which you ask, “What can I offer the world?”
2. Know what’s really valuable in your field.
In his book, Newport describes a blogger who had identified — and devoted a lot of time to — a path to success … that would never lead there.
He says of the blogger, “In his conception, there are many different types of capital relevant to your blog — from its format, to its post frequency, to its search‐engine optimization, to how easy it is to find it on social networks (this particular blogger invested serious time in submitting every post to as many social networking sites as possible). He viewed the world through statistics and hoped that with the right combination of capital he could get them where he needed them to be to make money.” The problem? His blog was no good — and he wasn’t spending time improving it.
If you’re having a hard time figuring out what skills would be important for the specific vision you have of your career, Newport says suggest identifying two people in your field — one who resonates with you and one who doesn’t. “Then, figure out the difference,” he says. “What did Person A do that Person B did not?”
3. Always stretch yourself.
Once you know what kind of expertise you need, go after it — and never let yourself plateau.
Newport compares improving knowledge skills to bodybuilding. “If you approach the goal of being musclebound with the mindset ‘I never want my muscles to never burn or ever be strained,’ you won’t do well with your goal,” he says. “It’s the same with learning a new programming language or knowing an arcane part of the law.”
The problem with “deliberate practice,” which Geoffrey Colvin detailed in his book Talent Is Overrated, is, as Colvin wrote in Fortune, “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
So, push past your natural inclination to only do what you’re good at and what you enjoy, says Newport: “You should be seeking to be in a state of mental discomfort frequently.”
4. Seek feedback.
But your practice should not take place in a vacuum. He depicts a screenwriter who rose quickly in Hollywood partially because he focused relentlessly on learning more about his craft and practicing, but also partially because he consistently chose projects in which he’d be compelled to show others his work. The writer says of an early television script: “When I look back now, I’m humiliated that I ever showed it to anyone.” But doing so helped him see where he needed to improve.
“It’s in honest, sometimes harsh feedback, that you learn where to retrain your focus in order to continue to make progress,” writes Newport.
5. Minimize the time you spend on things that won’t help you improve.
In Newport’s book, Mike Jackson, a successful venture capitalist, describes how he sets goals for his time use. “At the beginning of each week I figure out how much time I want to spend on different activities,” he told Newport. “I then track it so I can see how close I came to my targets.”
Jackson restricts the time he allots to what he calls “hard to change” commitments that also don’t make him better at what he does — and then sets goals for “highly changeable” activities, the ones that he wants to focus on. By capitalizing on this time, he’s able to get far, fast, with his priorities.
It also means, for instance, that Jackson is not often on email — and would only sporadically respond to Newport, who took to calling him while he was commuting to work. “On reflection, of course, this makes perfect sense from Mike’s perspective,” writes Newport. “For him to spend hours every day sorting through non‐critical e‐mail from authors such as myself or from business students fishing for tips, among other trivialities, would impede his ability to raise money and find good companies — ultimately the job he’s judged on.”
“People who have big stores of career capital are the people that turn down most opportunities,” Newport says. “I’ve never had a Facebook or Twitter account, and people say there are some benefits to them since I’m a writer, but I don’t care. I want to ruthlessly focus on the things that matter, so I’ll write a book, I’ll write another 10,000 words. People with career capital don’t do a lot of things, but what they chose to do, they do with great intensity and over a great period of time.”
6. Never work without a goal, but make sure your goal is appropriate for the career stage you’re in.
“It’s very easy to be busy, and it’s very exhausting too, which is sort of satisfying, but what’s the end result of it? If you just generically work hard, the bulk of that energy will be wasted,” Newport says, adding that people can, and often do, fill their days answering emails and building Powerpoint presentations. He says people should decide, consciously, “This is the thing I’m working toward in my career right now.”
Newport advises leveraging what he calls “little bets,” coined by venture capitalist Peter Sims, who wrote a book by that name. These, Newport defines as projects small enough to be completed in less than a month, that force you to create something new — for example, acquire a new skill or produce new results — and that give you a concrete product that can help you garner feedback.
7. Be patient.
In his interview with Charlie Rose, Steve Martin revealed yet another important tip for developing one’s career capital, in describing how he learned the banjo: “[I thought], if I stay with it, then one day I will have been playing for four years, and anyone who sticks with something for four years will be pretty good at it.”
“To me, this is a phenomenal display of patience,” Newport writes, noting that Martin was acknowledging “the frustrating months of hard work and mediocre playing ahead.”
But Newport says this is the exact outlook one should have. “Career capital is based on what value you offer the working world. If you can do something of real value, that’s rare. Otherwise it wouldn’t be valuable. Almost by definition, in order to become valuable in a market, it’s going to take time. So you need patience, tolerance for working on things that are hard and making progress that’s slow over a period of years — not weeks or months.”
People who develop career capital are able to pursue attain something many people covet in their careers: autonomy.
And Newport demonstrates that career capital is crucial to obtaining it. In anecdote after anecdote, he describes people who pursued autonomy in their work before they had accrued enough career capital, and who therefore failed — the most memorable one being a marketer-turned-yoga-entrepreneur who wrote an email to The New York Times, which featured her story, while waiting in line for food stamps.
But, he recounts numerous other tales of people who were able to demand a three-month leave, turn down full-time offers to freelance, or take two years off from medical residency to launch a start-up. These people had stores of career capital and could use it to shape not only their work, but their entire lives, into the vision of their dreams.
As Newport writes, “control over what you do and how you do it is such a powerful force for building remarkable careers that it could rightly be called a ‘dream‐job elixir.’” And what’s its essential ingredient? Career capital.