If you want to be an author, don’t start writing (and other strangely useful career advice)

I don’t know anything about cars.

Exhibit A: My friend picks me up in his car, which I’ve ridden in over a dozen times. We go out, and when we head back to the parking lot, I tried opening the passenger door. Except it wasn’t his car. It wasn’t the same make or model. It wasn’t even the same color…

Luckily not being an expert about cars hasn’t impacted my life much. I may have trouble recognizing car brands on the street, and my driving skills are hardly Formula 1, but the inconvenience to my life has been almost unnoticeable. I’m okay with not being a car expert.

But there are other areas of life where not being an expert can be incredibly costly.

Your career is a perfect example. Not just being an expert in your career, but being an expert about your career. Do you deeply know the answers to the following questions?

  • What’s the next step you need to take to reach the next level in your career?
  • Which metrics actually matter for success and which ones don’t?
  • If you only had time to master one skill, which one would allow you to advance?

Not deeply understanding your own career costs more than embarrassingly trying to open the wrong car door. It can cost you millions of dollars and years of dead-end, wasted effort.

Even if you did have some answers to the above questions, how sure are you that they were correct? Sometimes the truth about how careers actually work can be very different from how most people pursue them.

What Does it Actually Take to Be a Successful, Published Author?

Take wanting to become a published author for instance. I spoke with Cal Newport, who has had four books published including the bestseller, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

He told me that most new authors make a fatal mistake. That mistake? They start writing the book.

Aspiring authors know that getting a book published is hard. Naturally they look at the problem and break it down in the most logical way possible: if you want to publish a great book, you first have to write a great book.

So this person sets the task of writing five pages each day, squirreling away time to tap out a manuscript on a keyboard. This person may even join an event like National Novel Writing Month to force themselves to stick to a writing schedule and actually produce a finished book.

This kind of plan is what Cal and I call a feel-productive project. It’s a plan that makes you do some work that feels productive. This helps you reduce the stress that maybe you aren’t doing enough to advance your career. But often feel-productive projects aren’t the actual steps that will take you to the next level.

In this example, writing every day is not a good project. Why? Because, according to Cal Newport, that’s not how the business works.

The more effective strategy is to find an agent and start working together to pitch a book to publishers. Only once that has happened do you actually start writing the manuscript. Writing the book beforehand is largely a waste of time.

Why Do We Fall into the Trap of Feel-Productive Projects?

Why do people end up spending tons of time on career plans that are horribly ineffective?

My guess is that it is a combination of two reasons: first, they don’t truly understand how their career works. If you truly understood how the business of getting a non-fiction book published actually worked, you wouldn’t make a project of writing a chapter each day of the manuscript.

Second, the real work that needs to be done is often challenging and scary. Writing every day is strenuous, but comfortable. It feels productive, but it doesn’t actually take you outside your comfort zone. Finding an agent and trying to create a pitch for a new book idea is scary, so even if you had the inkling that this was important, you might skip it in favor of simply writing a lot.

What’s the solution to avoiding this problem?

Deeply researching and understanding how success in your field actually works.

If you do the research properly, you can quickly eliminate low-impact, feel-productive projects from your future plans. You know they won’t work and aren’t recommended, so you won’t even get started on them.

Second, by doing research properly, you’ll figure out how to break down and tackle the actual steps you need to improve your career. You can take those scary and challenging steps like “finding an agent” and “pitching to a publisher” and transform them into something you can follow step-by-step.

Deep Research Case Study: Chris the Database Designer

The results of knowing how to do research correctly can be dramatic.

Chris was one of Cal and my students in our pilot course for career mastery. He was a database programmer for an airline company who was satisfied with this job. But deep down, he wanted more.

Chris wanted to work with the best people in his field, sit on the cutting edge and be the kind of person who gets invited to give conference keynotes or writes authoritative books on the programming language he specializes in.

But Chris didn’t know how he could get from where he was to being a top performer.

Through the course, Chris learned how to better understand how the people he admired got to where they are, what steps he could take to follow their path, and also which things he was doing now which weren’t very effective.

One lesson Chris learned was that something he had been doing a lot of, answering programming questions on Stack Exchange, wasn’t a very effective way to advance. Instead, he adopted an activity, writing programming quizzes for a popular website specific to the language he specialized in.

This new project had two advantages. First, it forced him to deeply understand the language he worked in. Second, it introduced him to the people who ran the website, which put him in touch with the network of the best people in the world for his field.

Chris told me that after only putting in a few hours per week, for several months, he was offered a job. This job involved working directly with many of the conference speakers and authors Chris admired. Even though Chris says he would have jumped at this opportunity even without any financial incentive, this new position also garnered him a 20% raise over his previous base salary.

Our Career Mastery Course, Top Performer, is Coming Soon!

In just a few weeks, Cal Newport and I are going to be opening the first publicly-available version of our career mastery course, Top Performer.

In this course, we’ll teach you the exact tools to develop a deep understanding of your career. That way you’ll know exactly what actions you need to take step-by-step to reach the next level, whether that means getting a promotion, achieving more recognition or simply improving the quality of the work you do.

You’ll go beyond just research. We will teach you how to transform the insights of what matters into minimal projects which can drive improvement in just a few hours each week. We’ll also outline the productivity systems we use to make those accomplishments a reality.

If you’d like to get notifications for when Top Performer opens, and answers to commonly asked questions about the course, sign up here for the newsletter where I’ll be sharing all the details.

  • Morgan Banduzo

    I do not agree with this advice for new authors. If you do not have any sort of writing material, good luck getting a well connected agent. You need to show them you can actually do your job or you have the same pitch as every other aspiring author.

    I’m glad you alluded to cars because what you just said about writing is like telling me to learn everything about the progression of how to get a license, but to forget about actually driving before the test. You would fail the test without question because you need to learn the skill in order to progress.

    Do no tell new writers, writing is a waste of time. We need to find our voice, our subject area, our style and most importantly our routine. Even if you got an agent and set out the outline of what are you going to write, the hardest part is actually sitting down to write. But if you already have an established routine, you at least have a habit to fall back on.

    I agree with learning about your industry and studying mentors habits to succeed, but you still need to learn your craft.

  • Morgan Banduzo

    I do not agree with this advice for new authors. If you do not have any sort of writing material, good luck getting a well connected agent. You need to show them you can actually do your job or you have the same pitch as every other aspiring author.

    I’m glad you alluded to cars because what you just said about writing is like telling me to learn everything about the progression of how to get a license, but to forget about actually driving before the test. You would fail the test without question because you need to learn the skill in order to progress.

    Do no tell new writers, writing is a waste of time. We need to find our voice, our subject area, our style and most importantly our routine. Even if you got an agent and set out the outline of what are you going to write, the hardest part is actually sitting down to write. But if you already have an established routine, you at least have a habit to fall back on.

    I agree with learning about your industry and studying mentors habits to succeed, but you still need to learn your craft.

  • Dorothy Booraem

    I am fascinated by this idea and would like to explore it in the area of filmmaking. I pay my bills by working in industrial/commercial video but make feature films in my “spare” time. I’ve gotten some distribution and I’m doing okay but I often feel that I am held back from going further in my career because I am located in a small midwestern city.

  • Dorothy Booraem

    I am fascinated by this idea and would like to explore it in the area of filmmaking. I pay my bills by working in industrial/commercial video but make feature films in my “spare” time. I’ve gotten some distribution and I’m doing okay but I often feel that I am held back from going further in my career because I am located in a small midwestern city.

  • David

    Great work Scott and Cal.

    I was in the first pilot in April 2013.
    Like Chris, that pilot was a major catalyst for me.
    I’m now at Carnegie Mellon’s Computational Finance program and in round 2 interviews with top quant hedge funds. It’s been a real pleasure working hard and getting to grow.

    Thanks and looking forward to seeing your work in the career mastery course.
    Best wishes

  • David

    Great work Scott and Cal.

    I was in the first pilot in April 2013.
    Like Chris, that pilot was a major catalyst for me.
    I’m now at Carnegie Mellon’s Computational Finance program and in round 2 interviews with top quant hedge funds. It’s been a real pleasure working hard and getting to grow.

    Thanks and looking forward to seeing your work in the career mastery course.
    Best wishes

  • Json2211

    Great post.

  • Json2211

    Great post.

  • Kevin Lima

    I think it depends on the kind of material the author wants to write. Novels, for instance are something completely different from non fiction books. Also, there are variations when it comes to different genres and audience. Books for children are a complete different format from sci-fi’s audience and so on. The recipe, if there is one, is not straightforward. Some people turn blogs into books, like Austin Kleon and his Show Your Work book. Others write biographies, science books, collection of poems or short stories.

    So Good is one example of career advice book, I guess. But Newport has a more academic background, and what worked for him mostly won’t apply for people with different kind of book formats in mind.

  • Kevin Lima

    I think it depends on the kind of material the author wants to write. Novels, for instance are something completely different from non fiction books. Also, there are variations when it comes to different genres and audience. Books for children are a complete different format from sci-fi’s audience and so on. The recipe, if there is one, is not straightforward. Some people turn blogs into books, like Austin Kleon and his Show Your Work book. Others write biographies, science books, collection of poems or short stories.

    So Good is one example of career advice book, I guess. But Newport has a more academic background, and what worked for him mostly won’t apply for people with different kind of book formats in mind.

  • Even in the study/career advice genre, there are different ways to approach book writing. Cal has gone with traditional publishing, while Scott’s books are all self-published. However, they both have spent a lot of time writing blog posts and building an audience that way. So while I agree with the general message of doing research to find the correct “next step” rather than just forging ahead, this particular book-writing example is tricky. While it may be a bad idea to literally write the whole book before selling it (and even that is debatable, since it’s common to self-publish ebooks these days), prospective authors clearly need to practice on something. That’s going to be either a blog or a book.

  • Duncan Smith

    Even in the study/career advice genre, there are different ways to approach book writing. Cal has gone with traditional publishing, while Scott’s books are all self-published. However, they both have spent a lot of time writing blog posts and building an audience that way. So while I agree with the general message of doing research to find the correct “next step” rather than just forging ahead, this particular book-writing example is tricky. While it may be a bad idea to literally write the whole book before selling it (and even that is debatable, since it’s common to self-publish ebooks these days), prospective authors clearly need to practice on something. That’s going to be either a blog or a book.

  • Scott Young

    I’d love to chat with you more about your experiences in the pilot. Please shoot people an email!

  • Scott Young

    I’d love to chat with you more about your experiences in the pilot. Please shoot people an email!

  • Scott Young

    I think there’s some confusion.

    The advice is against writing the book first–that’s simply not how it works in non-fiction publishing.

    That said, building a blogging audience as a platform is a good step prior to getting an agent.

  • Scott Young

    I think there’s some confusion.

    The advice is against writing the book first–that’s simply not how it works in non-fiction publishing.

    That said, building a blogging audience as a platform is a good step prior to getting an agent.

  • Just anyone.
  • Just anyone.
  • Speculari

    Good morning Scott, I am trying to improve my spoken english. Could you suggest some websites where I can talk with other people and improve it?
    thank you very much

  • Speculari

    Good morning Scott, I am trying to improve my spoken english. Could you suggest some websites where I can talk with other people and improve it?
    thank you very much

  • Jo

    Hi Scott, I love your site. I was told by a few writers that in today’s day and age, one cannot get an agent without self-publishing first.

  • Jo

    Hi Scott, I love your site. I was told by a few writers that in today’s day and age, one cannot get an agent without self-publishing first.

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