Lesson #1: Capital Trumps Courage

This is the first lesson in a four-part series on identifying rare and valuable career skills and then putting in the work to get really good at them. We’ll only be posting the first lesson to the blog, so if you want to see the rest, you’ll have to join my newsletter. This first lesson is written by Cal Newport, my co-instructor for Top Performer, and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. Enjoy!

The first lecture in this week’s mini-course on career mastery underscores the foundational idea on which the other lectures build. It’s also an idea that’s foundational to Top Performer, my book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and my career thinking in general.

If you’ve followed my writing, in other words, you’ve heard me say the following before — but it’s really worth emphasizing: to achieve a successful and fulfilling career almost always requires that you first invest the time and effort required to develop a set of rare and valuable skills. 

Great careers are in demand: if you want one, you have to offer something great in return. This usually comes in the form of hard-won abilities that the market values, which, in the following, we can refer to as career capital. It’s this career capital that you leverage to obtain the types of traits that make great jobs great.

The importance of career capital sounds obvious in hindsight, but it contrasts with most popular advice on this topic. If you hear someone opine on strategies for “finding work you love,” they’ll usually focus on two things: reflecting carefully on what you really want to do, and then having the courage to go after it.

Contemplation and courage can be important, but focusing on them too much in the context of career thinking has the negative effect of distracting you from the hard and non-obvious work required to build enough career capital to acquire what you want.

(It should be noted, that the skill building inherent in this process can, by itself, provide a stabilizing sense of satisfaction — as I’ve argued on multiple occasions, human beings are wired for craftsmanship.)

Assignment: Create a Career Capital Inventory

To help you begin the process of switching your job thinking away from contemplation and courage, and more toward career capital, consider the following simple exercise adapted from the Top Performer curriculum:

  • List every professional skill/ability for which your current competency is above the absolute beginner level.
  • For each such skill, come up with a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 corresponds to absolute beginner, and 10 corresponds to the super star level. Make this scale concrete by stating specifically what it would mean to be at 10, and perhaps, what it would mean to be square in the middle with a score of 5.
  • Then, for each skill, rank yourself on this scale.

This exercise provides a useful quantitative inventory of your existing career capital. You can use this inventory in several ways.

For example, the inventory provides a reality check on just how valuable you actually are to the market at the moment. If your list is sparse, and/or contains only low scores, then this evidence should motivate you to turn your attention away from dreams of short-term courageous career transformations, and focus instead on building up the capital that makes real transformations possible.

In addition, it provides numbers that you can strive to improve. The vague intention to “work hard” doesn’t always return many rewards. But a much more focused attempt to improve your skill score from 3 to 5 for a given target will likely be a much more productive use of the same effort.

It can also help you confirm that you’re taking the most advantage of the things you’re already good at. If you score high on a skill that’s not being used much in your current position, make a change to correct this problem. Take on new projects or responsibilities that more directly leverage the skill.

Want to get the rest of the series? I’ll be sending these out this week to my newsletter subscribers only. Click here to sign up!

  • 吕江涛


  • Tiger Woods

    How do people think ? How to think ?
    People , which people ? Painters, musicians…
    Horrible : I think (haha) I don’t think.
    I found there is alway a gap between the words and the reality.
    What’s fantastic with the mind is that everything happens in the mind happens to you in life ! That’s fantastic and not fantastic at the same time.
    I had thought of two examples.
    Monet who began seeing things in terms of shape and color rather than moment an scene… but Monet is one painters among so many others.
    I thought of musicians learning music in conservatories and enquiring that expressing musical ideas is the key. To do that, musicians must have trained their minds ! and finally focused only on the composants of musical ideas. But they got themselves to pay attention in the very moment o the music making to such details.
    I am such a sophist. Don’t mention it please.

  • Tiger Woods

    I wanted to ask a question to a music conservatory student such questions such as :
    has there been any moment in your study time a the conservatory when you were a student when you actually were able to justify the setting of a musical idea and how the following musical idea was logical after the previous one and/or maybe not logical but rather let’s say than you would have been able to say you were actually performing a musical idea and you knew what idea. In fact you had turned everything you had been taught into he ultimate production of your ultimate musical sentence and your music was a product of it all, you were sure or almost.
    Has there been a moment when you begin to see something similar to what I explained when you studied music at the conservatory unless you had got it already. I don’t even know if someone who is at a conservatory would get a word of what I say because i don’t know if what I write makes any sense.

  • Christ Mas Tree

    Hey! I propose to you this :
    In 1605, Sir Francis Bacon published The Proficience and Advancement of Learning, which contains a description of what would later be known as the scientific method.