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!