This is the first of four lessons drawn from Cal Newport and my course, Top Performer. Next week, we are reopening the course to a new group of professionals who want to excel in their careers.
How do you find work you truly love? Not just work that pays well, but work that keeps your interest and is genuinely compelling?
The most common answer to this question revolves around choice. A great career comes from following your passion. That means sitting down, thinking about what you really love to do, and then finding the courage to chase your dreams.
The only problem is… most of us don’t have passions that neatly correspond to job titles. As Cal Newport argues in his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, the innate passions people seldom lead to viable or compelling careers. You might have a passion for collecting stamps, but pursuing it full-time is hardly a reasonable career path.
A better way to think about this question is in terms of career capital.
Career capital is what you bring to the table for your clients, customers and employers. If you have something valuable to offer, you have more options for bargaining for something good in return.
Consider the careers of two different writers. One has best-selling books and is in demand as a speaker. Another has trouble getting freelance work published. Both are doing the same work, but the first author has more career capital. That means she not only makes more money, but she also has more leverage for other choices. She can be pickier about which projects she works on—and take more time off from writing too.
The importance of career capital holds true across professions. The programmer who is more productive can better negotiate promotions, vacation time or which projects they work on. The accountant with specialized expertise can bill more and take fewer clients. The designer with a popular portfolio can choose which projects to take on.
What is Career Capital?
There are different kinds of career capital:
- Contacts and friends
In Top Performer, Cal Newport and I focus on rare and valuable skills as the primary ingredient in a successful career. This isn’t because having a good network, resume or assets is unimportant, but simply because those things tend to come more easily when you build on a base of valuable skills.
Consider our writer again. It’s hard to build a reputation, an audience or a deep network of media contacts if your writing isn’t outstanding. In contrast, if you’re an excellent writer, those other things will naturally accumulate as your career progresses.
Skills are a good starting point for building career capital because they are easier to bootstrap than the other options. You may not be able to find a powerful friend to boost your career if you don’t already have one. But you can always get better at the work you do—and use that to start building more powerful friends.
How Do I Build Rare and Valuable Skills?
There are two steps to building valuable skills:
- Figure out which skills are actually useful.
- Create structured opportunities to get good at them.
We cover both these steps in detail in Top Performer.
You need to talk to people who have made the kinds of moves in their careers that you want to emulate. From that, you can work backward to figure out what skills are required to progress further on that path.
Sometimes the skill you need isn’t obvious. Many engineers think they must master increasingly esoteric programming languages to advance their careers. But in their research, they often discover that being really good at running team meetings is actually more important for promotions.
Just identifying a critical skill isn’t enough. To get good at that skill, you need to find the right opportunities to improve. Unfortunately, most people don’t get much better through experience alone. To make progress, we need to apply deliberate practice, a process of structured practice sessions combined with feedback.
In the comments below:
- Write out one piece of valuable career capital you think you already possess.
- Share one thing you think you might need to move forward.
While getting exact answers to these questions takes some work, this exercise helps you to start thinking about your skills and advancement in terms of career capital.
That’s it for today! In two days, I’ll share how to find the breakthrough projects that will move your career forward. If you are interested in building up your career capital, Top Performer opens for a new session on Monday.