Cal Newport - Assistant Professor Georgetown University

[quote style=”boxed”]Producing something of value is hard and takes lots of time. Be content with having a small number of things that you come back to again and again, over many years. This persistence and ability to ignore distractions is more important than the specific ideas you pursue.[/quote]

Cal Newport is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He previously earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 2004.

Newport is the author of three books of unconventional advice for students, which have sold a combined total of more than 100,000 copies: How to Be a High School Superstar (Random House, 2010), How to Become a Straight-A Student (Random House, 2006), and How to Win at College (Random House, 2005). His fourth book, a contrarian look at career advice, will be published by Grand Central in September of 2012.

What are you working on right now?

In my role as a writer, I have a new book coming out in September. It’s called SO GOOD THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU. It makes the argument that the message “follow your passion” is bad advice, and then details my quest to figure out what works instead. This idea that we’ve been fed bad career advice is something that’s interested me now for the past few years.

Where did this idea come from?

I used to do a lot of writing for students. One of the issues that kept coming up was that students were worried whether or not their major was their “passion.” My intuition is that this is not how passion works–we don’t have encoded in our genes somewhere that we were meant to be an English major or a pre-med student. As I looked into it more, I realized this “passion hypothesis” wasn’t just creating trouble for students but for adults in general. The whole idea that there is a “right” job waiting for you is something that has no scientific backing and is also causing all sorts of trouble.

So this small issue regarding choosing majors ended up pushing my attention as a writer away from just student issues and into this broader world of career advice and how we make our way in the world.

What does your typical day look like?

For my day job, I am a professor. On a good day, five or so hours are spent working on solving hard problems or finding the next hard problems to solve. I try to write one blog post per week to keep my writing chops honed. I do this either in the evening or on a weekend, once a week.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Whether it’s writing or doing my academic research (which is essentially applied mathematics), it all starts by carefully writing down what I think you know, then putting it to the world in some way to get feedback. This kicks off the long process of developing a worthwhile idea.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Non-fiction writing is starting to evolve away from just be expressed in print books. Blogs have changed the way we interact with our audiences and this is going to have an impact on the publishing model. I don’t think we’ve sorted out yet in terms of what non-fiction will look like in five years, but it will be different. And this transformation is exciting.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I’ve been an academic my whole life. I love it.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

In starting graduate school, I would have spent more time studying the graduating students who were stars in the marketplace. I should have asked, “Why are they stars when these other students are not?” I should have used these answers to more proactively shape how I approached my work. Fortunately, I ended up fine. But I’m always curious about where I might be if I had been even more directed during those early years.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Producing something of value is hard and takes lots of time. Be content with having a small number of things that you come back to again and again, over many years. This persistence and ability to ignore distractions is more important than the specific ideas you pursue.

What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I consider my academic work as entrepreneurial, because being a researcher essentially involves pitching start-ups (i.e., ideas) again and again, and trying to get funding (i.e., publication, citation, and impact).

A couple times in my career I’ve found myself hitting the limits of what my current abilities can produce. A technique, for example, will seem to have run its course. When this happens you have to go back to square one and painstakingly learn new skills. Each time I do this it’s painful. Each time it has also led to good things.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

There are lots of bloggers with large, dedicated audiences. There are not a lot of good ways to monetize this relationship in a manner that is useful for everyone. Coming up with better models here is important.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I would change how people think about careers. The sooner as you transform from thinking, “What does this job offer me?” to “What can I offer this job?” the sooner you can actually start down the path that really leads people to work they love. Don’t follow your passion; let it follow you in your quest to become good at rare and valuable things.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

I don’t use many online tools or resources. In general, I try not to spend too much time online. As you might have noticed, I’m a fan of focusing on a small number of things for a long time. In general, a lot of what is going on online tends to distract me from this.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin. It provides excellent insight into how people end up being good at things.

Who is your hero?

I really like knowing who someone’s hero is and why. Intellectually, I admire people such as Richard Feynman, who saw the world in terms of puzzles and fearlessly bounced between areas, learning what he needed to learn, solving what others couldn’t solve. Einstein did this as well. So did Eric Lander (who helped bring mathematics into biology) and many others.

People underestimate how much courage it takes to bring two different worlds together. In retrospect it seems obvious. But at the time, it’s always a lonely, difficult, exciting battle.

How do you manage to end your work day at 5:30 pm?

Step one is insisting on ending my work day at this time. Step two is everything required to make this happen. In other words, letting the deadline force the changes to your working habits actually ends up much more effective then changing your working habits and hoping you’ll end up finishing work sooner. I call this approach “fixed-schedule productivity.” I can’t live without it!

What do you crave?

I feel a real affinity for simplicity. This movement (which has been taking off online in the past five years) of voluntary minimalists who own less, do less, spend less, and live more continually resonates me with me for some reason. I don’t think we’re wired for the complexity we live with today.

There is a lot of interesting thinking about injecting more simplicity in our home life. The big, open challenge problem lurking here, however, is what minimalism means for the working world. Right now, the only answer seems to be to quit your job and run a blog-based business selling information products. Sure, this creates a simple life, but the real question is, how can we embrace minimalism in salaried jobs, with clients and bosses? This is something I think a lot about.


You can hear more about the ideas that interest me, and join the conversation they spark, at my blog:

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