Career Capital: What You Need to Get a Job You Love

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "So Good They Can't Ignore You" by Cal Newport. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How much career capital do you have? How can it lead to career happiness?

Desirable jobs are scarce and prized. You can “buy” such jobs by using career capital, which is made up of scarce and prized skills. In other words, developing valuable skills is the best way to get a job you love. A focus on skill development—”the craftsperson mindset”—is the first step in building up career capital.

Keep reading to learn about career capital.

Rule #2: Improve Your Skills 

As we established in Rule #1, following your passion is unlikely to lead you to love your work. Rule #2 explains what will lead you to love your work—improving your scarce and prized skills (career capital) to the point where you’re so good people can’t ignore you.

First, we’ll look at the theory of career capital. Then, we’ll look at how to acquire this capital.

The Theory of Career Capital

The career capital theory includes three statements:

Statement #1: The Traits That Make a Job Desirable Are Scarce and Prized 

After looking at case studies of three people who enjoy their work, the author came up with three scarce and prized traits that make a job desirable:

Trait #1: The job provides the opportunity for autonomy. (We’ll look more at this trait in Rule #3.)

  • For example, Al Merrick, a surfboard shaper, doesn’t have to adhere to a dress code or work prescribed hours. His surfboard factory is a block from the beach and he can take off and go surfing whenever he wants.

Trait #2: The job provides the opportunity to change the world. (We’ll look more at this trait in Rule #4.)

  • For example, Steve Jobs’s advances in the field of technology have changed the lives of everyone who uses computers.

Trait #3: The job provides the opportunity to use imagination. (Shortform note: While the author lists creativity as one of the three traits that are inherent to great work, he hasn’t included a rule about it.)

  • For example, Ira Glass, host of This American Life, narrates a one-of-a-kind podcast that lets him use his creativity.

Statement #2: Careers Are Subject to the Rules of Supply and Demand

The rules of supply and demand state that if you want something scarce and prized, you need to pay for it with something equally scarce and prized. This also applies to careers—you’ll “buy” the three desirable traits using your career capital.

Statement #3: The Craftsperson Mindset Helps You Build Career Capital

There are two different mindsets when it comes to work, the passion mindset and the craftsperson mindset. The passion mindset, like the passion hypothesis, will set you up to fail while adopting the craftsperson mindset is the first step to loving your work.

Passion Mindset

The passion mindset is concerned with what the universe can do for you. People who subscribe to this mindset expect the universe to quickly provide them with a job that perfectly matches their passion.  

This mindset leads to the following negative consequences:

  • Pessimism. If you concentrate on what you’re supposed to be getting, it makes you aware of what you’re not getting. You become preoccupied with all the things you don’t like about your work, whether that’s specific tasks or bureaucracy, and as a result, you’re perpetually unhappy. Entry-level positions are particularly bad for pessimism because, by nature, they include supervision and don’t include exciting projects.
  • Identity crisis. The passion mindset suggests that your work is integral to your identity and is an expression of what you love. Identity can’t be so easily reduced, so you’ll constantly be questioning who you are and what you should really do with your life. 

Courage Culture

A spinoff of the passion mindset is courage culture, which suggests that the main obstacle that’s keeping you from following your passion is a lack of courage. It suggests that there’s a perfect job out there with your name on it, and the only reason you don’t have it yet is that you’re too scared to leave your conventional job. This is inaccurate—as we’ve learned, it takes scarce and prized skills, not merely courage, to acquire a desirable job.

Craftsperson Mindset

The craftsperson mindset is the opposite of the passion mindset—instead of concerning yourself with what the universe can do for you, you focus on what you can do for the universe. The craftsperson mindset offers a much clearer roadmap to loving your work—all you have to do is work hard to get good at something. You don’t have to think about whether your job is perfect or represents your identity—you simply focus on developing your skills.

You must adopt the craftsperson mindset to end up in work you love no matter what field or industry you’re involved with.

For example, Steve Martin, comedian and actor, is an example of an adopter of the craftsperson mindset. When he was first starting his career, stand-up comedy was founded on delivering punch lines. He wanted to do something less formulaic and came up with a groundbreaking act. It took ten years of hard practice for him to develop his joke-writing skills enough to make the act work.

Rebutting Criticism of the Craftsperson Mindset

Some people, particularly supporters of the passion hypothesis, argue that it’s only possible to adopt the craftsperson mindset after you’ve discovered your passion. For example, musicians are only able to practice hours every day because they love music so much.

In fact, this isn’t the case. Musicians and other entertainers are often unsure about whether their jobs are right for them because jobs in the arts tend to be insecure. For example, when Steve Martin was developing his new act, he was so uncertain that it was the right thing to do that he regularly experienced panic attacks. Performers adopt the craftsperson mindset not because they know they’re on the right path, but because they know it’s the only way to succeed in their industry.

Additionally, musicians aren’t good examples because they’re not representative of the general public. Musicians often succeed because of a lucky break or because of some unusual circumstances from their early life (for example, their parents were also musicians).

You can put these principles to work for you. Career capital—scarce and prized skills—is the best way to get a job you love.

Career Capital: What You Need to Get a Job You Love

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  • What makes people love their work
  • Why following your passion is not the path to loving your work
  • The four rules for loving your work

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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