Scarce Skills: Cash Them in 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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Do you have scarce skills that are in high demand? How can they be developed?

Scarce skills equal career capital. You can develop them to the point where you’re so good people can’t ignore you. Then you can cash them in to get the job you want.

Read more to learn how to develop and leverage scarce skills.

Rule #2: Instead, 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 prized and scarce skills (career capital) to the point where you’re so good people can’t ignore you.

Career Capital Theory

The author’s interpretation of 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 discovered three notable traits: 

  • Trait #1: The job provides the opportunity for autonomy. 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. 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. 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 state that if you want something scarce and prized, you need to pay for it with something equally scarce and prized. You’ll “buy” the three desirable job traits using your career capital.

Statement #3: You must adopt the craftsperson mindset to build career capital. There are two different mindsets when it comes to work: 

  • The passion mindset is concerned with what the universe can do for you. It leads to pessimism and an identity crisis because if you concentrate on what you’re supposed to be getting, it makes you aware of what you’re not getting. 
    • For example, Jane, a college dropout, expected the universe to give her adventures, and when it didn’t, she was unhappy.
  • 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. You don’t have to think about whether your job is perfect or represents your identity—you simply focus on developing your skills (particularly scarce skills), thus increasing your career capital.
    • For example, Steve Martin practiced comedy and the banjo for years to develop his skills.

How to Acquire Career Capital: Practice Deliberately

To develop your career capital, you need to adopt the craftsperson mindset and practice your skills (particularly scarce skills) to develop them. The best way to practice is “deliberately,” a method studied by psychologist Anders Ericsson. Most people in the workforce don’t practice deliberately, and as a result, their skill level plateaus. Therefore, if you do practice deliberately, you’ll have an advantage.

There are five steps to deliberate practice:

Step #1: Determine which skills will give you career capital. In some industries, there’s only one kind of career capital—for example, in TV writing, the only meaningful skill is scriptwriting. In other industries, multiple skills make up career capital—for example, venture capitalism makes use of a variety of skills, including entrepreneurship and market knowledge.

Step #2: Determine which skill or skills you want to develop. It’s fastest and easiest to develop skills in areas you already have a head start in. 

  • For example, cleantech venture capitalist Mike studied at Stanford, which gave him the opportunity to work on projects with Stanford professors.

Step #3: Determine your goals. Once you’ve decided what skill you’re going to develop, you need to decide how good you have to get at it. 

  • For example, TV writer Alex decided that “good” meant writing a script that an agent was willing to take on.

Step #4: Seek out both appropriate challenge and immediate feedback. You need to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and be told what you’re doing right and wrong in order to improve.

  • For example, the author forced himself to understand a difficult paper by studying it for one hour at a time. He also quizzed himself on the important definitions in the paper and checked his answers for feedback.

Step #5: Stay focused and exercise diligence. Diligence refers to focusing on developing the skill you’ve chosen and not being distracted by other pursuits. It takes a long time to develop a skill, so you need to stick with it.

  • For example, musician Jordan Tice practices the guitar for hours a day.

(Shortform note: To learn more about deliberate practice, read our summary of Anders Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.)

When to Stick It Out and When to Quit

There are certain jobs and situations that inhibit your ability to amass career capital. If your current job has any of the following factors, you should quit and look elsewhere:

  • The job doesn’t give you enough opportunity to develop prized and scarce skills. 
  • The job is useless or immoral, or involves working with disagreeable people. While you could theoretically build up career capital at a job like this, you probably wouldn’t want to work there for as long as it would take to do so.

Failed Application of Rule #2: Lisa Feuer

Lisa Feuer was a marketing and advertising professional who was getting tired of the corporate setting she worked in. At age 38, she had acquired a fair amount of career capital in marketing, but she decided to make a change and start a yoga business, inspired by courage culture.

Lisa took a 200-hour yoga course and started Karma Kids Yoga. 200 hours of training isn’t very much career capital, especially in a popular, competitive field, and as a result, Lisa wasn’t so good she couldn’t be ignored.

In 2008, when the recession hit, Lisa struggled. People stopped wanting private lessons, one of the gyms she worked at closed, and her classes at schools were cut. By 2009, she was applying for food stamps. Her move into yoga didn’t work out because while she had had enough courage to quit her job, she didn’t have enough valuable and scarce skills to succeed in her new job.

Successful Application of Rule #2: Joe Duffy

Like Lisa, Joe Duffy was an advertising professional who was getting tired of the corporate setting he worked in. He originally trained as an artist and wanted to do something more creative. Instead of immediately quitting his job like Lisa, however, he embraced the craftsperson mindset and began developing career capital. He stayed at his agency and developed his skills in brand icons and logos. 

Joe became so good at branding and logos that Fallon McElligott offered him a job running a subsidiary of their organization. This new job offered him more autonomy, the first of the traits that make people enjoy their work.

Joe worked for Fallon McElligott for twenty years, continuing to practice deliberately and earn career capital. Then, he started his own marketing company, Duffy & Partners. He was very successful—everyone wanted him to design their logos because he had so much experience. This move also offered him more autonomy and the opportunity to be creative.

By the time Joe retired, he likely had all three traits that make a job enjoyable—in addition to autonomy and creativity, his advertising impacted the world.

Author’s Application of Rule #2

The author acquired career capital throughout his education, especially in the first two years of graduate school, when he was forced to practice deliberately. Classwork in graduate school is inherently challenging and there’s constant feedback from instructors.

The last two years of graduate school, however, are mainly self-directed study, so if the author didn’t push himself, he would plateau. He came up with ideas to force himself to practice deliberately and his first exercise was to figure out the math behind a complicated paper.

The author was met with internal resistance the moment he encountered the first difficulty. He forced himself to continue by using both time and information structure. He estimates it took him 15 hours over two weeks to fully understand the paper. He used this new career capital to publish on a topic similar to the paper’s.

Then, he came up with a routine for deliberate practice that includes three elements:

  • Every week, he forces himself to summarize a paper. 
  • He tracks every hour he spends on deliberate practice. Every month, he compares his actual times to his goal times.
  • He forces himself to come up with new theory results and writes down the results of his brainstorming in a notebook.

When you develop and leverage scarce skills, you can get ever closer to the job you want.

Scarce Skills: Cash Them in to Get a Job You Love

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Here's what you'll find in our full So Good They Can't Ignore You summary :

  • 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 devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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