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 know how to find your dream job? What does that job look like?
When you consider your dream job, you might think about a certain industry, role, or title. Even more important to consider are the terms of the job. Does it allow you freedom and flexibility? Does it help you make a difference and leave a legacy? In other words, your dream job probably involves autonomy and mission.
Read more to understand what desirable jobs entail and learn how to find your dream job.
Your Dream Job Trait #1: Autonomy
Now that you’ve developed your scarce and prized skills, you can start cashing them in for the scarce and prized traits that make a job desirable. You can find your dream job. In Rule #3, we’ll look at the desirable trait of autonomy.
Autonomy is the ability to control what you work on and how you work, including, among other things, your schedule, responsibilities, and office space. Autonomy is such an important determiner of happiness that the author calls it the “dream-job elixir.” Most common dream jobs include autonomy, and people who have autonomy in their workplace tend to be happier and more productive.
When trying to cash in your career capital for autonomy—for example, by asking your manager if you can change your hours—there are two possible pitfalls:
Pitfall #1: You don’t have enough career capital. If you attempt to seize autonomy before you’ve earned it, it won’t last because you won’t make money—if you prematurely demand autonomy from your boss, you’ll either be denied the request or fired. If you choose to start your own business, you won’t be able to find clients because you have no experience. Either way, you’ll shortly have to take on a non-autonomous job in order to support yourself.
- For example, a young professional quit his day job to write a blog about how blogging funded his lifestyle. However, his blog wasn’t actually making him any money, so his content was weak and his only piece of career capital was enthusiasm. Enthusiasm isn’t scarce and prized and wasn’t enough to buy him autonomy.
Pitfall #2: Resistance. Once you have career capital, you become so valuable to your employer that they don’t want to give you any autonomy (such as a reduced schedule) for fear of losing you and your skills. Therefore, as you gain career capital, anticipate that your employer will resist your bids for autonomy. They’ll offer you more money or status to try to keep you, but if you want autonomy, you’ll have to turn them down. Additionally, you may encounter resistance from your friends and family, because they think it’s a bad idea to turn down raises or promotions.
- For example, when software developer Lulu Young asked her employers if she could work part-time, they didn’t want her to reduce her hours because she was good at her job and they wanted to get as much work out of her as possible. (Ultimately, though, they did let her work part-time because they didn’t want to lose her entirely.)
How to Decide When to Bid for Autonomy: The Law of Payment
When presented with a professional decision or opportunity to gain more autonomy, you need to assess whether you risk falling into either of the pitfalls. To decide what to do, you can take a simple test called the law of payment. The law states that you should only choose to do something that will give you more autonomy if you have evidence that people will pay you to do it. “Pay” could refer to the classic case of a customer giving you money, or to getting a job, loan, or outside investment. If someone is willing to pay you to do something, this shows that your skills are valuable.
For example, entrepreneur Derek Sivers, who came up with the idea behind the law of payment, only took on projects after he had evidence that someone would pay him to complete them. He became a full-time musician only after music was making him more money than his day job. He started a company that sold CDs only after he knew enough people to be confident he’d have lots of clients.
Your Dream Job Trait #2: Mission
In Rule #3, we looked at how to cash in your scarce and prized skills for autonomy. Now, we’ll look at how to cash them in for a mission, which is a useful, potentially world-changing goal that focuses your career. Likely, it’s an aspect of your dream job.
Finding Your Mission: The “Adjacent Possible”
A mission needs to be innovative and never-seen-before in order to change the world. As a result, missions come from a space called the “adjacent possible”: a place just beyond the cutting edge of human knowledge that can be reached by building incrementally upon the current understanding.
You need to have enough career capital to see into the adjacent possible before you can discover your mission. For example, Pardis Sabeti was only able to find her mission of using genetics to cure old diseases after she became an expert on genetics.
Developing Your Mission
Coming up with an idea for a mission is only the first step to cashing in your career capital—next, you need to figure out which projects to pursue to transform that idea into a reality.
There’s a three-step process to developing a mission. Each step of the process forms one level of a pyramid:
Bottom level: research. The bottom level is research in your field, which will help you develop career capital and approach the adjacent possible. For example, to create a strong base for his pyramid, the author read papers, talked to experts, went to lectures, and then summarized his findings. He also went for walks to give himself time to brainstorm.
Middle level: little bets. A little bet is a small experiment that will give you feedback about pursuing a particular direction. Each little bet should have the following characteristics:
- It can be finished in fewer than 30 days.
- It forces you to learn a skill or create something new.
- Its result offers feedback.
For example, archaeologist Kirk French’s mission was to popularize archaeology, and his first little bet was to digitize an old archaeological film. A series of film-related little bets led him to become a host of the Discovery Channel’s American Treasures.
Top level: tentative mission. The top level is a statement that describes an approximate mission. The statement can be frequently edited as you acquire career capital in the bottom level and get feedback from your little bets in the middle level. For example, the author’s tentative mission at the time of writing was to use distributed algorithm theory in new settings to create results.
Adopting a Marketing Mindset
Once you’ve found your mission and started to develop it by pursuing projects, adopt a marketing mindset in order to share it with the world—the more people who interact with your mission, the greater your world-changing ability. The marketing mindset states that mission-driven projects need two criteria:
Criteria #1: They need to be remarkable—they need to be so novel and interesting people want to talk about them.
- For example, after deciding on a mission to combine technology with art, Giles Bowkett built Archaeopteryx, an AI program that composes its own dance music. Few programmers knew how to compose music, and few musicians knew programming, so the project was remarkable—Giles was probably the only person in the world who could have built it.
Criteria #2: They need to be displayed on a visible and respected platform so that lots of people hear about them, which increases your reach.
- For example, to spread the word about Archaeopteryx, Giles went to speak at conferences and publicly released the program’s code to the open-source community, which is a group of people who share and work on each other’s projects for free. Many programmers and employers keep an eye on open-source platforms because they’re a good place to discover new talent, so plenty of people found out about Archaeopteryx.
Once you better understand how to find your dream job by looking for autonomy and mission, you are in a better position to cash in your skills for a job you love.
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- What makes people love their work
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- The four rules for loving your work