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The Most Important Piece of Career Advice You Probably Never Heard

August 25th, 2022 · 3 comments

This essay was inspired by Top Performer, the online course about engineering a more meaningful and satisfying career that I designed with Scott Young. The new and improved version of this course will be open for new registrations next week. Find out more here.

In the spring of 2008, I published one of the more consequential essays in the history of this newsletter. It was titled: “The Most Important Piece of Career Advice You Probably Never Heard.” At the time, I was a doctoral student at MIT, still more than a year away from defending my dissertation. I was also, as I explain in the opening of the essay, about to attend my second college graduation in less than three weeks. As a result, my mind was mired in thoughts about career advice.

As I considered what I might write on this topic an insight struck me with a jolt of electric clarity. In the end, what matters is your lifestyle. The specifics of your work are important only in how they impact your daily experience. As I summarized, when choosing a career path:

“Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there.”

This idea, which I dubbed lifestyle-centric career planning, subverted popular advice from that period which tended to emphasize the importance of passion and dream jobs. In this widely-accepted schema, the full responsibility for your ongoing satisfaction was offloaded to the minutia of your professional endeavors.

This didn’t strike me as correct. There are so many other aspects of your life that matter in your contentment, including, as I enumerated in my original essay, the following:

  • How much control do I have over my schedule?
  • What’s the intensity level of my job?
  • What’s the importance of what I do?
  • What’s the prestige level?
  • Where do I live?
  • What’s my social life like?
  • What’s my work life balance?
  • What’s my family like?
  • How do other people think of me?
  • What am I known for?

Confident answers to these types of questions might identify many different jobs that, if properly pursued, move you toward the life you desire. They can also help you direct the job you already have in directions that will provide you the most benefit.

The conceptual seed planted by this essay soon began to grow in my work. My very next essay, published three days later, was titled, “The Problem with Passion.” This was one of the first examples of me taking direct aim at the all-too-popular recommendation to “follow your passion.” But it was not the last.

Four years later, I published my first hardcover idea book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which explicitly rejected passion-centric career advice and promoted an alternative approach more aligned with the philosophy of lifestyle-centric career planning I had first sketched out back in the spring of 2008. It went on to sell 300,000 copies, and counting.

Two years after that, in 2014, Scott Young and I launched the first version of our online course Top Performer, which operationalized many of the ideas from that book. Eight years and more than 5,000 student later, we’re opening the latest evolution of this course to new registrations starting Monday, August 29th. It was this upcoming launch — one of many of over the years — that got me reminiscing about my long history with thinking critically about career satisfaction, and led me, eventually, back this pragmatic gem of an essay from all the way back in 2008. It’s sometimes the smallest ideas, articulated at just the right moment, that end up most changing the trajectory of your life.

3 thoughts on “The Most Important Piece of Career Advice You Probably Never Heard

  1. Stephanie says:

    This post came at the exact time I need it. I was aware of your other books, but hadn’t read any of them. But I’m currently trying to figure out what to do with the remaining 20-30 working years of my life, and your argument about NOT following your passion intrigues me. I’ve just ordered a copy of the book and look forward to reading it. Thanks!

  2. Mykal Price says:

    Hello Cal Newport and constituents. I just finished reading Cal’s book, DEEP WORK, and for the first time in a long time was left feeling accomplished and inspired. It really is a great read for everyone no matter your current field! Although inspired I’m also feeling frustrated due to our [his readers] inability to have Cal assist us with the answers that these deep subjects bring up. Much like the first interview referenced in the book’s introduction (Jason Benn – Financial consultant turned Computer programmer) I am on a journey to increase my value in our current economy by learning how to code, specifically the coding language Python. Seeing as Newport is a life long student and now an esteemed professor of Comp.Sci. I’m interested in the foundational books he would recommend to his students brand new to the world of coding. This is my attempt at a less than traditional method of study also used by Jason Benn. The answer to my question may very well lie in this archive of well written articles published by Cal over the past decade, but a short-cut would be highly appreciated. To offer an example of the types of books I know Cal has in his inventory please see a quote from DEEP WORK: Knuth, for example, explains his professional goal as follows: “I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.”

    1. Michael says:

      Try “Learning Python the Hard Way”.

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