Books

This is my notes on Cal Newport’s “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”

The premise of the book is that, “follow your passion” is bad advice. Instead, you should focus on developing rare and valuable skills, and passion will follow after you’ve reached a level of mastery in the chosen expertise.

 #1 Don’t follow your passion

Build a career capital, and acquire rare and valuable skills first. Stop fretting about which path to take. Be confident that whatever path you choose, it could yield a career you will come to love.

Then, how do you choose which skills to focus on?

Choose the one that people would pay for, and what gives you control. Use your existing network, get informed, and test out. Choose one with the most leverage. Start from what’s proven to work. Define your “good.” Define what impact or implication it will have on people around you.

 #2 Deliberate practice

Stretch beyond your comfort level, preferably on a daily basis.

Set a time, and fully focus on doing one thing at the allotted time.

Newport uses a calendar and two notebooks to organize information.

  • Log the hour or make a tally on the calendar.
  • Put research material and summaries in the research notebook.
  • Write ideas in the theory notebook.

 #3 Control over what and how you do things

Prerequisite: a career capital (i.e. rare and valuable skills)

from p. 220

“When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, ask yourself whether people are willing to pay you for it.”

#4 A career mission

What is the purpose to your working life?

Prerequisites:

  1. Build a career capital (i.e. rare and valuable skills)
  2. Adjacent possible (i.e. you get better ideas after you’ve spent a ton of time practicing your field)

Examples:

  • Alan Lightman – the human side of science
  • Giles Bowkett – Ruby + music + AI

To sum it up

Working right trumps finding the right work.

Notes from Sam Carpenter’s Work the System:

Happiness and life-control arrive in direct proportion to the amount of value we produce for others.

It’s not mysterious tough luck that takes people down; it’s serial inefficiency. The great news is that inefficiency is easy to correct if one can see the cause of it.

The leader’s role is to first see the wheels of the machine, and then to get those wheels turning with maximum efficiency.

I just needed to identify individual processes and then optimize them one by one. The primary system would be super-efficient, the end product of the super-efficient subsystems that would compose it.

Unhappy people are not in control of their lives because they spend their days coping with the random bad results of unmanaged systems. Happy people are in control of their lives because they spend their days enjoying the intentional good results of managed systems.

The painful truth? Most people spend their lives trying to shuffle and reorganize the random bad results of unseen and therefore unmanaged systems. Read that again.

Your task is to optimize one system after another, not careen through the day randomly taking care of whatever problems erupt. Your job is not to be a fire killer. Your job is to prevent fires.

[Book Notes] The One Thing

The timeless idea of “focusing on one thing” never gets old. It’s a great read and certainly better than reading a bunch of low quality blog posts with a headline like, “10 Ways to Blah…”

My Notes

“What’s the ONE Thing you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”

Where I’d had huge success, I had narrowed my concentration to one thing, and where my success varied, my focus had too.

extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.

Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life.

extraordinary success is sequential, not simultaneous.

What starts out linear becomes geometric. You do the right thing and then you do the next right thing. Over time it adds up, and the geometric potential of success is unleashed.

The key is over time. Success is built sequentially. It’s one thing at a time.

THE SIX LIES BETWEEN YOU AND SUCCESS 1. Everything Matters Equally 2. Multitasking 3. A Disciplined Life 4. Willpower Is Always on Will-Call 5. A Balanced Life 6. Big Is Bad

When everything feels urgent and important, everything seems equal. We become active and busy, but this doesn’t actually move us any closer to success. Activity is often unrelated to productivity, and busyness rarely takes care of business.

“The things which are most important don’t always scream the loudest.” —Bob Hawke

Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results.

It’s not that we have too little time to do all the things we need to do, it’s that we feel the need to do too many things in the time we have.

Success is actually a short race—a sprint fueled by discipline just long enough for habit to kick in and take over.

we need the habit of doing it. And we need just enough discipline to build the habit.

When you do the right thing, it can liberate you from having to monitor everything.

Rework

This tech company has no office, no meetings, and focuses on simplification instead of expansion. 37signalsis a small tech company that has become hugely successful with its web app products. The founders share how they ran their business in a collection of essays, Rework.

This book contains nuggets of wisdom about productivity and running a business. I love how their writing cuts to the chase and helps me focus on essentials.

Five Things I Took Away From the Book

Here are some quotes from the book that struck a chord with me, followed by my own interpretation. This will also help set your course straight in your business and projects.

Decisions are progress.

Every decision you make is a step toward progress. Instead of putting off a decision or meeting for tomorrow, make the decision now. Assign the task to a specific individual or team. Stop ambiguity. It’s easier to get on the course and move on based on the decisions you’ve already made.

Start at the epicenter, and say no to everything else

Relentlessly remove what’s unnecessary. Focus on the core feature of your product and make it work really well. Being simple and honest requires a high level of integrity and discipline. Stick to it.

It’s ok to quit

Don’t let your inflated ego take over you and work on something that waste your time. If you decided to do something and it’s taking a lot longer than your target time frame, call it a quit and save your time for doing something more useful. If you only see a little return on the investment, walk away.

Scratch your own itch

Solving your own problem is the first step. The next step is to make your own solution so valuable that YOU want to keep using it. Focus on usefulness, not your ego. I’ve developed some poor products in the past. I’d give myself A+ on the effort, but looking back now I realize that they weren’t very useful. My next action step is to create something that makes ME want to come back and use for years. Usually, you are your worst critic. Create a compelling product or offer a service that gets even your worst critic to approve.

Let your customer outgrow your product

If your product features no longer serve your customers’ needs, let them outgrow your product and find another solution that is a better suit for them. Don’t change your product for a customer whose needs are changing. There is a ton of new customers out there with needs that match your product offering. Don’t be clingy in a relationship.

How would you apply these concepts to your daily life?

Notes from HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Strategy:

The essence of strategy is in the activities—to perform activities differently or to perform different activities than rivals. Otherwise, a strategy is nothing more than a marketing slogan that will not withstand competition.

Strategic positions emerge from three distinct sources, which are not mutually exclusive and often overlap. First, positioning can be based on producing a subset of an industry’s products or services. I call this variety-based positioning because it is based on the choice of product or service varieties rather than customer segments. Variety-based positioning makes economic sense when a company can best produce particular products or services using distinctive sets of activities.

A second basis for positioning is that of serving most or all the needs of a particular group of customers. I call this needs-based positioning, which comes closer to traditional thinking about targeting a segment of customers. It arises when there are groups of customers with differing needs, and when a tailored set of activities can serve those needs best. Some groups of customers are more price sensitive than others, demand different product features, and need varying amounts of information, support, and services. Ikea’s customers are a good example of such a group. Ikea seeks to meet all the home furnishing needs of its target customers, not just a subset of them.

But a strategic position is not sustainable unless there are trade-offs with other positions. Trade-offs occur when activities are incompatible. Simply put, a trade-off means that more of one thing necessitates less of another. An airline can choose to serve meals—adding cost and slowing turnaround time at the gate—or it can choose not to, but it cannot do both without bearing major inefficiencies.

Second, and more important, trade-offs arise from activities themselves. Different positions (with their tailored activities) require different product configurations, different equipment, different employee behavior, different skills, and different management systems. Many trade-offs reflect inflexibilities in machinery, people, or systems. The more Ikea has configured its activities to lower costs by having its customers do their own assembly and delivery, the less able it is to satisfy customers who require higher levels of service.

Finally, trade-offs arise from limits on internal coordination and control. By clearly choosing to compete in one way and not another, senior management makes organizational priorities clear. Companies that try to be all things to all customers, in contrast, risk confusion in the trenches as employees attempt to make day-to-day operating decisions without a clear framework.

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. Without trade-offs, there would be no need for choice and thus no need for strategy.

Essentialism

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg Mckeown has been on my radar for sometime now. It’s only a little more than 250 pages so I gave it a try. It was a good book to rethink about my priorities and sort out vital few from trivial many. The thesis of the book, as the title suggests, is to focus on the essential. Do less but better.

I was offered two jobs at the time of reading this book – one from a start-up, and the other from a well established large company. The book has influenced my decision to turn down both offers.

The book itself is not a hard read. It poses series of questions that are self-reflective. I also appreciated the real world examples the author gives to make his points.  There are also specific words to use when you want to say “No” to requests and favors that rob you from your time.

I’d revisit this book periodically to reevaluate my activities in life and career.

My Notes

The way of the Essentialist isn’t about setting New Year’s resolutions to say “no” more, or about pruning your in-box, or about mastering some new strategy in time management. It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference—learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential.

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.

In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”6

sunk-cost bias: studies have found that we tend to value things we already own more highly than they are worth and thus that we find them more difficult to get rid of.

I have observed learned helplessness in many organizations I have worked with. When people believe that their efforts at work don’t matter, they tend to respond in one of two ways. Sometimes they check out and stop trying, like the mathematically challenged child. The other response is less obvious at first. They do the opposite. They become hyperactive. They accept every opportunity presented.

While Southwest had made conscious, deliberate trade-offs in key strategic areas, Continental was forced to sacrifice things around the margins that weren’t part of a coherent strategy. According to Porter, “A strategic position is not sustainable unless there are trade-offs with other positions.”3 By trying to operate by two incompatible strategies they started to undermine their ability to be competitive.

Jim Collins, the author of the business classic Good to Great, was once told by Peter Drucker that he could either build a great company or build great ideas but not both. Jim chose ideas. As a result of this trade-off there are still only three full-time employees in his company, yet his ideas have reached tens of millions of people through his writing.8 As painful as they can sometimes be, trade-offs

An Essentialist focuses the way our eyes focus; not by fixating on something but by constantly adjusting and adapting to the field of vision.

Today, everyone waiting around in an airport or a waiting room is glued to their technology tools of choice. Of course, nobody likes to be bored. But by abolishing any chance of being bored we have also lost the time we used to have to think and process.

Here’s another paradox for you: the faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule. And the noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflection spaces in which we can truly focus.

The best journalists, as Friedman shared later with me, listen for what others do not hear.

Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners. Knowing that the reality of trade-offs means they can’t possibly pay attention to everything, they listen deliberately for what is not being explicitly stated.

Typically, when people start to keep a journal they write pages the first day. Then by the second day the prospect of writing so much is daunting, and they procrastinate or abandon the exercise. So apply the principle of “less but better” to your journal. Restrain yourself from writing more until daily journaling has become a habit.

once every ninety days or so you take an hour to read your journal entries from that period. But don’t be overly focused on the details, like the budget meeting three weeks ago or last Thursday’s pasta dinner. Instead, focus on the broader patterns or trends. Capture the headline. Look for the lead in your day, your week, your life. Small, incremental changes are hard to see in the moment but over time can have a huge cumulative effect.

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.

The soft “no” (or the “no but”). I recently received an e-mail inviting me to coffee. I replied: “I am consumed with writing my book right now 🙂 But I would love to get together once the book is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the summer.”

  1. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”

“Dear Friends, I am currently working on a new book which has put enormous burdens on my time. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond in the manner I would like. For this, I apologize.—Greg.”

  1. Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?”

However, when saying yes is going to compromise your ability to make the highest level of contribution to your work, it is also your obligation. In this case it is not only reasonable to say no, it is essential. One effective way to do that is to remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you said yes and force them to grapple with the trade-off.

“Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project?” Or simply say, “I would want to do a great job, and given my other commitments I wouldn’t be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on.”

The iconoclastic entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel took “less but better” to an unorthodox level when he insisted that PayPal employees select one single priority in their role—and focus on that exclusively. As PayPal executive Keith Rabois recalls: “Peter required that everyone be tasked with exactly one priority. He would refuse to discuss virtually anything else with you except what was currently assigned as your #1 initiative. Even our annual review forms in 2001 required each employee to identify their single most valuable contribution to the company.”2 The result was the employees were empowered to do anything within the confines of that clearly defined role that they felt would make a high level of contribution to the shared mission of the company.