Derek Sivers

Programmer, writer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.

Articles → How to change or build your career

I get emails from many people wanting to change or build their career. I always recommend the best book on the subject: “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport. Here are a few of its best points:

Forget passion and purpose

Forget “follow your passion” or “find your true calling”. Stop thinking like that. Here’s why:

Words like “passion” and “purpose” are dangerous because they sound huge and romantic. If you think you haven’t found your passion yet, you’re probably expecting it to be overwhelming — to hit you like lightning.

Looking for your passion, purpose, or calling is an example of the fixed mindset. You’re assuming that this is an inherent and unchanging thing inside of you, like trying to read your DNA or blood type. But you won’t find passion and purpose there, because that’s not where those feelings come from.

Passion and purpose are emotions that come after expertise and experience. The way to get them is to commit to the path of mastery, get great at something, and do great work.

So instead of looking for passion and purpose, just keep mastering whatever work you’ve started, becoming more and more valuable in your field. Passion and purpose will follow a great career.

Great careers are only for the rare and valuable

Think of what makes a great career:

Jobs like this are rare and valuable. A great career isn’t something you find - it’s something you earn when you’ve got rare and valuable skills to offer in return.

In other words, you can only earn a great career by building your expertise and experience.

Solution: focus on the craft, not passion

The solution to this problem is what’s called “the craftman’s path” — the long-term path to mastery.

Everyone who became great at something has a similar story: For years, they worked on their craft every day, even if they weren’t in the mood. Always pushing, practicing, working, and improving.

It doesn’t matter if you’re feeling passionate about it that day or even that month. You keep working and keep improving.

It doesn’t matter whether your work environment is ideal or you’re being wonderfully rewarded yet. You keep working and keep improving.

Yes it takes thousands of hours of practice, but that’s good news! It’s a clear path and it’s under your control, instead of dwelling on unanswerable questions like “What is my true calling?”

You forget the self-centered concerns about your passion and purpose, and instead just keep improving and getting really damn good.

It doesn’t matter if your current job isn’t perfect. You just keep improving, no matter where you are, becoming more and more valuable.

By building your skills, experience, and value, you earn a great career.

By building your skills, experience, and value, passion and purpose come to you.

By building your skills, experience, and value, you are building your “career capital”.

Career capital: use it to make a change

“Career capital” is a metaphor. Think of it like gold tokens you’re earning over years of building your expertise, experience, connections, and reputation.

The important point is to remember how valuable it is.

When you want to make a change to your career, you spend this career capital you’ve earned.

But if you’re really sick of your current field and want to switch to another field, don’t just quit and throw away all the career capital you’ve built up!

If you’re thinking of quitting your job to follow your passion, please don’t miss this point!

Think of ways you can use the value you’ve built up to make the transition to another field.

Like Tarzan, use your connections, reputation, experience, and expertise to transition into a better situation in the new field before leaving the old one.

Realize the career capital you’ve built up already, and don’t just throw it away.

Starting from scratch?

If you’re starting from scratch anyway, jump into any growing field and start building your skills, expertise, connections, and reputation. Pick a niche and dominate it.

If you have no ideas, check out this list of what startup investors want to invest in. And JWT’s “Things to Watch” is always fun and inspiring.

Read “So Good They Can’t Ignore You

The ideas here are just a little incomplete intro to an amazing book.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport, is the best I’ve ever read on the subject of building or changing your career.

I just searched my email out-box and found out that I’ve personally recommended it to people over 92 times in the past two years.

If this subject interests you at all, please get and read the full book, not just my summary.