Is deep work the most underappreciated skill for career success? An interview with Cal Newport.

Deep-WorkIn the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king – or so the saying goes. In his new book, Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that when it comes to deep concentration, we have become the land of the blind.

He believes that the ability to do focused work is essential for career success, but becoming increasingly rare. And the fewer people are capable of deep work, the more of an edge you should be able to get by being the exception.

We think Cal is one of the most interesting thinkers working on the issue of career strategy, so recommend you check it out. We interviewed Cal to learn more.

Quick summary of the book

Cal defines “deep work” as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”.

In his previous book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal argues it’s better to focus on gaining career capital rather than “following your passion” (we agree). Part one of Deep Work takes off where his previous book ends – he argues that deep work is essential to gaining valuable career capital. In short:

  • Deep work is increasingly valuable in the modern economy because it’s what allows you to master new intellectual skills and produce creative breakthroughs. People able to do both of these can take work that’s unlikely to be automated and reach the top of their fields,

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Which skills make you most employable?



We correlated 35 key transferable skills with salaries, then rated them on how easy they are to learn, and combined them into 11 categories.

Based on this analysis, the five skills to learn that will most boost your employability are:

  1. Learning how to learn and personal productivity
  2. Persuasion and negotiation
  3. Science
  4. Communication
  5. Analysis and problem solving

This analysis is still preliminary, so we wouldn’t put too much weight on it.

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What people miss about career capital: exceptional achievements

Pooja Chandrashekar is a good demonstration that sometimes the best way to show people you can achieve amazing things is just to achieve amazing things. (Photo by J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

When we talk about “career capital” it seems people first imagine “brand name” jobs e.g. working at Google, McKinsey, or getting a credential like a law degree or graduate study at a prestigious university. And it’s true these paths all boost your career capital. But I think there’s another important component of career capital that’s often neglected.

A big part of having really strong career capital is having eye-catching, valuable achievements. Eye-catching achievements make you stand out, another form of credential. Standing out helps you to meet successful people, building your connections. The process of getting exceptional achievements usually involves pushing yourself too, so it correlates with learning strong skills. Overall, striving for eye-catching achievements seems at least as important as gaining prestige or conventional credentials – so if you only focus on the latter you could be making a mistake.

One example to illustrate (but of course not prove!) the point: Pooja Chandraskekar, who this year was one of the few students in the world to be admitted to all the Ivy League Universities. Among much else, she developed a mobile app that predicts whether a person has Parkinson’s disease with 96% accuracy. She needed these achievements to make her stand out among all the other people who have “ticked the boxes” of good grades,

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Learn to code in 16 weeks for free in the UK at Founders and Coders


Ben Clifford

Are you interested in doing something like App Academy to learn to program, but in the UK? Makers Academy is often thought to be the best option, and we’ve had good reports from one of our members. But it costs £8,000. What about doing something similar for free?

In this interview, Ben Clifford – another member who changed his career due to 80,000 Hours – tells us about a free alternative called Founders and Coders. Ben recently went through the course, and is currently working at a startup in London.

If interested, you can apply here. the deadline for the next round is on Friday.

Summary of main points:

  • Founders and Coders is a free coding program based in London.
  • The course aims to make people full stack javascript developers in 16 weeks.
  • The biggest benefits of doing a coding course are providing structure and tackling motivation problems.
  • The weakest point of Founders and Coders is links to employers but Ben thinks this would not stop determined students can get jobs.
  • The most important thing for getting a place is commitment to becoming a software developer. Being motivated to do good in your career also improves your chances.
  • Applications for January close on Friday 12th December. You can attend taster days by supporting their Indiegogo campaign.

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An interview on which skills most boost your employability


We recommend reading the following interview by Peter Hurford (an 80,000 Hours coachee, and volunteer at CEA) with Satvik Beri. Peter performed the interview as part of research into his career decision. We post it here because Satvik has invested a lot of thought into how to maximise his earnings in order to do earning to give, and we think he adds some new considerations to the discussion.

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How to prioritise – Meta skills part 4

Some activities have many more times more impact than others. For example, if you’re learning a new skill you’ll improve very quickly at the start as you learn the fundamental skills and then your progress will slow. For example, in language-learning the first hundred words you learn are by far the most useful, often gainig you ~80% coverage. Someone who makes sure they learn the most common words can thus reach conversational fluency several times faster than someone who picks more randomly from the most common couple of thousand words.


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How to finally do what you’ve been putting off – Meta skills part 2

Commitment devices have boosted my productivity from spending hours or even days procrastinating to consistently achieving my aims. The idea is that you make it costly to fail to do what you say you’ll do. For example, you tell a friend that you have to do 8 hours work a day or you pay them £50. Or maybe you have to shave one side of your body if you fail (I know someone who had to do this!)

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How to improve your memory – Meta skills part 5

Learn more effectively using a spaced repetition system

If you can accelerate your learning then you’ll be able to learn more information useful for your job. You also get compound benefits from knowledge. The more you know, the more easily you can learn related topics and make links between different areas of knowledge to come up with novel solutions. There are lots of useful things you could learn: if you’re a student you could study your subject more efficiently. If your job involves a lot of networking you could use spaced repetition to learn names and information about people that you need to remember. Every time you come across something useful you didn’t know, you can make a new flashcard in seconds.

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Spending money to save time – virtual assistance

James Taylor once said, “Time will take your money, but money won’t buy time.” I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. Yes, no matter how much you are willing to pay, you won’t be able to get more than 24 hours in a day. However, most of us can pay money to free up more time for the things we like doing–whether that is pursuing an effective career that makes a difference, or going for long wild swims.

A virtual assistant probably won't raise his eyebrows at your spats.

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