Quickfire Q&A: Professor Cal Newport

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We welcome back Professor Cal Newport to Breaking Biz, following his first interview exploring the idea that ‘follow your passion’ is just plain bad advice when it comes to finding happiness at work. Today Cal steps up to take the quickfire Q&A, normally answered by entrepreneurs. Considering Cal has researched and written at length about entrepreneurship and careers, this should prove to be an insightful interview.

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Full interview:

 

Breaking Biz:
What was your first ever business idea?

Cal Newport:
As a high school student I started a web design company called Princeton Web Solutions.

BB:
Why did you decide to start your own business?

CN:
It was the first dot com boom in the late 90’s, I met someone who was making a good living doing web design and I said well I could do that too.

BB:
How do you identify a real business opportunity?

CN:
Well I don’t know that I’m really good at that because that was my first and last business. I could tell you how I identify a good book opportunity because those are sort of my mini businesses right now. I’m interested in topics that touch on something that is core to the deepest aspirations that people have and gives you a new way of looking at it.

BB:
What skill or ability is most important for an entrepreneur and why?

CN:
The ability to go deep and therefore master and pick up complicated things quickly. If you can do that, then you’re a force to reckon with in the market place.

BB:
You know someone who wants to start a business but fears leaving their job. What do you say to them?

CN:
Wait until your business on the side is making essentially as much if not more than you’re making in your job. Keep in mind that money, to quote Derek Sivers, is a great mutual indicator of value. People will tell you up and down that they love your business ideas but they’re not going to give you a dollar for it unless they actually find value. So let money that you bring in be the judge of whether or not your business is good enough yet to quit your job.

BB:
Are there people who start a business for the wrong reasons?

CN:
I think there definitely are, if you have this notion that loving your work is just about the type of work you do or having the right match, and if you could just change your job and maybe if you weren’t in a cubicle or were on your own but that’s all it takes to love your work- you’re going to be set up for disappointment. Loving your work takes autonomy, mastery, impact and that first requires you to get really good at what you do whether you’re working at your home office or a cubicle there’s no shortcut to loving your work, so if you’re expecting one you’re going to be disappointed.

BB:
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?

CN:
Everything that is worth doing and is valuable to the world and fulfilling is very, very hard. I think it’s incredibly liberating to understand this because it’s also a barrier to entry that keeps most people away from things so if you’re willing to focus diligently on something and exclude distractions and exclude other things that pull at your attention, you’re crossing a barrier to entry that most people won’t, so when you get to the other side of it there’s a lot of rewards to be had.

BB:
Can you recommend any books or resources that have helped you along the way?

CN:
One book that was influential to me was ‘Talent Is Overrated’ which is Geoff Colvin’s book that first popularised the notion of deliberate practice and it really made clear here’s the best science we have from the performance psychology world on how people get better at cognitively demanding skills- the short answer is, it’s hard which is the bad news but the good news is because it’s hard most people outside of organised competitive fields don’t do it. So if you’re willing to go at whatever you do for a living in the same way that an athlete, chess player or musician trains, you have unlimited potential.

BB:
What’s the best part of your job?

CN:
Well I get paid to think. I’m a professor at a research university that writes books on the side so I make a good living staring at a white board and walking around thinking thoughts so I can’t complain.

BB:
What’s your biggest fear?

CN:
I’m always worried that I’m leaving massive potential on the table. That there’s a level of depth or aggressiveness in my thinking as a writer or professor that I’m not reaching, but it’s not that far away and by not reaching it I’m leaving on the table potentially really important break throughs.

Cal’s book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ is available online:

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