Top Performer: How to Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You…

Mike Malloy
Oct 19, 2015 · 15 min read

On Sunday, October 18, 2015 at 4pm EST, Scott Young and Cal Newport co-hosted a live webinar to discuss the ideas inspired by Cal’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. They discuss how to become a top performer in your career. The conversation includes their personal experience with career capital, deliberate practice, and elite level productivity. During the second half of the webinar, Scott and Cal introduced their new online course, Top Performer.

I studied under Cal at Georgetown while earning my MS in Computer Science. I learn a tremendous amount while taking notes from Cal. It is my sincere hope that by sharing my notes and transcript from today’s webinar that more people will be introduced to the principles of career capital and deliberate practice in order to become a Top Performer.

The webinar began with some background information about Scott and Cal, so I’ve included their bios at the end of the post. Let’s get started with the recap.

Scott: It’s hard to find level playing fields with others. It’s difficult to be really good at rare and valuable skills. Career Capital Theory states that the traits for a fulfilling job are rare and valuable. Thus, basic economics says that to earn those, you have to have something to offer in return (rare and valuable skills).

You want great autonomy, impact, and connection to people. You focus on how to build up skills with unambiguous and desirable value in the marketplace.

Let me share some tactical advice for how to not spend 10+ hours/day on your company. I met with my friends who work too much. Others pursue every opportunity that comes there way. You end up exhausted and don’t put enough energy in the things that truly do matter.

Focus on a few items that make the biggest impact. Don’t focus on every single skill that may or may not improve the business. Utilize strategic thinking about which things you pursue and how to follow up on them.

Cal: I’ve made a writing career about pushing back against the advice giver fallacy. Because advice came from someone in the right position to give advice, it does imply that the advice will be good for you. If you put someone on the spot, they will come up with an answer to prevent social awkwardness of silence.

You can’t just interview someone to get good advice. Need to ask the right questions. This fallacy applies to our internal thinking about how to improve our lives/career. It’s easy to come up with a plan of action that seems satisfying and seems plausible [Bonus points if it involves Evernote].

You need difficult objectivity when thinking about how to improve. Athletes at the pro level don’t just come up with training regimes on their own. We have coaches who are experts with decades of experience studying, teaching, and training.

The advice giver fallacy is important for our own lives. It’s much harder to come up with a system or plan that will actually work (and takes more work).

Advantage — if you are one of the few who has the objective mind to go through the difficult process of assessment, then you will reach a blue ocean where you are able to seek vast improvements to your desired skills.

Now let me ask Scott a question — can you walk us through a typical day in Scott’s life?

Scott: My life is pretty relaxed. I’ve done these big projects which have devoted a huge amount of my time. I write every week and post my email newsletter. I have worked hard to keep that down to a fairly low level. My actual work day depends on big projects I’m working on. I wake up, eat breakfast, read some articles, and get some ideas…then what is the big project right now?

The past two months I have been very focused on launching the course. Once course concludes, then it is a different project. In doing big projects and streamlining day to day operations, I’m focused on big projects, not just keeping me where I am but moving my career forward.

[Cal and Scott will take time at the end to answer questions from the 1000+ viewers in the webinar]

Scott: Quick question for you…when we were doing this setup and asking people “what are the biggest challenges in your career?” A lot of people said they don’t know what to do next…Not in career yet and don’t know where/what industry to work…Or maybe they know industry but not which direction to go? Programmer? Management? Freelance? Consultant? How do you deal with this career uncertainty? Is there a process you have to not just make choices blindly?

Cal: This is the second most common question I’m asked. The most common question is:

1) Don’t you need a lot of passion, if you are going to get really good at something?

No. You don’t need a large amount of passion to begin the process at getting good at something. We have a lot of evidence from science and anecdotes to prove this.

2) How do I make a decision about leaving job vs. doing more in existing job?

This is where Career Capital Theory is very useful. You need tactical decision making tools.

Problem: People tend to think in terms of match philosophy — specific job match. A better match implies the more we will enjoy the job. Is this job or that job a better intrinsic match for me and something I will enjoy more than currently have?

You are always going to be able to come up with potential jobs that will be a better match. This is a recipe for anxiety.

Traits to love your job are not connected to a specific match. It has to do with more general traits. The four most important traits are:

Autonomy, Mastery, Connection, Creativity

These traits lead people to feel passion towards their work. Which will get you there faster?

This can be addressed with the Career Capital Theory. What are your current career capital? Can you use that right now to reshape your position to have more of this in your work? Good opportunities in you current job to put in work and initiative to build up your career capital in current company? If there are good opportunities to do that and your current job will give you a lot of leeway to invest that into reshaping your working work, then stick with it.

Making a shift really only makes sense if you think of your options. You may need to shift into another job or career that will pay off more. You can develop skills faster and put them to work to use them as leverage. This is one reason to switch.

The other reasons to switch is because of deal breaker clauses. If the work is against your morals, switch. If the people are terrible, switch. If there are limits to your ability to acquire skill, switch.

Example: Lawyer needs to bill X hours, if you do it, then you get to bill more hours with no increase in skill. If you can’t build skill, then get out.

How much capital do I have? How can I get more? Where can I invest it to get better and more career capital? You need to cut through issues and make smarter decisions

Cal: I’m interested in your career path. How you choose what you do and select what you do for a living?

You run a popular blog and online course. Take us behind the curtain…I’m curious in what was the career planning/thinking as university student towards this unusual path you are on now.

Scott: It is interesting for me to talk about this. My story embodies what you are talking about. When I got started with this I wasn’t thinking I will be this person who does writing and speaking and talks about learning.

I’m a fairly introverted type of person.

I always assumed I’d build some kind of small software business. Instead, this is what I ended up doing — dominant theme in my career as a blogger.

Take small steps to explore new ideas, to learn new skills. Build those skills, then from this vantage point, you can set a new vantage point going forward.

I experienced an evolutionary process where I was examining the situation I was in and working on key skills — becoming a better writer, running an online business, building information products. This developed over time. From what I’ve seen, those who have a very successful career all have a similar philosophy. It’s not a rigid philosophy about doing exactly X. It’s also not the opposite of throwing your hands up in the air and having no clue what to do.

From each vantage point, you can make a strategic move forward. Each individual step forward to the next vantage point doesn’t matter too much. Over time they accumulate. This gives the appearance from the outside that this person has had exponential growth all at once with one lucky break. When really they have just been making small moves compounded together over a long time.

This is a good time to talk about the course that Cal and I have been working on for past few years

Cal: Before we talk about the Top Performer course, let’s take a step back. We have defined a common foundation.

Skills are your currency. If you are better at things, then you have more capital. It gives you currency you can spend. You can spend it on little decisions or bigger ones. You want a working life that is fulfilling and successful.

There’s an issue with this approach. There’s a notion that you should build and invest career capital by getting good at things. However, it is surprisingly difficult to successfully put into practice.

There is a trio of problems that commonly arise:

Problem 1: Which skills should you actually try to get good at?

There are so many things to try and get good at. In any career, there are millions of tiny ways to improve.

Research, headline writing, networking with publishers, collaborating — all skills to get better at writing. Lots of other skills, too. It’s not possible to be really, really good at all these things.

If you aren’t good at them, then it isn’t possible to just become good at a million different things. Which are the skills you really need to invest in to go forward? Not easy to answer this question — a lot of things intuitively seem like it will improve. In practice, only a couple things will really, really make you better in your career.

Problem 2: How do you actually get good at that skill?

High level — apply the techniques of deliberate practice. Hopefully, you have read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and you are familiar with the principles of deliberate practice.

This is the only way to get better quickly at cognitive demanding principles. Ideas of deliberate practice are hard to specifically define for our type of knowledge work. If you are a pro athlete, there are decades of sports nutrition of research to get better. For particular skill in knowledge career, there is much less research. To be a better writer, programmer, data analytics, or statistician — we don’t have same type of competitive training.

How do I actually get better and apply deliberate practice?

Problem 3: Solution 1 gives us the things that really matter and we should focus on (at the exclusion of many other things we could be working on). Solution 2 says this actually is the best way to get good at this skill (not obvious). How do you find the time to actually put this into place?

People who can find a way to do all three things, those who can put in the deliberate practice program to improve those skills, can make systematic career jumps. You acquire the key skills to go up to the next level. You become really, really good at your job to build autonomy and career capital to get the lifestyle and career fulfillment that you want.

Recap: We have 3 issues

1) What matters?

2) How do I get good at what matters?

3) Where do I find the time to actually get good at what matters?

These are the issues Scott and Cal have tried to tackle over the past 3 years. To learn the answers to these three questions, register for the Top Performer Course by Scott Young and Cal Newport

Scott and Cal ran two pilot programs while developing the course over three years. They tested ideas with hundreds of data points from marketing execs, programmers, artists, photographers, pharmaceutical reps, and many other professionals with many other skills.

The course shares what works, what doesn’t, and how to customize our thinking.

Scott: I will summarize what the course contains:

1) How do you figure out what really matters?

a. Will guide you through the research process

b. How to figure out how to avoid illusions for what is common sense

c. What actually works and what levers need to be pulled

2) How to develop deliberate practice around complex skills?

a. Minimal projects — only take a couple hours each week

b. Focus on improving only the skills you select from research

3) How to use productivity systems to actually get these done?

a. These are projects people usually procrastinate on

b. Devote small amount of time to make huge impact on your career

There are reasons why we decided Top Performer needed to be online course. Not a book. Not a series of talks. Not a series of articles.

We built an online course because the reality of putting these ideas into practice requires quite a bit of energy to be invested. It is difficult to figure out what to get good at. We provide a framework for where to put your energy. You give focus and attention without worrying about spinning your wheels and trying different systems. This course is for people who are at a stage where they want to make a significant change in their career.

There are 1,101 in the webinar right now. You want to invest the energy in the course. The site will walk you through the entire course. It contains detailed walkthroughs of everything — lots of Scott’s face showing up on the page. Cal takes the lead on half the class — Scott takes the lead on the other half of the class.

Cal: Let’s take a step back. At a 30,000 foot view, this course is 8 weeks long. The main lessons are taught by video. You can download the videos. You can download mp3 files to listen to the audio while you’re driving. You can download PDFs to read through the materials. Whatever format is best for you.

Each week there is a specific exercise, once you complete it you will put ideas of lesson into practice. There is a large collection of supplementary lessons that walk you through advanced and practical questions put into practice. The basic structure allows you to do it at your own pace

If you are serious about making a career transition, the Top Performer website will walk you through exactly what to expect (a lot of energy needs to be invested).

Scott: Cal and I have been talking for a while, we just gave you the sales pitch. We believe this course is a good investment. It is something you can really use in your career.

Now, switching gears to answer questions from the 1000+ in our live webinar chat.

How long is the course?

Scott: The course is introduced over 8 weeks. It is something you can really be involved in for a long time. You will go back to time and time again with community in our Facebook group.

When does enrollment close?

Scott: Friday, October 23, 2015 at 11:59pm PST

When will the course start?

Scott: Sunday night/Monday morning (October 25–26) depending on your time zone. You will get access to the first week of content. We want everyone to start at the same time. You can go at your own pace — it’s not live — all content you can access together. We want the community going through the ideas together and getting feedback from one another.

Do you recommend this course for undergrad college students?

Cal: At the risk of revealing us as not being very good salesmen, no, I don’t recommend it for college students or below. The course is well suited for graduate students who are trying to progress in their professional careers.

Where in the syllabus on the course website do we tackle questions about time?

Cal: It may be a little unclear at the high level titles, but we have extensive lessons in course about nitty gritty details on how to schedule your time. There is quite a bit of content on deep work. This is not stuff I talk about a lot — it came from research for new book.

How do you improve deep work ability?

Cal: The whole structure of the course is built around a fixed number of hours (~5 hours/week) for the coursework and materials. Your time is valuable.

How are you still so productive with two small children?

Cal: Fixed schedule productivity is the answer. Start backward at premise that certain work hours are protected (40 hours from 9–5 M-F). That is very well suited for having a family at home. Work is confined to time when you have child care during your workday.

What books do you recommend?

Scott: The first one I recommend is So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.

This course follows up that book. Next, I recommend The Road to Excellence: the Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games by K. Anders Ericsson. The author studied a lot on what it actually means to be an expert at something. How do experts actually become so good at what they do?

Cal: Having read all the books on deliberate practice, I recommend:

Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein in which the author focuses on athletic excellence and describes what deliberate practice is all about. You HAVE to be putting in the practice.

This course is essentially how you put the So Good They Can’t Ignore You ideas into practice — How to focus on Deep Work.

If coaches aren’t available, how do I know I am practicing the right way?

Scott: Excellent question. With a sports coach or music coach you still need to do hard work and practice, but it is straightforward because expert comes in to guide. The problem is that most careers don’t have this type of model. We created a simulated coaching model.

Maybe you don’t have someone to tell you work on X and don’t work on Y. All elements of this course will help you see what really matters. Then how do you develop these projects that trim the fat and focus on deliberate practice?

What’s the elevator pitch for how to figure out what skills to get better at?

Cal: Big idea of the course is that this should give much more attention than you currently are. The first two weeks is doing research on your own. Later on we share a template for modeling time.

Will the course distract me from doing the deep work required to complete coursework?

Cal: No, five hours/week will allow you to review the materials and complete the exercises.

How will the community be built for this course?

Scott: After doing a lot of research on “how to run a community,” we learned not to create an additional obligation for community members to check on top of their existing commitments. Since 1 billion people are already in the habit of checking Facebook, we opted for a Facebook group for the community.

Cal: Hopefully, three years from now we will have a different way to connect because so many of you will have left social media to focus on deep work. In the meantime, I will use my wife’s Facebook to login and check the group.

Now here’s three rapid fire questions.

Can we have a talk just about deep work rituals?

Cal: Yes, there is a full week in course.

Can you suggest a book about innovation?

Cal: Where Good Ideas come From by Steven Johnson (hint: innovation comes from the adjacent possible after building a strong foundation of lots of expertise). I also recommend you listen to the Product Hunt podcast with Steven Johnson (Episode 36). This episode provides an insider look at systems within his own life for more creative insights.

With your fixed schedule productivity plan from 9am-5pm Mon-Fri, does that mean you don’t do any work on academic endeavors outside of the allotted time?

Cal: Here are my rules. Outside of that fixed schedule productivity frame, there are only three exceptions. I write weekly blog posts at night after the kids go to bed. When I’m working on a book, I will use hour blocks of deep work on weekends to make progress on the book. As a computer scientist, if there is a theorem I’m honing in on, then once it is in my mind, and it is very close, I will be thinking about it all the time, regardless of being in the 9–5 frame. Otherwise, I don’t work on any writing or CS outside the frame.

Friendly reminder to sign up for the Top Performer course here:

Scott and Cal created this course to offer you a learning process for:

Conducting careful research of your field, so you can figure out what matters and ignore what doesn’t.

Turning that research into concrete actions that require only a few hours per week to see real improvements in your abilities.

Leveraging the productivity techniques that Cal and I use to produce at a high level without unnecessary stress or grinding workloads.

About Scott Young

I’m a writer, programmer, traveler and avid reader of interesting things. For the last eight years I’ve been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better. I don’t promise I have all the answers, just a place to start.

About Cal Newport

I’m a computer science professor exploring how people reach elite levels in knowledge work careers. I used to write a lot of student advice (which you can still find in the blog archive).

Please email with any questions about the Top Performer course at

Mike Malloy

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Changing how you see the world.