Cal Newport

So Good They Can't Ignore You: How to Practice Effectively

Key Takeaways

So good they can't ignore you:

Steve Martin once said, "The best advice I have is be so good they can’t ignore you. If you do that, all the other good things will follow.” I found that an inspiring, somewhat freeing idea, because it frees you from this notion that there is some destiny for you that you have to discover through introspection, and if you don’t do it just right, you’re going to be unhappy. Just know the onus is on you. If you can become so good you can’t be ignored, you can have a passionate, fulfilling life. You have to do the work, but it’s a lot less mysterious.

On the myth of :"natural" ability:

We’re obsessed with this notion of intrinsic ability, natural talent, inborn passion, something that just you had for all time. We have this notion now that if someone is really good at something, it’s because they were born that way. What’s important is that they discovered that and therefore pursued it in their career.

But if you take the time to actually study people who are world class, Steve Martin, for example, or any sort of world class speaker, what you find is there’s always a very long period of developing the skill, and any sort of natural inclination or pre-existing passion plays a minor role, if any. I think some of the most compelling public speakers in the world right now are quite shy, introverted people, but they work incredibly hard at it.

The craftsman mindset:

The craftsman mindset gets back to the sort of basic mechanism that allows people to get good at things that are valuable to the world. The basic mechanism is you need to know what it is you’re trying to get better at. You need some source of honest feedback on, “How good am I at this specific skill,” and then you need to stretch yourself to try to increase that feedback, to make it better and better.

That cycle, it’s hard, but it makes people better. But the craftsman mindset says that’s what you should be seeking. Speaking or anything else is a craft that you’re trying to improve, just like if you were trying to learn the guitar. It’s something that you have to sit there and practice, get feedback about how good you are, and stretch to get a little bit better.

If you approach your life that way, and particularly if you approach a specific skill like public speaking that way, you will get better. You will have more passion grow for your work. You will have more opportunities. Good things happen as you begin to craft your ability.

On the myth of passion:

People have this mindset that the only way that you could possibly persist through the hard work required to get really good at something is if you have this massive amount of passion in the beginning that will somehow fuel you through the hard work.

But if you actually go back and look at the research, or if you go out there anecdotally and talk to people who have built up real skills, you see the story is way more complicated. Almost never do people have a massive reservoir of passion at the very beginning of a skill building process. It’s usually much more serendipitous and random why they start working on the skill.

But what happens, what we have evidence for, is that as you get better, your sense of fulfillment, meaning, and passion grows and snowballs along with the skill. Something that might have started serendipitously might over time become a real interest for you. Then after more time of working on the craft, it could be a life defining passion.

But the point is, the passion came along with the skill. It does not need to pre- exist in any sort of massive quantity.

On passion in the marketplace:

So just wanting something is somewhat irrelevant. On the other hand, if you systematically build up your skills, you build up skills that are valuable, you now have currency to spend in this marketplace.

You have leverage over what’s happening in your working life. Once you have that leverage, that’s when you can shape things into really interesting directions. That’s when passion can start to arise.

On courage and confidence:

I find that the notion that you need courage in order to do big things in your life, so that you need courage, for example, to become a successful public speaker, I think that’s getting it entirely backwards. If you’re really worried about it, making that leap that might be your mind telling you don’t have the skills yet.

Go build up the skills so that you don’t feel so afraid about it. I’m not talking about stage fright nerves. Of course, it takes many years to get rid of stage fright nerves. But if you’re more nervous in the grander scheme, of like, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t be trying to sell myself as a big public speaker. Maybe I’m not ready to make the big corporate presentation,” it might be because you haven’t tried to systematically build those skills.

If you had, you’re at a conference like this, you’re taking this type of advice, you’ve been building the skills, you’ll find you don’t need that type of courage. You’re confident in the areas that matter.

On nerves:

I realized a few minutes into the speech, I’m not nervous at all. I was thinking about how big of a change that had been. I was like, that’s about six or seven years of systematic speaking and practicing that goes behind it.

So nerves come and go. They might go away over time. For some people they don’t. But this deep down confidence that, “I’m ready to give this speech. I can give this presentation. I can give this speech. It will be good whether I’m nervous or not,” I think is what you’re looking for.

On deliberate practice:

Deliberate practice is performance psychology’s best understanding to date about how people become world class at cognitively demanding skills. The basic theory says intrinsic talent, intrinsic ability, plays a minor role. There’s no way, no matter what intrinsic traits you have, to become world class at demanding skills without doing this behavior called deliberate practice.

The key components to it are that you’ve identified specifically the skill you’re trying to improve. You get honest feedback on exactly where you are. You stretch to improve that feedback. Those cycles, that deliberate cycle of stretching your skills, is how people get good in all fields from music to athletics to neuroscience.

Anywhere you look at people with cognitively demanding skills, that’s how they get better. I think in speaking it’s incredibly important to understand that the people who are good at presentations, the people who are good at getting on stage and public speaking, have practiced that in the same way that a professional guitar player practices the guitar.

On the practicing process:

Well, I write the speech first. Then I start giving the speech to myself. I do the full speech, try to get the beats right. Usually, after the fourth or fifth time of doing this, I see awkwardness, “Okay, this is not flowing right. This is not clear,” so I do rewrites. After a couple of weeks of this, I usually get the speech down to something that I think is fluid and clear.

Then there’s probably going to be somewhere between 10 to 15 full out practice runs of that, where I’m trying to get the beats right and the timing right. By the time I get on stage, it’s like an actor on the stage for theater. I’ve polished the speech, and I’ve memorized it. I’ll adjust a little bit on the fly to feed off the audience.

I do jokes usually unplanned. But by the time I’m on stage, there are probably 20 to 30 hours of practice behind that speech, 20 to 30 hours of me giving it to the wall or to my dog, and tweaking and turning just a little bit, and this isn’t quite flowing right, and I don’t have a right summary line here. So it’s a lot of work.

What does it mean to speak like a pro?

The ability to get in front of a crowd and not just deliver the information of my idea, but get people thinking about what I have to say, get people giving serious question to, “How am living this part of my life? How do I understand the world?” If you can actually change or at least challenge someone’s worldview, have them come away and say, “ Let ’ s talk about that, ” they ’ re talking about it among themselves, to me, that’s good professional speaking. It’s hard to do, but I love when I can accomplish it.

Top Tips:

If you’re starting from scratch, the first thing to realize is that there’s no such thing as a natural born speaker. Until you have that understanding, you’re going to hold yourself back. You’re going to stop yourself from starting this process. I’ve never met a natural born speaker. I’ve never met a great speaker that didn’t work hard at it.

The deliberate practice cycle is the way to get better at speaking. You need to actually identify the specific things that make a good talk good and measure yourself on those and then stretch to improve that measurement. This means not only do you have to watch video of yourself, but you have to solicit feedback from people who are going to give you honest feedback.

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