the *other* ERE book

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Postby JamesR » Sun May 12, 2013 2:56 pm

So I've been reading Cal Newport's book "So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love" which LonerMatt mentioned in another forum thread.

And I realized SGTCIY is to careers like ERE is to retirement. In other words, it provides some highly useful concepts for those 5 years of working when starting from scratch on the path to ERE.

It covers a lot of the job issues that people bring up on this forum. Issues like job happiness, lack of control, doing thankless work, and deciding whether to "stick it out for another X number of years in a horrid environment."

So the part that made me sit up and really take notice, is that it talks about building career capital (Hello? Sounds like ERE already!). Career capital mainly comes from rare & valuable skills that you actively develop. Once you have this capital, you can leverage it to get more control over your current job or land a better job. Similar to how having a large emergency fund frees you up in this way too.

Job happiness seems to depend on control (autonomy) & ability. The more competent you are, the happier you are in your job.

This means it is less important to jump around jobs trying to find a job that matches your pre-existing passions. Instead, the book argues for taking a craftsman approach. Engaging in deliberate practice, and working on developing the critical skills that really matter in your endeavours.

A great quote from the book - "Control that's acquired without career capital is not sustainable." That sounds so ERE-ish does it not?

I found it interesting because it made me realize that I made some pretty big mistakes before.

For example, I left my job 6 years ago and tried to make it on my own, without sufficient career capital (skills) to succeed. Now I'm looking for a job again, after 6 years. Brutal. If only I had read ERE & SGTCIY years ago.

Of interesting note: Jacob developed additional skills during his ERE and used that to get a good job with lots of control as a quant.

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Postby Dragline » Sun May 12, 2013 8:57 pm

In my view, Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are the three keys to determining whether any work or hobby activity is worth your time -- whether a paying job or not. See:

For other general career advice, you may like the classic "The Magic of Thinking Big" first published in 1959. Free here:

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby ebast » Mon Jul 01, 2013 1:49 pm

JamesR, I thought you made an interesting comparison and wanted to reply, but deviating from my usual internet commenting practice, I thought I'd actually read the book first (crazy, I know). As you mention, there's a good amount shared with ERE:

"Deliberate Practice" which it defines( following Anders Ericsson) as "activity designed, typically by a teacher for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance." Ok, that didn't sound like much, but this is learning how to do the stuff you're not good at, which is often either uncomfortable or scary because--hey, you're no good at it. He points out that people often hit a plateau in their worklife where they have attained some mastery and then just stick to the things they are good at, actively avoiding anything that might risk painful failure (so they never improve!)

A related example from chess is given regarding the well-known 10,000 hours rule, which we've probably all heard by now, but with an interesting twist: *how* should you spend those hours? Neil Charness looked at how chess players spent their 10,000 hours time and whether it was engaged in real-world tournament play or serious study (of chess books or with chess teachers). The surprising answer? Grand masters spent five times as much time on study! About 5,000 of those hours.

There's a lot about the craftsman mindset, which incorporates deliberative practice in learning skills, getting feedback, and developing mastery, but also in focusing on doing what is of value to other people - his 'Law of Financial Viability': "When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on"

That stuff's nice and it's fun to read for some of his challenging of the traditional advice in finding your fulfilling career: follow your passion, be courageous, have a mission. (he glosses Steve Jobs' famous graduation speech about doing what you love, and then shows if that were the case, Steve Jobs instead of completely totally awesomely revolutionizing the whole universe without ever letting you change your own battery woulda had instead the distinction of being the only turtleneck-wearing instructor at Los Altos Zen Center).

So that's all good and not so far from ERE, but I think there's a pretty drastic difference in priorities and underlying mission between the two.

All this career capital he talks about is building up is "rare and valuable" skills--and those which people will pay for. That means specializing, and that means narrowly focusing on one (where you can amass your 10,000 hours to get there).

Hand in hand with that, a lot of the practical suggestions are of SGTCIY are how to free up swaths of time to focus on developing mastery in your specialty, from ruthlessly focusing to tallying your hours to examples of how to position yourself in cutting edge fields (with an emphasis on academic research, maybe due to the fact that the author's a professor).

This core message seems very far away from ERE, as it is not building up a shock-resistant anti-fragile style of life or ecosystem, but rather on streamlining and focusing yourself on one specialized mission. He does talk about staying flexible in your mission, and staying on top of new developments as you may need to tweak accordingly, but that is a demanding time-hungry process itself.

All that's to be expected, since he's focusing on developing a career, not a complete lifestyle, but could you really be ERE and SGTCIY at the same time?

After all, when you get home after work, should you devote those few hours you have to learning competencies in new useful skills or advanced mastery in one very specialized and in-demand one?

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby m741 » Mon Jul 01, 2013 3:13 pm

@JamesR - You've sold me on that book. Will check it out and report back. It sounds like it echoes some of my current opinions and will cause them to crystallize.

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby m741 » Tue Jul 02, 2013 9:34 pm

I read and enjoyed the book. For those who are curious, I've written a summary on my blog.

I wouldn't say it's on par with ERE though. Too much fluff for that.

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby JamesR » Wed Jul 10, 2013 10:10 pm


You are definitely right that SGTCIY and ERE are contradictory at the same time. My thinking was that it was a good strategy for getting the capital to achieve ERE. Also the mastery and control results in more happiness in that pursuit.

Mastery doesn't have to be super specialized either, but some depth for the industry you actually work in is necessary anyways to make real contributions.. And real contributions also means more happiness.


Found your post at Good summary!

I do agree it's a bit repetitive/windy as well, could've been organized in a bit more readable way.

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Postby Chad » Thu Jul 11, 2013 5:27 am

JamesR wrote:...SGTCIY...

Seriously? AWJGAEGN? (Better known as: Are we just going to abbreviate everything in gibberish now?)

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby m741 » Thu Jul 11, 2013 8:00 am

@JamesR - I actually linked my post, but the links blend in on this forum! :)

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby mxlr650 » Fri Jul 12, 2013 9:54 am

Seriously? AWJGAEGN? (Better known as: Are we just going to abbreviate everything in gibberish now?)

OTTTWTWWUF (only the things that we think we will use frequently)

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby oldbeyond » Sat Aug 10, 2013 9:41 am

I was home sick today and decided to finally plow through this one. I've been reading the blog for quite a while, so none of the main points("follow your passion" is bad advice, invest in career capital, find work with autonomy, and find a mission) were new. A few of the case studies where also familiar to me, but of course more fleshed out.

I think he makes a good case, generally. Someone might say that not all careers makes it possible to acquire valuable skills, but the author concedes that some jobs should be avoided. On the whole I find it hard to argue with a focus on deliberate practice of valuable skills and a quest for agency. As with all self-help books, all the people portrayed have managed grand achievements. The implication of course is that you can, too, if you simply apply the authors advice. While I feel the advice is good, not everyone who takes it will end up with their own show on Discovery Channel or being responsible for a network handling 30 bn in assets. I'd love to see examples of people with high career capital in less sexy/profitable careers.

The main difference between ERE and SGTCIY(love the acronym) is that ERE focuses on cashing out and becoming part of the capitalist class, where Newport focuses on making your labour as expensive as possible. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. Excellence can probably be achieved within an ERE timeframe in a lot of careers(consider the venture capitalist in the book who landed a dream job five years out of college), and FI is really just another way of ensuring your autonomy. Being world-class in your field and financially independent might make for some interesting options...

Of course, being really great at your salaried job and being a renaissance man are probably mutually exclusive. That said, there's a section about "auction type careers", where you can reach the top in very different ways, sometimes through making novel connections between seemingly unrelated fields - see the profile of the ruby coder who studied music and then made Archaopteryx. It should also be noted that Newport manages to work 9-5 and do great, leaving plenty of time for skill acquisition in other areas.

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby jacob » Sat Aug 10, 2013 9:58 am

I forget whether the book covered this, but one important aspect of career strategy is deciding which path to take

1) big fish in a small pond
2) small fish in a big pond

Of course "big fish in a big pond" is the best, but due to the pyramid structure of careers, you'll eventually always find some person who is 1% smarter than you or works 1% harder or is simply better politically connected or is "affirmatively activated".

I think a lot of those success examples (which are necessary, because most prefer examples over principles/abstractions) are "big fish in big pond" examples. Such examples are not so useful for a random sample of readers as it has significant survivor bias.

I can tell you that in physics (big pond) you can't dominate the competition simply by understanding the proof of a difficult theorem. In that field, it's expected that everybody knows.

I can give you plenty examples of people who worked really hard following the prescriptions in the book but simply were working on the wrong project at the wrong time and thus went largely ignored.

Conversely, I've found other fields where this does not hold. Indeed, it seems that (based on the comments on the recent 50 professions posts by MMM) that a blue collar field can be dominated simply by showing up on time and providing customer service.

There's something to be said for the "big fish in small pond" strategy.

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby secretwealth » Sat Aug 10, 2013 10:17 am

Having been both, I think being a big fish in a small pond is horrible. You attract a lot of attention, envy, and eventually attacks for various vested reasons. Smaller ponds tend to be rifer with corruption, incompetence, and other irritants.

As a small fish in a big pond, I found it very easy to find people I could learn from and the work was much more challenging--there were real tests of my capabilities that don't exist in small ponds to the same extent. Plus, there's more upward career mobility, if you're into that sort of thing. Even if you never become a big fish in that big pond, there's always a chance.

At least in my experience. I have no stats or data to back this platitude up beyond my own life.

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby theplk » Sat Aug 10, 2013 12:36 pm

I thought the others ERE book was Your Money Or Your Life?

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby bigato » Sat Aug 10, 2013 1:16 pm

In my experience being a average fish in a small pond leaded to a better quality of life than being a big fish in a small pond. It will not make your wage improve, though.

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Re: the *other* ERE book

Postby workathome » Sat Aug 10, 2013 6:46 pm

Being the big fish could lead to high profits before your competition moves in. It could make sustainability more difficult, but for ERE pursuits you might not care.

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