The Professor With The Secret To The Good Life

December 15, 2019
Estimated reading time:
8 minutes

If there’s one guy who seems like he’s got it all figured out, it’s Cal Newport.

Cal has a flourishing career as a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University, where he publishes papers with titles like Distributed Minimum Degree Spanning Trees and Contention Resolution on Multiple Channels with Collision Detection. That sounds pretty demanding to me.

On the side, he writes books like New York Times bestseller Digital Minimalism, an argument for altering our relationship with technology and reclaiming power over the smartphone that’s always in your hand.

Did I mention that Digital Minimalism was his sixth book?

Surely he must be some sort of loner workaholic, I hear you say. On the contrary, as this excerpt from Cal’s fifth book Deep Work explains:

For the most part, I don’t touch a computer between the time when I get home from work and the next morning when the new workday begins (the main exception being blog posts, which I like to write after my kids go to bed). This ability to fully disconnect...allows me to be present with my wife and two sons in the evenings, and read a surprising number of books for a busy father of two.

Now, that’s interesting. A husband, father, voracious reader, with a challenging but fulfilling career, who also writes bestselling books in his spare time?

That’s someone I can relate to, aside from the fact that he’s (seemingly) more successful than me across most of those domains.

But how does he do it? And what can we learn from him?

The Tao of Cal Newport

It’s actually quite simple to figure out Cal’s secret. All you have to do is read his book titles.

So here it is, in all its beauty: the happiness philosophy of Cal Newport.

The key to a successful career is becoming so good they can’t ignore you. You become so good they can’t ignore you by doing deep work. You cultivate the ability to do deep work by embracing digital minimalism.

If you apply this philosophy, you’ll find yourself doing well professionally, cultivating the power and ability to take charge of your career, and develop autonomy, mastery, and purpose. You’ll be getting more done in less time, meaning you have a surplus of free time. You’ll thoroughly enjoy this free time, spent being present in the company of friends and family, or engrossed in a hobby you enjoy, like writing or woodworking or cooking.

That’s the Cal Newport promise.

Let’s break it down step by step.

Step 1: Embrace digital minimalism.

Relentlessly checking your smartphone is killing your attention span, your ability to focus at work, and your ability to be present with other people.

That would be OK if, in exchange, your smartphone gave you endless happiness -- but if we’re honest with ourselves, it rarely does. Instead what we usually get is either distraction or feelings of envy and FOMO, generated via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and the like.

Such services are designed and engineered to capture our attention. As social creatures we’re hardwired to crave the random attention and validation in the form of likes, retweets and comments. These services have algorithms designed to highlight and promote content that is either controversial or trivial.

We must refuse to let them commandeer our attention. We do not want to play that game. Instead, we need Digital Minimalism.

Digital Minimalism: A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

Choose only to use services that add true value to your life. Set rules and processes for how you will use them. Ignore the rest.

All that time you used to spend mindlessly scrolling? That’s yours. As Cal says:

For many people, their compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of a well-developed leisure life.

It’s time to develop that leisure life. Find some real-world activities you love, like woodworking, running, joining a book club, building treehouses with your kids.

You’ll have less anxiety, more focus, more contentment, and more fun. Trust me.

Step 2: Focus on deep work.

We’re going to take your new-found ability to focus and put it to good use. You need to cultivate your ability to do deep work.

Programming is deep work. Writing is deep work. Thinking about your team’s top priorities for the coming year, and putting together a presentation to communicate that clearly and succinctly -- that’s deep work too.

Checking and responding to email is shallow work. Meetings are shallow work. Filling in your expenses is shallow work. They’re all necessary to some degree, but they’re not where the real magic happens.

Deep work is demanding, strenuous, and pushes you to the limits of your abilities. It’s also where you create a lot of value or learn new skills. And it’s hard to replicate with lower-skilled workers in the Philippines or a machine learning algorithm.

You need to alter how you spend your time at work to maximise the amount of deep work you do, and keep the shallow work to a minimum.

The argument for deep work is that in a rapidly changing and digitally connected world, the ability to a) learn and master new skills, and b) produce at an elite level is more important than ever. The rewards are flowing towards those with these skills -- both of which require deep work.

Thankfully, now that you’re not so distracted by your phone all the time, you’ll be able to intentionally focus at the level required to do deep work.

(As an aside: if you’re in sales, management, consulting, or some other profession where phone calls, meetings, and email are a lot of the work, you might be thinking deep work isn’t as applicable.

I’d disagree: deep work is the time you spend crafting your phone script, working on your pitch deck, or thinking deeply about your team’s goals for the upcoming quarter. It’s just as valuable and applicable for managers as it is for makers. Putting in this deep work ahead of your big client meeting is what will make your meeting go smoothly.)

Step 3: Become so good they can’t ignore you.

You’re focused, content, and working hard. But you might be thinking: to what end? I’m working hard but it’s a job I don’t actually like! Wouldn’t I be better and quitting to go do something I love, something I’m passionate about?

Nope. Instead, you need to become so good they can’t ignore you.

This theory is taken from comedian Steve Martin, who was asked how he became so successful in comedy. His answer was simple. He became so good they couldn’t ignore him.

The way you become a top performer is to do deep work. Deep work is the high-value, non-replicable work that employers, clients and customers love. It’s what makes you and your company successful.

Here’s an example. In my last job, I had to figure out how much money each of our managers had made that month running their contracts, then help them figure out why that differed (favourably or adversely) to what we had budgeted.

The monthly admin that went into producing these figures was shallow work. But setting up the systems and processes, coding the macros and writing the scripts to automate it, and diving deeply into the numbers: that was the deep work, and that’s what added all the value. That’s also what made me a top performer, and led to me getting bonuses and promotions.

I was developing what Cal calls career capital. That’s the combination of skills, experience, reputation and contacts you’ve accrued in your career by being a top performer.

If you want to get paid a lot, or work flexibly and remotely, or keep getting promoted until you run the whole company, or take a leap and start your own thing, you’ll need to use that career capital and trade it for those things you want.

As an example, if you’re currently working a desk job, you might be itching to quit your job and go start a scuba diving business in the Maldives. But before you do, think about why exactly you want to do that. Is it because you don’t like being told what to do, and want to work for yourself? Is it because you don’t want to work 9-5, Monday to Friday? Is it because you hate your commute?

There are ways around all of those, and they’re open to you if you’re a top performer. When you’re at the top of your game, you have negotiating power, and you can use it to your advantage to go part-time, to get a pay increase, or to set up your own department working on the things you want to do.

By using this career capital you’ve built, and trading it for time, flexibility, autonomy, and money, you’ll be happier and more fulfilled in your career (and more successful to boot).


It’s not all about work. Remember what Cal said earlier: you can crush your professional goals while feeling great about your career, then put your computer away for the rest of the day and spend time with people you love, doing things you enjoy, and be truly present and focused the whole time.

That’s the good life. That’s the Cal Newport promise.

More resources

Cal Newport’s blog is a great place to start.




Cal on the Art of Manliness podcast talking about digital minimalism

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