Work Only You Can Do

As I slowly approach the end of what will probably be a two year long project, I sense a tide of existential dread slowly rolling in. What do I work on next?

Cal Newport proposes looking at work through the following lens when considering projects:

“How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?”

Granted, the fact that he is a professor strongly influences this advice — research professors thrive off of specialization more than most people. And you don’t want to put your head down, become a specialist, and then look up one day and realize it’s no longer relevant. But it’s a reminder that whether you like it or not, you are building a specialization over time. Even if that specialization is being one of the best generalists.

Reading Charlie Munger’s Poor Charlie’s Almanac, he tells a story of someone who seems to have taken this metric to heart:

“In my capacity as a hospital board chairman, I was dealing with a medical school academic named Joseph M. Mirra, M.D. This man, over years of disciplined work, made himself know more about bone tumor pathology than almost anyone else in the world. He wanted to pass this knowledge on to help treat bone cancer. How was he going to do it? Well, he decided to write a textbook, and even though I don’t think a textbook like this sells more than a few thousand copies, they do end up in cancer treatment centers all over the world. He took a sabbatical year and sat down at his computer with all his slides, carefully saved and organized. He worked seventeen hours a day, seven days a week, for a year. Some sabbatical. At the end of the year he had created one of the two great bone tumor pathology textbooks of the world.”

What does a project offer you not only in its completion, but in the expertise gained that will influence your next project? Jumping way ahead, how does it influence the last thing you work on before you die? What future work are you creating that only you will be able to do?


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