The Art of Work: Summary and Key Takeaways

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As an author, I have to pay special tribute to this book: The Art of Work by Jeff Goins.

This is actually one of my favorite books when it comes to finding your purpose, especially if you are in the creative space like I am.

In fact, if you are a writer, artist, musician, or have some other creative outlet, this is one of the first books that I would recommend to you.

The book is one of Jeff’s most popular and bestselling books, becoming a Washington Post and Publishers Weekly bestseller when it debuted. And it’s a really good place to start if you feel like you haven’t found your calling in life.

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So let’s take a look at this amazing book.

Who is Jeff Goins?

Jeff Goins is an author, blogger, and speaker. He is best known for his books like this one, The Art of Work, as well as others like Real Artists Don’t Starve.

He is also the founder of an online community called Tribe Writers, and has also written for Business Insider, Fast Company, and the New York Observer.

As a personal fan of his, I can say that Jeff is one of the best authors for creatives who want to make a living with their work.

So let’s move on to a quick summary and the key takeaways from The Art of Work.

7 Characteristics of a Calling

I love it when authors break down complex topics into manageable lists, which is what Jeff Goins has done here. Based on his research, he boiled down the stories of people who had found their calling into seven characteristics.

Let’s break these down one by one.

  • Awareness: when we are first starting out, and before we can find our calling, we have to be aware that something is missing in our lives. We have to know that we can do more than we are. If we don’t do that, we will just continue to live our mediocre lives.
  • Apprenticeship: in the beginning of our journey, we need to become an apprentice. Now, it used to be that we could literally become an apprentice to a master in a given craft, spend an average of seven years studying under that master, before heading out on our own. Today we have a general education, but it’s important to try and find a mentor to really help you hone your craft. It’s also important to understand that this may take years, think the 10,000 hour rule, before we are ready to “graduate” as an apprentice.
  • Practice: practice is important, and Jeff wastes no time in proving this by citing many experts in the field. Before we can truly master our purpose, we have to spend countless hours working at it. This practice will not be easy. In fact, Jeff Goins calls it “painful practice”. It is practice that forces us to leave our comfort zone and truly improve at our craft.
  • Discovery: while along our journey, we will make incremental discoveries that lead to mastery and improvement in our craft. Goins likens this to the process of building a bridge, one stone at a time.
  • Profession: at some point we will embrace our craft as a profession. During this phase, it is important to be able to pivot and take detours, because nothing ever happens according to plan. We will all have mistakes and failures, and part of our profession is learning to gracefully pivot and learn from these mistakes.
  • Mastery: at some point we will achieve mastery. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are good at one specific thing. Instead, according to Goins, it means that we will have mastered multiple facets of the craft and in our lives. We will have a well-rounded education in many areas. Only then can we achieve true mastery.
  • Legacy: at some point we have to give back to the world. Because our calling, our purpose, is not just about what we do. We have to be something greater, we have to give back. This can be passing on what we have learned, or applying our skills to a higher purpose.

There is a lot of great information in there, which is why some of my next few takeaways are expanded looks at some of these seven characteristics.

Preparing Yourself: The First Step

Let’s take a look at the first step. For some of us, we already know what our purpose is. We have a sense of that higher calling.

And if that is you, congratulations. That’s pretty awesome.

But for those who haven’t found that, let me ask you a question, do you believe that you were called for something?

Jeff Goins outlines the fact that we must believe that we are called, that an adventure awaits us. That is the first step towards actually finding it. With that, you must be willing to act, to step outside of your comfort zone a little and trust that something will happen.

Until you’re able to do this, you will be frustrated as you watch other people succeed when you do not.

All too often I see people at this stage. People who chalk other people’s success to luck instead of hard work. True, there is a certain element to luck, but luck also tends to be attracted to those with the vision and discipline to make it work.

And as Jeff Goins puts it: “awareness is a sense that something more is possible.”

We have to have hope. If we cannot hope for a better future, for something more, then we will never find it.

“Painful Practice”

I absolutely love this quote from the author: “In an era of human history in which we prize comfort above nearly every other virtue, we have overlooked an important truth: comfort never leads to excellence.”

And this is absolutely true. We live in an age where quick gratification is the goal, and even expectation, of almost everyone. We’re all looking for comfort, but for those of us who want to live our purpose, we can’t settle for anything less then the hardest of hard work.

Most of us have heard of the 10,000 hour rule. If we work at something for 10,000 hours, we will achieve a level of mastery over that thing. But the truth is, just putting in the hours will not work.

Jeff Goins cites a number of different experts, K. Anders Ericsson calls this process “deliberate practice,” Dan Coyle calls it “deep practice,” and Matthew Syed calls it “purposeful practice.”

But Jeff Goins calls it “painful practice,” which I think is actually a more accurate representation of what must happen.

In order for your practice to achieve real growth, it must push you out of your comfort zone constantly.

You don’t want to push yourself too far where it becomes almost like trying to tread water in order to survive. But you need to constantly be stretching, moving yourself further than you’ve ever gone before. Only then can you achieve true mastery after 10,000 hours of practice.

Small Incremental Steps

Part of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone involves small, incremental steps. You can’t take a giant leap and expect to cross an enormous chasm. You have to, instead, build a bridge one stone at a time.

This is the same with finding our purpose. For most of us, our purpose doesn’t come in a giant lightning flash of inspiration. Instead, we take slow steps toward it and incrementally refine what our purpose is. And the closer we get to it, the closer we understand it.

As we take the small incremental steps, we gain that level of clarity, something that doesn’t happen when we try to take giant leaps.

The Art of Pivots

I feel like most of us know that when we make plans, fate laughs in our face and decides to do something completely different. Yet it’s surprising how many people become disappointed when things don’t go according to plan.

That’s why Jeff Goins tells us that we must be willing and able to pivot on a moment’s notice.

Failure is actually a great teacher, and when we can successfully pivot in the face of failure, we will be led towards an even more successful route. We will learn what works and what doesn’t work.

The sad reality is, many people give up when they encounter obstacles. They think that by following their passion, life will always be sunshine and roses. But this is not the case. There will always be obstacles, failure, and bad days, no matter what your passion is.

The hero’s journey illustrates this perfectly. In most stories the hero is still able to accomplish the end goal, but encounters much resistance from the very beginning. In any good story, the hero has to try and fail multiple times before they are able to succeed.

It’s in times of hardship like this that we need to trust ourselves, make the right pivot, and keep working towards our purpose.

The Art of Mastery

Lastly, I want to talk about Jeff Goins’s concept of mastery.

In this section, Jeff quotes a professor at MIT who describes mastery like this: “[It] goes beyond competence and skills… It means approaching one’s life as a creative work.”

In other words, mastery is not just about putting in the 10,000 hours and calling it a night. We have to craft our entire life around our purpose.

This is actually what got me to start taking my health seriously. As I tried to master the art of writing and building my business, I realized that my health was getting in the way. If I was to succeed in business, I had to first succeed in my health.

The same goes for relationships, money, the service you provide to the world, your vices and addictions, and your social life. If you are profoundly “sick” in any area of your life, it will affect your primary purpose.

That is why you must devote yourself to mastery in each area of your life. We must approach our lives as if it is our greatest creative work, our masterpiece. Only then can we truly excel and gain complete mastery over ourselves and our calling in life.