A Review of Cal Newport and Scott Young’s TopPerformer Course

I took Cal Newport and Scott Young’s TopPerformer course. Newport is known for blogging at StudyHacks and writing two best selling books on career advice, So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. Scott Young is known for taking on impressive learning challenges and blogging about them here.

TopPerformer builds on a lot of the material in Newport’s books to teach people a system for cultivating expertise predicated on social skills. Young and Newport make it clear that if you want to get good at something, you need to get good at building rapport with experts — people whose skills are paired with a lifestyle that you’d want for yourself. It’s easy to form a false impression of the lifestyle that goes with a lot of careers. Getting to know people who actually hold those careers can relieve you of any misconceptions. How do you meet potential mentors? How do get actionable, high-quality advice from them? That’s the topic of the first phase of the course.

The second phase is about designing a deliberate practice project. It’s surprisingly easy to choose projects that don’t take you in the direction you want to go. For example, you might aim to build depth in your understanding of fundamental computer science, but then plan a project that skims the surface of popular machine learning libraries. The lessons on project design are there to prevent this kind of misalignment between goals and projects.

The remaining lessons of the course focus on principles of deep  work in the pursuit of mastery: blocking time, managing energy, maintaining focus, and tracking progress. This is all material that’s familiar from Newport’s books, but it’s packaged for immediate action.

How would I rate this course? Favorably.

Around the time that I started taking TopPerformer, I was in San Francisco, attending courses in computer science at Bradfield. There were plenty of talented software engineers around to have chats with. The environment really helped me appreciate the message that Young and Newport were pumping: get to know top performers, find out what actions they took to build mastery, and just do the work.

TopPerformer helped me get some projects going and start experimenting with deep work techniques I hadn’t encountered in Newport’s book. It provided me some mental models I’d been missing to help me better organize my time. And — this is the biggest payoff — it helped me to formulate questions that I could ask experts to avoid wasting my time on projects that wouldn’t elevate my game. There’s no getting back lost time, as they say.