3 min read

The Grand Project

The Grand Project
Photo by Tianshu Liu on Unsplash

What’s your grand project?

I stumbled across this idea while reading a summary of Cal Newport’s How to Win At College. A primary piece of advice that Cal gives to students is to have a grand project.

Your grand project is something big. It’s something that runs to your core. And it likely relates to one of his other ideas: develop a skill you can be known for.

In these ideas, you can see inklings for his later book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You (which Cal miraculously published while a post-doc at MIT).

I’ll stop expressing my amazement at Cal, but I think that it’s in the interest of any knowledge worker or student to read one of his books (I just finished (and loved) Deep Work and also enjoyed Digital Minimalism).

Back to the grand project. I want to discuss why it matters and how to find your own.


A grand project is who you are. It’s something that you believe to be so important that you will work on every day (or at least every week). It plays a large role in the “tell me about yourself” question.

I’m really good at interviews, and I’ll tell you why: I’m in touch with my life narrative. A life narrative comes with a purpose — your why. Here’s the mindset shift that accompanies this:

You begin to understand your worth, not because you’re special but because you spend your time on something bigger than yourself.

This is essential. If you’re simply going through the motions, taking life as it comes, you don’t have a narrative.

In high school Latin, I learned about subjects and direct objects. The subject is the actor of the sentence and the direct object is what is being acted on. Without a narrative driving your day to day and larger life, you are the direct object of life’s story. Things happen to you; you don’t create them. With a narrative, you’re the subject, life is your direct object. You shape life to your vision.

A grand project makes you the subject of your story. It gives you something bigger than yourself to work on and thus makes you a shaper. You shape the world to fit your vision. You don’t accept the world as it is.

A stated purpose or intention is great. But it doesn’t move the needle, and it certainly doesn’t give you a stable sense of identity. Actions are what matter. Your grand project is the action you take to making yourself who you want to be and impacting the world in a positive way.

To be high value, do one thing really well

“You have to be well-rounded!”

That’s what I was told about college admissions for the majority of my life. You had to do it all — good grades, leading several clubs, captain of a sports team.

They were wrong.

The “spike theory” asserted that as a prospective student, you want to be really good at one thing. While somewhat flawed in its approach to college admissions, it’s generally true about life. To be high value, you have to meet a high demand. And those positions are often the result of a deep expertise or skill in an area.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to be the best writer to succeed in writing. You can be the best writer who’s also a clinical psychologist. I call this the “and” factor. The more and’s you can add to your identity, the more likely you’ll be the best at it. Be too niche, however, and there’s no longer a demand for your skills.

Cal writes about this idea in his piece on the laundry-list fallacy. It’s the idea that to appear accomplished, you should list everything you’ve done. When observing how the smartest kids demonstrate their knowledge, though, it becomes clear that counter-signalling may be the best way to show your skills.

Cal’s advice is the following:

Countersignalling theory predicts that the best strategy for the best candidates is to have a short resume. If you have many items, this will brand you as a medium ability candidate desperate not to be mistaken for a lower ability candidate. Only the top applicants have the confidence to trust [their greatest accomplishments].

To stand out, advertise your grand projects, not the long list of mediocre achievements you have.

Do less to be better.

What gets you out of bed

Without a purpose, I’m aimless. I can’t get out of bed. My grand projects keep me going. They’re what I keep about when I’m at my lowest and they are what I am celebrating when I’m at my top.

They give me hope for a brighter future and remind me of the good I can do for the world.