August 20th, 2017 · 23 comments
The iGen Problem
Many people recently sent me the same article from the current issue of The Atlantic. It’s titled, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, and it’s written by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.
The article describes Twenge’s research on iGen, her name for kids born between 1995 and 2012 — the first generation to grow up with smartphones. Here’s a short summary of her alarming conclusions:
“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
I won’t bother describing all of Twenge’s findings here. If you’re interested, read the original article, or her new book on the topic, which comes out this week.
The point I want to make instead is that in my position as someone who researches and writes on related topics, I’ve started to hear this same note of serious alarm from multiple different reputable sources — including the head of a well-known university’s mental health program, and a reporter currently bird-dogging the topic for a major national publication.
In other words, I don’t think this growing concern about the mental health impact of smartphones on young people is simply nostalgia-tinged, inter-generational ribbing.
Something really scary is probably going on.
My prediction is that we’re going to see a change in the next 2 – 5 years surrounding how parents think about the role of smartphones in their kids’ lives. There will be a shift from shrugging our shoulders and saying “what can we do?”, to squaring our shoulders and asking with more authority, “what are we going to do?”
(Photo by Pabak Sarkar)
August 14th, 2017 · 49 comments
The Reading Writer
As a writer I’m required to read lots of books, especially when ramping up a new project, as I am now. The picture above, for example, shows the books I’ve purchased only in the past two days.
I’ve already finished one of them.
My approach to the books I process in my professional life is quite different than my approach to the books I savor in my personal life. The former requires the ruthlessly efficient extraction of key ideas and citations, while the latter unfolds as a slower, more romantic endeavor.
I thought it might be interesting to briefly reveal the method I’ve honed over the years for my professional reading. It’s simple, and the basics should sound familiar to any serious nonfiction reader, but it has served me well.
Here’s the strategy:
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August 9th, 2017 · 21 comments
The Disconnected Life
Aziz Ansari recently deleted the web browser from his phone and laptop. He also stopped using email, Twitter and Instagram.
As he explained in an interview with GQ, when he gets into a cab, he now leaves his phone in his pocket and simply sits there and thinks; when he gets home, instead of “looking at websites for an hour and half, checking to see if there’s a new thing,” he reads a book.
Here’s how he explains his motivation:
“Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there’s a new thing, it’s not even about the content. It’s just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling. You’re not going to be able to control yourself. So the only way to fight that is to take yourself out of the equation and remove all these things.”
He was worried when he first deleted his web browsers that he would suffer from not being able to look things up. He soon stopped caring.
“Most of the shit you look up, it’s not stuff you need to know,” he explains.
The journalist interviewing Ansari for GQ reacts to this answer with incredulity. “What about important news and politics?”, he asks.
“Guess what?”, Ansari replies. “Everything is fine! I’m not out of the loop on anything. Like, if something real is going down, I’ll find out about it.”
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July 24th, 2017 · 3 comments
Top Performer is an eight-week online career mastery course that I developed with my friend and longtime collaborator Scott Young. It helps you develop a deep understanding of how your career works, and then apply the principles of deliberate practice to efficiently master the skills you identify as mattering most. Over the past four years we’ve had over two thousand professionals go though this course, representing a wide variety of different fields, backgrounds, and career stages.
We open the course infrequently for new registrations (usually twice a year). It’s that time again: the course is open for registration this week (the registration closes Friday at midnight Pacific time).
If you’d like to learn more about the course, how it works or whether it’s right for you,* see the registration page here.
If you have any questions about the course, Scott’s team will be happy to answer them here: firstname.lastname@example.org
* To emphasize the obvious: the course is definitely not for everyone. It’s expensive and targeting those at a stage in their career where they’re able and willing to invest more seriously in advancement. I might send one or two additional notes about the course this week, but will then return to my regularly scheduled programming.
July 21st, 2017 · 18 comments
An Insightful Life
Claude Shannon is one of my intellectual heroes.
His MIT master’s thesis, submitted in 1936, laid the foundation for digital circuit design. (My MIT master’s thesis, submitted 70 years later, has so far proven somewhat less influential.)
His insight was simple. The wires, relays and switches that made up the types of complex circuits he encountered at AT&T could be understand as the terms and operators of logic statements expressed in the boolean algebra he encountered as a math major at the University of Michigan.
Though simple, this insight had huge impact. It meant that circuits could be designed and optimized in the abstract and precise language of mathematics, and then transformed back to soldered wires and finicky magnetic coils only at the last step — enabling staggering leaps in circuit complexity.
But he wasn’t done. A decade later, inspired in part by his wartime research efforts, Shannon developed information theory: a mathematical framework that formalizes both techniques and fundamental limits for reliably transmitting information over noisy channels.
(For a popular treatment of this theory, see this or this; for a technical introduction, I recommend this guide).
Put another way, Shannon’s master’s thesis laid the foundation for digital computers, while his information theory paper laid the foundation for digital communication.
Not a bad legacy.
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July 14th, 2017 · 16 comments
The Rule of Five
This morning I listened to Srini Rao interview Sarah Peck. Though most of the interview focuses on Peck’s personal life, toward the end they discuss her work as a business consultant.
During this segment, Peck mentioned an interesting heuristic I hadn’t heard before (I’m paraphrasing here): relying only on unstructured communication — e.g., just give everyone an email address or shared Slack channel and then rock and roll — works fine in organizations with five or less employees, but once you grow larger there is too much communication for people to comfortably keep track of everything just in their heads.
At this size, Peck notes, organizations need to introduce systems to document communication and to support structured decisions. It’s no longer enough to simply let emails and chats fly, and hope everything works out. You need more detailed and careful approaches to how people work.
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June 28th, 2017 · 19 comments
Late Night Depth
I recently reread Masters of Doom — David Kushner’s entertaining (though cheesily dialogued) history of id Software.
Something new caught my attention this time through the book.
Kushner revealed that id’s ace coder, John Carmack, adopted an aggressive tactic to increase his effectiveness while working on his breakthrough Quake engine: Carmack, seeking a break from distraction, began to shift the start of his workday one hour at a time, until eventually he was starting his programming in the evening and finishing before dawn.
The uninterrupted depth provided by this odd habit allowed Carmack (with help from graphics guru Michael Abrash) to reinvent electronic entertainment with the first lightening fast, fully 3D PC game engine.
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June 21st, 2017 · 19 comments
The Pullman Problem
A couple years ago, I stumbled across a series of articles from 1916, published in a business journal called System. The articles detail how the Pullman Company (famous for their eponymous train cars) arrested their slide away from profitability by systematically overhauling their operations.
As I detail in an essay I wrote for Fast Company, a big factor in Pullman’s early 20th century problems would sound familiar to early 21st century ears: communication overload.
As Pullman president, John Runnells, explained, many departments were run with “confusing unrelated systems [that] had been spontaneously developed.”
The result is that everyone was a little involved in everything — disrupting their ability to do their primary work.
If you wanted something from the brass works, to cite an example given in the 1916 articles, you would go over to the brass works and bother someone you knew until you got what you wanted– distracting both of you from your main value-producing crafts.
As Runnells sagely observed, if you don’t build optimized systems to handle logistics, the effort simply gets offloaded, in an ad hoc and disruptive manner, to everyone: “and every man contributing by that much [to these organizational efforts] demoralized his own particular work by the interruption.”
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