April 24th, 2015 · 12 comments
The Four Hour Consensus
In 2007, Tim Ferriss published a hit book that suggested “work,” in the traditional money-making sense of the term, could and should be reduced to as little as four hours per week — freeing time for more fulfilling pursuits.
Seventy-five years earlier, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, in an essay titled In Praise of Idleness, suggested this same number of working hours as a worthy goal, explaining…
In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving…Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers…Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas…
Russell and Ferriss propose wildly different paths to this goal: while the former believed a radically reduced workweek requires socialism to realize, Ferriss argues that the productivity tools of the Internet Age suffice.
But both writers hit on a deeper idea that has remained as intriguing today as in the 1930s: the notion that industry (what we might now call “busyness”) is intrinsically virtuous is suspect. It’s worth instead working backwards from a more general confrontation with the question of what matters and deciding how best to act on the answers.
I don’t have a specific point of view here (I know Russell mainly from his work on mathematical philosophy), I just thought the coincidence was cool, and the ideas interesting…
On an unrelated note, my friends over at the exceptional 80,000 Hours organization have recently released a (free) career guide that is among one of the most thoughtful and grounded I’ve seen. If you read SO GOOD, you’ll probably appreciate their technical take on cultivating (not finding) passion.
April 20th, 2015 · 41 comments
The Watch to Watch
A couple weeks ago, the New York Times reviewed the Apple Watch. A paragraph early in the article caught my attention:
First there was a day to learn the device’s initially complex user interface. Then another to determine how it could best fit it into my life. And still one more to figure out exactly what Apple’s first major new product in five years is trying to do — and, crucially, what it isn’t.
It’s worth taking a moment to recognize what’s strange here. If it takes three days to figure out why something might be useful to you, then you probably don’t need it!
In any other market, a product without a clear use case would be impossible to sell. But in the cultural distortion field of Silicon Valley, this is the new normal. They provide the hot new thing, and it’s up to you to figure out why you need it.
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April 11th, 2015 · 32 comments
Distracted in the Dugout
Last week, the Washington Post featured a front page story about the declining number of kids who play organized baseball. There are various reasons for this decline, but the story emphasized the sport’s lack of action.
Here’s an articulate 15-year old, as quoted in the article, explaining his reasons for quitting baseball:
Baseball is a bunch of thinking, and I live a different lifestyle than baseball. In basketball and football, you live in the moment. You got to be quick. Everything I do, I do with urgency.
This teenager is right. Baseball, undoubtedly, is a slow sport: even more so for spectators than the players.
But while this might be bad news for those hoping to attract the allegiance of the iPhone generation, I’ve found it to be quite useful in my own quest to sharpen my deep work skills.
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April 5th, 2015 · 18 comments
What Steve Said
I opened my last book with Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. Toward the end of the speech, I noted, Jobs said:
And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Many people interpreted this suggestion simplistically, assuming that Jobs was telling them to follow their passion and everything would work out.
I argued in my book that this interpretation conflicted with Jobs’s own story. During the period leading up to Apple’s founding, there was no indication that Jobs felt any particular passion for technology entrepreneurship.
His company was, in many ways, a happy accident that evolved into a calling.
What, then, explains the mismatch between what Steve Jobs did and what Steve Jobs said?
Fortunately, we gain new insight into this question from Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli’s excellent new biography, Becoming Steve Jobs. In this book, the authors (one of whom had a long term personal relationship with Jobs) devote a full chapter to dissecting the Stanford address, taking specific aim at his “follow your heart” line.
Not only do Schlender and Tetzeli provide needed nuance to Jobs’s advice, but they also end up providing one of the more sophisticated and useful interpretations of professional passion that I’ve heard…
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April 1st, 2015 · 37 comments
Bound Gaps Solved
Last year, Yitang (Tom) Zhang published a paper in the Annals of Mathematics titled “Bounded Gaps Between Primes.” The abstract for the paper is simple enough for a non-mathematician to understand. It states that there are infinitely many pairs of consecutive prime numbers that are no more than 70,000,000 apart.
Don’t let the simplicity of the claim fool you: people have being trying to prove something like this for over 150 years.
At the time when Zhang submitted his result he held a “tenuous” temporary position in the mathematics department at the University of New Hampshire. As reported in Alec Wilkinson’s elegant New Yorker profile, before a friend set Zhang up with the New Hampshire position, he bounced around odd jobs, including a stint keeping the books at a Subway franchise.
Soon after his result was published, everything changed. His employer (wisely and with haste) made him a professor. He was invited to spend six months at the Institute for Advanced Study and accepted lecture invitations across the country. That same year, he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant.
What caught my attention about Zhang, however, was not the elegance of his result (which, as a lowly applied mathematician, I cannot come close to understanding) but the elegance of his work habits.
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March 27th, 2015 · 24 comments
Asimov’s Lost Essay
In the late 1950’s, Arthur Obermayer worked for Allied Research Associates, a cold war-era science lab. During this period, his employer received a grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency to “elicit the most creative approaches possible for a ballistic missile defense system.”
Obermayer was a longtime friend of the famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Figuring that Asimov might know a thing or two about creativity, he brought him into the project.
The result was an essay, penned by Asimov, on the topic of creative breakthroughs. Oberymayer recently brought this essay to the attention of the MIT Technology Review magazine, which reprinted it in full.
The piece contains several original notions, but what caught my attention was its take on where creative ideas come from.
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March 17th, 2015 · 13 comments
Deep Work After Hours
One lesson I learned after becoming a professor is that producing intellectual insights at a professional pace requires deep thinking beyond the confines of the normal workday. Though I’m quite good at protecting and prioritizing deep work against the encroachment of the shallow, the depth I can fit into my regular schedule is not sufficient.
My strategy is to maintain, at all times, a single, clear problem primed and ready for cogitation. I then set aside specific times for this deep thinking in my schedule outside work. I use many (though not all) of my commutes for this purpose. I also leverage long weekend dog walks and the mental lull that accompanies time-consuming house work.
(People sometimes ask what I do with the free time I preserve by not using any social media or web surfing. This is a large part of my answer.)
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March 14th, 2015 · 30 comments
Redeeming The Luddite Caucus
Earlier this morning I was reading The Washington Post while watching the sun rise (I have two young kids at home: I find quiet where I can). A column by Catherine Rampell, titled The Luddite Caucus, caught my attention.
As I began to read, my interest transformed into concern.
In the wake of the recent Hillary Clinton e-mail story, many reporters, it turns out, have been asking other politicians about their digital habits. After reviewing these articles, Rampell reports that there are a surprising number of United States senators who rarely use e-mail — a list that includes: Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Pat Roberts, Richard Shelby, Orrin Hatch, and Chuck Schumer.
Rampell is shocked that so many senators “proudly abstain” from e-mail.
She accuses them of being “utterly uninterested” in “understanding the daily experience, workplace expectations or priorities of their younger constituents.”
She describes the senators as displaying “mindboggling levels of societal incuriosity,” to the point that this behavior should be considered “political malpractice.”
She concludes by asserting that contemporary technology use is a “necessary” condition for understanding “good tech policy”, rendering these senators unqualified to address laws that affect technology, privacy, labor, global competitiveness, and, for some reason, immigration.
As you might have guessed: I don’t buy this argument.
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