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How to Become a Star Grad Student: James McLurkin and the Power of Stretch Churn

March 15th, 2010 · 61 comments

The Famous Dr. McLurkinMcLurkin

In 2008, when James McLurkin graduated with a PhD in Computer Science from MIT, he was unquestionably a star. Four years earlier, Time Magazine profiled James and his research on swarm robotics as part of their Innovators series. The next year, he was featured on an episode of Nova ScienceNOW. The producer of the show, WGBH in Boston, built an interactive web site dedicated to James, where, among other activities, you can watch a photo slide show of his life and find out what he carries in his backpack. Earlier this year, TheGrio, a popular African American-focused news portal, named James one of their 100 History Makers in the Making — a list that also includes Oprah Winfrey and Newark, NJ mayor Cory Booker.

Perhaps most telling, even my brother, who finished his systems engineering degree in 2002, knew of James. “He’s the guy with the robots,” he recalled. “We watched a video of him in class.”

In other words, James is famous in his field. So it’s not surprising that in 2009 he landed a professorship at Rice University — one of the country’s top engineering schools — in one of the worst academic job market in decades.

With these accomplishments in mind, this post asks two simple questions: How did James become such a star? And what lessons can we apply to our own quest to become remarkable?

The answers, as  you’ll soon encounter, are not what you might first expect…

A Star is Born

The direct source of James’ stardom is obvious.  In 1994, as part of his senior thesis project at MIT, he designed a swarm of a dozen Antmicrorobots he called Ants. Inspired by the insect of the same name, the devices produced complex behavior — such as playing capture the flag — using only simple rules.

To call this swarm a breakthrough risks understatement. It wasn’t an advance, it was a leap. In the early 90’s, roboticists were just starting to discuss the potential of swarming groups of robots; no one was building fully functioning and autonomous swarms.

“Our group at MIT was way out in front,” James recalls. “Carnegie Mellon had some work moving in that direction, but that’s it; no one in Europe at the time, for example, was even thinking about it.”

When James published the paper documenting the project, it sparked a sensation that spread beyond the robotics community. James and his Ants were featured on Good Morning America. Magazines such as Discover, Omni, Popular Mechanics, and Business Week featured the project. The Pulitzer-prize winning humorist Dave Barry satirized the mini-robots in one of his widely-syndicated columns.

James became a star in the field.

After graduating from MIT, he stayed on for two years as researcher and lecturer — an honor considering his lack of any graduate degree at this point — before heading west to receive a masters from Berkeley.  He returned to Massachusetts in 1999, earning his PhD at MIT while working on the side with the Bedford-based iRobot Corporation. Swarmbot with swarm

With the support of iRobot, which was impressed with his work on the Ants, James upped the ante again, designing a swarm of over 100, tissue box-sized robots with many more capabilities than his Ants. These new robots could form structures, explore rooms, and even coordinate perform a beep-based orchestra. No other robotics researcher had a deployment that could rival the size or complexity of James’ new swarm.

Once again, the media turned their spotlight on young engineer: generating the stories highlighted in this post’s introduction. The impact of this work made James’ path to  professorship frictionless. Who wouldn’t want to hire one of the world’s most accomplished and well-known roboticists?

Decoding the McLurkin Factor

Steve Martin famously described the key to fame as: “be so good they can’t ignore you.” James confirms Martin’s axiom. By building two robot swarms that were an order of magnitude more complex than any that existed at the time or since, well-deserved stardom followed. But what lessons can we extract from his path to excellence?

A common reaction to James’ story is to emphasize the importance of thinking big. To borrow a phrase from Jim Collins, if you don’t have “Big Hairy Audacious Goals,” you can’t accomplish amazing things. According to this view, the core of the McLurkin Factor was his willingness, as an MIT senior, to think big — conceiving and executing the almost impossibly-ambitious Ants project.

This message resonates: it’s simple and it provides a satisfying little burst of enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, you encounter it often in the success literature. For example:

And so on.

But is this good advice for the aspiring grad student? James is skeptical…

Beyond Audacious Goals

“We never viewed the Ants project as a major jump,” James told me. “If anything, with this project, we were dialing back…our goal was to simplify greatly.”

To understand this modesty, you must understand Rod Brooks’ robotics laboratory at MIT. During the mid-90’s, the lab was leading a revolution in robotics — moving the focus away from hulking, C3PO-style androids, and towards smaller, replaceable, biologically-inspired devices.

Next door to James’ office in the lab was Maja Mataric, now the head of USC’s Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems, who, during the 90’s, was a leading thinker on robotic swarms. (During this time, Mataric was writing papers with titles such as Coordination and Learning in Multi-Robot Systems.) James’ undergraduate supervisor was Anita Flynn, now the president of MicroPropolsion Inc., who, during the Ants-period, was shrinking the size of electronic motors — enabling the micro-robot revolution. (She’s well-known for building the world’s smallest robot, which at 10 mg is roughly the weight of a dozen grains of sand.)

James quickly integrated this knowledge into his repertoire of skills.

“I went to the lab as an undergrad to interview for a position,” he recalls. “Anita told me they’re not hiring. So I came back with some robots I had built, and some I was halfway through building, and she said, ‘okay, you can work in the lab, and use our parts, but we can’t pay you.'”

Once in the lab, James moved through project after project, under the careful supervision of Flynn, each expanding his abilities.

“I had friends call me in the lab, in the middle of the night, and say: ‘you have to go out and do something,'” James recalls. “To have an MIT student say you have no life, that’s a problem. But I was having so much fun.”

By the time he conceived of the Ants project for his thesis, James was an accomplished robot engineer with a number of successful projects under his belt. He also had a cutting-edge knowledge of microrobotics, and was “marinating” in a lab environment obsessed with biologically-inspired systems.

With this in mind, the idea of building a robot swarm that behaves like insects was not a big hairy audacious goal at MIT in the mid-90’s, it was water cooler conversation. And it made perfect sense that James — with his advanced robotics skills and enthusiasm to see projects to completion — took on the challenge.

The  Bleeding Edge

James’ story is not unique in the annals of science. As Robert Weisberg, a psychologist at Temple University, points out in his book Creativity, great scientific discoveries are rarely the result of “inspiration that blesses [only] geniuses.” They tend instead to be advances made by individuals at the bleeding-edge of knowledge and technique in their field. To the progenitors of breakthroughs, the ideas often seem obvious and incremental. To those without their level of expertise, however, they can seem miraculous.

In Weisberg’s retelling of the discovery of the DNA double-helix, for example, Watson and Crick didn’t win the race to decode DNA’s structure because they were brilliant. Instead, it was because they had mastered the brand new technique of x-ray crystallography (which is used to probe the structure of molecules) and had recent experience decoding the structure of a protein from a tobacco virus that had properties similar to DNA.

Like Watson and Crick, James’ bleeding edge knowledge made his big break seem obvious.

Let’s unwind the implications:

  1. To become a star, in graduate school or elsewhere, you need to make an important advance in your field.
  2. Important advances require bleeding-edge expertise. (Once this expertise is gained, however, the breakthrough itself will probably seem obvious.)
  3. Therefore:  To become a star, you should focus on getting to the bleeding edge of your field as quickly as possible.

This last point is more difficult than it might seem. Many graduate students, for example, never arrive at the bleeding edge of their field. Instead, they reach a comfortable level of knowledge — enough to understand relevant research, and make their own acceptably-complex contributions, but not enough to make bold advances.

Put another way: Thousands of chemists could understand Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper on the double helix, but only a handful had the knowledge needed to have discovered it for themselves.

(Note: The idea of a comfortable level of knowledge is similar to Anders Ericsson’s notion of an “acceptable plateau” of ability where most people stall if they don’t deliberately push their skills forward.)

This motivates an obvious question: How do you get to the bleeding edge?

Returning to James’ story, we find a compelling answer…

The Power of Stretch Churn

“Every semester, my supervisor, Anita [Flynn], had me write out goals,” James told me. “We would go back at the end of the semester and look at what I did and didn’t do. She would tell me, ‘it’s fine that you didn’t get this all done, but what’s not fine is your inability to estimate how long something will take.'”

James describes this lesson as perhaps the most valuable he learned as an undergrad at MIT. Under the tutelage of his supervisor, he honed his ability to choose projects that were hard enough to stretch his ability, but still reasonable enough that he could complete them. She wanted him to be ambitious and set big goals, but she had no tolerance for goals so big that they were beyond his ability to finish in a reasonable time frame.

This should sound familiar. The type of stretch project James describes provide a perfect match with the theory of deliberate practice.

In a 2003 study of deliberate practice and sports stars, for example, researchers Janice Deakin and Stephen Cobley noted that elite figure skaters spent most of their practice time on jumps — one of the most difficult elements of their routines — while “second tier” skaters spent more time on the easier, more familiar elements of their routines.

James’ stretch projects are like figure skating jumps: they’re hard and uncomfortable, but completing them is the key to getting better.

With this in mind, I argue that the secret to James McLurkin’s success is his ability to choose the right projects. By resisting work that reinforced what he’s comfortable with, yet also sidestepping overly-ambitious projects, he consistently advanced his skill until he arrived at the bleeding edge of research robotics.  Once there, the “breakthrough” projects that cemented his reputation became obvious next steps.

Put another way: stretch projects are an effective way to integrate deliberate practice into fields without clear competitive structures and coaching. If you’re a figure skater, a top coach can walk you through the hard jumps you need to get better. If you’re a grad student (or entrepreneur, writer, or knowledge worker), however, there are no such coaches to guide you through this process.

Stretch projects can fill this role.

To make this more concrete, let me give you a couple definitions:

  • Stretch Project: A project that requires a skill you don’t have at the outset.
  • Stretch Churn: The number of stretch projects you complete per unit of time.

If you’re interested in building a rare and valuable skill in your field, ask yourself a simple question: What’s my stretch churn?

James’ value was off the charts.

To give you another example, in my own recent efforts to push out onto the bleeding edge of systems research on wireless networking (a shift from my grad student work on the theory side), I’ve fostered an obsession with my stretch churn. It’s tempting to fall back on the skills I’m comfortable with (i.e., “I’ll handle the theory, you guys figure out if it works”), and it’s equally tempting to try to  change the field in one quixotic swoop (i.e., “Let’s revolutionize wireless broadcast!”), but neither would advance my knowledge, and I desperately want to get to the bleeding edge where the real advances are made.

With this in mind, I’ve spent the past few months in a constant state of discomfort — obsessing over channel coherence times and hacking complex wireless network simulators, among other decidedly non-theoretical diversions — and have been loving it: with each stretch project complete, I feel myself growing more knowledgeable.

(In a recent bid to accelerate this effort, I’ve begun reading through this year’s proceedings of the top three wireless conferences. My mantra: Expertise is destiny.)

Conclusion

In the quest for big accomplishment, there’s no escaping the discomfort of deliberate practice. As James’ story emphasizes: for many fields, grad students included, a metric such as stretch churn can be an easy way to integrate this hard work into your life.

Big goals are overrated. As is hard work for the sake of hard work. Master your field and the breakthroughs will slide into focus.

(Top photo by cctvprojdoc)

61 thoughts on “How to Become a Star Grad Student: James McLurkin and the Power of Stretch Churn

  1. Plavixo says:

    I’m really interested in this – please talk more about it! Is there a method for deciding what a person’s stretch projects are? How is it best to work out what stretch churn to aim for.

  2. Study Hacks says:

    Is there a method for deciding what a person’s stretch projects are?

    A project is a stretch project if it requires skills you don’t have at the outset. Look for projects that both meet this definition and can be completed din a reasonable timeframe — say, 2 – 4 months.

  3. These posts seem to be getting more and more in depth! Great article and I’m going to try to implement your idea of ‘stretch projects’ with my students.

    I in essence encourage my students to do what you call stretch projects after a few months with me. The big problem I have when suggesting they do something that goes beyond their course is motivation. Many students aren’t interested in doing ‘x’ if x doesn’t result in a higher exam or paper grade this semester. Motivating them to go beyond their coursework is the most difficult task I have as a tutor. Anybody have some advice on how to get students excited about a ‘stretch project’?

  4. Andrew says:

    First off I wanted to say excellent article.

    I am an undergrad student looking to major in biochemistry. I am currently in my second semester of general chemistry and my first semester of an intense biology course. What kind of stretch projects would you recommend I start to tackle? I have a hard time thinking of what would be a good way to start as I am still early in my college career. My goal is to become one of the top students in my major at my school but I find it hard to know where to start. Thanks for the help :)

  5. Nianu says:

    I cannot thank you enough for all the articles you have written. I only hope that you have helped yourself as much as you have helped me.

  6. Study Hacks says:

    What kind of stretch projects would you recommend I start to tackle? I have a hard time thinking of what would be a good way to start as I am still early in my college career.

    College and graduate-level courses are stretch projects in themselves. They force you to acquire new skills, but everyone completes them within a relatively short time frame.

    Attack your courses with the mindset. Savor the hard focus required to master the material (coupled, of course, with smart study tactics to eliminate wasted time and effort), knowing that your building the skills needed to move toward the bleeding edge.

    In many ways, my article on becoming an A* student is a pitch to be on the bleeding edge of your undergrad cohort.

  7. Simon says:

    Hi Cal,

  8. Simon says:

    Great post. You’re right on the money with this one, it’s the ability to inhabit the discomfort of what Keat’s called “negative-capability” that forces growth, rather than stagnation. What’s hard is sticking with the discomfort of such a practise. Do you have any recommended techniques to stay with the pursuit of what distinguishes “great work”, from mere hack work?

  9. Interesting take.

    How does one go about estimating the length of a project they’ve never done before?

  10. Study Hacks says:

    Do you have any recommended techniques to stay with the pursuit of what distinguishes “great work”, from mere hack work?

    Part of what’s interesting about James’ story is that it highlights the reality that in many fields, it’s enough to be stretching yourself in a focused direction. This leads to the bleeding edge. Once there, great advances seem obvious. If you’re better than when you started. And you’re completing such projects at a fast rate. You’re probably on a path to somewhere good.

    How does one go about estimating the length of a project they’ve never done before?

    Practice. Just as Anita forced James to practice thinking critically about his projects.

  11. Laura says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I’m going to be starting graduate school this fall and as a senior I’ve let my projects fall into that comfortable zone, as all I’m seeing right now is graduation. This has reminded me that I shouldn’t be focusing on the endpoint of my degrees. Yes, they are nice stepping stones to make me feel accomplished, but they are not the only goals, and they are not the most important goals. As I’ll be going to a new school, this will be a great time to refocus, and so I appreciate this article’s focus on graduate students.

  12. Louis says:

    best article I’ve read on here in a while. Will be back for second and third rounds.

    Thanks, Calvin.

  13. Beth says:

    I really like your thinking here, and I like the ideas of stretch churn and stretch projects. The comment I have is that I am inclined to ask “What for?”. It seems to me that James wasn’t interested in being great, he just enjoyed what he was doing. I think that has to be a part of the equation here, there’s a desire to answer questions and an interest in learning more. Maybe you could ask him, but I’m guessing that James didn’t set out to become a “star graduate student”. And maybe that’s why he’s so successful. He was turning to the work and figuring out how to do that work well that made him a success.

    And I guess I’d ask too – are we who read this doing this for the chance to be successful – or to be a star? Or are we trying to figure out how to do well something we really enjoy doing?

  14. Rob says:

    Hi Cal,

    I just wanted to let you know that I’ve emailed a link to this article for all of my grad thesis students. I found it very inspirational, and I want as many people as I can send here to read your material. I also send my first year students to this site, as well my nephew who’s a freshman in undergrad. You are providing great value.

    I’m going to be starting a mini-research project of my own on outstanding college professors. I’d like to interview the best to discover the characteristics that make them so good. Could you recommend any professors?

  15. EastofEden says:

    I have two questions for you, Cal:

    Firstly, the program I am enrolled in (Environmental Science) is at my school small (it doesn’t even warrant its own department) and very interdisciplinary – I take courses in the basic sciences, geography, political science,etc, with very few “dedicated” Environmental Science courses. Unfortunately, this means that there are no department heads or upper-level professors to impress. And any research going on at the university is in a field related to environmental science, but which often requires skills that I don’t have. Environmental science, is, my its very nature, all about breadth and interdisciplinary knowledge, and less about technical skills or expertise in a narrow field. How does one go about applying the principles of this article in situations such as mine?

    Secondly, my ultimate goal is not grad school or academia, but medicine. Getting into a good med school, more and more, requires years of research. I currently volunteer in an ecology and evolution lab, but I don’t know if this worth anything to med schools who are considering my potential contribution to medical knowledge. My question, then: is this approach also applicable to admission to med school? If so, how can I get to the “bleeding-edge” in such an interdisciplinary field?

  16. Seth says:

    Great article as usual. I love reading your site because it helps keep me motivated to continuously improve.

    Most of your advice applies to majors who typically do research. Do you have any advice for an undergrad (soon to be in grad school) accounting student? In a field with strict rules and regulations, how can one be a star like James?

    Thanks!

  17. Study Hacks says:

    And I guess I’d ask too – are we who read this doing this for the chance to be successful – or to be a star? Or are we trying to figure out how to do well something we really enjoy doing?

    My recent post, titled “Beyond Passion,” provides a longer answer to your question. But to summarize, the hypothesis I’m working with is that becoming remarkable at something is a path toward building a remarkably enjoyable life. I agree with you that accomplishment for the sake of accomplishment is not sustainable.

  18. Study Hacks says:

    I’m going to be starting a mini-research project of my own on outstanding college professors

    It sounds fascinating. What university are you at? You should start local where you can really spend time with the professors, developing your hypotheses, etc. Also, I’m honored that you point your students my direction.

  19. Study Hacks says:

    How does one go about applying the principles of this article in situations such as mine?

    To paraphrase your question: “It’s impossible for a student do do well in my program. How do I do well in my program?” I’m going to sidestep your background, and make the bolder statement that in every grad program, the pattern is basically the same. When in the taking classes phases, see them as stretch projects and aim to be an A* student (search for my blog article of this title). When in the research phase, follow James’ path: don’t try to master mind a rise to greatness, but instead keep your eye focused on stretch churn.

    Getting into a good med school, more and more, requires years of research.

    I don’t believe that. Grades and MCAT scores are 90% of the battle. Search for my blog article on getting into med school without stressing out.

  20. Study Hacks says:

    Do you have any advice for an undergrad (soon to be in grad school) accounting student? In a field with strict rules and regulations, how can one be a star like James?

    For undergraduates, this article is relevant:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2009/04/10/the-unheralded-splendor-of-the-a-strategy/

  21. MCG says:

    Wonderful post, Cal. I look forward to reading future posts in which you apply this theory to other successful graduate students. Please say something for your undergraduate readers about choosing a graduate school where they can marinate–your great expression–in the best possible atmosphere.

  22. Study Hacks says:

    Please say something for your undergraduate readers about choosing a graduate school where they can marinate–your great expression–in the best possible atmosphere.

    Go to the best possible grad school you can get into. The quality of the professors is everything when it comes to this exposure.

  23. Siva says:

    while the big hairy audacious goal is something i’m still searching for D: – i am more distracted by school work, tests, the future job prospects that are gonna be available, the amount of money i’m going to be making – i want to be idealistic and aim for high things but everyday living is hard to ignore, especially with the economy as it is. how do i reconcile this – do i find a BHAG that will be fulfilling and make me sufficient cash as well? or one that may not really be financially profitable? or do i become a corporate person and focus career advancement and money instead? money (er the lack of it, rather) has been making me rethink a lot of my choices lately :( – i mean, the real world, after college and stuff, is kinda scary.

  24. Study Hacks says:

    do i find a BHAG that will be fulfilling and make me sufficient cash as well?

    Step 1 would be to re-read this blog post. The first thing you’ll probably notice is that I explicitly argue that searching for a BHAG is *not* what made James a star and is a bad strategy. The strategy I do recommend is a much more consistent way to stand out, and it’s crucial regardless of what field you go into,

  25. James says:

    Hi, Cal. Over the last year, I have used some of your principles to fix my work habits and get my Ph.D. studies back on track. I appreciate your efforts to apply insights on deliberate practice for the benefit of graduate students. Thank you.

    You recommend that graduate students deeply cultivate the right skills and choose the right research projects. My experiences in graduate school support this advice. Like many advanced Ph.D. students, I am now paying the price for choosing projects that were too ambitious and underinvesting in the appropriate skills for tacking those projects.

    Do you have any advice for advanced graduate students who have portfolios of poorly-chosen research projects already well underway and wish to make the best use of their remaining time in graduate school?

    Best of luck to you in your writing and research. Thanks again.

  26. AronSora says:

    I’m a freshmen undergrad. Is there anything I can start doing now, I already have a position as a lab assistant in the Mechanical Engineering Lab at my school. What do I do now?

  27. Ammar says:

    A few months ago, Prof. Azer Bestavros was visiting the research center I’m working for. He mentioned a practical way of being “on the top of your research field” that worked for students in his department. Every week, one member (student or faculty) in the research group gives a 10-minute overview on a recent paper that captured his interest in the group’s field. The one presenting is not expected to known the very details of the paper, just the main idea. Bestavros recommended that papers should be selected from last year’s 1st tier conferences/journals.

  28. Ammar says:

    I found your article so good that I summarized it in my blog.

  29. Purple says:

    Wonderful post! Thank you! I would also love to read about such a star in a non-technical field, in humanities or social sciences. Not quite sure what “bleeding edge” would look like in those fields… I am specifically thinking of my own field of anthropology. My own opinion has been that if you look at a piece of the world long enough, eventually you are bound to see something there that no one else has noticed, and I guess it fits with your point that big breakthroughs appear as such only to outsiders, for those who achieve them they are just one further step on the path they have been following for a while. Again, thanks for a very inspirational post!

  30. Jason G. says:

    Great post, really enjoyed it. I’m not sure how to reconcile it with the Steve Martin method/Pyramid method- “be so good they can’t ignore you,” and practice with feedback, but without a specific goal? Still, I get the idea underlying it. Thanks Cal!

  31. Elizabeth says:

    I really appreciate this post, and your blog in general (especially, the churn rate concept and the pyramid idea have been extremely useful for me).

    One thing I’ve been thinking about: there are three areas where I need to push my skills: writing, technical skills, and having a mental map of my field. Every year, semester, month I should have goals for each of those; every week I should have a goal for at least one.

    Every class teaches me something important in theory, but frankly I feel (like an earlier commenter) I’ve wasted a lot of my time in grad school. (In my case, it largely just means that I stay here longer.) I’m hoping that focusing on more specific goals, that are achievable but that I’ve decided are the next step in one of those three areas, will help me organize deliberative practice.

    I have to say that I’ve been focusing quite a bit of attention on improving my writing lately, and — though I have a long way to go — it’s WORKING. It’s exciting for me to see.

    Thanks again for your blog, which, by inspiring me to think more consciously about where I’m going in grad school, is helping me to make better plans.

  32. supergirl says:

    Beautiful. But how does this work in the humanities, where the ‘edge’ of your field isn’t readily apparent?

  33. Amy says:

    A great post in a great blog.
    I’m reminded of a talk given by Richard Hamming on ‘You and your research’ which you can find the transcript of at this address http://www.paulgraham.com/hamming.html
    If you have never read it, then it is definitely worth spending the time. I am a scientist/lecturer and this has changed completely the way I view everything that I do.

  34. Study Hacks says:

    Do you have any advice for advanced graduate students who have portfolios of poorly-chosen research projects already well underway and wish to make the best use of their remaining time in graduate school?

    It’s a really important question. A lot of top quality graduate students have a moment, at some point in their student career, where they say “enough crap.”

    If you’re research portfolio is somewhat rigid, i still think James’ lessons apply. Push yourself out the edge of the niche your existing research sits within. Once there, you can better steer it somewhere important. Resist the urge to fall back into just convincing people your work is important — this is easier, but will get you less far.

    I’m a freshmen undergrad. What do I do now?

    See my above comment about the A* strategy — in my opinion, that’s how undergrads can best integrate stretch into their academic lives.

    A few months ago, Prof. Azer Bestavros was visiting the research center I’m working for. He mentioned a practical way of being “on the top of your research field” that worked for students in his department. Every week, one member (student or faculty) in the research group gives a 10-minute overview on a recent paper that captured his interest in the group’s field.

    I met Azer last spring when I gave a research talk over at BU: listen to his advice!

    Great post, really enjoyed it. I’m not sure how to reconcile it with the Steve Martin method/Pyramid method-

    I think the goal, here, is really specific: get to the bleeding-edge of my field.

    I’m hoping that focusing on more specific goals, that are achievable but that I’ve decided are the next step in one of those three areas, will help me organize deliberative practice

    Stretch churn is an easy heuristic to ensure progress.

    Beautiful. But how does this work in the humanities, where the ‘edge’ of your field isn’t readily apparent?

    I think humanities professors would disagree. Papers in the top journals for a given subject define the contours of the bleeding edge.

  35. Study Hacks says:

    If you have never read it, then it is definitely worth spending the time. I am a scientist/lecturer and this has changed completely the way I view everything that I do.

    I have read it, but didn’t not what to pull out of it. What changes did it inspire in your schedule?

  36. Karl says:

    Once again I was expecting the article to go a certain direction then to have it change abruptly – to my total satisfaction! This fits right into some of the things I have been thinking lately, adding more new concepts of course. The practicing jumps metaphor struck a chord with me; which sounds simple at first but in the context of deliberate practice and stretch projects it carries much more impact. Well done Cal, thank you.

  37. Amy says:

    Hi Cal,
    In reply to your question:
    I would not have said that it inspired me to make changes to my schedule, although now you have asked that question I see that it has.

    Hamming’s talk challenged me 1) to work on more important problems in my field, and 2) to deeply master my subject area.

    So with these in mind, it challenged me to only put things into my schedule with great care, to make sure that what I devote time to is of utmost value.

    As to my schedule itself – I read your post on Churn a few weeks ago, and have been using it to ‘schedule’ doing things of value – it’s a great way to keep important projects high up on the agenda. I give 2-4 hours per day (more if I can) to my ‘churn’ items.

    Also on Hamming’s talk:
    ‘If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there’s the answer.’
    And something that was said to Hamming about John Tukey: ‘You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.’
    He also quoted Newton as saying ‘If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.’

    It sounds to me that these are examples of stretching oneself to reach the ‘bleeding edge’ through ‘deliberate practice’ of ‘stretch churn’, much as McLurkin did.

    So thanks again for the post and for the ‘Churn’ and ‘stretch churn’ concepts.

  38. Trace says:

    All of your posts so far have focused on the notion that we need to do deliberate practice, why it is good (achieves what seems to be BHAG), etc. But I’ve always been left dissatisfied by the lack of HOW TO identify the best things to do for deliberate practice.

    Just to summarize, you’ve recommended:

    1. Have written down goals
    2. With strict time limits
    3. To complete tasks that require new skills (determined by a backward analysis)
    4. Which causes temporary discomfort.
    5. Act rigorously with the end in mind
    6. Focusing on constant measurable progression.

    While this has worked in several areas of my life (weightlifting – progressive overload, skiing – progressively harder runs) I often encounter two problems:

    1. Progress is hard to measure (no one to give feedback, no clear definition of mastery)
    2. I don’t know what specific actions to take to ensure progress (how do you become a better leader? blog writer? etc.)

    I have a possible solution for problem #2 taken from the 80/20 principle — try a lot of different things for a month and critically examine its actual effectiveness in effecting improvement.
    But, again, this becomes difficult for tasks without clearly measurable progress.

    I would love to see some case studies in improving in these areas: leadership, blog writing and liberal arts classes (exams ? good measure of progress)

  39. Marvin says:

    Cal; excellent and thought-provoking post. Question: how can this concept be made applicable in the business world, where unlike academica, one is often highly constrained by roles and the organization’s goals.

  40. Study Hacks says:

    Question: how can this concept be made applicable in the business world, where unlike academica, one is often highly constrained by roles and the organization’s goals.

    Though I don’t have a lot of personal experience to draw from, my understanding is that it’s easy, especially in the early years of a career, to fill all of your time putting out fires — responding to the tasks and questions that pour through e-mail — and completing the work assigned competently and quickly. In this context, stretch projects could be two things: (a) raising the quality standard on key projects by an order of magnitude; (b) “quad II” work — to borrow a phrase from Covey — that raises your ability in areas relevant to your field.

  41. Mond says:

    Hi,

    How do I apply this to a more abstract subject like economics? I’m hopefully going to be enrolled in honors economics, but it seems hard to make an economic project.

    I’ve been applying this to nutrition, after reading on the matter for a few years, I earned a Plant Based Nutrition certificate from Cornell. Hopefully I’ll get my NSCA personal trainer and Precision Nutrition certificate by the end of summer. I’m currently also on the testing phase of my own self formulated sleeping complex.

    I found one thing to be helpful, which is constant self improvement.

    This supplement project is a lot more tedious than I expected, but nothing that I can’t handle. It’s definitely a personal stretch. From the onset of the project, I’ve applied techniques from Four hour Workweek by Tim Ferris and even marketing techniques from The Science of Influence.

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  43. nXqd says:

    I really want to thanks for writing a great title about how to become a star student :)
    I’ve messed around a lot with graphic, programming, network . Your post tells extracly this aspect. They take a lot of my time although I know a lot of about stuffs. But I really don’t go deeper in any thing, I don’t have any bleeding edge of my field as a programmer.
    And I should write down my goals in weeks/months/semester and look back . It’s clear and specific goal to get it done :)
    Thanks again for your great post
    nXqd – 2nd student of HCMUS.

  44. Dan says:

    Any programmers here might be familiar with a category of software development methodologies called “Agile.”

    A useful measurement in an Agile project is the “Project Velocity.” When planning an “iteration” or period of work (e.g. 2 weeks), you estimate how many ideal days (e.g. 2 days) of uninterrupted full-time work each task should take. At the end of the iteration, your velocity is the sum of the estimated days from the tasks you *successfully completed.*

    This is a useful metric. After a couple iterations, it lets you plan somewhat accurately how much work you’ll be able to get done in the next period. It lets you develop a rhythm so that in each iteration, you’re pretty comfortable you’ll accomplish what you set out to do.

    I think that adding colors to this concept would express the “stretch” concept nicely. If we just color stretch tasks as “red”, then we can just measure the % red velocity at the end of each period.

    However, velocity has some disadvantages in that it’s suited to software, where value (i.e. something someone would buy) can be created in a couple days. In science, progress toward designing an experiment is probably not value yet – nobody would publish it until the experiment is done. So caution must be exercised to validate the tasks accomplished as “valuable.”

  45. Nolan says:

    Awesome article Cal! I actually got to meet James (and his robots) as part of a summer invention program at MIT. He’s a really great example of what a really passionate and devoted mind can do. I have a few BHAG’s stored away in some Google Docs, and it’s fun to pull them out when I have free time and learn a bit more about concepts that I’m interested in. It’s also a great repository for new ideas as they’re easily accessible and always backed up.

    As an encouragement for other undergrads, finding a mentor early on is *KEY* for personal deliberate practice. Meeting with a professor (who is an expert in their field) to go over your ideas and methods is really good for getting critiques and feedback, new ideas, and giving you more resources in terms of recent articles or textbooks. Just ask and they’re usually fine with it unless they’re really busy.

  46. rb says:

    Awesome, Cal. Are you planning on a book for grad students? Regardless, I’m sure many of your readers would love more posts on these topics.

  47. Saad says:

    This is a great post. Great insights. Thanks!

  48. Bluesky says:

    Hmmm….
    Deliberate practice means depth,
    whereas stretching means breadth.
    These two seems in conflict with each other.

  49. Study Hacks says:
    Deliberate practice means depth,
    whereas stretching means breadth.

    You misread the article. “Stretch,” in this context, refers to improving your ability in your focused pursuit, not exposing yourself to unrelated pursuits.

  50. Dan says:

    A project is a stretch project if it requires skills you don’t have at the outset. Look for projects that both meet this definition and can be completed din a reasonable timeframe — say, 2 – 4 months.

    Why not turn a increasing stretch churn into a stretch project, steadily increasing it, month-by-month?

  51. ANDREA PACE says:

    A excellent content on a difficult matter. Thanks a lot for getting the time to address the matter.

  52. Arrow says:

    Awesome, Cal. Are you planning on a book for grad students? Regardless, I’m sure many of your readers would love more posts on these topics.

    Cal: I’m a big fan of your blog and books (got them all on Kindle). As a PhD student in political science I would welcome a resource for graduate students!

    Related to this, let me also cheer your approach of interviewing people like McLurkin who have non-obvious, non-intuitive advice. It would be great to pull this together as perhaps a section of your website for people like graduate students who are looking for inspiration.

    Many thanks for your fantastic work — it has been incredibly helpful to me.

  53. Jonathan says:

    Cal, I’ve only recently come across your work and it is pure gold, I really enjoy your style of writing.
    This post is great because as a PhD student there are some huge takeaways that I can explore. I would love to hear more tips for research students.

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