Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Impact Algorithms: Strategies Remarkable People Use to Accomplish Remarkable Things

June 18th, 2012 · 47 comments

(Image from WellingtonGrey.net via c2.com)

Impact Algorithms

I’ve been writing recently about the impact instinct — the ability to consistently steer your work somewhere remarkable. We know that diligently focusing on a single general direction and then applying deliberate practice to systematically become more skilled, are both crucial for standing out. But true remarkability seems to also require this extra push.

Since writing these posts, readers have sent me an amazing collection of quotes and articles that provide supporting details for this idea. Reviewing these resources, I noticed that the following systematic strategies — let’s call them algorithms — seem to pop up again and again.

Below, I summarize these algorithms, each of which I named for someone remarkable who exemplifies it: I don’t know that they’re all right; I don’t know which work best; but they should provide nuance to our understanding of the impact instinct.

The Feynman Algorithm

Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman is a master of impact. Many people have attempted to understand his curiously successful approach (e.g., this wonderful collection of quotes that a reader sent me). Of the many candidates that might rightfully be called the “Feynman Algorithm,” here’s the one I think played the biggest role in his success:

  1. Simplify the problem down to an “essential puzzle.” Here’s how Danny Hillis explained Feynman’s use of simplicity: “He always started by asking very basic questions like, ‘What is the simplest example?’ or ‘How can you tell if the answer is right?’ He asked questions until he reduced the problem to some essential puzzle that he thought he would be able to solve. Then he would set to work.” (Notice, the importance of simplicity is something we’ve encountered before.)
  2. Continually master new techniques and then apply them to your library of unsolved puzzles to see if they help. As mathematician Gian Carlo-Rota explained when describing Feynman’s use of this strategy: “Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!'” (Notice, it’s at this step of the Feynman algorithm that we see the value of ultra-learning.)

The Thrun Algorithm

Computer scientist Sebastian Thrun rocketed to fame when his self-driving car won the Darpa Grand Challenge (though his fame among roboticists long preceded that particular public victory). He now runs Google X, the search company’s skunk works for big impact projects.

Studying Thrun’s story, the following algorithm seems to be at the core of his remarkable accomplishments:

  1. Pick a problem that matters. According to a recent Wall Street Journal profile of Thurn: “His mentor at CMU, Tom Mitchell, told him, ‘Pick a problem that matters to society.’ So he helped create robots, including a “nursebot” to assist the elderly in nursing homes and robotic tour guides…these were hard projects, [Thrun] says. ‘Just let go, trust your ability to learn, more [than] holding on to the things you’ve achieved—and that became the central theme in my life.'” 
  2. Stick to it. The problems picked by start researchers who use the Thrun algorithm tend to be surprisingly generic — e.g., create robots that are good for society — but their clarity drives people to learn hard things, make hard connections, and wring the most out of their ability. This sounds obvious, but it really isn’t. The default behavior is, as Thrun warned, to “[hold] on to the things you’ve achieved.” Something needs to push you to keep breaking new ground.

The Erez Algorithm

Study Hacks readers know that Erez Lieberman Aiden, a hotshot young researcher out of Harvard, is my favorite example of the impact instinct. Recently, I’ve heard from several readers who know Erez, his advisors, and/or his academic field.  They pointed me toward the following important algorithm that he seems to use to great advantage:

  1. Be Confident. “I knew Erez before he was a grad student,” a reader told me.  “And he was extremely confident then. Confidence and boldness pay off enormously in academia.” 
  2. If You’re Not Confident, Do Everything You Can to Surround Yourself With People Who Are. This leaves the question of how one becomes confident. In the academic context, the readers who wrote me agreed that this confidence comes from surrounding yourself with people who are already doing remarkable things. “The cultural context here is really, really important,” said one reader. “Eric Lander and Martin Nowak [Erez's mentors] are powerful.” Another reader agreed: “These folks have grown up in groups/labs in which high impact papers are the norm. Not only do you pick up on how high-impact papers are written, but perhaps more importantly you develop the attitude that of course you can make high impact, such papers are something perfectly within your reach because they were routine in your scientific babyhood.” 
  3. This Might Mean Getting “Good Grades.” We tend to separate remarkable accomplishments from conformist behaviors like studying hard, as the quest to become remarkable seems inherently rebellious. But a corollary to step 2 from above is that surrounding yourself with confident people often requires that you first jump through well-established hoops. If a freshman tells you that she wants to do research that will change the world, don’t tell her to go find a life changing project — she’s way too early in her development to successful apply the Thurn Algorithm — instead  tell her to earn the best possible grades, so she can can make her way  into a great graduate school, learn from the best people, and be surrounded by the most confident researchers. This is the foundation that produces remarkable things.

47 thoughts on “Impact Algorithms: Strategies Remarkable People Use to Accomplish Remarkable Things

  1. heather w says:

    Does Feynman have a reputation as a sexist pig, as suggested by the WWRFD graphic? I have previously found your blog insightful and helpful, but this time I struggled to read the entry because I find that graphic so offensive. One systematic strategy deployed in STEM contexts is to marginalize the contribution of women by reducing them to “skirts” and distractions. This is the first time I’ve observed it in this blog. Not sure I’ll be back for more.

  2. Eric says:

    He probably wasn’t the best husband by any stretch of the imagination… Some of his memoirs show that side of him but I think reducing him down to a sexist pig is missing an opportunity to see how a great mind worked.

    Here is another side of him:

    http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/02/i-love-my-wife-my-wife-is-dead.html

  3. Marcelo says:

    I find that graphic disturbing, but not for the same reason than H does (read more about Feynman and you’ll see he did not hide his passion for women and topless bars). What bothers me is that it implies you can win a Noble prize for drum playing.
    Also, what do you do when there are no bongos around?
    Jokes and offenses aside, its interesting that Feynman chose puzzles regardless of their projected impact.
    It seems the common ingredient here is the “sticking to it” part.
    Now, how do you know if you are holding on to the right thing? Or is it that there are some unknown Feynmans around stubbornly trying to solve worthless stuff?

  4. p13 says:

    If it is derogatory, then it is derogatory to Feynman, not to women. To answer your question, yes it is a bit of a joke to make fun of how much Feynman pursued women. But it’s more of an affectionate jab from people who adore him. Don’t penalize Cal because he happened to link to someone else’s page that had a humorous graphic which was created by a further unknown person.

  5. Jordan says:

    Heather, I hope that one tasteless image shouldn’t put you off some of the best content the internet has to offer.

    OT: Part 3 of the Erez Algorithm is really interesting, as it implies that to an extend you should conform in order to reach an environment when you can really push the interesting bits. Surely there must be some sort of balance?

  6. Laure says:

    Comments above show a huge lack of humour, and therefore intelligence. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but for me the graphic is funny.

  7. Study Hacks says:
    Now, how do you know if you are holding on to the right thing? Or is it that there are some unknown Feynmans around stubbornly trying to solve worthless stuff?

    It seems that Feynman would keep lots of puzzles “active” at any one time (his only criteria being that he really believed that solving the puzzle woul dbe cool). As he learned new techniques, he would test them out to see if there was a hit. I assume he would eventually cycle these puzzles out of his queue.

    Part 3 of the Erez Algorithm is really interesting, as it implies that to an extend you should conform in order to reach an environment when you can really push the interesting bits. Surely there must be some sort of balance?

    This balance is really interesting. I have a big chapter or two on it in SO GOOD (my book coming out in September): without the type of cutting edge expertise that is “conformist” to obtain, all of the non-conformity in the world is not going to lead to real impact. On the other hand, it can be hard to deploy this capital in a non-conformist way once gathered, as there are now a lot of cultural pressures to keep you on the safer path. It’s a really interesting balance…

  8. Eddie Schodowski says:

    It doesn’t imply that you earn a Nobel prize via drum playing.

    The graphic is hilarious.

    It’s a joke.

  9. John says:

    Have to agree with Laure. The derogatory commentary is way more offensive to me. I’m also thinking about taking up the bongos. Also, I am thinking very seriously about taking up the bongos.

  10. Omid says:

    Heather, take it easy . You’re giving women in academia a bad name, and satisfying the poor stereo type that exists. It’s just a joke ! And there is nothing wrong with men being Sexually attracted to women. It takes two tango and It’s how the human race exists !

  11. Ravi Mohan says:

    typo alert. Thrun, not Thurn

  12. Chet Frame says:

    Awesome post today. Thank you.

  13. Cal, Noam Chomsky neatly illustrates the Feynman algorithm. Chomsky asked a simple question that had not been asked in the same way before, what model can represent human language capacity? In Syntactic Structures, Chomsky examined several mathematical models and persuasively argued for what he called the transformational model. The impact was huge.

  14. Anonymous says:

    To everyone who’s saying “it’s just a joke”:
    http://therealkatie.net/blog/2012/mar/21/lighten-up/

    I get that it’s a jab at Feynman and not women, but I think it’s inappropriate here, too.

  15. The Feynman graphic bothered me too a bit, and I was familiar with some of the stories about him already (and am already a huge fan of this blog). Re the responses, there’s a whole lot of men here telling a woman what she can or can’t be offended by. It seems to me those were pointless remarks at best, because I really don’t think the woman who set off that cascade of advice had any uncertainty in her mind on that particular question.

    Ironically, I’m a guy like Feynman myself, in that I “chase skirts” more than average. The paradox is easy to reconcile when you consider that in order to catch a skirt you have to be able to hold a conversation with the person inside it.

  16. J D says:

    One day, Heather, those who, as you just have, so casually smear others at the first hint of disagreement or difference, will have damaged only their own reputations.

    Speaking for myself, I would prefer that you follow through with your threat not to return. It’s ironic that in politicizing the blog, you *have* become a distraction.

  17. Tamara says:

    The article is great, the graphic is incomplete to be completely hilarious. Should go:
    Is there a bongo drum around?
    Yes – Play drum
    No – Go back to start.

    I just found this website today and I think it is going to be of great use to me for what I attempt to do with the rest of my life, after already living almost 37 years.

  18. Mo says:

    What startled me about the graphic was your assumption that you don’t have female readers.

  19. Olga says:

    Great post summarizing the methods behind the success.

    I agree that the graphic is offensive – to me, it says that if a woman is around, there are no interesting physics problems to solve, only skirts to chase. i.e., in Feynman’s time, women weren’t involved in the interesting physics problems.

  20. As a lifelong feminist who co-founded the New York chapter of the Women’s Equity Action League with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I find objections to the graphic puzzling. It describes Feynman. If if describes Feynman accurately, then it is a reflection on Feynman. If we aren’t campaigning to suppress the unpleasant features of Feynman’s character, we have no reason to object to the graphic.

  21. Anonymous says:

    @Mary

    Though you may have many distinctions to your name, they do not make you a representative of the opinions of other readers. I object to the graphic because the article is about creating a remarkable career by steering impact in a certain direction, and the graphic, while attempting to be humorous, is irrelevant to the topic and an inappropriate choice as a header graphic for this post because a post intended to highlight paths to success is in parallel highlighting Feynman’s sexism. It may be appropriate in a humorous article about Feynman or a feminist article or a host of other possible articles, but I think a better choice could have been made here: we do not need to suppress any part of Feynman’s character, but that doesn’t mean we need to bring up all of Feynman’s character in every article.

  22. Mike says:

    To show a graphic that implies that a woman would yield so much power over a man, I am speechless. I probably won’t read any more of your posts. You probably really care because I read them so often and you gain so much from my contributions.

    Also, why make it so difficult and call it an “algorithm”? Is this similar to the Index Calculus Algorithm? Please keep it “simple” and call it a “process” or a “series of steps.”

    Have a good process
    Keep it simple
    Have fun!
    :)

  23. If if describes Feynman accurately, then it is a reflection on Feynman.

  24. TCI bits says:

    Speaking for myself, I would prefer that you follow through with your threat not to return. It’s ironic that in politicizing the blog, you *have* become a distraction.

  25. Re the responses, there’s a whole lot of men here telling a woman what she can or can’t be offended by.

  26. Pete says:

    How do you switch from conformity, as in good grades, to non-conformity, as in having an impact?
    It would seem that to get good grades the conformity would become so ingrained that it will be with you forever.

  27. Pete says:

    Well, Heather, are women who chase men also sexist pigs? You may not be adult enough or learned enough for visits here, but fare well wherever you journey.

  28. 60naranja says:

    The Feynman graphic bothered me too a bit, and I was familiar with some of the stories about him already (and am already a huge fan of this blog). Re the responses, there’s a whole lot of men here telling a woman what she can or can’t be offended by.

    Yeah, I agree. I like this blog a lot and I enjoyed the rest of this post, but I thought that using that flowchart was a little jarring, especially in an entry where the whole point is that Feynman had an approach worthy of emulation. Unfortunately anachronistic attitudes about women still persist in science and academia, and I think it’s worth thinking carefully about how to avoid presenting them uncritically, or giving the appearance of endorsing them.

  29. anonanimal says:

    Tony Greenwald argues in an intriguing new paper that impact (as indexed by Nobel Prizes) is more often borne of innovations in methodology than innovations in theory: http://faculty.washington.edu/agg/pdf/NothingSoTheoretical.PPS.2012.pdf

    Also, as the infinitely quotable Richard Hamming said, “It’s not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important.”

  30. chris says:

    Sorry to go off at a tangent, but did your blog intro change? If so, happy birthday!

  31. Anyan E. Maus says:

    (Directed at the earlier comments)

    Oh my, look at this!

    The tortured souls of the internet are getting upset again! Quick, grab the popcorn!

  32. Mel says:

    … As a youngster that’s been reading this blog since high school, I find these bits of the conversation puzzling:

    1) Why any images present in a blog post need have any relation to the content of the blog post whatsoever.
    2) How the image is offensive. The circle of life is the circle of life. And such a thing as liberal feminism exists too… flappers anyone?

    Did I mention that I’m female? Oh wait, I just did.
    ——————–

    On the content itself…
    This is how I’ve comprehended two of the algorithms:

    Thrun-Feynman nested:
    ? Pick a problem that matters. Repeat for life.
    • Simplify it down to the “essential puzzle”
    • Continually master new techniques and then apply them to your library of unsolved puzzles to see if they help.

  33. J D says:

    steel tooth bits writes:

    “Re the responses, there’s a whole lot of men here telling a woman what she can or can’t be offended by.”

    Of course, that isn’t actually what any of us have “told” her. She is free to be offended by whatever she wants, and we’re free to think she’s being ridiculous. What you did, that is, re-defining criticism of someone’s behavior as an offensive act on its face, is an old and tired tactic meant to shame (and therefore make quiet) those who disagree with you. Leave it to someone invoking political-correctness to make the first bigoted remark in the conversation.

    Politics is the mind-killer.

  34. Anonymous says:

    @JD

    “re-defining criticism of someone’s behavior as an offensive act on its face, is an old and tired tactic meant to shame (and therefore make quiet) those who disagree with you”

    hmm– sounds a lot like what some of the commenters have been doing to Heather, doesn’t it?

    1. R says:

      @Anonymous
      “hmm– sounds a lot like what some of the commenters have been doing to Heather, doesn’t it?”

      This debate is long over but I just wanted to point out that this is another clever statement that is once again extremely misleading. The comparison is not similar at all. Heather criticized the image, with *reasons* why she believed it was offensive. Other users then found this rather puzzling, and commented with *reasons* why they believed it was not offensive. The original comment, on the other hand, basically implied that it was not permissible for people to disagree with her, regardless of reasoning.

      Hence JD’s comment:
      “re-defining criticism of someone’s behavior as an offensive act *on its face*, is an old and tired tactic meant to shame (and therefore make quiet) those who disagree with you”

  35. Marcelo says:

    I remember I saw a post about “Strategies Remarkable People Use to Accomplish Remarkable Things” somewhere in this page…

  36. Cristian says:

    I found this post really informing, but the comments on the graphic most amusing. In my opinion the flow chart graphic is simply offering Feynman’s opinion on the matter of human nature. Since he reduced everything down to it’s simplest forms (i.e. the sexual impulse, the impact instinct, etc.) It’s only reflecting reality in a context similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Great read.

  37. Ashley Alley says:

    Ah, but you see, if Mr. Feynman were homosexual and if it were a graphic about his love for men instead of women, what would be the reaction from heterosexual males? To be honest, to be able to turn the puzzle’s sexual orientation would be a feat unto itself, can anyone do it? That would be a challenge indeed, no?

  38. alex says:

    I don’t get it. What are you offended by?
    Men are attracted to women. And it merely states that 99% of what men do in their lives they do it to reach a woman. It’s natural and it’s beautiful. Relax.

    Quoting James Brown “It is a man’s world, BUT IT WOULD BE NOTHING WITHOUT A WOMAN OR A GIRL”.

  39. Kate says:

    Cal, I like your blog and follow it closely, but please moderate your comments — there are some hateful ones here, directed at Heather for pointing out that it is jarring to be brought back to earth about one’s second-class status as a women when one is trying to simply accomplish remarkable things.
    http://www.shakesville.com/2010/01/feminism-101.html

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