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On the Hardness of Important Things

August 15th, 2014 · 25 comments

Einstein’s Strain

Earlier today, I was browsing Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog and stumbled across a letter that Albert Einstein wrote to his son Hans Albert in the fall of 1915.

This date, of course, is important in the lifetime of Albert Einstein, as this was right after he finished writing one of the masterpieces of modern science: his general theory of relativity.

(To paraphrase my astronomy teacher at Dartmouth: “most scientific breakthroughs are expected, many different people are closing in on the same idea, but general relativity, this came out of nowhere, it was magic.”)

One quote, in particular, caught my attention:

“What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.” [emphasis mine]

Einstein’s reference to “a lot of strenuous work” emphasizes an important reality: accomplishing important things is really, really hard. (He’s guilty of understatement here. The strain of proving the theory turned his hair white and nearly shattered his family and his health.)

It’s easy to play lip service to this idea, and many of us do, but what frustrates me is that there’s so little in the advice literature that directly addresses the nuances of this requirement.

It’s not obvious how to prepare yourself for really hard things. What should you expect? What changes are necessary to the way you approach your life and work? How do you know when to persist? (I mention these questions not because I have great answers, but because I want better ones.)

Seth Godin’s book, The Dip, is an important initial meditation on this subject, and one I found immensely useful, but I’m not aware of many other books that tackle this topic. This is a shame given its importance to the goal of making a mark.

25 thoughts on “On the Hardness of Important Things

  1. James Coombs says:

    Hi Cal,

    I wrote about 2000 words before re-reading it and deleting the lot. Instead I’ve this question, which I feel is relevant:

    Given a perfect world where you have 100% will power available for strenuous work every day, how do you allocate this between investments in skills, and investments in achievements?

    Also, gut reaction to your final question from the world of fitness: To prepare yourself for really hard things, do the really hard thing at higher intensity for shorter periods of time.

    – James

    1. James Coombs says:

      Oh, and I suspect you’ve already read it, but Mastery by George Leonard also covers challenges similar to what Godin characterises as “the dip”.

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    I know what you mean.

    The value of effort is under-rated.

    I wrote a post on “embrace the effort” a while back as tribute.

    For more than a decade I was part of a team where we focused on sharing and scaling deep expertise. There was a lot of art and science involved in distilling complex castles of the mind into actionable insights.

    It was painful in fact.
    We learned first-hand early on how to deal with things like decision fatigue.
    We learned how to build scaffolding for the mind so we could pick up from where we left off.

    We had a lot of tools in our tool-belt.
    We used patterns as a way to create shared language and to share strategies.
    We used mental models as a way to create building blocks and legos for complex ideas.
    We used data points and measured ourselves against density per inch of information.
    We used mind maps to collaborate with experts around the world.
    We used precision and accuracy as ways to filter and refine text to share wisdom vs. just information.
    We deliberately broke things down into learning paths to rapidly go from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence.
    We used questions to rapidly focus and direct attention with skill.
    We very deliberately distinguished between concepts and labels.
    We focused on principles, patterns, and practices to
    We used scenarios, questions, and tasks to dive deep into the most valuable pains, needs, and opportunities with a space.
    We used domain-driven languages to frame out spaces and model the big ideas.
    We used pattern languages to create a vocabulary around problem and solution pairs.
    We used taxonomies, folksononies, and ontologies to parse up a domain into insightful vocabularies.
    We used controlled vocabularies to manage the explosion of ideas back down to foundational concepts.
    We used constructs like “core,” “common,” and “niche” to divide and conquer vast collections of insights
    We used structured information architectures and information models to make natuarlly create and fit “slots” in your mind
    We would tune and prune prose in pairs for hours on end to compact insight into the tightest “ah-ha” that money couldn’t buy
    We learned how to rapidly factor the durable stuff (the evergreen principles) from the volatile stuff
    We learned how to use linguistic simplcity and mental mantras to scale thought behaviors
    We learned how to use Edward de Bono’s hats concepts for exploring the perspectives of information
    We learned from the legal arena how to hang together information as claims and warrants
    We learned how to use Agile software techniques to create test-driven guidance
    We learned how to scope information through objectives and outcomes

    We learned a lot about how to work like a network around the world with some of the smartest people on the planet in a collaborative way and to rapidly build honeycombs of high-value knowledge.

    The most valuable by-product though is that we built knowledge platforms. Rather than just provide answers, we created platforms of principles, patterns, and practices for domains in a deep way that would let others climb the mountains faster.

    Maybe the most insightful thing we learned is how if you treat prose like code … if you treat content like code … and use many of the Agile tools and techniques like “refactoring”, pairing, test-first, etc., … you can actually build some of the deepest knowledge bases that are able to survive and thrive over time, or at least evolve in more modular and maintainable ways.

    But maybe the most pragmatic thing we learned was to use timeboxing as a way to tackle great moguls of information with greater intensity and come out alive.

    Bottom line — it’s a lot of work to surface the greatest needles from the haystacks of the collective minds.

  3. Suzyn says:

    Steven Pressfield recently wrote about a book called “The Game of Numbers” here: http://www.stevenpressfield.com/2014/08/the-game-of-numbers/

    It’s about “keeping at it,” doing the hard work without attachment to the results, just doing it and doing it, on the understanding that eventually the sheer amount of work you put in will have a result. It’s written for financial advisors cold-calling prospects, but Steven relates it to writing, and you could probably relate it to academic work.

    This is from the blog post I linked to above: “What makes The Game of Numbers so valuable, in my opinion, is that Nick gets into excruciating detail about the psychological and emotional state of mind that’s necessary to successfully play this game. He gets into belief; he gets into behavior. He goes far more deeply into these than I did in The War of Art.”

    I hope this is helpful to you.

  4. Evan says:

    I have two pretty great Feynman quotes that contradict with this post a bit.

    It’s not obvious how to prepare yourself for really hard things. What should you expect? What changes are necessary to the way you approach your life and work? How do you know when to persist?

    I think Feynman would say that this shouldn’t be spelled out for us and even if it was, what would be the fun of blazing your own trail?

    Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.

    Also, should this really be the number one goal in life…to make a mark in your field? I’m not saying that this is your number one goal, because I know you tend to keep it professional. To me, we should work “as hard as [we] want” in our field and if we make a big mark, so be it. If we make a small mark, so be it. If we make no mark at all, so be it. Perhaps another Feynman snippet is appropriate:

    Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.

    1. Evan says:

      “what would be the fun of blazing your own trail” should read “what would be the fun of not blazing your own trail”?

    2. Chris says:

      Cal is a fan of experimentation, whether it comes out of your own principle or others’–I doubt he would go against blazing your own trail. Whether the methods come from others or not, however, it all comes down to testing in your own life at the end,

      Also, it is not accurate to represent Feynman for your argument. As Cal has posted about before, Feynman understood the value of focusing strenously on physics and rejecting time-taking offers, such as the position in admission committee. For another instance, he has once mentioned that teaching can be a distraction to thinking (though he later went on to author the legendary lectures on undergrad physics, after being persuaded by his friends)–is this a concern by a man worrying about how to tackle hard challenges? Of course it is.

      Also, what does the quote “Study hard what interests you in the most undisciplined, irrevent and original method as possible” have to do with blazing your own trail? Couldn’t that method be an unpopular practice done by a contrarian which could be borrowed and tested in your own life?

      Also, on the point of making a mark in your field. If you don’t happen to be one of the people who seek jobs for money or social impression, but a person who genuinely finds meaning in her field and its impact on the world, what, do you think, would be the ultimate desire of her professorship? It strikes me none other than obvious that a person seeking to leave the world better than she entered seeks to influence at the highest degree within her reach. So what does working “as hard as we want” mean for this person? Is it to make a big mark, or something else?

      It wouldn’t be surprising if this post was written by Feynman himself.

    3. Chris says:

      Cal is a fan of experimentation, whether it comes out of your own principle or others’–I doubt he would go against blazing your own trail. Whether the methods come from others or not, however, it all comes down to testing in your own life at the end.

      Also, it is not accurate to represent Feynman for your argument. As Cal has posted about before, Feynman understood the value of focusing strenously on physics and rejecting time-taking offers, such as the position in admission committee. For another instance, he has once mentioned that teaching can be a distraction to thinking (though he later went on to author the legendary lectures on undergrad physics, after being persuaded by his friends)–is this a concern by a man worrying about how to tackle hard challenges? Of course it is.

      Also, what does the quote “Study hard what interests you in the most undisciplined, irrevent and original method as possible” have to do with blazing your own trail? Couldn’t that method be an unpopular practice done by a contrarian which could be borrowed and tested in your own life?

      Also, on the point of making a mark in your field. If you don’t happen to be one of the people who seek jobs for money or social impression, but a person who genuinely finds meaning in her field and its impact on the world, what, do you think, would be the ultimate desire of her professorship? It strikes me none other than obvious that a person seeking to leave the world better than she entered seeks to influence at the highest degree within her reach. So what does working “as hard as we want” mean for this person? Is it to make a big mark, or something else?

      It wouldn’t be surprising if this post was written by Feynman himself.

  5. John says:

    Cal you are going to like this new article on Forbes about Elon Musk (Paypal/Tesla Motors). When asked what is the secret to success? People should pursue what they’re passionate about,” says the billionaire, just 43. “That will make them happier than pretty much anything else.”

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/jimclash/2014/07/28/elon-musk-tells-me-his-secret-of-success-hint-it-aint-about-the-money/

    1. A.I. says:

      Actually, I learned not only from Cal that passion is bullshit. It’s also not about money. It’s about being good at things that are useful to others.

    2. John says:

      Just because Cal says that in order to fulfill his life in a pursuit of what wasn’t his passion trying to draw people into it doesn’t mean shit, I mean who has more credentials Elon Musk, who is changing the world, or Cal Newport?

      1. A.I. says:

        I’m quite passionate about tennis, but I’ll never make a living out of it, because I suck badly at it. Yet, I don’t mind putting up a fight and get beaten almost every time, because it’s just so much fun and I don’t take getting defeated personally.

        So should I pursue a career as a tennis star because Elon Musk, who is changing the world, says so?

        Success is a result of being pretty damn good at what you’re doing, not of being passionate. Of course, being pretty damn good is almost always quite fun, so passion is a feeling that quite often accompanies being effective.

        Of course, if you hate doing something, you’re very unlikely to be any good at it. The negation of that however is not the opposite, namely having to be passionate.

        It’s really about being useful to others. In a free market economy, you can’t force people to buy your products or services. People will only pay you for things they consider useful to them, and they probably couldn’t care less if you are passionate about it.

  6. Katie says:

    Cal, I would be interested to know what you do to recover after a bout of strenuous work, and under what circumstances you pay attention to or ignore physical signals indicating you’ve pushed yourself too far.
    Thanks very much.

  7. Melissa says:

    Hi Cal, though I really appreciate the emphasis that you place on hard work and discipline over this nebulous term “passion”, what do you make of amazing producers who DO follow the passion rule?

    If we look at a recent article from Brain Pickings, there’s a recent essay on Werner Herzog, who in my opinion, is possibly one of the greatest filmmakers ever to grace this planet:

    “In one of his most endearingly characteristic proclamations, Herzog tells Cronin why he has never taken vacation:

    ‘It would never occur to me… I work steadily and methodically, with great focus. There is never anything frantic about how I do my job; I’m no workaholic. A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation.'”

    and

    ‘I work best under pressure, knee-deep in the mud. It helps me concentrate. The truth is I have never been guided by the kind of strict discipline I see in some people, those who get up at five in the morning and jog for an hour. My priorities are elsewhere. I will rearrange my entire day to have a solid meal with friends.’

    What DO you make of people like this? Are they merely anomalies who should be ignored?

  8. Akram Ahmad says:

    Cal – I agree with you when you ruefully note in this post that “…but I’m not aware of many other books that tackle this topic. This is a shame given its importance to the goal of making a mark.” Well, in addition to Seth Godin’s book, The Dip, do check out the book The Eureka Effect: The Art and Logic of Breakthrough Thinking (W. W. Norton & Company), by David Perkins. I think you’ll like it a lot!

    I found the section titled “Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration” especially helpful and clarifying. Also noteworthy, and using some metaphors (e.g. Klondike theory, canyon, etc.) that Perkins develops in The Eureka Effect to frame his ideas, he in fact has a few examples of Einstein at work on his paradigm-shifting contributions to our conceptualization of the universe. At one point, Perkins notes that:

    In terms of Klondike theory, Einstein escaped from a canyon, the presumed constancy of time. The canyon is a very fundamental one, a tacit assumption reinforced by everyday perception, as Einstein explicitly recognized. Yet Einstein’s effort to resolve the paradoxes he saw in the physics of his finally led him to question the usual frame, where time was constant, and to make up another, where it wasn’t.

    There is also a nice follow up section after that, on reframing problems, in particular where Perkins mentions …cognitive psychologist Stellan Ohlsson’s three conditions that cue the problem solver to stand back and consider reframing a problem:

    Restructure when stuck…
    Restructure upon novelty…
    Restructure upon overload…

  9. Akram Ahmad says:

    Wanted to correct a typo (actually an inadvertent omission of a word) that I noticed in my reply above, where I had inadvertently omitted the word day in the following, excerpt from The Eureka Effect:

    …Yet Einstein’s effort to resolve the paradoxes he saw in the physics of his day finally led him to question the usual frame, where time…

  10. Carlos Guzman says:

    I want to share this news I found in TIMES:
    “What Does It Take to Become an Expert at Anything?”
    http://time.com/3101020/what-does-it-take-to-become-an-expert-at-anything/

    I hope you all enjoy it!

  11. A.I. says:

    Einstein’s colleagues said this about him. Firstly, like Dirac, he believed that a physical theory should be simple and beautiful.

    “As complicated as necessary, as simple as possible” is a famous Einstein quote.

    If an idea was beautiful and elegant, it gave him the confidence to follow through with it.

    Another characteristic of Einstein was that he wasn’t afraid of time. If he believed that an Ansatz was correct, he couldn’t care less how long it would take him to figure it out.

    Of course, one might ask whether in today’s academic environment, where a researcher’s productivity is measured by his number of publications, such an approach is still viable. I suppose one is pressured to produce quick results which takes away time from cracking down on the really hard problems.

    Higgs said a similar thing: That he wouldn’t have been able to come up with his theory in today’s academic environment.

    As to the dip: I’ve read the book last night, and that’s certainly a very old management principle.

    The principal difficulty I see is this: Science is about uncovering the unknown. If you go to the roulette table, you can’t know beforehand on which number to bet. At least you know that it’s going to be a number between 1 and 36.

    If you’re dealing with a problem to which nobody in the world knows an answer, how are you supposed to know the sure bet?

    We only hear of the creators of successful theories. For each successful theory, there are at least ten wrong theories that we never hear about.

    I suppose we all have to go with our gut feeling and ride it out. Or quit.

    P.S. The blog which cites the Einstein letter perpetuates the passion myth.

    1. A.I. says:

      http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/06/peter-higgs-boson-academic-system

      Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough.

      He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”

      And finally:

      By the time he retired in 1996, he was uncomfortable with the new academic culture. “After I retired it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it. It wasn’t my way of doing things any more. Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.”

      I suppose you only get away with “active irresponsibility” proposed by Feynman if you’ve delivered big or show huge promise. The rest of us, I suppose, have to play by the rules.

  12. Jeff says:

    This is a great talk by Richard Hamming about doing top-quality research. I think it illustrates nicely the importance of hard work, and deep work.

    http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html

  13. Wouter says:

    How do you know when to persist?

    How does it hold for studies? When do you know when to quit?

  14. Melvin Roest says:

    My 2 cents: skim autobiographies from people who did hard work.

    Skim them, and if you find that they’re conveying information about work attitude, then read more carefully.

    I’ve got this idea from Tal-Ben Shahar who said in one of his classes that autobiographies are the true self-help books, because you get to read how real people dealt with real dilemmas.

  15. Courtney D says:

    I love the straightforwardness of this post. Cal says things as they are and strips off the sugar coatings the rest of the world seems to put on everything. Realizing that important things do not come easy is so vital in being successful. Being successful and accomplishing important stuff is CRAZY HARD sometimes. Now I’m just a normal person, I am no Einstein as he mentions, but things are still difficult for normal people as well. That’s just life and having success in hard things is what makes life so good. I loved the mention of the lack of information on what to expect and how to do it, and admits to not knowing it himself when the world generally bypasses that whole subject and just says ‘you can do it!’ The way individual people get through hard things is so diverse and there obviously can’t be one answer to the problem of how to achieve them, but I think advice on how to endure and what type of mental set to have would be at least helpful. Important things are incredibly strenuous but I believe they are very attainable when you put in that extremely hard work.

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