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The Craftsman in the Cubicle

July 25th, 2010 · 31 comments

 Old Town Zurich

An Old Town Wander

Earlier this evening, I explored the cobbled lanes of Zurich’s old town center. Switzerland is infamous for shutting down on Sundays — a legacy of a rigid Protestant past — and tonight didn’t disappoint; I often had whole streets to myself: the fading sun lighting the Renaissance-style row houses in the same way it has for hundreds of years, stretching back to when the city was still run by the guilds.

The scene, naturally, infused me with a sense of timeliness. I imagined the craftsman and apprentices who honed their skills in this late-medieval industrial center, and this got me thinking…

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In Search of Purpose: Esther Duflo and the Pre-Conditions for Finding Your Life’s Mission

May 21st, 2010 · 17 comments

Note: I’m leaving today for a week-long overseas trip. I won’t have Internet access (by design), so I give my usual apologies about not being able to moderate comments or respond to e-mail in the near future.

Inspiration

The Maverick 

Esther Duflo, a professor of economics at MIT, discovered her life’s mission in graduate school. It started with a class taught by Abhijit Banerjee, a pioneer in the field of development economics. Duflo ended that semester with a clear vision: when helping the world’s poor, rigorous and controlled experiments can be used to determine which programs work and which fail.

Other thinkers had toyed with this idea, but Duflo boasts, as Ian Parker notes in his recent New Yorker profile, “[a] faith in redistribution…[and] the optimistic notion that tomorrow might turn our better than today.”

This confidence translated into an ability to conceive and then execute development experiments on an unprecedented scale. Her dissertation, titled “Three Essays in Empirical Development Economics,” became a standard in the field. As Parker reports, Duflo received offers from every top economics department in the country, with the exception of Stanford. In 2003, she co-founded a Poverty Action Lab at MIT, which has since conducted over 200 empirical development experiments. In 2004, she was made a full professor at MIT. In 2009, she won a MacArthur Genius Grant.

When reflecting on Duflo’s life, it’s clear that her mission is the foundation for her rapid success. Lots of young economists work very hard, and many have more technical ability than Duflo, whose accomplishments are more logistical than mathematical. But she focused her attention on a worthy mission, which accelerated her, to an almost ridiculous speed, along the path to becoming so good they couldn’t ignore her.

I’m fascinated by the concept of a life mission,which I define as devoting the bulk of your professional energies toward an under-served but unambiguously useful cause. As Duflo’s story emphasizes, missions can help spawn a remarkable life.

But the closer you look at the concept, the murkier it becomes…

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How to Become a Star Screenwriter: A Case Study in Modern Craftsmanship

May 10th, 2010 · 29 comments

Screenplay in Progress

The Shane Black Effect 

The story is a Hollywood classic. At the age of 23, two years after graduating from UCLA with a theater degree, and eager for a source of income while waiting for his acting break, Shane Black decided to try screenwriting. He penned a buddy cop flick, featuring a deranged lead seeking redemption. He gave it the type of clipped, masculine title popular in the mid-80s blockbuster era: Lethal Weapon. The script was scooped up mega-producer Joel Silver for a quarter million dollars, catapulting Black into screenwriting stardom. Within a decade, after earning a then record $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodbye, he became the highest paid writer in the industry,

Black’s story, and those like it, drive thousands of hopeful writers to Los Angeles each year, and motivate untold tens of thousands more to bookstores to seek instruction from a bewildering array of expert advice guides. These writer wannabes take this leap with full knowledge that screenwriting is one of the world’s most notoriously elite and inaccessible industries. The Writers Guild of America counts 12,000 professional screenwriters on its rolls — that is, writers good enough to have been paid for their work — and of these pros, it’s estimated that around half are out of work at any given time. To make matters worse for the amateur, a growing number of selective screenwriting M.F.A. programs ensures a constant flow of highly-trained newcomers to compete for the few open slots that remain. In 2009, the Nicholl Fellowship, the most prestigious amateur screenwriting award, received close to 7000 submissions.

If you want to make it in screenwriting you have to be exceptional, and this is what makes it a fascinating case study for our ongoing efforts to decode the secrets of becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

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Why Does the World’s Top Mathematician have a Public E-Mail Address?

April 16th, 2010 · 26 comments

Math Classroom

The late summer of 2006 was a heady time for Terry Tao. First, in August of that year, he received the Fields Medal, an elite prize, given only once every four years, that honors the world’s top mathematicians. (One of Tao’s fellow prizewinners in 2006 was Grigori Perelman, the eccentric Russian who roared to international celebrity by solving the long-standing Poincaré conjecture.)

Next, less than a month after his return from the Fields ceremony, Tao learned that he won a $500,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant” — leading the LA Times to dub him a “Mozart of Math.”

Here’s what interests me about Tao: on his well-trafficked web site, he has a contact page that starts…

The best way to contact me is via e-mail.

It then goes on to list 22 different types of e-mails that he will not respond to — a list that includes invitations to “collaborate,” “contribute data to a project,” “give [a] talk,” or “attend seminars or conferences.” He also declines requests for “career advice” and “copies of his work.” On a separate page, he notes that he’s “not giving [media] interviews at this time,” and diverts all other queries to a representative of the UCLA office of media relations.

In other words, Terry Tao doesn’t want to hear from you.

And this is completely understandable.

The world’s top math mind is most valuable to society when it’s solving our knottiest combinatorial quandaries. Dedicating hours to interview requests and career advice seems somehow wasteful.

But this motivates an intriguing question: why have a public e-mail address at all? Certainly it would be simpler for him to omit any contact information from his web page.

I don’t know the specific reasons for Tao’s pseudo-accessibility, but his story emphasizes a general trend I first identified in my essay on quitting Facebook: our society has a warped relationship with communication technology. Instead of deploying tools like e-mail to maximize our effectiveness, we grant them default positions in our lives protected by an impossibly high threshold for disuse — a threshold usually articulated as: “If there is any possible negative consequence of abandoning full-throttled use of this technology, I won’t.”

The scenario that intrigues me is not to move to an opposite extreme and promote a world of techno-Luddism. I like to ponder what the middle ground might look like — a philosophy of work where communication technology is isolated and tuned to specific circumstances where it provides unambiguous benefit, and ruthlessly culled elsewhere.

I’m not sure what such a future would look like, but I can only hope that it doesn’t include contact policies so complex that only a mathematician can fully understand them.

(Photo by Christopher Albert)

How to Get Into Stanford with B’s on Your Transcript: Failed Simulations & the Surprising Psychology of Impressiveness

March 26th, 2010 · 128 comments

The United Nations

Steve and David

Let’s try a simple experiment. Imagine that you’re an admissions officer at a competitive college, and you’re evaluating the following two applicants:

  • David — He is captain of the track team and took Japanese calligraphy lessons throughout high school;  he wrote his application essay on the challenge of leading the track team to the division championship meet.
  • Steve — He does marketing for a sustainability-focused NGO; he wrote his application essay about lobbying delegates at the UN climate change conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Who impresses you more? 

For most people, there’s little debate: Steve is the star.

But here’s the crucial follow-up question: Why is Steve more impressive than David?

The answer seems obvious, but as you’ll soon discover, the closer you look, the more hazy it becomes. To really understand Steve’s appeal, we will delve into the recesses of human psychology and discover a subtle but devastatingly power effect that will change your understanding of what it takes to stand out.

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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…

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Want to Get into Harvard? Spend More Time Staring at the Clouds: Rethinking the Role of Extracurricular Activities in College Admissions

February 18th, 2010 · 106 comments

Interesting Student

The Admissions Outliers

Olivia shouldn’t have been accepted to the University of Virginia. At least, not according to the conventional wisdom on college admissions.

Olivia attended a small private school near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She had good grades and test scores, but nothing phenomenal. More striking, she maintained a minimal extracurricular schedule. During the school year, she was a member of the dance team, which satisfied her school’s athletic requirement. She also joined the tech crew for the school musical and was the co-chair of her senior class’s community service organization.

Combined, her school year activities required only seven to eight hours of effort per week.

During the summer, she worked in a marine zoology laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, studying lobsters and horseshoe crabs with a research group run by her neighbor, a professor at the university. She started as a part-time, unpaid volunteer, but the position  morphed into a full time summer job when the professor discovered extra money in his grant.

“It was not a big commitment at all,” Olivia told me, reflecting on her high school obligations.

Students familiar with competitive college admissions tend to have the same reaction to Olivia: she’s a solid applicant, but certainly not good enough to earn a spot at a top-twenty school like UVA. Research involvement has become a standard item on modern applications — the 21st century equivalent of becoming student council president —  and her school-year activities are nearly non-existent by the standards of most competitive applications.

Olivia, however, defied this reaction.  Not only was she accepted at UVA, she also won the hyper-competitive Jefferson Scholarship – a merit-based award, given out by UVA alumni, that covers the full cost of attending the school.

Most high school senior classes have a student like Olivia – someone who defies our understanding of who should get accepted to competitive colleges. We tend to attribute these outliers to the “randomness” of the admissions process. Indeed, even Olivia was surprised by her own success: “I wasn’t stressed like the other students at my school, because I wasn’t interested in trying to impress colleges,” she told me. “I still don’t understand how I got into UVA.”

In this article, by contrast, I argue that the success of students like Olivia is not the result of randomness. It instead points to a surprising possibility: perhaps our understanding of extracurricular activities and their role in the college process is all wrong.

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On Great Teachers and the Remarkable Life: A Deliberate Practice Case Study

February 8th, 2010 · 38 comments

Classroom

Predicting Greatness

The impact of teachers is profound. If you rank the world’s countries by their students’ academic performance, the US is somewhere in the middle. In a 2009 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell notes that replacing “the bottom six percent to ten percent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality” could be enough to close the gap between our current position and the top ranked countries.

“[Y]our child is actually better off in a ‘bad’ school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher,” Gladwell concludes.

But there’s a problem: “No one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like.”

Or at least, according to Gladwell.

Teach for America, a non-profit that recruits outstanding college graduates to teach in low-income school districts, disagrees. This organization is fanatical about data.  For the past 20 years, they’ve gathered massive amounts of statistics on their teachers in an attempt to figure out why some succeed in the classroom and some fail. They then work backwards from these results to identify what traits best predict a potential recruit’s success.

As Amanda Ripley reports in a comprehensive look inside the Teach For America process, published in the Atlantic Monthly, the results of this outcome-based approach to hiring are “humbling.”

“I came into this with a bunch of theories,” the former head of admissions at Teach for America told Ripley. “I was proven wrong at least as many times as I was validated.”

When Teach for America first started 20 years ago, applicants were subjectively scored by interviewers on 12 general traits, like “communication” ability. (A sample interview question: “What is wind?”)  By contrast, if you were one of the 35,000 students who applied in 2009 (a pool that included 11% of Ivy League seniors), 30 data points, gathered from a combination of questionnaires, demonstrations, and interviews were fed into a detailed quantitative model that returned a hiring recommendation.

This data-driven approach seems to work.  As Ripley reports, in 2007, 24% of Teach for America teachers advanced their students at least one and a half grade levels or more. Two years later, as the organization’s models continued to evolve, this number has almost doubled to 44%.

I’m fascinated by Teach For America for a simple reason: the traits they discovered at the core of great teaching are unmistakably a variant of deliberate practice — not the pure, coach-driven practice of professional athletes and chess grandmasters, but a hearty, adaptable strain that’s applicable to almost any field.

Put another way, these outstanding teachers may have unwittingly cracked the code for generating a remarkable life

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