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Posts on Features: Interviews
October 10th, 2008 · 5 comments
I Need a Pencil
I first encountered Jason Shah in an e-mail describing his web site, I Need a Pencil. I get lots of PR pitches about web products and I almost always ignore them. But something here caught me eye. First, Jason is a student; an undergraduate at Harvard, to be precise. Second, the service is free. And third, and most important, I Need a Pencil works in close conjunction with college access organizations around the world.
Put simply: Jason thinks that everyone should have access to SAT prep tools, especially those for whom access to college is neither expected nor guaranteed.
I concluded that Jason is someone that we had to meet. He agreed to sit through an interview to talk about his vision, life at Harvard, and what’s it’s like trying to run a company while a student.
Tell me the I Need a Pencil story.
I started INeedAPencil.com in March 2006 out of my frustration with limited options for students seeking quality test and college preparation tools without paying an arm and a leg. I was a junior in high school, and I was tutoring fellow students for the SAT when I realized how limited my reach was and how repetitive my job became.
Inspired by my family, especially my sister who had taught in charter schools, I decided to launch INeedAPencil.com as my attempt to extend college access to more people.
What specific events led you from Jason the high school student to Jason student with a company?
Read more »
October 8th, 2008 · 4 comments
The Dream Job Diaries is a new semi-regular feature that investigates the reality of various glamorous post-college paths. If you have a job or know of a job you would like to see profiled, send me an e-mail.
Update 10/8/08: I inexplicably reversed the names of Lance and Dana in the original version of the article. It has been fixed below.
The world headquarters of Wiggio Inc. can be found on the first floor of a triplex, situated across from the fire station in a gentrifying North Cambridge neighborhood. At 9 AM, one Friday morning this past September, Dana Lampert arrived to start the new day. He had been at the office until 9 PM the night before. This was considered good. The two nights previous he had been there until 3 and 4:30 AM, respectively, coaxing along a tricky upload of their web site to new servers.
Dana is soon joined by Lance Polivy, his college friend and co-founder of the company. They begin their day by diving into the more than 100 product feedback messages that have gathered over the past 24 hours. The feedback concerns Wiggio’s flagship (and only) product: the wiggio.com website.
This site was launched by Lance and Dana the previous spring, while they were seniors at Cornell. The idea is simple: it makes organizing groups easier.
Here’s the pitch: with one web site, your group can setup shared calendars, construct polls, store files, and send mass text, e-mail, and even voice messages to members. Their primary market is student groups, though its potential audience is wider.
In this early start-up stage, Lance and Dana feel it’s important to respond personally to every piece of feedback. The process is tedious, but it helps keep the founders connected to the users. For a web start-up, users are everything. Without them, all you have is a fancy web site and a business plan.
Read more »
October 3rd, 2008 · 3 comments
An Interview Experiment
My friend Ben recently pitched an interesting idea for a blog post. He proposed that instead of a formal interview, we just have a conversation, drifting from topic to topic as we find things interesting. Ben’s a fascinating guy. His blog is well-trafficked, he commentates on NPR, he writes professionally, and is, relevantly enough, a college student. So I jumped at the chance.
Below are excerpts from our conversation. Check out Ben’s blog for his version of this post which will include different excerpts.
A Conversation Between Cal Newport and Ben Casnocha
Ben: So Cal, here we are on instant messenger. You have expressed concern about how email can be distracting. You don’t use Twitter because you say you don’t need yet another short-text distraction. Do you IM?
Cal: Not intentionally. Though people occasionally find me on gchat. I don’t like the slow pace and partial attention. Do you?
Ben: No. Same. Slow pace, partial attention. I wonder whether I will flip to other windows during this chat, or just watch the screen say “Cal Newport is typing…”
Do you adopt 4HWW habits with email?
Cal: Not really. I don’t do auto-responders, and I check more than twice a day. The big thing I’ve done with my e-mail was move from a single inbox to multiple “mono-typic pigeon holes.”
Ben: WTF is that?
Read more »
September 26th, 2008 · 5 comments
An Unconventional Student
Steve is a student at the University of South Florida, where he studies religion and international relations. He first came to my attention earlier this summer when he published a provocative blog post debating his post-graduation path. The two options he was juggling: going to law school or becoming an elite Special Forces operative. Steve, as it turns out, is an NCO in the US Army, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. So when he says he’s interested in joining the Special Forces, this is not idle talk.
When I heard Steve’s story, I knew I had to get in touch with him. As you know, I’m fascinated by students follow unconventional paths, as their examples can help jolt us out of our own conventional wisdom-hardened ruts. When it comes to unconventional, I can’t think of anything more fitting than a student whose splitting his time on campus between studying and intense training to join the most elite group of warriors on the planet.
Steve was kind enough to answer my questions about how his military lifestyle affects his approach to college life. Excerpts from our discussion are below. You can find out much more about Steve at his fascinating blog: Educated Soldier.
Give me a sense of your daily schedule.
During my last semester, every Tuesday and Thursday, I had class from 12:30 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. I would wake at about 7 a.m. I would eat a quick, light breakfast and head to the campus library. There, I would drink my daily Americano from Starbucks (which I can say, by the way, is one of my rare addiction indulgences) and spend about an hour browsing the websites that I consider daily reading requirements. This was time spent totally free from concerns of studying or Special Forces requirements. Before leaving the library, I would make sure to do something school related. This usually meant working on a reading assignment, which I would typically spend about a half an hour doing.
I would then head immediately to the gym. My work out lasts from 9:45 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. I would then shower at the gym and eat on campus. It would then be 12:30 p.m., or close to it, and time for my class.
Following my class, I would come home and usually spend about an hour checking those same websites of interest again. Like my morning library routine, I would then dedicate about a half an hour or so to school work.
At about 6:00 p.m., I would go for a run. Now, you really have to understand that I enjoy running. It’s an addiction that I am quite proud of. That being the case, I can claim in all honesty that my daily runs would last from an hour to over two hours. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it was usually the latter.
After finishing my run, it was about time to clean up and go to bed. Before going to bed, I would tend to hang out with my roommates for a while, eat something light, and complete a little more homework. And, if needed, this is when I would do the bulk of my additional school work. Even if I only dedicated another half an hour to studying here, however, one can see that my schedule affords me a total of an hour and a half of studying daily without the studying ever seeming burdensome at any one time.
Also, I am a master of hip-pocket studying. That is to say that I always have a book on me and have learned the value of picking up a few pages here and there; for example, I ride the campus bus often and always complete some studying there.
How is this schedule different than what you followed before you began to seriously consider joining the Special Forces?
After joining the Special Forces training program, my daily routine at the university changed in two ways: First, my daily schedule wasn’t so regimented. While I did many of the same things as I do now, I didn’t necessarily plan to do them as well as I do now. Second, prior to joining the SF training program, each day I would either work out in the gym or run. Now I work out in the gym AND run daily.
Why has being ultra-disciplined not made your life less fun?
I definitely had more free time during my freshman year. Yet, I found that I haven’t had less fun on a more restricted schedule. What I have learned, however, is that fun has to be scheduled and a bit less spontaneous than it was that first year.
For example, I do not adhere to my regiment on weekends. I may go to the gym or run on any given Saturday or Sunday because I enjoy doing so. However, I have in no way made this a requirement for myself. I workout hard all week knowing that I going to have the weekends to do whatever it is that I choose. And this mindset has been beneficial in many ways.
Financially, saving my recreational activities for the weekend has been a boon. Like many college students, I like to drink and party. However, by establishing minor priorities, I have found it nearly never necessary to drink or party on a week day or night. Buying beer two nights a week (and usually less lately) is obviously cheaper than buying beer five or six nights a week.
Also, my physically demanding regiment has caused me to develop a much more physically in-shape body. While I can hardly claim to be a ladies man, being in shape does wonders in ways that people not in good physical shape rarely recognize. For example, each day that I work out especially hard, I tend to tackle everything else I do that day equally as hard. When I see tangible, positive physical changes in myself, my confidence is boosted. Doing anything — from taking a test to hanging with friends — is much more enjoyable with a high level of self esteem.
In addition to your personal training you’ve also joined a unit that’s dedicated to training soldiers to enter the Special Forces program. Give me a sense of what this is like.
This last weekend, for example, was dedicated to land navigation. We arrived to our drill location on Friday night for mandatory briefings. These lasted until midnight. We met next on Saturday morning around 6:30 a.m. for a Physical Fitness test that measured our maximum push-ups and sit-ups (both completed in separate two minute increments) and our time running two miles. Immediately after the test, we changed into uniform and packed our rucksacks for the day land navigation course.
The required weight for our rucks was 55 pounds. This was measured before we added food to last throughout the day and night and six quarts of water. My rucksack’s total weight after adding our needed items was 78 pounds. The day land navigation course lasted from 11:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m.
This means that in temperatures that reached in excess of 100 degrees throughout the day, we were constantly searching through national forest terrain for points. The entire time we had rucks on our back, equipment vests on our chests, and a simulated rubber rifle in our hands. Our main navigational tools were simply maps, a compass, and a protractor.
The culmination of the day land navigation course only provided minor rest. A mere two hours later, we began the night course. This event ended at 4:00 a.m. With the same equipment on, and with no additional equipment to aid our night vision (besides a headlamp that was only useful when looking at the map), we had to traverse through the same hazardous terrain. One of members of the cadre sitting on a point that we had to locate encountered a bobcat. A peer candidate turned on his headlamp while crossing a stream only to have his light reflect off the two eyes of an alligator.
The total distance between points in the two courses exceeded 15 miles. This distance fails to reflect how far each of us candidates walked when sporadically lost or in our attempts to avoid particularly hazardous terrain.
While all the Special Forces cadre and candidates returned from the weekend safe but exhausted, I still wanted to share my adventures with you. What I did this past weekend was only a day and a half’s worth in a training effort that ultimately takes nearly two full years to complete. And only after Special Forces qualification and assignment to an Operational Detachment Alpha does the real training begin.
Most of my cadre and nearly all of my peer candidates are college graduates or on-going students. I just want to do my part to reassure the educated types that would frequent a site such as yours that in the Special Forces we maintain the company of highly trained, well-educated individuals.
I think I speak for all of use here at Study Hacks when I say your experiences make the standard student dramas of an all-nighter or busy exam period seem like a little girl’s tea party. Thanks again Steve!
June 20th, 2008 · 10 comments
A Marathon on a Cruise Ship
My first encounter with graduate student and blogger Chris Guillebeau, was an article he wrote about running a marathon…on a cruise ship. He did this for no real reason; it just seemed interesting at the time. My next encounter was an essay posted on Zen Habits about arriving in a small Macedonian town, at 4 am, with nowhere to stay, and subsequently wandering into a all-night street party.
Then I noticed he has traveled to 83 countries and plans one day to visit all 198. He also maintains an excellent blog, The Art of Nonconformity, and he will be releasing on Tuesday a free PDF manifesto titled The Art of World Domination — something I’m eagerly waiting for.
With all this in mind I knew I had to meet Chris (pictured above, chatting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu). He was nice enough to answer some questions about his life philosophy and what it means to become a nonconformist student.
Can you talk about your experiences in college and then the unconventional path you followed afterwards?
“I started college when I was 16, and finished in about two and a half years. I wasn’t incredibly smart or anything; I just registered for lots of classes at multiple schools and then transferred everything at the end to graduate. I’m not sure I would recommend that method to others, since my focus was definitely on completing my degrees instead of learning, but it worked for me.”
“When I was 20 I went to graduate school and needed a way to make some money. I started selling random stuff on eBay (this was 1999, the early days of online auctions) and ended up building a small wholesale business that later expanded to consulting and design projects. I wish I could tell you it was strategic, but it was initially motivated by a strong desire to avoid working for someone else.”
“By far the most important life change I made was moving to West Africa in 2002 to volunteer as an aid worker. I spent four years working with government leaders and villagers in nine different countries there, and the experience affected me profoundly. I came back to the U.S. in 2006 to return to grad school, but I have spent every break since then traveling to as many places around the world as possible.”
What advice do you have for a college student who is wearied by the “traditional” options before him?
“My advice is pretty simple: you don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to. This includes parents, professors, and even peers. If you’re wearied by the system, you have to decide exactly how wearied you are. Most people complain about the traditional paths but don’t bother trying to make their own. If it bothers you enough, you’ll probably find something else sooner or later.”
I’m interested in your notion of how to become “remarkable.” Could you describe your philosophy here?
“It begins with the observation that most people are what I call unremarkably average. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean they are bad people; it’s just that they do what everyone expects them to and they kind of amble through life. A remarkable person is not innately special– rather, to become remarkable (or noticeable), we really have to find our own way somehow.”
“By the way, I’m not interested in telling people how to live their lives. What I’m interested in is showing that there are alternatives out there and you don’t have to be like everyone else.”
What’s the one misconception, commonly held by college students, that you would most like to dispel?
“I just finished a master’s degree at the University of Washington, and during that time I got the chance to hang out with a lot of other students, both graduate and undergraduates. I would never say this is universal, but I did notice that a number of students tend to think that the school has a responsibility to find them the job of their dreams after graduation. There is inevitably a lot of disappointment when this doesn’t work out, and I think it’s far better to take personal responsibility for your own plans from the beginning.”
What are some specific things a college student could do right now to transform their life from conformist to nonconformist?
“Well, the fact is that most people are conformists, and I don’t necessarily think everyone should change. But for those who want to do something else, I think it starts with clearly understanding what it is you really want and how you can cause that to happen. Then, you have to think as well about how you can help improve the lives of others, because most people are not ultimately satisfied with a life focused only on themselves.”
“Once someone knows what they want and how they can help others, the plan of attack is to start taking it step by step. One thing that helped me in college, both undergrad and the grad program, was always asking the question, “Is there another way to do this?” If your advisor is sending you in a direction you are uncomfortable with, I’d push back a little, or suggest an alternative, or just get a new advisor. There are usually multiple ways of accomplishing any goal, including academic goals, and it has greatly helped me to think a lot about the alternatives instead of just doing things they way everyone else does.”
Interesting Posts from The Art of Non-Conformity
May 16th, 2008 · 6 comments
Can College Work Be Fun?
David Masters, a student, self-described “part-time peace activist,” and blogger, has an appealing worldview: life should be creative and playful. Here’s where it gets interesting: David doesn’t let students off the hook. He argues on his thoughtful blog, Be Playful, that undergrads should enjoy their academic efforts. Indeed, studying should even be, dare I say it: “fun.”
After hearing this claim I knew I had to interview David. There is something downright Zen about his take on student life, so, considering our recent conversations, I thought we should poke around a bit and see if we can’t figure out what makes this fun-loving student tick.
First things first: the major. What’s your advice here?
Choose a subject that you love and that you’re passionate about rather than focusing on what gives you the best career prospects. I chose a combined major of Theology and Social Sciences for two reasons: I love searching for meaning, and I’m passionate about social justice and making the world a better place. [ed. Daniel Pink would agree.]
What does it mean to connect your classes to everyday life?
Making your studies meaningful to you means that they become a part of who you are; it also makes studying a joyful experience rather than a slow drudge, because you can see how what you are studying makes an impact on you (or the world) right now.
For example, in my Political Theology class we’ve been learning about how the state maintains its power through violence. It’s interesting to apply this idea to news about different countries, like how China has been treating pro-Tibet protesters, and how America shows off its power through the war on terror.
I’ve heard you mention an interesting trick regarding the bibliography for a paper…
When choosing books to read for a writing assignment I try to make sure that the majority of books in my bibliography aren’t on the course reading list. Choosing books that aren’t on the reading list makes your paper stand out to the professor; it will be different from the pack and will read as more independent and creative.
You claim you can make studying more like play. Let’s say it’s a typical day for David. What does it look like?
This may initially sound like a contradiction, but the key ways in which my studying is playful is that it is structured and focused. Sports and games, though playful, are very structured, and it is this structure that allows for great feats and achievements.
I know the best time for me to study is in the morning, so I study then. I read the assignments, and I work on the paper. I prefer working at the desk in my room, so my notes are handy to compare different ideas; if I’m in the library, I’ll find a quiet corner desk near to the shelf I’m researching. I like to be done by 4pm to have time and space to socialize and relax.
I guess what is different is the way in which I engage with my studies. When I read through the assignments, the most important thing I am looking for is new concepts, or old concepts seen in a new way, and connections to other things that I have read, and I’ll mark up these. [ed. Scott Young would agree.]
What’s the biggest mistake you see your fellow students make in how they approach their academic lives?
Failing to be organized and to structure their study. I guess many students see this as freedom, but in my mind, they’re a slave to deadlines. Having a structure means that you can work at your own, relaxed pace, and you don’t feel guilty or worried about unknown looming deadlines, because you know exactly what’s coming up.
Any final unexpected nuggets to share with us?
I think one of the best things that students can do is to contribute to the world in some way. It’s best to choose just one thing to give your time to, so you don’t end up over-scheduling yourself.
I loved the Study Hacks story of Tyler and how he applies what he learned in his past studies to make a different to the world doing cancer research.
May 7th, 2008 · 7 comments
The Book(s) of Daniel
If you don’t know Daniel Pink, you should. His bestselling books, Free Agent Nation (2001) and A Whole New Mind (2005), heralded the arrival of the conceptual age. Dan has also written on issues of business and technology for The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Wired.
His full biography reads like a Zen Valedictorian, post-grad adventure tale. He attends Yale Law School then never practices a day of law, deciding, instead, to bum a ride out to Washington. Soon he’s a vice-presidential speech writer. He leaves that job to write two of the most important business books of the last decade. He then wins a fellowship to move to Japan and study the Manga industry.
Enter Johnny Bunko
Perhaps most exciting for Study Hacks readers, however, is his latest project, the new book: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need (illustrated by Manga hotshot Rob Ten Pas). In Bunko, which tells the story of a young graduate receiving workplace lessons, Dan lays out six core pieces of advice for making it happen in the real world. As someone who works and writes a lot about these issues, I can say with conviction: this is some of the most dead-on, effective young career advice that I have ever read. (Don’t take my word for it, you can preview the rules here and read the first chapter here.) The Miami Herald, perhaps, puts it best: “[Johnny Bunko] blows away all the rest with its clarity, simplicity, and intelligence.”
As you can imagine, I was quick to get in touch with Dan. I asked him what advice he had for a current college student looking to jumpstart a Pink-esque career after graduation. He was kind enough to respond.
The interview follows…
Your own post-college path seems serendipitous. How did you stumble onto this path. And once on it, how did you keep moving in such an interesting direction?
You’ve got it right. There was a lot of stumbling and serendipity. Since I knew I wasn’t going to practice law, I decided to go into what I then found most interesting: politics. I worked on a number of political campaigns as a policy and communications person — and then, yes, stumbled into speechwriting. What happened is that I wrote a few speeches. They weren’t awful. Then they asked me to write a few more and before I knew it, I was a speechwriter. I got reasonably good at it, did it for awhile, but then got sick of the b.s. of politics. At that point in my life, I was becoming deeply interested in business and technology — so I decided to go out on my own and write about those topics.
All of the books and most of the articles I’ve written since then have really emerged from pursuing the things I was curious about. That’s a key. Curiosity. I tried to follow my curiosity and see where it took me. Also — and this is important — I decided that since so many people could outsmart me, nobody would outwork me. As you know, I’m a big believer that persistence trumps talent.
What’s the biggest myth about the post-graduation search for a job that you would like to dispel?
That you need to have a carefully articulated plan. Too many people make career decisions for instrumental reasons — because they think what they’re doing will lead to something else. Not enough people make decisions for fundamental reasons — because of the value of the activity itself.
The dirty little secret is that instrumental reasons don’t work. It’s way too tumultuous out there. The people who really flourish are those who make decisions for fundamental reasons. They have to live with a certain amount of ambiguity about not knowing what’s going to happen next. But that keeps them alert to unexpected opportunities and the serendipity you talked about earlier.
What lessons would you give to Johnny Bunko’s little brother who is, let’s say, a rising college sophomore?
1. Begin the process of discovering what you love to do and what you’re great at — what, in some sense, you are on this planet to do. You won’t necessarily find the answer in college. But asking that question will put you on a promising trajectory.
2. Pick the professor, not the course. In the hands of a good teacher, every topic can fascinating.
3. If you’re in the arts, take a laboratory science course. If you’re in science, take a studio art course.
4. Exercise. Seriously. Exercise is one of the few things in life that is uniformly, unequivocally good for you.
Thank you so much for your time!
April 25th, 2008 · 8 comments
Disruptive Thinkers is a semi-regular series that features interesting people with interesting ideas about college, achievement, or life in general.
How to Become Good
Marty Nemko is good at becoming good. As he outlined in a recent blog post, when he set his sights on becoming a career coach he eventually logged over 2800 clients. When he decided to parlay this expertise into writing, he landed a career columnist gig first for the San Francisco Chronicle, then the Los Angeles Times, then transformed this into a contributing editor slot at U.S. News & World Report. He wanted to learn the art of rose
hybridizing, now three of his varieties are sold nationwide. He wanted to try playwriting and won the “Roar of the Crowd” award for the best Bay Area entertainment of the week. His first screenplay caused a stir. He has a radio show.
And the list continues…
To use Study Hacks parlance, Marty is a finisher. He doesn’t just tackle projects that pique his interest, but he also manages that rarest of the rare skills: to consistently push them into the elite strata of noteworthy accomplishment. Fascinated by his approach, I asked Marty to share some of his famously unconventional advice on how to become good at becoming good.
What do most people get wrong when they set out to become good?
The average person isn’t smart enough to tackle lots of things, yet they try and thus become dilettantes. They need focus, unrelenting focus — until the world has provided sufficient signs that it is interested or not interested in that person’s focus.
What’s the role of talent versus strategy in becoming good?
Strategy is absolutely necessary….but insufficient. Talent and drive (or luck — damn those lucky people) are required.
Many people who focus on something for a long time can get pretty skilled, but have a hard time making that transition to the big-time. How does one make that final push from amateur to expert?
Become an amazing and relentless marketer. That skills is usually orthogonal to (the less accurate term is “incompatible with”) becoming expert at something, yet it is critical, alas, especially in this society where the stupid public responds to marketing hype more than to excellence. Why else would dishonest idiots like Oprah be more beloved than, for example, Christopher Hitchens on the Left or Larry Kudlow on the right..
What advice would you give a young college student looking to make a name for himself in something?
Forget passion unless it’s a rare one. Too many other people will be passionate about it, eviscerating your chances of “making a name for yourself.” Don’t be a lemming. Make a name for yourself in some pursuit that top people rarely pursue: Be the most amazing undertaker, industrial acid broker, advocate for the most under-served and worthy kids (in my opinion: intellectually gifted boys in elementary school.) Even if the field seems mundane, you will feel more rewarded and better about your life being a vanguard in a dull field than a soldier in a “cool” one.
[For more on Marty, check out his popular website, which includes, among other content, his new blog and a collection of his most popular articles on life, goals, work and achievement.]