Study Hacks Blog
Decoding Patterns of Success
Posts on Features: Mythbusting
December 26th, 2009 · 50 comments
The Courage Fallacy
In 2005, Lisa Feuer quit her marketing job. She had held this same position throughout her 30s before deciding, at the age of 38, that it was time for something different.
As the New York Times reported in an article from last summer, she wanted the same independence and flexibility that her ex-husband, an entrepreneur, enjoyed. Bolstered by this new resolve, Lisa invested in a $4000 yoga instruction course and started Karma Kids Yoga — a yoga practice focused on young children and pregnant women.
Lisa’s story provides a pristine example of what I call the choice-centric approach to building an interesting life. This philosophy emphasizes the importance of choosing better work. Having the courage to leave your boring but dangerously comfortable job — to borrow a phrase from Tim Ferriss — and instead follow your “passion,” has become the treasure map guiding this philosophy’s adherents.
But there’s a problem: the endings are not always so happy…
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January 25th, 2009 · 36 comments
J.D. Roth of the popular Get Rich Slowly blog recalls a conversation he had with a friend who had just started his own web site. As J.D. recalls, after the friend posted an introductory article he asked: “Can you point people to the site?”
“Not yet,” J. D. replied. “You don’t have any content.”
Instead of writing, the friend tweaked the layout and introduced advertisements. Several weeks passed.
“Nobody’s coming to my site,” the friend complained. “Not a single person has clicked on an ad.”
“That’s because there’s nothing there…you need to focus on content,” J.D. replied.
The friend posted a new article, then let the site lay fallow for another month. Finally, he wrote J.D. again, this time pleading: “Can’t you please point people to my site?”
“Maybe in a couple months,” J.D. replied. “Maybe once you have some content.”
Consider another example. I have a friend who is a successful entrepreneur in the movie industry. He’s a strong believer in the power of consistent action. When giving talks to student crowds he likes to sum up his entire approach to life as a two-step process: “(1) Get started; (2) Keep going.”
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December 17th, 2008 · 58 comments
Contest Update: You have until midnight tonight (EST) to send in your entry for the HP Magic Giveaway. Remember, I’m giving away $6000 worth of computers, printers, and software to one lucky winner. Click here for the rules and information on how to enter. (Note: the contest is now closed. I’ll announce the winner on Friday.)
An Interesting Question…
A student recently sent me an interesting question. It’s a topic I’ve thought a lot about, so I thought I would share my answer with you.
Here’s the original question:
To what extent does intelligence matter in college success? I have a group of friends that try very hard at school, yet fail to score the grades a select group of people I know are able to do. This question captures my concern about grad school admissions: no matter how hard I try, there will always be hundreds of other “geniuses” out there.
I responded: I don’t believe that intrinsic intelligence plays any significant role at the college level.
Let me explain why…
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November 7th, 2008 · 33 comments
The Obama Method
In response to my recent article on Misery Poker, a reader commented:
I wonder about the really exceptional people. Does Barack Obama “build a realistic schedule”? … maybe extraordinary stress IS required to accomplish extraordinary feats
Another reader added:
I think extraordinary sacrifices are required for great accomplishments.
This is a fascinating argument. Study Hacks, as you know, is driven by the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy, which claims that it’s possible to be both relaxed and impressive. But these commenters are pushing back on this world view. It’s one to thing, they note, to have a successful college career that is also relaxed, but is it possible to have an exceptional career without overwhelming amounts of work?
In this post I claim it is possible. And I’ll explain exactly how…
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August 29th, 2008 · 45 comments
The Young and Exceptional
In a recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, professor Rachel Toor asks:
Who feels at home in a place like Yale, where your roommate has already published a novel and the person down the hall performed on Broadway?
This question captures a familar trope: top schools contain a small number of exceptional genius students with whom the rest of us mortals must compete. This idea strikes fear into heart of those approach the college admissions process and sows insecurity for those already on campus.
But is it based in reality? Are there really geniuses — teenagers publishing books and performing on Broadway — who have innate skills that blow away their peer’s ability? And if it’s not true, what danger do we face in keeping this myth alive? This essay tackles these questions.
The Tale of Two Superstars
To aid our discussion, let’s introduce two students that seem to support the genius myth.
The first is a Stanford undergrad who we can call Mike. As Mike recently explained to me in an e-mail exchange, by the time he arrived on campus he had published four books, two of which were bestsellers.
The other student is author Christopher Paolini, who, at the age of 15 began writing the book Eragon which was eventually bought by Alfred Knopf for $250,000 and became both a New York Times bestseller and a big budget movie.
We can agree that Mike and Christopher are exactly the type of young superstars we have in mind when we think about the young genius myth. Four books by the age of 18? Writing a bestselling novel at 15? What else other than rare exceptional ability could explain such feats?
As it turns out, Mike would be embarrassed to be labeled a genius. In out brief conversation, he went out of his way to emphasize that what he had accomplished, in true Zen Valedictorian fashion, was actually easier than the brutal workloads of his high school classmates. The full story on Mike’s books — the story you’d never get in the college press release — is that the books are computer manuals in a series written for and by teenagers. The “bestseller” status refers to a good day in the Amazon rankings.
What Mike should get credit for is boldness and discipline. As a 15-year-old attending a tech conference with his family, he fearlessly pitched the teen tech series to a group of publishing executives. When they turned him down he went ahead and wrote up sample chapters and sent them along. When they saw that this 15-year-old could write, they green lit the plan. Once the first book was complete, Mike stayed focus, pitching and writing three additional manuals.
Mike impresses the hell out of me because he not only has interesting ideas but he also acts on them; a rare combination for someone his age. He’s a perfect example of the Steve Martin Method. But as he would readily admit, he possess no special genius ability that surpasses those of his classmates.
But what about Christopher Paolini? His book was a mega bestseller and it was also a novel. He has to have a genius ability.
Let’s dive deeper…
When you read through enough interviews with the young author, a consistent view emerges: he was trained, from a young age, like a Chinese Olympian, to become a young novelist. He was home schooled by his writer parents who ran their own publishing house. As Christopher recalls, his mother, a former Montessori teacher, supplemented standard textbook lessons with creativity-boosting exercises and a large amount of writing. After receiving at the age of 15 — through correspondence courses — the equivalent of a high school degree, Christopher, with the blessing and support of his parents, turned his full-time attention to writing his first novel. No college. No job. Just writing. The young man who grew up being groomed to become an author spent the next three years working on nothing else but realizing this dream.
Once he finished, his parents published the book through their own publishing house and Christopher hit the road; doing over 145 appearances — in full medieval regalia — to help promote the book and spread the word. It eventually came to the attention of Carl Hiaasen, who passed it along to his publisher, which, in turn, liked the book, saw the fan base Christopher had built, and, more importantly, saw how much money they were making with Harry Potter, and then bought the rights.
The resulting book isn’t a great work of literature. In its review, The New York Times notes:
Paolini does not yet have the [strengths of classic fantasy authors]…He often slips into clichéd descriptions…and B-movie dialogue…The plot stumbles and jerks along, with gaps in logic and characters dropped, then suddenly remembered, or new ones invented at the last minute.
That being said, the story is gripping and authentic and caught the attention of the public at just the right moment when children fantasy was the rage — leading to a deserved bestseller status.
Once again, however, we don’t find a natural, untouchable genius ability. Instead, we find a young man, groomed from a young age to write this book, who followed through on this plan over three hard years, and ended up, with a lot of luck and even more elbow grease producing a break out.
No magic ability lurks here.
The Young Genius Myth Debunked
My experience working with the country’s most exceptional students has taught me that the genius myth is rarely justified. When you encounter a student who, when casually described, hits you as brilliant and beyond comparison with your own abilities, often, as with Mike and Chris, the following factors are in play:
- The “genius” accomplishments, when investigated closely, are less exceptional than they were at first described.
- The “genius” had been working toward his accomplishment for years, probably in an environment that afforded him insider connections and a detailed understanding of what exactly is necessary to make progress.
The Danger of the Genius Myth
The danger of the genius myth is that it unnecessarily muddles our discussions of student stress. When considering college admissions, for example, it helps no one to casually reference the “published authors” that you have to compete with. This deference to genius is a way to justify unhealthy behaviors — “I’m in 25 clubs because I have to keep with geniuses like Mike!” It also generates unnecessary insecurity, making you feel like your college acceptance was a mistake and that the work load is probably beyond your natural abilities. Finally, it helps foster the idea that intelligence and ability are “innate” traits. As Carol Dweck has shown again and again, adopting this mindset leads to much poorer academic performance and worse mental health.
Here’s the reality: there are few — if any — geniuses in this world. When you hear about a student who blows your mind, assume you’re not getting the full story. The key, as always, to standing out is to: keep a manageable workload, innovate, master a few things instead of juggling many, and use smart, efficient work habits. Don’t stress over your lack of a magic ability because, as much as this might pain Eragon fans to hear, there is no magic: Just hard work, focus, a dash of innovation and a healthy dose of luck.
(Photo by midiman)
June 27th, 2008 · 68 comments
The (Dangerous) Art of the Start
Attend any talk given by an entrepreneur and you’ll hear some variation of the following:
The most important thing you can do is to get started!
This advice has percolated from its origin in business self-help to the wider productivity blogging community. You’ve heard it before: Do you want to become a writer? Start writing! Do you want to become fit? Join a gym today! Do you want to become a big-time blogger? Start posting ASAP! If you don’t start, you’re weak! You’re afraid of success!
Here’s the problem: I completely disagree with this common advice. I think an instinct for getting started cripples your chance at long-term success. And I suggest that, on the contrary, you should develop rigorous thresholds that any pursuit must overcome before it can induce action.
Allow me to explain why…
The Origin of the Cult of the Start
If you talk to an accomplished speaker, especially one with a focus on entrepreneurship, he’ll tell you his “get started” message is crucial. Indeed, one of the biggest frustrations faced by speakers in this circuit is how often they meet young people who are psyched to start a business, but then allow, over time, for their enthusiasm to fade without ever taking action.
These speakers counter this effect by drilling the importance of starting. “Do anything!”, they yell. “Send one e-mail, check out one book, register one domain name!” The theory is that even the smallest action can overcome some mythical initial resistance, and help build an inescapable momentum toward business nirvana.
But is getting started right away always the best option?
In his convention-busting book, Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb preaches the danger of survivor bias — a common fallacy in which we emulate people who succeeded without considering those who used similar techniques but failed. Taleb uses the example of The Millionaire Next Door, a popular finance guide in which the authors interviewed a large group of millionaires. As Taleb points out, the habits of these millionaires — accumulating wealth through spartan living and aggressive investments — should not be emulated unless one can determine how many more people followed a similar strategy but failed to hit it big.
Perhaps a more poignant example would be to find and interview the 10 people in the country who had the biggest and fastest overall increase to their finances in the last year. Guess who would dominate this list? Lottery winners. Ignoring the survivor bias, one could conclude: the people who get richest fastest all invested heavily in lottery tickets, so that’s what I should do too!
The same, of course, can be applied to an entrepreneur, or anyone, really, who had success in a glamorous pursuit. To the winner, their path seems straightforward. It was just a matter of putting in the time and the results followed. To someone in this position, it can be incredibly frustrating to watch people denying themselves similar success simply because they’re afraid to get started.
But the survivor bias lurks…
For every successful entrepreneur, or writer, or blogger, or actor, there are dozens of others who did get started but then flamed out. Some people lack the right talents. For many more, the pursuit, once past that initial stage of generic, heady enthusiasm, simply lost its attraction and their interest waned.
The Saturation Method
I have observed many people who have had long-term success in an impressive pursuit. I have also observed many people who went after such successes yet failed. I hope by combining both outcomes — success and failure — I can identify a predictor of the former that will remain free of the taint of survivor bias.
In short, I’ve noticed that people who succeed in an impressive pursuit are those who:
- Established, over time, a deep emotional conviction that they want to follow that pursuit.
- Have built an exhaustive understanding of the relevant world, why some succeed and others don’t, and exactly what type of action is required.
This takes time. Often it requires a long period of saturation, in which the person returns again and again to the world, meeting people and reading about it and trying little experiments to get a feel for its reality. This period will be at least a month. It might last years.
Steve Martin’s Diligence
Steve Martin noted that the key to becoming really good at something (so good that they can’t ignore you), is diligence, which he defines as effort over time to the exclusion of other pursuits. This is why people who ultimately succeed in a pursuit go through such a long period of vetting before they begin — if you’re not 100% convinced and ready to tackle something, potentially for years, to the exclusions of the hundreds of interesting new ideas that will pop up along the way, you’ll probably fizzle out well before reaping any reward.
The Art of Not Starting
This reality brings me back to my original point: try not to get started. If you translate every burst of enthusiasm into action, you’re going to waste time. More dangerous, you’re going to hobble your chances of succeeding in any pursuit, as the constant influx of new activity prevents you from achieving a Steve Martin-style diligence.
My advice: resist starting. Spend lots of time learning about different pursuits, but put off action until an idea begins to haunt your daydreams and refuses to be dislodged from your aspirational psyche. Then, and only then, should you reluctantly take that first step, one of what’s sure to be many, many more before you get to where you want.
June 11th, 2008 · 26 comments
The phenomenal success of Tim Ferriss’s recent book, The Four-Hour Work Week, brought to prominence a distressing trend that has been recently plaguing the self-help community: citing rough summaries of scientific principles as evidence for unrelated how-to advice.
The principle, in particular, that I’m interested in here is Parkinson’s Law. Informally, the law states:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
This was the opening sentence of the humorous essay Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson published in The Economist in 1955. The essay went on to explain the results of a study of the British Civil Service. (Click here for an expanded version of the essay published in Parkinson’s eponymous book on the subject).
Unfortunately, as we’ll see, in modern usage the study itself has been discarded in favor of this one sentence opening — a tendency that obscures its true meaning.
The Misuse of Parkinson
Parkinson’s Law is widely cited in Ferriss’s book and in countless blog articles as evidence that when given a task, a human will fill whatever time was alloted for its completion. The conclusion: a feeling of busyness shouldn’t prevent us from reducing the time we set aside for work. In other words, they take the opening sentence from Parkinson’s essay and then interpret it literally.
The reality, however, is more complicated…
Inside the Civil Service
If you read deeper into Parkinson’s work, you soon discover that he is not making a general claim on how humans procrastinate. He is, instead, summarizing a rather rigorous statistical proof he devised to explain observations of a very specific context: the British Civil Service. Parkinson, it turns out, was intrigued by the following paradox: the number of people employed in the British Colonial Office bureaucracy increased even as the British Empire imploded — an event that decreased the amount of work available.
Parkinson’s Law is not a catch phrase, but instead a statistical model devised by Professor Parkinson to describe the factors that control the growth of bureaucracy. It’s central conclusion: growth is independent of the amount of work to be done.
Among the non-work related growth factors he identified were:
- The tendency of slightly overworked officials to hire pairs of subordinates to relieve the strain — the pair being necessary to prevent any one from usurping the original official’s functionality. The added work capacity here far outstrips the demand.
- The well-known ability of officials to create work for those below them.
Parkinson Doesn’t Care About Your To-Do List
In light of Parkinson’s full findings, the adage that “work expands to fill available time” takes on a new meaning. To Ferriss, and other how-to writers, it’s interpreted, as mentioned, to mean that individuals will procrastinate and drag out tasks to fill an arbitrary work day. To Parkinson, however, the adage was meant to highlight a truth about large bureaucratic organizations: growth can be unrelated to work.
Parkinson would be amused at best, and confused at worst, to see his conclusion applied to self-employed, blog-reading, high-tech entrepreneurial types struggling to maintain a work-life balance. It’s a worthy cause. But certainly not one that concerned the good Professor.
Finding New Relevance for Parkinson
At the risk of suffering the same sin I just urged you to avoid, I suggest, tentatively, that there is still some modern value to be mined from Parkinson’s work. When you forget the famous one sentence summary, and dive, instead, into the guts of his study, the following more profound conclusion shakes loose:
Well-established work cultures can harbor irrational behavior. Beware!
In the civil service, this meant employee growth can occur even as work demands decrease. For a college student, on the other hand, this could refer to the irrational belief that physical suffering — in the form of all-nighters and long study marathons — is the key metric for proper test preparation and paper writing.
This isn’t logical. As Study Hacks readers know, a little pre-planning and some efficient review techniques can eliminate the need for such suffering all together. But a strong work culture — as Parkinson observed — can exert surprising strength on your behavior.
To conclude, be wary of any writer, myself included, who uses a brief high-level summary of some scientific principle as justification for any manner of unrelated ideas. What lurks beneath the fortune-cookie headline invariably provides richer insight.
March 7th, 2008 · 19 comments
The Simple Six Letter Word That Determines Success
A few weeks back, Brian Clark, of Copyblogger fame, posted an intriguing article on Zen Habits. It was titled: Punk Rock Your Life: The Simple Six Letter Word That Determines Success.
The essay got some attention; eventually earning 1090 digs and 92 comments. I can see why. Like any timeless advice fable, it presents a simple message built around a compelling, illustrative story. Clark describes a Sex Pistols concert held in 1976 in Manchester, England. In attendance at this concert where a surprisingly large number of then unknown musicians who, inspired by the innovation on display, went on to become famous. Clark draws a clear conclusion:
So, what’s the six-letter word that determines success in life? Action.
Is that correct? The answer, I believe, is more complicated…
Ask yourself the following: Do you anyone who tried to become a professional musician? Most people do. Did they succeed? Most such aspirants do not. (It’s a brutal business.)
Now ask yourself this: Did they work hard? Most likely, you answered “yes.” So why did the failed musicians you know not succeed when the inspired Sex Pistols fans did? There are several possible answers. Luck could play a role. Also talent. Maybe different levels of hard work. But none of these factors, alone, seems to provide the full story. On a closer examination of the hundreds of success stories I’ve witnessed or told, I’m starting to arrive at a new truth: Action cannot generate success unless it’s focused on an incredibly productive path.
Let me explain…
Punk, Not America Idol
Allow me a modest proposal. The reason those Sex Pistol fans became successful punk musicians is because they discovered a productive path on which to apply action. Here was a new type of music with the potential of making a big splash in that social context. By virtue of their age, where they lived, their political views, and their social circles, these musicians were uniquely qualified to be an early promoter of this genre that had explosive potential. All that was missing was taking the action to get there. Those that did made it big.
Consider, on the other hand, if I was to watch an episode of American Idol and get inspired and proclaim: “This is great! I want to do this!” Who cares. No amount of action is going to make me into a pop music star. Ditto if I wanted to become a great cage fighter or literary novelist. These paths would not be productive for my particular situtation.
Steve Martin Knew It
On reflection, this approach of identifying a productive direction for your action is embedded in our recent discussion of the Steve Martin Method. When he says “be so good they can’t ignore you,” you could substitute “relevant,” “new,” “necessary,” or “original” for “good.” Indeed, this is exactly what Martin did. He didn’t become good at the style of comedy currently in vogue. Instead, he invented a new style so compelling that it could not be ignored. Because he was a young, smart, well-educated comedy writer during a time of great social change, he was in a prefect situation to make this happen.
Applying to Your Life
I’m still working out some of these ideas, and can’t, at this point, distill this brainstorm into concrete advice, or even provide strong definitions of key concepts like “productive path.” I do think, however, that something important is brewing here. I will be revisiting the concept soon.
In the mean time, let me know what you think. How does this match or clash with your own experience? How does one best take advantage of this reality of big achievement? I’m interested to dive deeper.