Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success Posts on Features: Mythbusting

Dangerous Ideas: What If Everything We Thought Was True About Productivity Was Wrong?

September 26th, 2007 · 12 comments

The Surprising Hardness of the Simple

I just observed something distressing about my behavior. The absolute most simple component to my productivity repertoire is to keep a notebook and a pen within reach at all times. In the standard GTD canon, this allows me to immediately capture any tasks or ideas that pop to mind.

In theory, this basic behavior — taking a notebook out of my backpack when I sit down — should present no difficulty. What task could be more simple? All I have to do is move my arm, literally, just a few feet, from my bag to my desk. No thinking is required. No more than 3 – 5 seconds transpire. No sweat.

Many times, however, I can’t stand the thought of it.

In fact, as I write this, such an occasion just occurred. I returned to my office after lunch, sat down, and found that every ounce of my being was resisting this trivial act. I had to fight to rally the energy to get out that notebook. And this is I fight I often lose.

The Problem with the Hardness Assumption

This observation contradicts a lot of what we assume about productivity. We like to imagine that the difficulty of starting something is in linear proportion to the difficulty of a task. When we see “write term paper” on a to-do list, we know we have our work cut out for us to overcome the urge to procrastinate. Something simple, on the other hand, like “take a notebook out of your backpack,” should be a breeze.

But it’s not.

To my continual consternation, the simple and hard, at times, can be equally difficult to get started. And this causes trouble. The core of most modern work flow management systems depend on the use of “easy” habits to support and simplify the “hard.” If these gradated designations fail, so does, perhaps, many of the claimed benefits of these systems.

Toward a More Realistic Theory of Motivation

The obvious question remains: What does explain our varying motivation levels? I don’t really know. But it’s likely quite complicated.

One thing I have noticed, however, is that I tend to move between grooves and slumps. When I’m in a groove on a certain type of work, it’s relatively painless to switch between tasks within this same type. For example, if I’m in a blog groove, it’s easy to knock off tasks related to the blog. This is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow state, but not quite the same. In a groove you are able to move between many different tasks within a broad type, whereas Flow typically refers to your concentration during a specific activity.

The slump is the evil twin to the groove. It describes a general period of low energy where anything beyond desultory e-mail checking seems impossibly distant.

What’s key is that in both situations the “hardness” of the task at hand plays a minimal role in determining my motivation to tackle it. The key is not only that I’m not in a slump but also that I’m in the right groove for the type of work I face.

The Important Questions

If this general model holds universally, it begs some interesting questions. For example:

  1. How do you avoid slumps?
  2. How do you jump from a slump to a groove?
  3. How do you know what groove you are in?
  4. Is it possible to jump from one groove to another?
  5. Do we have any control over what grooves we land in? And, if not, does it hold that the optimal work flow is one in which you learn to identify and then extract the maximum amount of work out of whatever groove you happen to be in?

From Control to Accommodation

I’m fascinated by these questions. But I have no real answers. It seems that the general paradigm shift at play here is one away from rigid control over your entire work day and toward one where you acknowledge a big part of your motivation is out of your control, and the best you can do is be aware and leverage what you face each day.

For future reading, there are, no doubt, relevant lessons in Csikszentmihaly. There is probably also a lot to be learned from Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s work on energy management.

I leave a more rigorous examination of these issues as future work. For now, however, as I sit and ponder the notebook that sits beside me, and the herculean struggle that preceded it’s arrival in this position, I can’t help but a feel a slight shiver of discomfort — maybe the whole productivity game is much more elusive and much more non-deterministic than we would like to believe.

Dangerous Ideas: “Paying Your Dues” is Underrated

September 21st, 2007 · 2 comments

A recent post at the Employee Evolution blog asks the following question: “Is ‘paying your dues’ an outdated concept?”

The author opens with the story of his time in his high school drama club. For three years he paid his dues — practicing his singing, showing up at every meeting, taking on tedious parts — so that, as a senior, he could reap his triumphant reward in the form of a leading role in the yearly drama production.

But things didn’t go as planned. A new choral director was hired and gave all the choice parts to the younger students he already knew. In short, the author got screwed.

His lesson:

It did teach me one thing that I haven’t forgotten — to be extremely skeptical of people who tell you to pay your dues. You can do everything right, and still get passed by.

The author then extends this logic to the workplace. In his calculus, older employees grumble about us hotshot Gen-Y’ers not wanting to “pay our dues,” while we feel justified in our hot-shotedness because we’ve seen our parent’s generation be rewarded for years of service with a pink slip.

This is a confusing stalemate. On the one hand, young people are not content to put in time for the sake of putting in time — just because that’s the payment owed some antiquated seniority system. On the other hand, the older folks aren’t far off the mark by retorting that it’s hubristic to expect benefits immediately.

So what’s a modern workforce to do? The author’s conclusion:

I’m not advocating that Gen-Y employees should all be given high-level jobs, months of vacation time and great salaries the moment they set foot in the door. Experience matters…But I think we do need to feel like we’re in an environment where we can learn, achieve our goals and be happy.

I’m not quite sure what this means (it smacks of business-speak to me). But I suspect that me and this author are actually working from the same page here. Despite the provocative statements made earlier in his post, I think we both see some value in the “paying dues” concept — value, that is, if you are willing to rething your definition of “dues.”

Redefining Dues

A careful analysis of the dues argument reveals two separate components. One is the inadequacy of seniority (as oppose to skill-based) benefit ladders. The other is the indulgent lunacy in coddling young hires in whatever benefits or opportunities satisfies their ego-bolstering whims. We can solve both (says Cal, with completely unjustified confidence). Here’s how:

  1. Maintain the core concept that in order to obtain a certain benefit (be it more responsibility, more pay, or increased schedule flexibility) an employee most “pay his dues” in a well-defined manner.
  2. Redefine what it means to “pay dues” to a system that is completely independent of seniority. Instead, make it based on the achievement of specific performance benchmarks.

If you’re twenty-two, and you want to be given your own project team to manage, fine. Just show us three previous projects in which your manager allowed you to run the main technical meetings and your fellow team-members gave you a rating of “excellent” or above on their post-project evaluations.

You want flexible work hours? Great. Take on a stretch project the company has been meaning to get done. If over the period of a month your managers report no problems in your normal workload and you get the stretch project done, then we deem you productive enough to handle more flexibility.

Barriers are fine so long as the path to circumvention is well-known and well-justified.

The Power of the Dues Paying Mindset

This whole discussion leads to a larger point that holds, perhaps, more salience to my non-working student audience. A willingness—perhaps even eagerness—to “pay your dues” in the non-seniority, performance-driven manner described above, is a crucial trait to aid the accomplishment of big things.

Almost anything that is worth doing is worth doing because its considered impressive or valuable. It’s likely considered impressive or valuable because not many people do it. Not many people do it because it’s hard.

If you want to accomplish the types of things that impress people, then you must get used to aggressively putting in the prerequisite work to get to the ability level you need to be at. This holds if you’re a new hire in the workplace or a student involved in an undergraduate research program. It’s equally relevant to a wannabe entrepreneur as it is to a fledgling author.

See the World in Terms of Dues

Dues paying is where you differentiate yourself from the masses. Regardless of the pursuit, first ask yourself: “What specific thing could I achieve that would prove me capable/deserving of making progress in this pursuit.” Then set about to find the most efficient possible path to this achieving this specific thing. Don’t worry about the ultimate goal. Just worry about the next set of dues you need to conquer en route to completion.

When you enter the workforce for the first time, your first thought should not be to complain about how your bosses are under-appreciating you. Instead, identify what specific thing you could accomplish that would indisputably qualify you as worthy of increased appreciation.

Let’s take a more collegiate example. You join a campus magazine and are frustrated that the editors won’t give you more important positions or let you tackle the bigger features. Don’t complain that you can write just as well as they can. Instead, resolve to turn in a steady stream of articles, over the next few semesters, that will unequivocally establish you as a top writer worthy of the extra responsibility.

What happens if you fail? What if your business project flounders? Or, your magazine articles fall flat? In this case, you’re not yet deserving of the benefit. That’s what makes the “dues paying” mindset so effective — it injects meritocracy back into the process.

In Conclusion

In the final accounting, I, like many young people, bristle when I hear old commentators describe our generation as spoiled and wanting everything without doing any work. On the other hand, I also bristle when I hear young commentators drivel on about the kid gloves with which Gen-Y’ers in the workplace should be handled.

My final solution: Ignore this jabber. All of it. See the world in terms of your own system of dues and start paying as soon as possible. The benefits will come.

Dangerous Idea Revisited: Sorry Paul Graham…

September 7th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

My goal with the Dangerous Ideas series is to be provacative and shake loose some interesting discussion. I think I definitely succeeded with this most recent post on Paul Graham’s essay!

Thank you everyone who e-mailed or left a comment. Here’s the current summary of this feedback [Updated 9/8/07]:

  • People are overwhelming for the most part on Paul’s side on this one.
  • Your reading of his essay is that he was only making the point that we tend to overestimate the importance of where you went to school.

My thinking…

  • I also agree! It’s foolish to use college attended as a crucial criteria for evaluating someone.
  • My only caveat is that I’m wary when people go beyond that obersvation to begin to put down academic performance as both meaningless in terms of talent, and also indicitive of something negative; e.g., it means you’re a non-creative, obidient drone. I think that’s going too far. I read this subtext in the Graham piece. But, on the other hand, I’m hyper-sensitive to this issue as my book sparks this debate frequently. So it could just be me.
  • Thanks for the good discussion!

Dangerous Ideas: Sorry Paul Graham, I Think it Does Matter Where You Went to College

September 6th, 2007 · 33 comments

[UPDATE 9/7/07: Welcome new readers. Before continuing, I want to point out that the “Dangerous Ideas” series on this blog aim to be purposefully over the top. The idea is to push an argument to its extreme to generate interesting discussion. So take what follows with a grain of salt]

[UPDATE 9/7/07: I fixed two quotes in the text below (keeping the original misquote in place, but now crossed out). I quoted Paul as saying doing well academically demonstrates “obedience to authority.” The actual quote was that doing well is an “index of obedience.” In another place, I had the quote “an ability to do things to please adults.” The real quote was “knows what it takes to please the adults.” I take accuracy seriously. Sorry for the sloppiness in the previous draft.]  

Paul Graham recently posted an essay on the role of college in determining success. True to Paul’s history, the piece is provocative and yields a good read.

His thesis:

A few weeks ago I had a thought so heretical that it really surprised me. It may not matter all that much where you go to college.

He begins by presenting evidence — from his seed stage investment vehicle, Y Combinator — that the college attended by the entrepreneurs he funds doesn’t seem to affect whether or not their startups succeed.

This is not hard to believe. A cool little tidbit from a unique dataset.

But then he continues. Paul generalizes this local argument to the much larger claim that the reputation of your college means nothing. In his words, attending “MIT, Harvard, or Stanford” does not mean that you are unusually smart or talented.

Indeed, according to Paul’s theory, going to an elite school, and/or doing well at college in general, is indicative only of an “obedience to authority” “obedience” and an ability “to do things that please adults” knowing what it “takes to please the adults.” He claims companies selectively hire from elite schools only because this obedience makes people easier to control. There are no other positive traits attributable to students who stand out at top institutions.

Yeah right!

I hear variations of this same tired argument probably once or twice a month. (It comes with the territory when you write a book titled How to Become a Straight-A Student). To my frequent frustration, there seems to be no quicker way to rouse knee-jerk support than to put down college or getting good grades.

But why is this? Are grades really unimportant? Does academic success only really require that you be a conformist and jump through hoops? Does it not require actual ability? Is it not something indicative of talent, and motivation, and curiosity?

Here’s my take:

  • You don’t have to attend an elite college, or even do well at college, to succeed. Duh. Everyone knows this. No one disputes this. Case in point: Bill Gates, Richard Branson, every musician ever…


  • Students who get into elite colleges tend to be, on the whole, talented. For an unrelated project, I recently spent some time hanging out in the MIT admissions office. These guys aren’t fooled by the study robots. They have developed, instead, an incredible eye, not just for true intellectual horsepower, but also for curiosity and a brash sense of ambition. This stuff comes through in the applications (often sublimated from the teacher recommendations, which, with a bit of practice, can be incredibly revealing regarding the real story of a student).
  • Diligence and obedience do not generate high grades. Sorry Mr. Entrepreneur. You didn’t get a “C” in English Lit because you’re a non-conformist who is too creative to be held down by the teacher’s “rules.” Either you were too disorganized to handle the mentally-taxing workload, or, you just didn’t care, or, worse, the material was just too much for you. Fine. This is your choice. Whatever the reason, however, don’t put down the kids that got the A’s. They didn’t get there because of obedience to authority. They got there because they’re on the ball. They can process multiple streams of information, and they have trained their mind to think hard, produce subtle, nuanced arguments, and find deep connections between ideas — all traits, ironically, that most entrepreneurs would say are important.
  • There is rarely a difference between learning and grades in the college classroom. A common argument I hear from students: “I was there to learn, not to chase after a meaningless external reward like grades.” Here’s the reality: in most classes, the higher your grade the better you learned the material. The student who got an ‘A’ on her Kant essay is, quite simply, someone who really understands Kant. Ditto for the student who aced the math exam. He understands the techniques better than the kid with the ‘B-‘. The idea that you can be learning but still doing poorly, is, at least in the classes I have attended, often a canard. Give the ‘A’ student his due. He mastered the material better than the ‘C’ student.

My Bottom Line

It’s fine to make the point that college and grades aren’t everything. In fact it’s important. Some talented students can’t attend an elite school due to finances. Some talented young people just aren’t into schoolwork — and we shouldn’t discourage them from still tackling life with everything they’ve got. They have a fine chance of coming out ahead. I’ll be the first say it: College is not necessary for success!

So you don’t need to get A’s at Harvard to do well in life. Fine. This doesn’t mean, however, that getting A’s at Harvard is meaningless. In all likelihood, that A student is probably smart, and talented, and curious, and sharp. And both her record and the school she attends indicates that she has her act together and can tackle complicated, intellectually-demanding tasks.

Let us not then, Paul, put her down. She too, just as much as any homegrown entrepreneur, has worked hard and made use of her talents. It does matter where she got into school and what she did once there. Let’s not take this from her. No matter how good that might make us feel. Just because we didn’t take a particular path should not motivate us to knock down those who did.

Dangerous Ideas: Productivity is Overrated

August 31st, 2007 · 15 comments

I’m introducing a new semi-regular feature: Dangerous Ideas. Each entry in the series will focus on a provocative idea, built out of anecdotal evidence, that challenges a piece of conventional wisdom.

Today’s dangerous idea: Productivity is Overrated

I should be careful here. Much of my livelihood as a writer depends on my good-natured efforts to help fellow students be more productive. So I should clarify…

Productivity is important for being successful. But its role in this endeavor is often blown out of proportion. Some of the most accomplished people I know are incredibly disorganized. They work at the last minute. They stay up all night. They constantly scramble to find what they’re looking for. But they still get it done. Other accomplished people are incredibly organized. What gives? The truths underlying this reality:

  1. Being productive does not make you accomplished.
  2. It does, however, make being accomplished less stressful.

The key to really getting ahead has nothing to do with productivity. From my experience with successful young people (and, as I writer, I have quite a bit of exposure to this crowd) what you need, put simply, is a drive to keep working, with a laser-like intensity, on something even after you’ve lost immediate interest. Tenacity. A grating thirst to get it done. These are the precursors of accomplishment.

Having good productivity habits compliment this crucial skill. They take this intensity and place it in a schedule. They keep small things from crowding your mind. They eliminate the stress of what appointment you might be forgetting or what vital errand has to be done. But productivity is not a substitute for this work.

This is a mistake I sometimes intuit is being made by young people with an interest in this community. There is a belief that if you get just the right system, with just the right calendar technology, and to-do notebook, and task management philosophy, accomplishment will come automatically. You can just turn the system on and watch it churn out what needs to get done.

Alas, this never happens. It’s like the first law of accomplishment thermodynamics: accomplishment can’t spring from nothingness. At some point, even David Allen himself still has to convince himself to do hard things when he doesn’t want to. Effort must be expended. This cannot be avoided.

Within the scope of this reality, productivity plays a crucial role. If you want to get ahead in a meaningful, low-stress, controlled manner you have to pay attention to these little habits. Take college students for example. It’s possible to do really well without all of the philosophies I pitch. This is what grinds do. They want those grades, and they dig in and make it happen. But their lives are pretty brutal. With the right productivity habits, the same goal can be accomplished in a less stressful, more reasonable manner. Along the way, however, you still have to convince yourself to get up, get to library, and open that book, no matter how clearly it’s recorded on your calendar.

It’s important to make this distinction because it helps you prepare. If you acknowledge the role of hard work, you can adjust your mindset to be one that expects and values this trait. This is what, in the end, will make the biggest difference in what you end up getting done — regardless of how you organize, break down, and schedule this work.

Why Do Good Reporters Write Bad Articles About Successful Young People?

August 29th, 2007 · One comment

When I was in high school, I started a web consulting business with my good friend Michael Simmons. Naturally, it attracted some press. Here’s a quote from one such article (which focused on Michael):

“While his peers were spending their senior year of high school thinking about the prom, Michael Simmons was making thousands of dollars.”

Another friend of mine, Ben Casnocha, also started a company while still in school. An article in The New York Times gushed:

“Or you can be Ben Casnocha…Publishing a book in his teens actually ranks as one of his more modest accomplishments. At 12, he started his first company. At 14, he founded a software company called Comcate Inc. At 17, he was continuing to prosper as an entrepreneur…Along the way, Ben (I refuse to address him as Mr. Casnocha until he turns 21) was also captain of his high school basketball team and edited the school newspaper. “

Ryan, yet another school-aged entrepreneur friend of mine (I have many), was introduced as follows in a recent interview:

Imagine starting your first company at the age of 16. Imagine gracing such prestigious magazine covers as Small Business Fortune and Success. Imagine running a million dollar company before you were even old enough to drink. This super whiz kid Ryan Allis sat down with Exposzure and filled us in on how he got started.”

The “Pow and Wow” Article Format

The format highlighted above is endemic in articles written about successful young people. Reporters from small web sites to the New York Times all seem to regress to the same, simplistic structure when faced with someone who is under 25 and unusually accomplished:

  1. Shock the audience by emphasizing how much the person has accomplished at such a young age. The more amazing the better! If possible, ask the reader to imagine what he or she was doing at the same age.
  2. Give a funny anecdote about getting a ride to business meetings with mom.
  3. Inject a couple unchallenged, grandiose quotes about future plans.

I call this format “Pow and Wow,” because it hits the reader — pow! — with a bunch of accomplishments then tries to wow them with the punchline: the person doing all of this is really young! Here’s the thing: I hate this format. And I think it’s pernicious and damaging.

The Danger of Pow and Wow

I’m not alone in my dislike of this format. Many young entrepreneurs I know, for example, share my disapproval. One problem is that the quest to shock and amaze the reader leads to exagerations. I remember an article from my dot-com days that stated that Michael and I were millionaires. Not even close to true (exhibit A: my immense student loan debts). Another stated that we each averaged about $30,000 of income a month. (I believe the line they used was: “better than a paper route!“) This is also not true. We had signed a $30,000 contract around the time that the article came out. But this was hardly a monthly occurrence. They reported what they wanted to hear.

These exaggerations, however frustrating, really only affect the subject of the article. The real problem, I believe, hits the young readers of these articles who hold ambitions of their own. In the quest to pow and wow their audience, the reporter provides an inaccurate sketch of the reality of young accomplishment. By exaggerating accomplishments and ignoring hardships the provided picture falsely erects an impossibly high barrier to entry.

“These are whiz kids,” the typical pow and wow article claims. “They are making millions of dollars, and they’re only teenagers, and most people could never, ever, do this! Wow! It’s amazing!”

It’s no wonder that so many young people are pessimistic about undertaking grand missions.

The Reality of Young Accomplishment

From my experience, young accomplishment is usually a surprisingly prosaic affair. It almost always distills down to a simple two-part formula:

  1. Young person diligently pursues a modest, but interesting endeavor.
    For example, he helps build little web sites for a handful of local businesses. Or, he organizes a community service group at his high school.
  2. Serendipity pushes the endeavor to a new level.
    For example, a slightly bigger company hires the kid to be the sub-contractor on their web design contracts, quickly building a large portfolio that leads to much larger contracts. Or, the founder of the community service group runs into an old friend starting a global network, and ends up coordinating youth in his entire region, leading, eventually, to meeting officials at the UN.

The first example is, more or less, what happened to me. The second is the story of my friend Mohammed, who I interviewed in a recent Flak Magazine feature. The typical mainstream profile, however, would ignore the mundane endeavor from (1) and remove the serendipity from (2), jumping straight to the result. Ugh!

The irony is that the real stories are more gripping. The struggles Michael and I had to reconcile our work with the expectations of our high school social scene make for some real drama. Mohammed tells a fascinating tale of his professors’ growing anger at his frequent absence from class, and his own mounting self-doubt. These accounts provide grit. They reek of the human condition. Alas, we rarely see them.

My final plea is simple. If you’re a reader, pay little mind to the standard successful youth fluff. Don’t let this throw you in your own quest to carve out an impressive niche for yourself. And, if you’re a writer, please, for the love of all things sacred, remember: your cute little opening that ends with the tagline “and he’s only 16!” does not surprise us. It does not make us want to read on. We can smell the artifice. We know there is more to the story, lurking, just below the surface. Real tension. The more you hide this, the more annoyed we will become.