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Decoding Patterns of Success
Posts on Patterns of Success for Students
August 21st, 2013 · 24 comments
The Best Book (of Mine) You Haven’t Read
My third book, How to Be a High School Superstar, is one my favorite things that I ever wrote.
The book is best summarized as a college admissions guide written in the style of Malcolm Gladwell. Within its pages, I dive deep into the science and psychology of impressiveness and argue that it’s possible to do well in college admissions without being stressed out and overworked (see this blog post for more details).
One of the big ideas in the book is that exceptionally impressive accomplishments are rarely planned out in advance. They instead usually come from the following cycle:
- the student chooses something that seems interesting,
- the student follows through and completes the pursuit,
- the student surveys the new opportunities this makes available, then he or she repeats step #1.
Follow this for strategy for a year (or even less!) and you’ll likely end up somewhere quite impressive (at least, by college admissions standards), without having to stress yourself out with twenty activities or attempting to become a world-class musician.
A reader recently sent me his experience following this strategy in high school. Given that it’s back to school season, I thought I’d share it (with my commentary added):
I was going to be a sophomore in high school and I wanted to write a sports blog. “Hmm,” I said to myself, “let’s write it about the New York Knicks.” To be honest, I had never been a huge Knicks fan but always wanted to explore a professional sports team in-depth.
[Note from Cal: Contrary to conventional wisdom, this student did not start by identifying an unquenchable passion. He just thought it might be interested to try blogging. He didn't even particularly like what he was blogging about. He certainly had no master plan for where it would lead.]
I started writing blog posts every day. Pretty soon, I had a decent following.
Among the community, within three months, I was quickly becoming a “go-to source” for Knicks info.
[Note from Cal: His next step was to pay his dues. People don't expect 15 year-olds to follow through on self-directed activities. When you do, good things happen...]
I emailed the Knicks media department seeing if I could get credentials to Media Day where you interview professional basketball players. They said: “Sure, just send us your Google Analytics and we’ll see if we can approve you.” Sure enough, they did.
(Little did they know I was 15 years old at the time.)
My mom drove me. It was me and a bunch of professional journalists asking these basketball players a bunch of questions. There were kids who would have died to be in my position!
Shortly thereafter, a writer from the New York Daily News mentioned me, my site, and my story in a blog post.
Even though I had a subpar GPA and a decent SAT score, I got into my top choice.
[Note from Cal: When you hear, "this kid is a credentialed sports journalist featured in the New York Daily News," your first instinct is to think he's a prodigy and a genius. But when you then learn the details of his real story -- as with most such "gee whiz" student tales -- you realize the path was more humble. He choose something interesting and followed through. He then asked, "what's next?" This isn't easy. And it requires quite a bit of confidence. But what's important is that it's not nearly as stressful as what most ambitious young people put themselves through during this process.]
July 3rd, 2013 · 45 comments
The Brain Drain
My alma mater, Dartmouth College, graduated five (!) valedictorians this year. The majority are moving on to jobs in finance or management consulting.
Dartmouth, of course, is not alone in sending a disproportionate number of its best and brightest to these narrow sectors. In recent years, to name an oft-cited example, Princeton sent 36% of its students to finance jobs while Harvard sent 17%.
There are many reasons proposed for this brain drain (whether or not this is really a “drain” is a different debate, though I tend to agree it is), including: prestige, money, the need to pass a new competitive admissions process to signal value, and psychologically-astute recruiting tactics.
I’m particularly interested, however, in an explanation offered by David Brooks in a recent column:
“Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options.”
According to Brooks, elite students assume their choices are limited to: (a) making lots of money in finance and consulting, or (b) saving the world by working for a boots-on-the-ground non-profit. [Stanford students, Brooks notes, get an extra option less popular on the East Coast: (c) starting a tech company.]
This rings true.
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June 26th, 2013 · 42 comments
The Cult of Courage
The rhetoric surrounding career advice is saturated with calls for “courage.” Here are a few representative quotes I grabbed at random from the web:
- “[S]ensational and successful entrepreneurs…had the courage to pursue what makes their heart sing.”
- “As we move out of our comfort zones towards either accomplishing new things or approaching new levels of greatness, it’s normal to lack courage…”
- “A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage.”
- “In our day-to-day lives, the virtue of courage doesn’t receive much attention…Instead of setting your own goals, making plans to achieve them, and going after them with gusto, you play it safe. Keep working at the stable job, even though it doesn’t fulfill you.”
The storyline told by such quotes is simple: You know what career decisions would leave you happy and fulfilled, but “society” and “your family” are fearful, dull, stupid, and devoid of useful wisdom, and will therefore try to scare you out of following this good path. You must, therefore, build the courage to overcome their fear-mongering so you can live happily ever after.
The influence of this narrative, and the broader courage culture (as I named it in SO GOOD) that supports it, provides me a ceaseless source of annoyance. Given that it’s graduation season, and the topic of career happiness is therefore relevant, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about why this trope irks me so much, and why you should treat it with caution.
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May 22nd, 2013 · 15 comments
A Hard Week
Last week was hard. Four large deadlines landed within a four day period. The result was a week (and weekend) where I was forced to violate my fixed-schedule productivity boundaries.
I get upset when I violate these boundaries, so, as I do, I conducted a post-mortem on my schedule to find out what happened.
The high-level explanation was clear: bad luck. I originally had two big deadlines on my calendar, each separated by a week. But then two unfortunate things happened in rapid succession:
- One of my two big deadlines was shifted to coincide with the second big deadline. Because I was working with collaborators, I couldn’t just ignore the shift. The new deadline would become the real deadline.
- The other issue was due to shadow commitments – work obligations you accept before you know the specific dates the work will be due. I had made two such commitments months earlier. Not long ago, however, their due dates were announced, and they both fell square within this brutal week.
The easy conclusion from this post-mortem is that sometimes you have a hard week. Make sure you recharge afterward and then move on.
This is a valid conclusion And I took it to heart. But it’s not complete…
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April 10th, 2013 · 42 comments
I recently received the following note from a career counselor:
I regularly counsel students on their career paths and I was having a hard time giving a student guidance today without referencing passion. ‘What are you good at?”’ I asked instead, and she replied that she didn’t know. She doesn’t know because she hasn’t tried enough things.
I like that this counselor is thinking critically about passion. I didn’t, however, agree with her alternative suggestion.
Asking “what are you good at?”, in my opinion, can be essentially the same as asking, “what is your passion?”
In both cases, you’re placing the source of career satisfaction in matching your job to an intrinsic trait.
And this is dangerous.
As readers of SO GOOD know, career satisfaction almost always follows: (a) building up a rare and valuable skill; then (b) using this skill as leverage to take control of your working life.
If you lead a student believe that making the right job choice is what matters for career happiness (whether you’re choosing based on “passion” or identifying “what you’re good at”), you’re setting them up for confusion when they don’t feel immediate and continuous love for their work.
My advice to a student in the above situation is the following:
Pick something that you wouldn’t mind investing years in mastering. If you already have some skills, then it might make sense (though is by no means necessary) to start there, as you already have a head start on mastery, but you should still expect years of deliberate improvement before deep passion can blossom for your work.
The key thing, in other words, is to direct expectations away from match theory — which says passion depends primarily on making the right job choice — and toward career capital theory — which says passion will grow along with your skill.
March 24th, 2013 · 50 comments
The Productive Professor
I’m fascinated by people who produce a large volume of valuable output. Motivated by this interest, I recently setup a conversation with a hot shot young professor who rose quickly in his field.
I asked him about his work habits.
Though his answer was detailed — he had obviously put great thought into these issues — there was one strategy that caught my attention: he confines his deep work to long, uninterrupted bursts.
On small time scales, this means each day is either completely dedicated to a single deep work task, or is left open to deal with all the e-mail and meetings and revisions that also define academic life.
If he’s going to write a paper, for example, he puts aside two days, and does nothing else, emerging from his immersion with a completed first draft.
If he’s going to instead deal with requests and logistics, he’ll spend the whole day doing so.
On longer time scales, his schedule echoes this immersion strategy. He teaches all three of his courses during the fall. He can, therefore, dedicate the entire semester to two main goals: teaching his courses and conceiving/discussing potential research ideas (the teaching often stimulates new ideas as it forces him to review the key ideas and techniques in his field).
Then, in the spring and summer that follow, he attacks his new research projects with the burst strategy mentioned above, turning out 1 – 2 papers every 2 months. (He aims for — and achieves — around 6 major papers a year.)
Notice, this immersion approach to deep work is different than the more common approach of integrating a couple hours of deep work into most days of your schedule, which we can call the chain approach, in honor of Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” advice (which I have previously cast some doubt on in the context of writing).
There are two reasons why deep immersion might work better than chaining:
- It reduces overhead. When you put aside only a couple hours to go deep on a problem, you lose a fair fraction of this time to remembering where you left off and getting your mind ready to concentrate. It’s also easy, when the required time is short, to fall into the least minimal progress trap, where you do just enough thinking that you can avoid breaking your deep work chain, but end up making little real progress. When you focus on a specific deep work goal for 10 – 15 hours, on the other hand, you pay the overhead cost just once, and it’s impossible to get away with minimal progress. In other words, two days immersed in deep work might produce more results than two months of scheduling an hour a day for such efforts.
- It better matches our rhythms. There’s an increasing understanding that the human body works in cycles. Some parts of the week/month/year are better for certain types of work than others. This professor’s approach of spending the fall thinking and discussing ideas, and then the spring and summer actually executing, probably yields better results than trying to mix everything together throughout the whole year. During the fall, he rests the part of his mind required to tease out and write up results. During the spring and summer he rests the part of his mind responsible for having original thoughts and making new connections. (See Douglas Rushkoff’s recent writing for more on these ideas).
I’m intrigued by the deep immersion approach to deep work mainly because I don’t usually apply it, but tend to generate more results when I do. I’m also intrigued by its ancillary consequences. If immersion is optimal for deep work, for example, do weekly research meetings make sense? When you check in weekly on a long term project, it’s easy to fall into a minimal progress trap and watch whole semesters pass with little results. What if, instead, weekly meetings were replaced with occasionally taking a couple days to do nothing but try to make real progress on the problem? Even doing this just a few times a semester might produce better results than checking in every week.
I don’t know the answers here, but the implications are interesting enough to keep the immersion strategy on my productivity radar.
(Photo by moriza)
March 3rd, 2013 · 31 comments
The Emersonian Doctoral Candidate
I’m flying down to Duke on Tuesday to speak with their graduate students. Preparing for the event inspired me to reflect on my own student experience. In doing so, an Emerson quote came to mind:
“To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven”
Emerson does a good job of capturing the reality of a research-oriented graduate education. Even though students enter such programs — especially at top schools — strikingly homogenous, in terms of their educational backgrounds and achievements, after a few years, the group tends to radically bifurcate.
Some students love the experience and thrive. They dread the possibility that they might have to one day leave academia and take a “normal job.” To them, graduate school is Emerson’s heaven.
Other students hate the experience and wilt. They complain about their advisors, and their peers, and the school, and their busyness. They can’t wait to return to a “normal job.” To them, graduate school is Emerson’s hell.
I began to notice this split about halfway though my time at MIT. I loved graduate school, so I was mildly surprised, at first, to encounter cynical students secretly plotting to abandon ship after earning their masters degree, or to stumble into dark blogs with titles such as, appropriately enough, Dissertation Hell (” a place to rant…about the tortures of writing a dissertation”).
Why do such similar students end up with such different experiences?
Because I happened to be a professional advice writer at the same that I was a student, I studied the issue. I think the answers I found are important to our broader discussion because this Emersonian division is common in many professions, and understanding its cause helps us better understand the complicated task of building a compelling career and the pitfalls to avoid.
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February 17th, 2013 · 34 comments
An Interesting Experiment
How do people succeed in academia?
I have notebooks filled with theories about this question, but I’ve increasingly come to realize that insights of this type — built on gut instinct, not data — are close to worthless. Most knowledge work fields are complex. Breaking into their upper levels requires a deliberate effort and precision that is poorly matched to the blunt, feel-good plans we devise in bouts of blog-inspired reflection.
This was on my mind when, earlier this week, I went seeking empirical insight into the above prompt, and ended up designing a simple experiment:
- I started by identifying well-known professors in my particular niche of theoretical computer science.
- For each such professor, I studied their former graduate students. I was looking for pairs of students who earned their PhD around the same time and went on to research positions, but then experienced markedly different levels of success in the field.
- Once I had identified such a pair, I studied the first four years of their CVs — the crucial pre-tenure period — measuring the following variables: quantity of publications, venue of publications, and citation of published work in the period.
Each such pair provided an example of a successful and non-successful early academic career. Because both students in a pair had the same adviser and graduated around the same time, I could control for variables that are largely outside the control of a graduate student, but that can have a huge impact on their eventual success, including: school connections, quality of research group, and the value of the adviser’s research focus.
The difference in each pair’s performance, therefore, should be due to differences in their own strategy once they graduated. It was these strategy nuances I wanted to understand better.
Here’s what I found…
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