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Decoding Patterns of Success
Posts on Patterns of Success for the Working World
December 2nd, 2013 · 26 comments
Wisdom from Dirty Jobs
I wrote an article for the Huffington Post’s most recent installment of its TED Weekends series. The theme for this week was “A Lesson From Some of the World’s Dirtiest Jobs,” and the motivating TED talk was by Mike Rowe, former host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs program. Many of you sent me a link to Rowe’s talk when it was first released, mainly due to the following phrase he quips about halfway through:
Follow your passion…what could possibly be wrong with that? Probably the worst advice I ever got.
His contrarian streaks seems to have struck a nerve. His talk has been viewed over 1.3 million times.
In my article, I try to explain what made Rowe’s talk so disruptive. You can read the full text at the Huffington Post, but I want to summarize here the take-away message, as I think it’s important:
In his talk, Rowe points out that many of the happiest people in the country have jobs that no one would ever identify as a pre-existing passion. He cited a sheep herder, a pig farmer (“smells like hell, but God bless him, he’s making a great living”), and a guy who makes flower pots out of cow dung, as examples of unexpected professional contentment. These observations are powerful for a simple reason: They separate career satisfaction from the specifics of the work.
We’ve heard the passion hypothesis so many times that it’s easy to accept as fact that matching the right job to a pre-existing interest is the primary source of occupational happiness. But Mike Rowe’s focus on the satisfaction found in the trades, in jobs for which no kid ever thinks, “that’s what I want to do when I grow up!”, have dealt a devastating blow to this belief.
If you’re twenty-three, in your first job out of college, not yet that good at what you do and starting to wonder if maybe this isn’t your true calling, or if you’re nineteen, and thinking about switching your college major because you don’t love every minute of every class, and worry that a “true passion” should always feel inspiring: I suggest taking an hour or two to watch some episodes of Rowe’s show.
“Roadkill picker-uppers whistle while they work,” he said at one point during his talk. “I swear to God — I did it with them.”
It only takes a few examples like the above before you begin to realize that career satisfaction is about something deeper than simply picking the right job.
November 9th, 2013 · 17 comments
The Elusive Dr. Higgs
This past October, the theoretical physicist Peter Higgs won the Nobel Prize for his work predicting the particle that bears his name. The only problem: no one could find him.
Peter Higgs, it turns out, is not interested in being accessible. He has no e-mail address because he owns no computer. He does own a cellphone, but he only answers it if he knows the caller.
It’s easy to imagine Higgs as a recluse, but as The Guardian reported in its Nobel coverage, he’s actually quite busy. It’s just that his definition of “busy” doesn’t include an inbox.
I like these types of stories. They’re not useful as a direct source of advice (most of us probably need to keep our computers). But they do provide a nice reminder about the type of work that ends up changing the way we understand the world.
(Image by Gert-Martin Greuel via Wiki Commons)
October 24th, 2013 · 42 comments
I recently got my hands on a copy of Mason Currey’s new book, Daily Rituals. For the past six years, Currey ran a blog called Daily Routines that scoured interviews and biographic material to identify the work habits of famous creatives. His new book runs with that idea, summarizing the habits of 161 notables.
Being a geek, I decided to quantify some of Currey’s insights. The first thing I did was read through the first 25 profiles, estimating the number of hours per day each subject spent working deeply.
The average number of deep work hours turned out to be 5.25. (See the above histogram for the full distribution.)
These results provide a powerful counterpoint to most narratives on creative work, which tend to focus on overcoming “The Resistance” or the “naysayer within” (to quote Steven Pressfield). The reason most aspiring creatives fail, these numbers instead hint, is not due to an “internal foe” but because five hours of daily deep work is absurdly difficult!
October 3rd, 2013 · 52 comments
Why I Never Joined Facebook
Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about why I never joined Facebook. For those who are new to this discussion, here’s the short summary:
I have limited time and attention. I try to devote as much of it as possible to creating valuable things and spending time with my family and close friends. For a new tool to claim some of my time and attention from these activities it has to offer me a lot of value in return. Facebook falls well short of this threshold.
This post generated a lively debate in its comment thread. To be honest, this comments discussion is probably more valuable than the original post, as it covers a lot more ground, often quite eloquently.
A natural follow-up question, however, is whether this discussion changed my mind on the issue. The short answer: No. Not at all.
To provide a longer answer, I summarize below the four most common arguments in favor of Facebook that I received in reaction to my post (both publicly and privately), as well as my explanation for why the arguments didn’t move me closer to clicking “join.”
Argument #1: Facebook makes it possible to maintain lightweight, high-frequency contact with a large number of people spread around the world.
Facebook essentially invented this new type of social connection. Some people enjoy it. Some even use it as a replacement for a normal, in-person social life (usually, to their detriment). I have no interest in it. I’m close to my family and have good friends. I’d rather keep my time and attention focused on interacting deeply with them instead of pinging a thousand “friends” with exclamation-point laden wall posts.
Argument #2: Facebook might offer you personal or professional benefits that you don’t even know about. You cannot reject this service until you have tried it for a while.
I hear this argument a lot. I find it to be an incoherent approach to managing the tools in your life. If I had to test every potentially useful tool before deciding not to use it, I would end up spending the bulk of my life testing. My time and attention is valuable. If some company wants to make money off me using their service, they better have a compelling pitch for why it’s worth me taking away time and attention from my work, family and friends — even if just temporarily.
Argument #3: Facebook will not take your time and attention away from things you currently find important because you can access it on your phone during times, like waiting in line, that would otherwise be wasted.
This vision of Facebook use terrifies me. Facebook, like most social media, is addictive, because it offers, at all points, the possibility of finding out something that someone is saying about you. Once you get into the habit of seeking this distraction when temporarily bored, your ability to concentrate during other times will be reduced. If I start checking Facebook during my downtime, in other words, I’m convinced that the overall quality and quantity of time I can spend doing hard things — like writing or solving proofs — will, rather quickly, begin to decrease.
Furthermore, the idea that you can restrict your access to this addictive service to only downtime is naive. Think about the behavior of people you know: Facebook checking soon pervades all areas of your life, including those times when, in a pre-Facebook era, you would be interacting with family or friends. “You can access Facebook anywhere!”, in other words, is not the right way to persuade me.
Argument #4: Your general philosophy of only adopting a tool if it provides a clear and valuable benefit will deprive you of serendipity — think about all the interesting things you might be missing out on.
My careful approach to tool adoption almost definitely means I’m missing out on opportunities, trends, connections, and entertainment.
This doesn’t bother me.
As a consequence of my approach to tools, I have few electronic inboxes to monitor or online services to fiddle with. This means I spend a surprising fraction of my work day actually doing hard work, leading to a professional life that is fulfilling and, to date, pretty successful (knock on wood). It also means that when I arrive home in the evening, I don’t touch a computer until the next morning — allowing me to spend my time focused on my family and friends, and giving my full attention to any number of things I already enjoy, like reading. (I read a lot.) I would be a fool to dilute this to chase the possibility of something “new.”
Fear of missing out, in other words, is not a valid argument for trashing what you already have.
On an unrelated note: My friend Todd Henry (of The Accidental Creative fame) recently published a new book, Die Empty. Here’s the blurb I wrote for the jacket: “Die Empty looks past simple slogans to highlight detailed strategies for building a meaningful life; a must-read for anyone interested in moving from inspiration to action.” If you’re interested in these questions of work, meaning, and legacy, I encourage you to find out more…
September 18th, 2013 · 50 comments
I remember when I first heard about Facebook. I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College. At the time, the service was being made available on a school-by-school basis, and, one spring day in 2004, it finally arrived at our corner of the Ivy League.
Many of my friends were excited by this event. They were surprised when I didn’t join.
“What problem do I have that this solves?”, I asked.
No one could answer.
They would, instead, talk about new features it made available, like being able to reconnect with people from high school or post photos. But my lack of ability to connect with old classmates or to publicize my social outings were not problems I needed fixed.
“Every product and service ever invented offers new features,” I’d respond, “but what problem do I have that Facebook’s features are solving? Why should this product, of all products, earn my attention?”
Again, no one could answer.
After a while, I stopped asking this question, and just moved on with my life without a presence on Facebook. Ten years later, I still have never had a Facebook account — nor any social media account, for that matter — and have never missed it.
I have close friends. I still have lots of readers and still sell lots of books. And I’ve preserved my ability to focus, allowing me to make a nice a living as a theoretician.
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September 8th, 2013 · 23 comments
The Depths and the Shallows
I worry a lot about deep work (giving sustained attention to hard things that create value). As a professor, deep work is required to produce new results. Therefore, the more I do, the better.
I often envy the schedules of professional writers — like Woody Allen, Neal Stephenson, or Stephen King — who can wake-up, work deeply until they reach their cognitive limit, then rest and recharge until the next day.
The simplicity of this rhythm is satisfying. I could never emulate it, however, because, like most knowledge workers, I’m also saddled with quite a bit of shallow work (task-oriented efforts that do not create much new value). You’d be surprised, for example, how much time you spend after you write an academic paper, formatting it properly for publication (a scene they seemed to skip in A Beautiful Mind).
Most knowledge workers face this same battle between what’s needed to make an impact in the long term, and what’s needed to avoid getting fired in the short term. Professors, however, are particularly good (or, at the very least, particularly concerned) about preserving deep work in the face of mounting shallow obligations. The reason for this attention is simple: tenure.
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August 17th, 2013 · 27 comments
Believe in Your (Animated) Self
A reader recently sent me an article from The Atlantic. It was titled (quite descriptively): You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?
The writer, Luke Epplin, points out that modern animated kids films have largely fallen into a formulaic rut:
“[The protagonists are] anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams.”
In these movies, explains Epplin:
“[I]t’s the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community…Following one’s dreams necessarily entrails the pursuit of the extraordinary in these films. The protagonists sneer at the mundane, repetitive work performed by their unimaginative peers.”
It’s believing in one’s self, for example, that allows a fat panda to become a Kung Fu master, a to rat become an accomplished chef, and a creaky crop duster to become a world class racer — after only a bare minimum of training and essentially no experience.
The fools in these movies are those poor suckers who wasted their time practicing when all they really needed was a pep talk.
G-Rated Career Thinking
Epplin draws a connection between this narrative device and the rise of the cult of self-esteem among young children. I’m interested, however, in a different (and equally disturbing) connection.
These (literally) childish plot devices are eerily similar to the popular conversations surrounding career planning. The passion culture tells us that the key to an extraordinary life is to look deep, be true to your inner passion, and courageously ignore the naysayers as you pursue your dream.
Here’s a quote, for example, from a popular career guide:
“You see, I believe you already have everything you need inside of you. You are good enough the way you are. You’ve simply learned ideas that keep you from living up to your full potential.”
Here’s another quote, this one from one of the growing number of lifestyle design blogs:
“[D]eep down in the chambers of your heart where your personal legend lives, you know you were meant to change the world.”
It’s easy to imagine these quips coming out of the mouth of an anthropomorphized panda bear or kindly puffer fish in a Disney movie.
And this is a problem.
These similarities, once pointed out, emphasize an important and distressing reality: The ubiquitous suggestion that you must find your passion and overcome naysayers is not deep wisdom. It is, instead, the plot of a kiddie movie.
If you study real people who build remarkable lives in the real world, you find their paths are more nuanced, more complicated, and usually quite a bit more interesting. These paths tend to involve quite a bit of hard work — much of it conventional — and don’t tend to involve a lot of bold resistance to the status quo. (Society, it turns out, doesn’t care what you do for a living. It cares more about how well you do what you do.)
It’s time, in other words, for our taste in career advice to mature alongside our taste in movies.
August 14th, 2013 · 16 comments
Pictured above is the cabin where journalist Michael Pollan used to write his nature-themed books before he moved to California. He built it himself.
This is a shot of the library where Neil Gaiman dreams up his confoundedly original brand of fantasy literature.
This bat-fenced Gothic mansion is the Bangor, Maine home of Stephen King. What better place to pull together his brand of dark fiction?
I’m sharing these photos because they help remind me of an important idea: deep work can be immensely fulfilling. The deep workers mentioned above recognize this reality. They built working environments that emphasize what is unique and compelling about their particular expertise, and by doing so were able to squeeze even more meaning and satisfaction out of their working hours.
This lesson is important. We should not treat deep work as just another scheduled task to check off our Allen-esque lists. It should be made, instead, the center of our efforts to lead a Good Life.
As I was thinking about this post, I faced a typical deep task in my life as a professor: I needed to break down and understand a knotty paper so I could potentially build off its results. To interact with the world of ideas at the highest level, I reminded myself, is a pretty cool way to make a living. So I left the florescence of my office and relocated to a more scenic view (above); a more fitting setting to revel in depth.
(King home photo by JHR images)