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Don’t Pursue Promotions: Contrarian Career Advice from Ancient Sources of Wisdom

July 22nd, 2014 · 27 comments

Forest

An Innovative New Voice in the Advice World

For the past six months, my friend Dale Davidson has been executing an epic project.

Eager to optimize his life, and frustrated with much of the advice he encountered online and in contemporary books and magazines, Dale decided to go back to basics and start drawing lessons from humankind’s most ancient and enduring philosophies and religions.

To do so, he focuses on one ancient philosophy or religion per month. During this month he chooses a core ritual to practice. He then extracts wisdom relevant to his  modern life from these ancient prescriptions.

The logic driving his project is simple. These systems have undergone centuries — and in many cases, millennia — of brutal cultural evolution. The ideas that survived this competition must have done so for a good reason: they work.

Why start from scratch in finding answers to life’s challenges, big and small, when you can reference the solutions human civilization has already painstakingly developed and tested?

I’ve been fascinated by Dale’s progress with this project, which he details on his Ancient Wisdom Project blog. I think more people should know about what he’s up to, so I asked him to write a guest post for me.

Below is the (epic) result. In the guest post that follows, Dale briefly summarizes the structure of his project, then identifies five contrarian tips he’s learned so far. To keep the article relevant to our recent discussions, I asked Dale to focus on tips relevant to career issues.

Some of the ideas below you may agree with and some you may not. But they should all get you thinking more deeply about how you approach success and happiness in your career…

Take it away Dale…

Read more »

How to Read Proofs Faster: A Summary of Useful Advice

July 4th, 2014 · 17 comments

 

Math Problem

The Wisdom of  (Math Nerd) Crowds

A couple weeks ago, I complained that my academic paper reading speed was slower than I would like given its importance to my productivity. I asked for your advice and you responded with over 60 comments and numerous private e-mails.

My goal in this post is to synthesize the best ideas from this feedback, as well as the results of my own self-reflection, into a clear answer. In particular, I’ve identified three big ideas relevant to trying to read technical papers — and in particular those containing mathematical proofs — as efficiently as possible.

Idea #1: There are no magic bullets…

This conversation helped cement an idea that I’ve long suspected to be true (but sometimes resist):

To develop a detailed understanding of a published mathematical proof is an ambiguous process that requires multiple attacks and can take an unpredictable amount of time (not unlike proving something in the first place).

As a result, you must be selective about what proofs you decide to dig into, as the time commitment is potentially serious. In the study of algorithms (my field), for example, in most cases when reading a relevant paper it’s sufficient to dive down just deep enough to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the main result and how does it compare to what was known before (or what a naive approach would provide)?
  2. What is the high-level insight/trick deployed in the bound argument that enabled this improvement?

With experience, I’ve found that I can consistently produce this level of understanding within an hour (sometimes less if the paper is well-written or building on my own results).

This knowledge is not enough by itself to deploy or extend the technique presented in the paper, but it is enough to recognize future opportunities where this technique might be relevant to a problem you care about (at which point, you’ll have to dive deeper). In other words, maybe just one out of ten papers you read will end up proving directly useful to your own work, so it makes sense to learn just enough from the papers you read to identify whether or not they’re in that crucial 10%.

Idea #2: There are ways to be more efficient…

If you must understand the details of a proof, then in addition to the high-level suggestion from above of preparing yourself psychologically for a difficult battle, the following low-level strategies might also help:

  • Instead of trying to read through the proof linearly, build a hierarchy of dependencies among the lemmata and theorems. Summarize each lemma and theorem in your own words and summarize each dependency relation; e.g., how does this theorem use the following three lemmata? Once you have this map, it becomes clearer where to begin a deeper dive and provides context for what you’re reading.
    (Last time I deployed this full proof-mapping process — which can be quite arduous — I ended up uncovering a flaw in a reasonably well-cited paper.)
  • In general, you should never start reverse-engineering a mathematical derivation until you understand what it is trying to show, why you expect it to be true, and how it will be used. If possible to assign some of this reverse engineering to a grad student, do so: it’s helpful to both parties.
  • Create your own system of notation and rewrite the relevant statements and re-derive the main results (or, rough approximations of the main results) using this notation. You’ll likely have to revise this notation system many times before you’re done, but this process will make it much easier for you to conceptualize the deeper insights of the argument.
    (I had to do this last week for a proof that I needed to understand better. It took me something north of six hours to complete! But I do certainly understand better now what is going on underneath the covers of this particular line of thinking.)
  • Form reading groups with like-minded academics. Something about collaboration has a tendency to bust open mental road blocks and incite more creative thinking.

Idea #3: But perhaps the best strategy of all…

Get the authors on the phone or pull them aside at a conference and have them walk you through the argument. Nothing is more efficient than having the original author fill in the details of his or her thoughts.

(This latter strategy, of course, becomes more available as your status in your field grows. It might not be advisable, for example, for a first year PhD student to apply it with too much regularity!)

Seeking Examples of Focus

September 11th, 2013 · 7 comments

Finding the Focused Few

I’m looking for stories of people who use radical strategies to reduce the amount of distractions in their life and improve their ability to focus on hard things (be it at work, at home, or in parenting).

If this describes you, someone you know, or someone you read about: please consider sending a brief e-mail to tips@calnewport.com to tell me more.

Why Draper University Won’t Work (But Could)

August 28th, 2013 · 36 comments

draper

School for Heroes

Every morning, the students at the Draper University School for Heroes recite an oath:

“I will promote freedom at all costs.”

“I will do everything in my power to drive, build, and pursue progress and change.”

“My brand, my network, and my reputation are paramount.”

This school was recently founded by the famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper (pictured above). Its goal is to produce “innovators” who do the “great things they are capable of.”

It’s also an idea that I am convinced will fail. And it’s what’s missing from this oath that underscores why.

Innovation is Fueled by Mastery

The program at the Draper University School for Heroes focuses on soft skills. There are classes in idea generation, painting, networking, and, for some reason, first aid and suturing.

There’s nothing wrong with maintaining a robust network or hearing inspirational speeches about being the change you want to see in the world. But this is not nearly enough if your goal is producing impactful innovation.

In researching my last book, I interviewed many people who ended up making a real impact on the world, including innovative biologists, agriculturists, and education entrepreneurs. The common trait they shared was expertise. They each started by putting in a lot of work to master something hard but valuable. It was this mastery that gave them the insight and ability needed to do produce real innovation.

As currently structured, Draper University focuses on young people, who, for the most part, do not yet have any expertise. Some have even dropped out of school in their eagerness to get started in their quest to do something big. Draper would applaud this boldness. I think it’s premature.

If you fire up a group of college students to go start companies and change the world the result will likely be yet another consumer-facing start-up focused on the needs of twentysomething Californian college students (to ape George Packer’s recent critique of the Valley).

By contrast…

If you want Google you need a pair of guys who were well along in Stanford’s PhD program and who were well-versed in the state of the art Information Retrieval literature.

If you want Microsoft you need a nerd who obsessively honed his programming skills and was willing to spend sleepless months mastering the opcodes of the first microprocessors.

If you want to sequence the human genome you need an entrepreneur who first spent a decade working in academia and at the NIH mastering the latest advancements in biogenetics.

And so on.

In other words, I support the vision of Tim Draper. The soft skills he teaches are important. We need to be reminded and encouraged to take risks and think big.

But I disagree with his choice of a target market. For the most part, the people most poised to really make a difference are not the eager college students currently occupying the bean bag chair-equipped lecture halls of Draper U, but instead are more likely to be found among the senior doctoral candidates and recently tenured professors at the world-class universities that happen to be within spitting distance of Draper’s San Mateo campus.

What’s missing from the oath of Draper University, in other words, is a commitment to putting in the hard long hours necessary to master the fields from which the next big innovations will surely arise. The soft skills are meaningless without something hard to back them up.

Your Career is Not a Disney Movie

August 17th, 2013 · 30 comments

Jiminy_Cricketp-500px

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.

Louis C. K. on Career Capital

April 24th, 2013 · 19 comments

The Power of Diligence

The comedian Louis C. K. lives a remarkable life. How did he make that happen? Here’s an interesting quote from a recent New York Times interview:

There’s people that say: “It’s not fair. You have all that stuff.” I wasn’t born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this — and by “new at it,” I mean 15 years in, or even 20 — you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.

Notice his use of the phrase “horrible process” in describing his rise. This is exactly what is wrong with telling people: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” — you’re providing them a flawed description of reality.

Careers you love require a lot of work. Sometimes even “horrible” work.

You can’t escape the necessity of career capital

(Hat tip: 99u)

Deliberately Experimenting with Deliberate Practice — Looking for Subjects to Test My Advice

April 8th, 2013 · 24 comments

The Deliberate Practice Pilot Program

I’m fascinated by deliberate practice.

I’m convinced this advanced practice philosophy can help knowledge workers rapidly pick up skills that will make them invaluable and provide control over their career. It is, as I’ve argued here, in my last book, and in the Wall Street Journal, perhaps one of your most effective tools for building a working life you love.

But it’s also really hard to figure out how to adapt these ideas to the world of knowledge work.

I decided a good way to proceed with my investigation of this topic would be to: (1) take my best shot at distilling what I know into a formal system; then (2) recruit a group of people, from a variety of different knowledge work careers, to try out my recommendations and report back what they experienced.

This is exactly what I’m going to do.

Over the past few months, I’ve worked extensively with Scott Young (a master of rapid learning), to create a four week pilot program that walks you, step-by-step, through our best understanding of how to identify key skills and then apply deliberate practice techniques to dominate them in a small amount of time.

Now we want to recruit an (extremely limited) group of participants to give this pilot course a try and tell us how it went. In other words, I want real people, in a variety of real jobs, to kick the tires on these ideas Scott and I have been writing about for so long.

Learn More About This Experiment

I don’t want to clog Study Hacks with tons of logistical posts about the experiment — more details, how to sign-up, etc. — so I created a separate e-mail list for this purpose. If you’re interested in learning more about this pilot program click the link below to sign-up for the list.

This will be the only place where you can hear more details and receive information about the first-come-first-served sign-up that will likely happen as soon as next week.

Click here to sign-up to learn more…

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Two Books To Keep On Your New Year Radar

January 8th, 2013 · 16 comments

Two Recommendations

In general, January is a good month for books about productivity. This January is particularly good as two friends of mine, whose thinking on these topics I really respect, both have books out this week. Coincidentally, both of these friends asked me to write the foreword for their titles — which I was honored to do.

With this in mind, if you’re looking for some smart thinking on productivity (or want to experience some unusually thoughtful and erudite foreword writing), I recommend these new releases:

  • The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment by Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    Elizabeth runs a successful consulting business that helps people make more meaningful use of their time. If you’re looking to focus less on the unimportant and more on what really matters, this book offers tested advice for achieving this goal.
  • The Front Nine by Mike Vardy
    Mike is the former editor-in-chief of Lifehack.org — an experience that transformed him into a incisive commentator on what works and what doesn’t in the world of productivity. His new book takes a surprisingly nuanced look at what it (really) takes to get important projects from conception to completion.