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The Eureka Myth: Why Darwin (not Draper) is the Right Model for Creative Thinking

May 19th, 2015 · 19 comments

 

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The Inspiring Story: A Brilliant Mind “Thinks Different”

In a pivotal scene in the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, the physicist is staring into the embers of a dying fire when he has an epiphany: black holes emit heat!

The next scene shows Hawking triumphantly announcing his result to a stunned audience — and just like that, his insight vaults him into the ranks of scientific stardom.

This story is inspirational. But as the physicist Leonard Mlodinow points out in a recent New York Times op-ed, it’s not at all how Hawking’s breakthrough actually happened…

The Stubborn Reality: A Highly-Trained Mathematician Works Hard

In reality, Hawking had encountered a theory by two Russian physicists that argued rotating black holes should emit energy until they slowed to a stationary configuration.

Hawking, who at the time was a promising young scientist who had not yet made his mark, was intrigued, but also skeptical.

So he decided to look deeper .

In the (many) months that followed, Hawking trained his preternatural analytical skill to investigate the validity of the Russians’ claims. This task required any number of minor breakthroughs, all orbiting the need to somehow reconcile (in a targeted way) both quantum theory and relativity.

This was really hard work.

The number of physicists at the time with enough specialized training and grit to follow through this investigation probably wouldn’t have filled a moderate size classroom.

But Hawking persisted.

And to his eventual “surprise and annoyance,” his mathematics confirmed an even more shocking conclusion: even stationary black holes can emit heat.

There was no fireside eureka moment, but instead a growing awareness that gained traction as the mathematics were refined and checked again and again.

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Shipping Trumps Serendipity

May 4th, 2015 · 34 comments

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The Annoyed Rhodes Scholar

To research my first book, I interviewed several Rhodes Scholars. During this process, I noticed they tended to be touchy about their press coverage.

When you win a Rhodes, not surprisingly, reporters will seek you out and write articles about you. Most of these articles follow the same shock and awe template of listing the student’s accomplishments, one after another, in an attempt to overwhelm the reader.

It was this article format that annoyed winners.

To understand why, you must first understand that most Rhodes Scholars follow a similar path: they invest a large amount of energy in doing a small number of things (usually two) extremely well (for someone their age).

Over time, as they get better and better at their core points of focus, related opportunities and accomplishments start to come along for free (see my third book for more on this phenomenon, sometimes called The Matthew Effect). It’s these freebies that ultimately extend their CV’s to a head-spinning length.

Consider, for example, the following lines from a profile of 2015 Rhodes Scholar Noam Angrist:

While at M.I.T., he did economic research for the World Bank, The White House, and on the Affordable Care Act…As a Fulbright Scholar in Botswana, Noam founded an NGO for HIV education designed to discourage intergenerational sex (“sugar daddy awareness”). Its success led him to raise the money to extend the program to 340 schools, and he now plans to launch it in four other southern African countries.

This list can appear inexplicable at first read, but a closer examination makes it clear that all of these accomplishments flow from a single deep focus: mastering the intersection between economics and program evaluation (a field being innovated at MIT, where Noam is a student).

The internships at the World Bank and White House, as well as the Fulbright Scholarship (which led to the HIV prevention program) are all side effects of Noam proving unambiguously that he was really good at this one type of academic research.

The reason Rhode Scholars get upset by volume-centric, over-hyped, shock and awe press coverage is that it obscures what they’re really proud about: doing professional quality work in a field that they respect and want respect from.

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The Original Four Hour Workweek

April 24th, 2015 · 18 comments

The Four Hour Consensus

russell-400pxIn 2007, Tim Ferriss published a hit book that suggested “work,” in the traditional money-making sense of the term, could and should be reduced to as little as four hours per week — freeing time for more fulfilling pursuits.

Seventy-five years earlier, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, in an essay titled In Praise of Idleness, suggested this same number of working hours as a worthy goal, explaining…

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving…Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers…Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas…

Russell and Ferriss propose wildly different paths to this goal: while the former believed a radically reduced workweek requires socialism to realize, Ferriss argues that the productivity tools of the Internet Age suffice.

But both writers hit on a deeper idea that has remained as intriguing today as in the 1930s: the notion that industry (what we might now call “busyness”) is intrinsically virtuous is suspect. It’s worth instead working backwards from a more general confrontation with the question of what matters and deciding how best to act on the answers.

I don’t have a specific point of view here (I know Russell mainly from his work on mathematical philosophy), I just thought the coincidence was cool, and the ideas interesting…

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On an unrelated note, my friends over at the exceptional 80,000 Hours organization have recently released a (free) career guide that is among one of the most thoughtful and grounded I’ve seen. If you read SO GOOD, you’ll probably appreciate their technical take on cultivating (not finding) passion.

It’s Not Your Job to Figure Out Why an Apple Watch Might Be Useful

April 20th, 2015 · 48 comments

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The Watch to Watch

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times reviewed the Apple Watch. A paragraph early in the article caught my attention:

First there was a day to learn the device’s initially complex user interface. Then another to determine how it could best fit it into my life. And still one more to figure out exactly what Apple’s first major new product in five years is trying to do — and, crucially, what it isn’t.

It’s worth taking a moment to recognize what’s strange here. If it takes three days to figure out why something might be useful to you, then you probably don’t need it!

In any other market, a product without a clear use case would be impossible to sell. But in the cultural distortion field of Silicon Valley, this is the new normal. They provide the hot new thing, and it’s up to you to figure out why you need it.

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Deep Habits: Listen to Baseball on the Radio

April 11th, 2015 · 33 comments

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Distracted in the Dugout

Last week, the Washington Post featured a front page story about the declining number of kids who play organized baseball. There are various reasons for this decline, but the story emphasized the sport’s lack of action.

Here’s an articulate 15-year old, as quoted in the article, explaining his reasons for quitting baseball:

Baseball is a bunch of thinking, and I live a different lifestyle than baseball. In basketball and football, you live in the moment. You got to be quick. Everything I do, I do with urgency.

This teenager is right. Baseball, undoubtedly, is a slow sport: even more so for spectators than the players.

But while this might be bad news for those hoping to attract the allegiance of the iPhone generation, I’ve found it to be quite useful in my own quest to sharpen my deep work skills.

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What Steve Jobs Meant When He Said “Follow Your Heart”

April 5th, 2015 · 23 comments

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What Steve Said

I opened my last book with Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. Toward the end of the speech, I noted, Jobs said:

And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Many people interpreted this suggestion simplistically, assuming that Jobs was telling them to follow their passion and everything would work out.

I argued in my book that this interpretation conflicted with Jobs’s own story. During the period leading up to Apple’s founding, there was no indication that Jobs felt any particular passion for technology entrepreneurship.

His company was, in many ways, a happy accident that evolved into a calling.

What, then, explains the mismatch between what Steve Jobs did and what Steve Jobs said?

Fortunately, we gain new insight into this question from Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli’s excellent new biography, Becoming Steve Jobs. In this book, the authors (one of whom had a long term personal relationship with Jobs) devote a full chapter to dissecting the Stanford address, taking specific aim at his “follow your heart” line.

Not only do Schlender and Tetzeli provide needed nuance to Jobs’s advice, but they also end up providing one of the more sophisticated and useful interpretations of professional passion that I’ve heard…

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From Obscurity to Genius: The Deep Life of Yitang Zhang

April 1st, 2015 · 37 comments

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Bound Gaps Solved

Last year, Yitang (Tom) Zhang published a paper in the Annals of Mathematics titled “Bounded Gaps Between Primes.” The abstract for the paper is simple enough for a non-mathematician to understand. It states that there are infinitely many pairs of consecutive prime numbers that are no more than 70,000,000 apart.

Don’t let the simplicity of the claim fool you: people have being trying to prove something like this for over 150 years.

At the time when Zhang submitted his result he held a “tenuous” temporary position in the mathematics department at the University of New Hampshire. As reported in Alec Wilkinson’s elegant New Yorker profile, before a friend set Zhang up with the New Hampshire position, he bounced around odd jobs, including a stint keeping the books at a Subway franchise.

Soon after his result was published, everything changed. His employer (wisely and with haste) made him a professor. He was invited to spend six months at the Institute for Advanced Study and accepted lecture invitations across the country. That same year, he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

What caught my attention about Zhang, however, was not the elegance of his result (which, as a lowly applied mathematician, I cannot come close to understanding) but the elegance of his work habits.

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Isaac Asimov’s Advice for Being Creative (Hint: Don’t Brainstorm)

March 27th, 2015 · 25 comments

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Asimov’s Lost Essay

In the late 1950’s, Arthur Obermayer worked for Allied Research Associates, a cold war-era science lab. During this period, his employer received a grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency to “elicit the most creative approaches possible for a ballistic missile defense system.”

Obermayer was a longtime friend of the famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Figuring that Asimov might know a thing or two about creativity, he brought him into the project.

The result was an essay, penned by Asimov, on the topic of creative breakthroughs. Oberymayer recently brought this essay to the attention of the MIT Technology Review magazine, which reprinted it in full.

The piece contains several original notions, but what caught my attention was its take on where creative ideas come from.

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