Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness is a classic in the genre of erudite idea books. It’s an extended discussion of the many different ways humans misunderstand the role of probability in their everyday lives.
The book is most famous for its attack on the role of skill in money management (Malcolm Gladwell called the book the Wall Street equivalent of Luther’s ninety-five theses), but it touches on many other topics as well.
As a reader named Rainer recently reminded me, Taleb also includes a passage quite relevant to the dominant role new technologies like social media, or Apple watches, or the latest, greatest smartphone app play in modern life (see if you can sight the 1990’s-era Michael Lewis reference):
I recently gave a deliberatively provocative TEDx talk titled “quit social media” (see the video above). The theme of the event was “visions of the future.” I said my vision of the future was one in which many fewer people use social media.
Sullivan, as you might remember, founded the sharp and frenetic political blog, The Daily Dish (ultimately shortened to: The Dish). The blog was a success but its demands were brutal.
For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week…My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.
In recent years, his health began to fail. “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”, his doctor asked. Finally, in the winter of 2015, he quit, explaining: “I decided, after 15 years, to live in reality.”
This might sound like an occupational hazard of a niche new media job, but a core argument of Sullivan’s essay is that these same demands have gone mainstream:
On the one hand, in my book on the topic and here on Study Hacks I often extol the productive virtue of spending multiple hours (and sometimes even days) in a state of distraction-free deep work. As I emphasized last week, these sessions need to be truly free of distraction — even quick glances at your inbox, for example, are enough to significantly reduce your cognitive capacity.
On the other hand, in my Straight-A book (published, if you can believe it, almost exactly a decade before Deep Work), I recommend students study in 50 minute chunks followed by 10 minute breaks. I cite some relevant cognitive science to back up this timing. Similar recommendations are also made by adherents to the pomodoro technique, which suggests short timed bursts of concentration partitioned by breaks.
Update:For those who asked about this, Scott’s Rapid Learner course website is now live. You can learn more about the course here. (Even if you’re not interested in the course, scroll down to the before and after pictures from Scott’s 30 day portrait drawing challenge. Crazy!)
A Learned Chat on Learning
My good friend Scott Young is finally about to launch his long promised Rapid Learner online course, which teaches you how to learn hard things quickly. This is something that Scott knows a lot about (c.f., his astonishing MIT Challenge).
To help Scott spread the word about his course, I agreed to join him for a free live webinar on Monday, September 12, at 8:30 pm Easterntime (to attend, sign up here).
We’re going to discuss learning and study skills and then take questions on these topics from the live webinar audience. At the end of the seminar, Scott will then explain his course and make a pitch for it.
A couple details…
I want to emphasize that this is not my course. It’s Scott’s course. I’m joining this webinar to help him spread the word (because it’s good content, Scott’s a good friend, and I thought it would be fun to talk about study skills with a live audience), but I don’t want anyone to end up enrolling in this course under the misunderstanding that I’m somehow involved in the course itself or its content.
As far as I know, there will be not be a recorded version of the webinar available for those who missed it.
A reader recently shared with me an interesting observation from his own life.
To provide some context, this reader is a fan of the classic arcade game snake (shown above). This game is hard: as your snake grows, it requires an increasing amount of concentration to avoid twisting back on yourself and ending the round.
What this reader noticed was that whenever he paused the game for a quick interruption (e.g., answering a text or talking to someone who walked into the room), he became significantly more likely to fail soon after returning to play.
These arcade struggles might not sound that surprising, but they turn out to be a great example of a psychological effect that every knowledge worker should know about: attention residue.
To provide some background, in 2005 Toyama cofounded Microsoft Research India, which focused on applying technology to social issues. He then left for academia where he began to study such efforts from an objective distance. Geek Heresy describes what he found.
I’m only through around 100 pages, but so far Toyama’s conclusions have been bracing.
He leverages a blend of research and firsthand experience to dismiss the cult-like belief (common in Silicon Valley) that hard social problems can be solved with the application of the “right” technology (an illustrative target of Toyama’s critique is Nicholas Negroponte’s belief in the power of cheap laptops to cure all that ails the developing world).
For the purposes of this post, however, I want to highlight a powerful observation detailed in Chapter 2. It’s here that Toyama introduces what he calls the Law of Amplification, which he defines as follows:
Recently, I’ve been collecting stories from people who held the same type of job before and after the introduction of email. Something that struck me as I sorted through these recollections is their variety.
Email was a miracle to some.
For example, I talked to a woman who has spent many years in mergers and acquisitions. These deals, it turns out, require large contracts to be received and sent with urgency at unexpected times.
Before email, this meant weekends camped out at the office.
“If I was expecting a new version of a merger agreement, I would have to stand outside the fax room waiting for my 200-page document and then call to ask the other side to re-fax any missing pages,” my source recalled.
“If there was even a possibility that I would be needed, it made no sense to go home…people would sleep at the office.”
With email, these same urgent documents could suddenly reach her anywhere — greatly reducing time wasted squatting by the warmth of a fax modem and increasing time with her family.
“Email has been a plus,” she concludes.
But email was also a curse to many others.
One teacher I spoke with, for example, told me about how the arrival of email made teachers at her school suddenly available to parents in a way they never had been before.
The school eventually instituted a policy that all such emails must be answered within 48 hours.
“Email exploded,” my source recalled. “My planning period was spent reading and answering emails…forget planning. [It became] a huge distraction from the already very difficult job of teaching.”
A Useful Heuristic
How do we make sense of these contradictions?
As I sorted through more stories like the above an interesting pattern emerged.
I'm a computer science professor who writes about how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age. If you're new to Study Hacks, a good place to start is the blog archive or my new book on the power of deep work.
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