February 24th, 2015 · 31 comments
Last summer, I wrote a post detailing various strategies for reading mathematical proofs faster.
Last week, I stumbled across a new strategy that I think may be relevant for many different types of deep information processing.
I came across this strategy while peer reviewing a complicated computer science paper. As I read, I quickly became frustrated. I was processing lemmas and theorems, one by one, but as the details for each slipped from my short term memory to make room for the next, there was no sense of a coherent whole. It was as if I couldn’t get my metaphorical arms around this mathematical beast.
After an hour of this blind processing I decided to step back and try to summarize what I understood so far.
It was here that things got interesting.
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February 19th, 2015 · 20 comments
A Magical Muse
This past fall, news broke that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was building a replica of Hagrid’s hut near the border of a forest on her Scottish estate.
Though its intended use is unknown, Entertainment Weekly speculated Rowling might be designing the ultimate writing cabin for her current project: penning the screenplay for a Potter prequel.
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February 16th, 2015 · 23 comments
Super Casual Friday
Last week, an article in the Washington Post caught my attention. It was titled, “At some start-ups, Friday is so casual that it’s not even a work day,” and it focused on an Oregon-based tech company called Treehouse.
This company, it turns out, offers an unusual perk to its employees: no work on Friday.
The idea of a four day week upset people in the tech world. Michael Arrington, for example, responded:
“As far as I’m concerned, working 32 hours a week is a part-time job…I look for founders who are really passionate. Who want to work all the time. That shows they care about what they’re doing, and they’re going to be successful.”
But here’s the thing: Treehouse is successful.
The company, which offers online courses, has enrolled over 100,000 students and raised over $13 million in funding. Last year saw 100% revenue growth, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they have near 100% employee retention.
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February 6th, 2015 · 53 comments
A Curious Observation
I’ve written enough books at this point to notice trends about the process. Case in point, while many stages of pulling together a book end up going slower than expected, there’s one stage, in particular, that typically goes quicker: polishing the manuscript.
I have a theory for the phenomenon. When I polish a book manuscript, I always work with printouts and a pen (as I also advise, in Straight-A, for paper writing). Because this work doesn’t need a computer, I tend to settle in somewhere conducive to concentration, like The Chair (above), and end up working with more focus for longer sessions than normal.
The magic ingredient, I suspect, is the analog nature of the process. A computer is a portal to near endless distraction. Because we use these machines for so much of our efforts, the staccato rhythm of broken concentration they generate begins to feel natural — as if this is the necessary experience of work.
All it takes, however, is a forced break from the digital — as I experience when polishing my books — to remember the levels of depth we’re missing, and the satisfactions they can bring.
Inspired by this observation, I’ve found myself increasingly trying to carve out tasks that can be done free from a screen. I’m now more likely, for example, to venture to a library with only a notebook to work on a proof, or to leave my laptop in my bag at my office to dig into some paper reviews.
Analog work is underrated. Try it for yourself: you won’t be disappointed.
January 26th, 2015 · 14 comments
While I was at MIT, I lived for two years on Beacon Hill. One of my neighbors, I discovered, was the medical thriller writer, Robin Cook (to put things in perspective: I lived in a 500 square foot apartment while he lived in a six-floor, 1833 townhouse).
I didn’t run into Cook, however, until he agreed to give a speech at the Beacon Hill Civic Association. Eager to hear more about the life and times of this mega-bestselling author, I marked my calendar and attended the talk.
Cook didn’t disappoint. But there was one anecdote, in particular, that caught my attention.
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January 18th, 2015 · 23 comments
The Difficulty of Deep Projects
For the sake of discussion, let’s define a deep project to be a pursuit that leverages your expertise to generate a large amount of new value. These projects require deep work to complete, are rarely urgent and often self-initiated (e.g., no one is demanding their immediate completion), and have the potential to significantly transform or advance your professional life.
Examples of deep projects include writing a highly original book, creating an irresistible piece of software, or introducing a new academic theory.
The problem with deep projects is that they’re complicated and really hard. Almost any other activity will seem more appealing in the moment — so they keep getting pushed aside as something that you’ll “get to soon.”
Recently, I’ve been experimenting with a habit that seems to help with this challenge.
I call it, the depth deck…
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January 13th, 2015 · 27 comments
The Disconnected Director
Ben Casnocha recently sent me a Hollywood Reporter interview with the director Christopher Nolan. About halfway through the transcript, the journalist asks Nolan if it’s true that he doesn’t have an e-mail address.
“It is true,” Nolan responds.
He then elaborates:
Well, I’ve never used email because I don’t find it would help me with anything I’m doing. I just couldn’t be bothered about it.
What interests me about Nolan’s answer is not the details of his technology choices (his ability to avoid e-mail is specific to his incredibly esoteric job), but instead the thought process he applied in making them.
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January 5th, 2015 · 47 comments
A Call to Read
Maura Kelly begins her 2012 manifesto in The Atlantic with a Pollan-esque exhortation:
Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.
Kelly is just one voice in the growing Slow Reading movement (c.f.., here and here). The motivating idea behind this movement is simple: it’s good for the soul and the mind to regularly read — without distraction or interruption — hard books.
There was a time when intellectual engagement necessarily included long hours reading old-fashioned paper tomes. But in an age when a digital attention economy is ascendant, it’s now possible to satisfy this curiosity without ever consuming more than a couple hundred highly digested and simplified words at a time.
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