Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

On the Hardness of Important Things

August 15th, 2014 · 24 comments

Einstein’s Strain

Earlier today, I was browsing Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog and stumbled across a letter that Albert Einstein wrote to his son Hans Albert in the fall of 1915.

This date, of course, is important in the lifetime of Albert Einstein, as this was right after he finished writing one of the masterpieces of modern science: his general theory of relativity.

(To paraphrase my astronomy teacher at Dartmouth: “most scientific breakthroughs are expected, many different people are closing in on the same idea, but general relativity, this came out of nowhere, it was magic.”)

One quote, in particular, caught my attention:

“What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.” [emphasis mine]

Einstein’s reference to “a lot of strenuous work” emphasizes an important reality: accomplishing important things is really, really hard. (He’s guilty of understatement here. The strain of proving the theory turned his hair white and nearly shattered his family and his health.)

It’s easy to play lip service to this idea, and many of us do, but what frustrates me is that there’s so little in the advice literature that directly addresses the nuances of this requirement.

It’s not obvious how to prepare yourself for really hard things. What should you expect? What changes are necessary to the way you approach your life and work? How do you know when to persist? (I mention these questions not because I have great answers, but because I want better ones.)

Seth Godin’s book, The Dip, is an important initial meditation on this subject, and one I found immensely useful, but I’m not aware of many other books that tackle this topic. This is a shame given its importance to the goal of making a mark.

Deep Habits: Plan Your Week in Advance

August 8th, 2014 · 39 comments


A Planning Habit

On Monday mornings I plan the upcoming work week. I capture this plan in an e-mail and send it to myself so that I will be sure to see it and have access to it daily. (See the snapshot above of some recent plans in my inbox.)

This planning can take a long time; almost always longer than an hour. But the return on investment is phenomenal. To visualize your whole week at once allows you to spread out, batch, and prioritize work in a manner that significantly increases what you accomplish and goes a long way toward eliminating work pile-ups and late nights (the latter being crucial if you practice fixed-schedule productivity).

There is no best format for creating a weekly plan. In fact, I’ve found it’s crucial to embrace flexibility. The style or format of your plan should match the challenges of the specific week ahead. (Indeed, attempting to force some format to your plan can reduce the probability you maintain the habit.)

To illustrate this point, I will show you two recent weekly plans I used (with the content scrubbed where needed for privacy reasons).

Read more »

Stop Looking for the “Right” Career and Start Looking for a Job

August 4th, 2014 · 30 comments

A Reality Check from Mike Rowe

Mike Rowe and I agree that “follow your passion,” as a piece of advice, tends to make people more unhappy about their working life.

A reader named Steve recently pointed me toward a hilarious and yet profoundly relevant example of Rowe articulating this position.

Allow me to set the scene…

Rowe  receives a piece of fan mail that opens as follows: “I’ve spent this last year trying to figure out the right career for myself and I still can’t figure out what to do.

Rowe then responds. In his response, he explains, without apology, exactly why this complaint is dumb.

I won’t spoil the whole thing (you can read the original letter and Rowe’s full reply here), but I do want to point your attention to my favorite paragraph:

Stop looking for the “right” career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. You can always quit later, and be no worse off than you are today. But don’t waste another year looking for a career that doesn’t exist. And most of all, stop worrying about your happiness. Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.

In my opinion, you could substitute the above suggestions for just about any commencement address that was given this past spring, and the students would have ended up much better prepared for the real world.

Well said, Mike.

Do Goals Prevent Success?

July 31st, 2014 · 30 comments

An Effectual Understanding of Impact

I’ve long been interested in the idea of the impact instinct: the ability for a trained professional to continuously generate big wins at a rate much higher than his or her equally well-trained peers (see here and here and here).

What explains this impact instinct?

A reader named Jason recently pointed me toward some interesting research relevant to this question. The topic is effectuation, a theory of entrepreneurial success devised by Saras Sarasvathy (see above), a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

The origin of effectuation is a study Sarasvathy conducted in 1997. She traveled the country to interview 30 different entrepreneurs who founded successful companies (their company valuations were all measured in hundreds of millions of dollars). Instead of simply asking them their approach to business, she had each solve a 17-page problem set containing 10 decision problems relevant to introducing a new product. She asked that they talk out loud about their thinking, and then later scrutinized the transcripts of these sessions. The patterns she identified became effectuation theory.

In a nutshell, this theory notes that we’re used to thinking about problems (especially in the business world) using causal rationality. We identify a goal and then attempt to identify the optimal path to accomplishing this goal given our current resources. This process is top-down with the final goal occupying the apex position.

The entrepreneurs Sarasvathy interviewed did not rely on causal thinking. They instead relied on an alternative she called effectuative thinking.

Effectuative thinking, unlike causal thinking, is bottom-up. It doesn’t start with a final goal in mind. Instead, as Sarasvathy explains, “it begins with a given set of means and allows goals to emerge contingently over time.”

Read more »

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

July 22nd, 2014 · 38 comments


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!)

The Concrete Satisfaction of Deep Work

June 21st, 2014 · 19 comments

ShopClassBookDeep Work as Soulcraft

I recently reread Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft. Though Crawford’s primary goal is to make a philosophical case for the skilled trades (think: Mike Rowe with footnotes), a lot of what he writes resonates with my thinking about deep work.

Consider the following quote, which caught my attention:

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world.” (page 15 of hardcover edition)

Cannot the same thing be said about any deep effort that results in the production of something too good to be ignored?

The reason, I think, that deep effort holds an appeal is that so much in modern knowledge work reduces to Crawford’s chattering interpretations — responding quickly to e-mail threads, bullet point self-promotion in PowerPoint slides, relentless online branding and ceaseless networking.

At some point, we tire of the shallow – necessary as it might be – and foster a desire to retreat into depth, create the best possible thing we’re capable of creating, then step back, point, and remark simply: “I did that.”

My Deliberate Quest to Read Proofs Faster

June 16th, 2014 · 64 comments

Deconstructing Theory

As a self-observant theoretician, I’ve learned that my research success depends on two intertwined factors: (1) my ability to digest and understand diverse results in my field; and (2) my ability to persistently attack good problems once identified.

Through practice over the past few years, I’ve become adept at the second factor. My deep work hours per week are quite high and have recently led to a correspondingly high rate of producing publishable results.

A nagging concern of mine, however, is that I’m not as good with the first factor. Indeed, I’m often frustrated with how long it takes me to digest interesting new results (and how often I end up aborting the process).

This concerns me because in my field voracious reading is required to keep the pipeline of good problems full.

What’s going wrong?

Read more »