November 9th, 2013 · 19 comments
The Elusive Dr. Higgs
This past October, the theoretical physicist Peter Higgs won the Nobel Prize for his work predicting the particle that bears his name. The only problem: no one could find him.
Peter Higgs, it turns out, is not interested in being accessible. He has no e-mail address because he owns no computer. He does own a cellphone, but he only answers it if he knows the caller.
It’s easy to imagine Higgs as a recluse, but as The Guardian reported in its Nobel coverage, he’s actually quite busy. It’s just that his definition of “busy” doesn’t include an inbox.
I like these types of stories. They’re not useful as a direct source of advice (most of us probably need to keep our computers). But they do provide a nice reminder about the type of work that ends up changing the way we understand the world.
(Image by Gert-Martin Greuel via Wiki Commons)
October 24th, 2013 · 47 comments
I recently got my hands on a copy of Mason Currey’s new book, Daily Rituals. For the past six years, Currey ran a blog called Daily Routines that scoured interviews and biographic material to identify the work habits of famous creatives. His new book runs with that idea, summarizing the habits of 161 notables.
Being a geek, I decided to quantify some of Currey’s insights. The first thing I did was read through the first 25 profiles, estimating the number of hours per day each subject spent working deeply.
The average number of deep work hours turned out to be 5.25. (See the above histogram for the full distribution.)
These results provide a powerful counterpoint to most narratives on creative work, which tend to focus on overcoming “The Resistance” or the “naysayer within” (to quote Steven Pressfield). The reason most aspiring creatives fail, these numbers instead hint, is not due to an “internal foe” but because five hours of daily deep work is absurdly difficult!
October 3rd, 2013 · 63 comments
Why I Never Joined Facebook
Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about why I never joined Facebook. For those who are new to this discussion, here’s the short summary:
I have limited time and attention. I try to devote as much of it as possible to creating valuable things and spending time with my family and close friends. For a new tool to claim some of my time and attention from these activities it has to offer me a lot of value in return. Facebook falls well short of this threshold.
This post generated a lively debate in its comment thread. To be honest, this comments discussion is probably more valuable than the original post, as it covers a lot more ground, often quite eloquently.
A natural follow-up question, however, is whether this discussion changed my mind on the issue. The short answer: No. Not at all.
To provide a longer answer, I summarize below the four most common arguments in favor of Facebook that I received in reaction to my post (both publicly and privately), as well as my explanation for why the arguments didn’t move me closer to clicking “join.”
Argument #1: Facebook makes it possible to maintain lightweight, high-frequency contact with a large number of people spread around the world.
Facebook essentially invented this new type of social connection. Some people enjoy it. Some even use it as a replacement for a normal, in-person social life (usually, to their detriment). I have no interest in it. I’m close to my family and have good friends. I’d rather keep my time and attention focused on interacting deeply with them instead of pinging a thousand “friends” with exclamation-point laden wall posts.
Argument #2: Facebook might offer you personal or professional benefits that you don’t even know about. You cannot reject this service until you have tried it for a while.
I hear this argument a lot. I find it to be an incoherent approach to managing the tools in your life. If I had to test every potentially useful tool before deciding not to use it, I would end up spending the bulk of my life testing. My time and attention is valuable. If some company wants to make money off me using their service, they better have a compelling pitch for why it’s worth me taking away time and attention from my work, family and friends — even if just temporarily.
Argument #3: Facebook will not take your time and attention away from things you currently find important because you can access it on your phone during times, like waiting in line, that would otherwise be wasted.
This vision of Facebook use terrifies me. Facebook, like most social media, is addictive, because it offers, at all points, the possibility of finding out something that someone is saying about you. Once you get into the habit of seeking this distraction when temporarily bored, your ability to concentrate during other times will be reduced. If I start checking Facebook during my downtime, in other words, I’m convinced that the overall quality and quantity of time I can spend doing hard things — like writing or solving proofs — will, rather quickly, begin to decrease.
Furthermore, the idea that you can restrict your access to this addictive service to only downtime is naive. Think about the behavior of people you know: Facebook checking soon pervades all areas of your life, including those times when, in a pre-Facebook era, you would be interacting with family or friends. “You can access Facebook anywhere!”, in other words, is not the right way to persuade me.
Argument #4: Your general philosophy of only adopting a tool if it provides a clear and valuable benefit will deprive you of serendipity — think about all the interesting things you might be missing out on.
My careful approach to tool adoption almost definitely means I’m missing out on opportunities, trends, connections, and entertainment.
This doesn’t bother me.
As a consequence of my approach to tools, I have few electronic inboxes to monitor or online services to fiddle with. This means I spend a surprising fraction of my work day actually doing hard work, leading to a professional life that is fulfilling and, to date, pretty successful (knock on wood). It also means that when I arrive home in the evening, I don’t touch a computer until the next morning — allowing me to spend my time focused on my family and friends, and giving my full attention to any number of things I already enjoy, like reading. (I read a lot.) I would be a fool to dilute this to chase the possibility of something “new.”
Fear of missing out, in other words, is not a valid argument for trashing what you already have.
On an unrelated note: My friend Todd Henry (of The Accidental Creative fame) recently published a new book, Die Empty. Here’s the blurb I wrote for the jacket: “Die Empty looks past simple slogans to highlight detailed strategies for building a meaningful life; a must-read for anyone interested in moving from inspiration to action.” If you’re interested in these questions of work, meaning, and legacy, I encourage you to find out more…
September 18th, 2013 · 55 comments
I remember when I first heard about Facebook. I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College. At the time, the service was being made available on a school-by-school basis, and, one spring day in 2004, it finally arrived at our corner of the Ivy League.
Many of my friends were excited by this event. They were surprised when I didn’t join.
“What problem do I have that this solves?”, I asked.
No one could answer.
They would, instead, talk about new features it made available, like being able to reconnect with people from high school or post photos. But my lack of ability to connect with old classmates or to publicize my social outings were not problems I needed fixed.
“Every product and service ever invented offers new features,” I’d respond, “but what problem do I have that Facebook’s features are solving? Why should this product, of all products, earn my attention?”
Again, no one could answer.
After a while, I stopped asking this question, and just moved on with my life without a presence on Facebook. Ten years later, I still have never had a Facebook account — nor any social media account, for that matter — and have never missed it.
I have close friends. I still have lots of readers and still sell lots of books. And I’ve preserved my ability to focus, allowing me to make a nice a living as a theoretician.
Read more »
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 email@example.com to tell me more.
September 8th, 2013 · 23 comments
The Depths and the Shallows
I worry a lot about deep work (giving sustained attention to hard things that create value). As a professor, deep work is required to produce new results. Therefore, the more I do, the better.
I often envy the schedules of professional writers — like Woody Allen, Neal Stephenson, or Stephen King — who can wake-up, work deeply until they reach their cognitive limit, then rest and recharge until the next day.
The simplicity of this rhythm is satisfying. I could never emulate it, however, because, like most knowledge workers, I’m also saddled with quite a bit of shallow work (task-oriented efforts that do not create much new value). You’d be surprised, for example, how much time you spend after you write an academic paper, formatting it properly for publication (a scene they seemed to skip in A Beautiful Mind).
Most knowledge workers face this same battle between what’s needed to make an impact in the long term, and what’s needed to avoid getting fired in the short term. Professors, however, are particularly good (or, at the very least, particularly concerned) about preserving deep work in the face of mounting shallow obligations. The reason for this attention is simple: tenure.
Read more »
August 28th, 2013 · 35 comments
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).
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.
August 21st, 2013 · 24 comments
The Best Book (of Mine) You Haven’t Read
My third book, How to Be a High School Superstar, is one my favorite things that I ever wrote.
The book is best summarized as a college admissions guide written in the style of Malcolm Gladwell. Within its pages, I dive deep into the science and psychology of impressiveness and argue that it’s possible to do well in college admissions without being stressed out and overworked (see this blog post for more details).
One of the big ideas in the book is that exceptionally impressive accomplishments are rarely planned out in advance. They instead usually come from the following cycle:
- the student chooses something that seems interesting,
- the student follows through and completes the pursuit,
- the student surveys the new opportunities this makes available, then he or she repeats step #1.
Follow this for strategy for a year (or even less!) and you’ll likely end up somewhere quite impressive (at least, by college admissions standards), without having to stress yourself out with twenty activities or attempting to become a world-class musician.
A reader recently sent me his experience following this strategy in high school. Given that it’s back to school season, I thought I’d share it (with my commentary added):
I was going to be a sophomore in high school and I wanted to write a sports blog. “Hmm,” I said to myself, “let’s write it about the New York Knicks.” To be honest, I had never been a huge Knicks fan but always wanted to explore a professional sports team in-depth.
[Note from Cal: Contrary to conventional wisdom, this student did not start by identifying an unquenchable passion. He just thought it might be interested to try blogging. He didn't even particularly like what he was blogging about. He certainly had no master plan for where it would lead.]
I started writing blog posts every day. Pretty soon, I had a decent following.
Among the community, within three months, I was quickly becoming a “go-to source” for Knicks info.
[Note from Cal: His next step was to pay his dues. People don't expect 15 year-olds to follow through on self-directed activities. When you do, good things happen...]
I emailed the Knicks media department seeing if I could get credentials to Media Day where you interview professional basketball players. They said: “Sure, just send us your Google Analytics and we’ll see if we can approve you.” Sure enough, they did.
(Little did they know I was 15 years old at the time.)
My mom drove me. It was me and a bunch of professional journalists asking these basketball players a bunch of questions. There were kids who would have died to be in my position!
Shortly thereafter, a writer from the New York Daily News mentioned me, my site, and my story in a blog post.
Even though I had a subpar GPA and a decent SAT score, I got into my top choice.
[Note from Cal: When you hear, "this kid is a credentialed sports journalist featured in the New York Daily News," your first instinct is to think he's a prodigy and a genius. But when you then learn the details of his real story -- as with most such "gee whiz" student tales -- you realize the path was more humble. He choose something interesting and followed through. He then asked, "what's next?" This isn't easy. And it requires quite a bit of confidence. But what's important is that it's not nearly as stressful as what most ambitious young people put themselves through during this process.]