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 · 34 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.]
August 17th, 2013 · 29 comments
Believe in Your (Animated) Self
A reader recently sent me an article from The Atlantic. It was titled (quite descriptively): You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?
The writer, Luke Epplin, points out that modern animated kids films have largely fallen into a formulaic rut:
“[The protagonists are] anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams.”
In these movies, explains Epplin:
“[I]t’s the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community…Following one’s dreams necessarily entrails the pursuit of the extraordinary in these films. The protagonists sneer at the mundane, repetitive work performed by their unimaginative peers.”
It’s believing in one’s self, for example, that allows a fat panda to become a Kung Fu master, a to rat become an accomplished chef, and a creaky crop duster to become a world class racer — after only a bare minimum of training and essentially no experience.
The fools in these movies are those poor suckers who wasted their time practicing when all they really needed was a pep talk.
G-Rated Career Thinking
Epplin draws a connection between this narrative device and the rise of the cult of self-esteem among young children. I’m interested, however, in a different (and equally disturbing) connection.
These (literally) childish plot devices are eerily similar to the popular conversations surrounding career planning. The passion culture tells us that the key to an extraordinary life is to look deep, be true to your inner passion, and courageously ignore the naysayers as you pursue your dream.
Here’s a quote, for example, from a popular career guide:
“You see, I believe you already have everything you need inside of you. You are good enough the way you are. You’ve simply learned ideas that keep you from living up to your full potential.”
Here’s another quote, this one from one of the growing number of lifestyle design blogs:
“[D]eep down in the chambers of your heart where your personal legend lives, you know you were meant to change the world.”
It’s easy to imagine these quips coming out of the mouth of an anthropomorphized panda bear or kindly puffer fish in a Disney movie.
And this is a problem.
These similarities, once pointed out, emphasize an important and distressing reality: The ubiquitous suggestion that you must find your passion and overcome naysayers is not deep wisdom. It is, instead, the plot of a kiddie movie.
If you study real people who build remarkable lives in the real world, you find their paths are more nuanced, more complicated, and usually quite a bit more interesting. These paths tend to involve quite a bit of hard work — much of it conventional — and don’t tend to involve a lot of bold resistance to the status quo. (Society, it turns out, doesn’t care what you do for a living. It cares more about how well you do what you do.)
It’s time, in other words, for our taste in career advice to mature alongside our taste in movies.
August 14th, 2013 · 17 comments
Pictured above is the cabin where journalist Michael Pollan used to write his nature-themed books before he moved to California. He built it himself.
This is a shot of the library where Neil Gaiman dreams up his confoundedly original brand of fantasy literature.
This bat-fenced Gothic mansion is the Bangor, Maine home of Stephen King. What better place to pull together his brand of dark fiction?
I’m sharing these photos because they help remind me of an important idea: deep work can be immensely fulfilling. The deep workers mentioned above recognize this reality. They built working environments that emphasize what is unique and compelling about their particular expertise, and by doing so were able to squeeze even more meaning and satisfaction out of their working hours.
This lesson is important. We should not treat deep work as just another scheduled task to check off our Allen-esque lists. It should be made, instead, the center of our efforts to lead a Good Life.
As I was thinking about this post, I faced a typical deep task in my life as a professor: I needed to break down and understand a knotty paper so I could potentially build off its results. To interact with the world of ideas at the highest level, I reminded myself, is a pretty cool way to make a living. So I left the florescence of my office and relocated to a more scenic view (above); a more fitting setting to revel in depth.
(King home photo by JHR images)
August 4th, 2013 · 34 comments
A Tale of Two Productivities
As a graduate student I was known for being organized. I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when I attended a computer science conference along with many of my old lab mates.
What I also remember is that I always felt indifferent about this reputation. To be organized is a nice thing. But it didn’t take me long at MIT before I realized it’s also unrelated to what matters most: the consistent production of high value results.
We don’t often talk about this division but I think it’s crucial. There’s a lot written about task productivity (the ability to organize and execute non-skilled obligations), but much less written about value productivity (the ability to consistently produce highly-skilled, highly-valued output).
As I’ve settled more into life as a professor, I’ve been increasingly fascinated with value productivity. It’s not that task productivity lacks importance — it has saved me much stress — but I think the value variety is what will rule in an increasingly competitive knowledge economy.
It is with this fascination in mind that I spent some time recently re-watching Robert Weide’s deep diving documentary on the life and habits of Woody Allen. When it comes to value productivity, Allen is an unquestionably good place to start. He’s written and directed 44 movies in 44 years, earning 23 Academy Award nominations along the way.
By watching the documentary with an ear for work habits, I picked up the following three ideas that help explain Allen’s astonishingly high level of value productivity…
Read more »
July 28th, 2013 · 20 comments
O’Donnell’s Ten Year Big Break
Last month, Rosie O’Donnell appeared on Here’s The Thing, Alec Baldwin’s NPR interview show.
The episode, if heard casually, gives the impression that her break was rapid and inevitable. As a high school senior, we learn, she wrote comedy skits for a school variety show. A local comedy club owner liked the skits and invited O’Donnell to perform a set. She killed.
At this point, it was clear that she would become a comedian. Her break came later when Lorne Michaels and Brandon Tartikoff (former NBC chief) happened to hear her perform at a club where they had come to audition Dana Carvey.
Tartikoff came up to O’Donnell after the show and said simply: “Hi. I want you to call this number at NBC tomorrow. We have a job for you.”
Television, then movies, then her talk show — it all fell into place after that key moment.
This is a classic big break. But if you listen closer to the episode it becomes clear that it was not out of the blue. While telling this story, O’Donnell, as an aside, clarified the timeline of that fateful night by noting: “[Remember that at this point] I had had a decade under my belt of doing standup, right?”
O’Donnell’s big break, in other words, was ten years in the making…
Read more »