Dartmouth, of course, is not alone in sending a disproportionate number of its best and brightest to these narrow sectors. In recent years, to name an oft-cited example, Princeton sent 36% of its students to finance jobs while Harvard sent 17%.
There are many reasons proposed for this brain drain (whether or not this is really a “drain” is a different debate, though I tend to agree it is), including: prestige, money, the need to pass a new competitive admissions process to signal value, and psychologically-astute recruiting tactics.
“Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options.”
According to Brooks, elite students assume their choices are limited to: (a) making lots of money in finance and consulting, or (b) saving the world by working for a boots-on-the-ground non-profit. [Stanford students, Brooks notes, get an extra option less popular on the East Coast: (c) starting a tech company.]
The rhetoric surrounding career advice is saturated with calls for “courage.” Here are a few representative quotes I grabbed at random from the web:
“[S]ensational and successful entrepreneurs…had the courage to pursue what makes their heart sing.”
“As we move out of our comfort zones towards either accomplishing new things or approaching new levels of greatness, it’s normal to lack courage…”
“A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage.”
“In our day-to-day lives, the virtue of courage doesn’t receive much attention…Instead of setting your own goals, making plans to achieve them, and going after them with gusto, you play it safe. Keep working at the stable job, even though it doesn’t fulfill you.”
The storyline told by such quotes is simple: You know what career decisions would leave you happy and fulfilled, but “society” and “your family” are fearful, dull, stupid, and devoid of useful wisdom, and will therefore try to scare you out of following this good path. You must, therefore, build the courage to overcome their fear-mongering so you can live happily ever after.
The influence of this narrative, and the broader courage culture (as I named it in SO GOOD) that supports it, provides me a ceaseless source of annoyance. Given that it’s graduation season, and the topic of career happiness is therefore relevant, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about why this trope irks me so much, and why you should treat it with caution.
Acting on this equation, however, can be surprisingly difficult.
Here’s a simple hack (that came out of my recent anti-planning stretch) that has helped me rack up more deep work toward my computer science research: I append my list of active projects with a code indicating the next step I’m trying to reach (see the left column in the image above).
Having this extra column greatly simplifies my transition into a deep work mode, as my goal for these sessions is now simple: try to advance to the next steps on these projects.
This hack also works, in part, because specificity is crucial for deep work (your mind needs a crystal clear target before it will marshal the resources needed to go deep). It also works because the simple positive feedback (updating my board every time I move to the next step of a project) taps into our brain’s habit circuitry (c.f., Duhigg).
When it comes to deep work, there’s no magic bullet that will make it effortless. This work is hard. But hacks of this type can help keep these efforts from sliding toward impossible.
Every few years I re-read On Writing, Stephen King’s professional memoir. It helps me reorient to the reality of becoming better at creative endeavors.
Here’s King, talking about his initial efforts to publish his short stories in magazines:
“When I got my rejection slip…I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor [phonograph]…and poked [the rejection slip] onto to the nail…By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with handwritten notes a little more encouraging.”
It would be another ten years before King sold his first novel, Carrie.
The obvious lesson of this story is that King wrote a lot before he became good. The visual of rejection slips filling a spike is vivid.
But there are two other important elements lurking, uncovered only with a deeper reading of On Writing.
First, King didn’t just write, he tried to get people to pay for his writing, by submitting it to magazines. The nice thing about money (as I elaborate in SO GOOD) is that people don’t like to give it up. Therefore, when you ask people to give you money in exchange for your product, you’re going to get brutally honest feedback.
Second, King was careful to always aim above, but just barely above, his current skill level. His first published story was in a fanzine — the 1960′s version of a blog. He moved from fanzines to second-tier mens magazines like Cavalier and Dude. After he cracked that market he moved on to top-tier mens magazines and top-tier fantasy and science fiction publications. Only once he could consistently hit those targets did he succeed in selling his first novel to Doubleday.
Let’s step back and summarize these key points of King’s training: lots of practice, driven by honest feedback and challenges just beyond his current skill level.
I get upset when I violate these boundaries, so, as I do, I conducted a post-mortem on my schedule to find out what happened.
The high-level explanation was clear: bad luck. I originally had two big deadlines on my calendar, each separated by a week. But then two unfortunate things happened in rapid succession:
One of my two big deadlines was shifted to coincide with the second big deadline. Because I was working with collaborators, I couldn’t just ignore the shift. The new deadline would become the real deadline.
The other issue was due to shadow commitments – work obligations you accept before you know the specific dates the work will be due. I had made two such commitments months earlier. Not long ago, however, their due dates were announced, and they both fell square within this brutal week.
The easy conclusion from this post-mortem is that sometimes you have a hard week. Make sure you recharge afterward and then move on.
This is a valid conclusion And I took it to heart. But it’s not complete…
But I’m also convinced that I’m still leaving capacity on the table. As my expertise in my area grows, I’m reaching a point where I have more ideas per year than I have time to publish (which can be frustrating). If I could increase my deep to shallow work ratio just a little more, I could, I think, close that gap.
Accomplishing this goal, however, has proved difficult.
According to my Monthly Plan archives, since September 2012 I’ve launched at least six different plans aimed at increasing my research output, with the goal of closing this final gap.
None made a major impact.
With this in mind, I’m taking advantage of the beginning of summer to try, as I like to do every now and again, the most radical of productivity plans — no plan at all.
The comedian Louis C. K. lives a remarkable life. How did he make that happen? Here’s an interesting quote from a recent New York Times interview:
There’s people that say: “It’s not fair. You have all that stuff.” I wasn’t born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this — and by “new at it,” I mean 15 years in, or even 20 — you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.
Notice his use of the phrase “horrible process” in describing his rise. This is exactly what is wrong with telling people: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” — you’re providing them a flawed description of reality.
Careers you love require a lot of work. Sometimes even “horrible” work.
I'm a 31-year-old computer scientist exploring how people build interesting and meaningful lives. At the moment, I'm particularly intrigued by the benefits of living deeply in a distracted world. I used to write a lot of student advice (which you can still find in the blog archive). If you're new to Study Hacks, start here.
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