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.]
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.”
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.
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.
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…
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…
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.
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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