Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Empty Sky Paradox: Why Are Stars (in Your Professional Field) So Rare?

February 2nd, 2014 · 19 comments


The Empty Sky Paradox

In many fields, people are eager to produce top results. A non-trivial fraction of the Internet is dedicated to tips and hacks for accomplishing this exact goal.

So why are so few people stars?

This past week provided me a good opportunity to reflect on this question. I attended a Dagstuhl seminar on wireless algorithms, which means I spent a week in a castle (pictured above), tucked away in rural west Germany, working with top minds in my particular niche of theoretical computer science.

Here’s what I noticed:

In theory, the people who tend to consistently produce important work seem to be those who consistently take the time to decode the latest, greatest results in their subject area.*

Only when you’re at the cutting edge are you well-positioned to spot and conquer the most promising adjacent intellectual territory (for more detail on this idea, see Part 3 of SO GOOD).

This sounds like simple advice — stay up to date on the latest work! — but most practicing researchers probably don’t follow it. Why? Because this turns out to be incredibly hard work.

(These results are tricky, and presented in short conference papers where key mathematical steps are elided, requiring days [and sometimes much more] to decode.)

This brings me back to the general question of why most fields have so few stars. The answer, I conjecture, is that most fields are similar to theoretical computer science in that the path to becoming a standout includes a prohibitively difficult step. It’s this step that limits stars, as most people simply lack the comfort with discomfort required to tackle really hard things.

At some point, in other words, there’s no way getting around the necessity to clear your calendar, shut down your phone, and spend several hard days trying to make sense of the damn proof.

(Photo by Nic McPhee)


* This is a skill that I’ve been systematically developing for the last three to five years. I’m better than I was, but not yet as good as I want to be. I can attest from personal experience that these proof decoding efforts: (a) are extremely difficult — deep work purified to its most stringent form; (b) are crucial for producing useful results; and (c) get easier (though, quite slowly) with practice.

Forget Ideas. Focus on Execution.

January 17th, 2014 · 15 comments


Beyond the Impact Instinct

Study Hacks readers know that I’m fascinated by Erez Lieberman Aiden: an absurdly accomplished young professor who racked up three covers in Science and Nature by the age of 33.

In an earlier post on Aiden, I hypothesized his “secret” was a well-develop impact instinct that allows him to hone in on attention-catching problems.

After reading a recent Chronicle of Higher Education profile of Aiden (in which I’m quoted), however, I’m beginning to suspect I was wrong…

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New Year’s Advice from Epictetus: Don’t Get Started

January 12th, 2014 · 24 comments


The New Year, of course, is celebrated as a time to commit to bold new ideas. American culture emphasizes this period because we valorize action.

(If you doubt this attitude, watch an episode of ABC’s Shark Tank, a show in which a cattle call of budding entrepreneurs are invariably praised for their courage, even though most put their family into massive debt to produce an ill-fated injection molded trinket.)

I find it useful during this giddy season to remember that an emphasis on getting started, though currently popular, is not timeless.

Case in point, my friend Dale Davidson recently sent me a smart quote on this subject from the first century stoic philosopher, Epictetus:

In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist.

Epictetus doesn’t reject action. But he believes commitment to a pursuit must be preceded by the careful study of what is actually required for success.

He uses the Olympic games as an example. He notes that participating in the event seems glamorous on the surface, but a closer examination of what this requires reveals that you must:

…conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no cold water, nor sometimes even wine.

For most budding ancient athletes, Epictetus implies, this reality would likely dim the glamor of pursuing the Olympics. But not for everyone. As he then concludes:

When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war [emphasis mine].

I like this decision-making framework.

When considering a major endeavor, Epictetus teaches, first master its reality. This requires that you put aside your vision of how a pursuit should unfold, and embrace the reality of what’s actually required to succeed (a surprisingly difficult, and often sobering endeavor).

Most ideas subject to such scrutiny will end up discarded.

To Epictetus, that’s fine.

What matters is that when you come across that rare pursuit for which your inclination still holds — even after a thorough examination — you “go to war.”

On Quiet Creativity

January 3rd, 2014 · 25 comments


Outdoor Office

For a couple hours yesterday, the trails pictured above served as my office.

Earlier that morning, I was polishing a proof. In doing so, I needed to reference a pair of related papers. As I began reading these papers, I sensed a deep connection between these results and my own, but I couldn’t quite articulate it.

In my experience, this type of connection making is well-served by three ingredients: quiet, movement, and time. So I left my building and hiked onto a network of trails that abuts the Georgetown campus.

I spent the next couple of hours walking and thinking, trying to arrange and re-arrange my understanding of these results. I’m hoping this impromptu line of thought might yield something new and significant, but it’s too early at this point to tell.

More important for our purposes here, however, is the broader point this example underscores…

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37 Signal’s Formula for a Satisfying Career (Hint: It’s Not Passion)

December 29th, 2013 · 9 comments


Rethinking the Laborious Slog

Supporters of the passion hypothesis assume that the key to enjoying your career is choosing the right type of work.

I’ve been arguing that there are many other (and often way more important) factors that help determine whether you end up loving your career.

What you do for a living, in other words, is just a small piece in the satisfaction puzzle.

A recent Fast Company article by 37 Signal’s David Hansson (promoting his new co-authored book, REMOTE), provides a nice case study for my philosophy. Here’s Hansson:

“[T]he problem isn’t actually the work itself. It’s the fight against the hostile environment surrounding the work that’s the laborious slog…The fact is that most people like to work. Really work, that is. Engage their brain and their talents in the creation of value.”

As the article then elaborates, the “hostile environment” causing people to be unhappy with their jobs includes factors such as long commutes, requirements to live near the company offices (even if you otherwise dislike the location), and hyper-distracting office cultures.

If you can minimize these environmental negatives (i.e., by promoting remote work agreements), Hansson notes, you can significantly increase peoples’ happiness.

As career advice, “follow flexible work arrangements” sounds less sexy than “follow your passion,” but Hansson reminds us that career satisfaction is not a particularly sexy pursuit, but is instead the outcome of many careful decisions about many subtle factors.

(Photo by The Other Dan)

Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of Your Work Day

December 21st, 2013 · 53 comments


Time Blocking

The image above shows my plan for a random Wednesday earlier this month. My plan was captured on a single sheet of 24 pound paper in a Black n’ Red twin wire notebook. This page is divided into two columns. In the left column, I dedicated two lines to each hour of the day and then divided that time into blocks labeled with specific assignments. In the right column, I add explanatory notes for these blocks where needed.

Notice that I leave some extra room next to my time blocks. This allows me to make corrections as needed if the day unfolds in an unexpected way:


I call this planning method time blocking. I take time blocking seriously, dedicating ten to twenty minutes every evening to building my schedule for the next day. During this planning process I consult my task lists and calendars, as well as my weekly and quarterly planning notes. My goal is to make sure progress is being made on the right things at the right  pace for the relevant deadlines.

This type of planning, to me, is like a chess game, with blocks of work getting spread and sorted in such a way that projects big and small all seem to click into completion with (just enough) time to spare.

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The Difficulties of Depth: A Case Study in Getting Important Things Done

December 13th, 2013 · 32 comments


Deep Tracking

I’m obsessed with deep work. I believe it’s the key to crafting a meaningful and interesting career. And yet, even I — Dr. Deep Work himself — sometimes struggle to fit enough of it into my weekly schedule.

I recently set out to find out why…

Fortunately, I have a good data set to use in this effort. As readers of STRAIGHT-A know, I believe in time blocking (if you don’t plan every minute of your day in advance, your efficiency will plummet).

I use Black n’ Red notebooks for this purpose, one page per day. As shown in the above picture, I hold on to my old notebooks so I can study my habits when needed.

I went back through the notebook I used during my fall semester and identified two weeks: one which was good (close to half my time was dedicated to deep work on research and writing), and one which was bad (less than a quarter of my time was dedicated to these efforts).

My goal was to understand the difference between these two weeks, and by doing so, hopefully identifying the scheduling traps most damaging to efforts toward depth.

(I recognize that even my bad week represents more deep work than most are able to fit into their schedule [I've been at this for a while], but what matters here is the relative difference in time, not the absolute values.)

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How Dirty Jobs Disrupt the Idea that Pre-Existing Passion Matters

December 2nd, 2013 · 31 comments


Wisdom from Dirty Jobs

I wrote an article for the Huffington Post’s most recent installment of its TED Weekends series. The theme for this week was “A Lesson From Some of the World’s Dirtiest Jobs,” and the motivating TED talk was by Mike Rowe, former host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs program. Many of you sent me a link to Rowe’s talk when it was first released, mainly due to the following phrase he quips about halfway through:

Follow your passion…what could possibly be wrong with that? Probably the worst advice I ever got.

His contrarian streaks seems to have struck a nerve. His talk has been viewed over 1.3 million times.

In my article, I try to explain what made Rowe’s talk so disruptive. You can read the full text at the Huffington Post, but I want to summarize here the take-away message, as I think it’s important:

In his talk, Rowe points out that many of the happiest people in the country have jobs that no one would ever identify as a pre-existing passion. He cited a sheep herder, a pig farmer (“smells like hell, but God bless him, he’s making a great living”), and a guy who makes flower pots out of cow dung, as examples of unexpected professional contentment. These observations are powerful for a simple reason: They separate career satisfaction from the specifics of the work.

We’ve heard the passion hypothesis so many times that it’s easy to accept as fact that matching the right job to a pre-existing interest is the primary source of occupational happiness. But Mike Rowe’s focus on the satisfaction found in the trades, in jobs for which no kid ever thinks, “that’s what I want to do when I grow up!”, have dealt a devastating blow to this belief.

If you’re twenty-three, in your first job out of college, not yet that good at what you do and starting to wonder if maybe this isn’t your true calling, or if you’re nineteen, and thinking about switching your college major because you don’t love every minute of every class, and worry that a “true passion” should always feel inspiring: I suggest taking an hour or two to watch some episodes of Rowe’s show.

“Roadkill picker-uppers whistle while they work,” he said at one point during his talk. “I swear to God — I did it with them.”

It only takes a few examples like the above before you begin to realize that career satisfaction is about something deeper than simply picking the right job.