January 5th, 2015 · 47 comments
A Call to Read
Maura Kelly begins her 2012 manifesto in The Atlantic with a Pollan-esque exhortation:
Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.
Kelly is just one voice in the growing Slow Reading movement (c.f.., here and here). The motivating idea behind this movement is simple: it’s good for the soul and the mind to regularly read — without distraction or interruption — hard books.
There was a time when intellectual engagement necessarily included long hours reading old-fashioned paper tomes. But in an age when a digital attention economy is ascendant, it’s now possible to satisfy this curiosity without ever consuming more than a couple hundred highly digested and simplified words at a time.
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December 30th, 2014 · 17 comments
Thoughts on Thinking
“Thinking [is] a very special type of psychic activity, very uncomfortable, but also very exciting…”
This quote comes from the influential twentieth century classicist, Eric Havelock. It’s taken from a book in which Havelock argues that the invention of writing in the ancient world was a prerequisite for the activity we now call “thinking” (he’s talking here about thought in its most rigorous form in which we embrace abstraction and attempt to understand truths beyond specific concrete encounters with the world).
What strikes me is that Havelock describes demanding cognition as both uncomfortable and exciting.
These two adjectives sum up well the sometimes complicated experience of deep work. This activity is not fun in the sense that it can cause mental strain and discomfort, but at the same time, the rewards it produces are richer than anything that the addictive digital bazaars of the attention economy can offer.
I don’t have a specific suggestion to offer here. This is just a meditation to keep in mind as we enter a season of New Year’s resolutions and begin to ask, as we do most Januarys, how we should define a working life well lived…
The quote comes from pages 283 – 284 in the 2009 Harvard University Press edition of Havelock’s influential Preface to Plato. It was first brought to my attention by James Gleick’s ambitious 2011 book, The Information.
December 24th, 2014 · 21 comments
Deciding the Undecidable
In a recent blog post I introduced the notion of undecidable tasks — a particularly important type of work that’s not well covered by standard productivity advice.
These tasks are crucial to my job as an academic — as they are to many creative fields — so I devote a lot of attention to understanding how best to tackle them.
Today I want to share three tips along these lines that have worked well for me…
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December 14th, 2014 · 74 comments
Asa Frederick Newport. Born December 10, 2014. Another future Study Hacker…
December 7th, 2014 · 34 comments
A Useful Metaphor
In the first chapter of The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt introduces the metaphor of the rider and the elephant. When trying to conceptualize his own weakness in the face of his best intentions, he explains:
I [am] a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.
Ever since I first read these words, they stuck with me as useful for understanding the working world in particular. The whole edifice that we now call “productivity advice” distills, I realized, to instructions for cajoling the elephant. If you’re not firm, it’ll do what it wants to do.
It’s against this backdrop that I present the following truism about this metaphorical quadruped: if you’re not exceptionally clear about where you want it to go, it will wander.
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November 30th, 2014 · 36 comments
The Decision Problem
In 1928, the mathematician David Hilbert posed a challenge he called the Entscheidungsproblem (which translates to “decision problem”).
Roughly speaking, the problem asks whether there exists an effective procedure (what we would today call an “algorithm”) that can take as input a set of axioms and a mathematical statement, and then decide whether or not the statement can be proved using those axioms and standard logic rules.
Hilbert thought such a procedure probably existed.
Eight years later, in 1936, a twenty-four year old doctoral student named Alan Turing proved Hilbert wrong with a monumental (and surprisingly readable) paper titled, On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.
In this paper, Turing proved that there exists problems that cannot be solved systematically (i.e., with an algorithm). He then argued that if you could solve Hilbert’s decision problem, you could use this powerful proof machine to solve one of these unsolvable problems: a contradiction!
Though Turing was working before computers, his framework and results formed the foundation of theoretical computer science (my field), as they can be used to explore what can and cannot be solved by computers.
Over time, theoreticians enumerated many problems that cannot be solved using a fixed series of steps. These came to be known as undecidable problems, while those that can be solved mechanistically were called decidable.
The history of theoretical computer science is interesting in its own right, especially given Hollywood’s recent interest in Turing.
But in this post, I want to argue a less expected connection: Turing’s conception of decidable and undecidable problems turns out to provide a useful metaphor for understanding how to increase your value in the knowledge work economy…
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November 22nd, 2014 · 17 comments
A Productive King
In 2013, during a period of only three months, Stephen King published two full-length novels: Joyland and Doctor Sleep. This is unusually productive, even for a writer whose published fifty-five novels in his career (and sold over 350 million copies along the way).
Perhaps to celebrate this pinnacle of systematic wordsmithing, the Barnes & Noble book blog published a list of twenty tips extracted from King’s 2000 professional memoir, On Writing.
Nestled half way through this list was a piece of advice that caught my attention:
“The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
This tip resonates with my experience well beyond just book writing. Things worth doing take time, but if they take too much time your intensity might begin to wane to unproductive levels.
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November 19th, 2014 · 35 comments
The Internet Heretic
I previously admitted that I don’t web surf and that I’ve never had a social media account. This next admission might be the final straw that leads to the permanent revocation of my internet privileges: I’m bad at answering e-mails.
I sometimes go a whole day without looking at my inbox (and sometimes even longer). I ignore messages. People I know well tend to call me when they really need to know something.
I’m not bad at e-mails on purpose. If anything, I’m apologetic and ashamed about it and try to be more responsive when I can. But I only have so many hours to work each day, and I tend to block as much as I can get away with for deep efforts.
This philosophy is a boon to my role as a theoretician trying to solve interesting problems, but a bane to my role as a member of a bureaucracy.
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