Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Your Career is Not a Disney Movie

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.

Deep Work and the Good Life

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)

Woody Allen and the Art of Value Productivity

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…

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Lessons from Rosie O’Donnell’s Ten Year Big Break

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…

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Why Did Most of Dartmouth’s Valedictorians Become Investment Bankers and Consultants? The Need for a Deeper Vocabulary of Career Aspiration

July 3rd, 2013 · 44 comments

The Brain Drain

My alma mater, Dartmouth College, graduated five (!) valedictorians this year. The majority are moving on to jobs in finance or management consulting.

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.

I’m particularly interested, however, in an explanation offered by David Brooks in a recent column:

“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.]

This rings true.

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The Courage Crutch: A Remarkable Life Requires You to Overcome Mediocrity, Not Fear

June 26th, 2013 · 40 comments


The Cult of Courage

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.

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An Animated Argument Against Passion

June 17th, 2013 · 18 comments


A reader recently sent me the following note:

I was a believer in “finding your passion” until I read your book.  It has freed me from the frustration and impatience bred from the continuous quest to “find the perfect job.”

Enlightened, I made an animation to share the idea with my friends.

This animated short is embedded above. I thought those of you who read SO GOOD would enjoy it.

Hacking Deep Work with Project Step Labels

June 5th, 2013 · 13 comments


Hacking Depth

The equation is simple: the more deep work you do the more new value you create. And creating value, of course, is the key to a remarkable life.

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.