March 17th, 2014 · 29 comments
The Amazing Roto-Mill
I’ve been toying with a (potentially) interesting thought experiment recently. Imagine you walk into a hardware store and a helpful clerk comes up to you holding a weird looking tool.
“Here’s our latest and greatest lawn care tool,” he explains. “It’s called a roto-mill. It has a reinforced auger head that spins at 1600 RPM.”
“Why do I need a roto-mill?”, you ask.
“I don’t know,” he replies. “I want you to buy it, take it home, dedicate a few hours every weekend to trying it out in your yard, seeing if you can find a use for it. Who knows, you might even find it fun.”
“But I have other things to do on the weekends,” you protest, “things I know are useful and things I know are fun.”
“If you don’t dedicate your time and attention to working with this roto-mill,” the clerk warns, “you might miss out on some benefit that we’re not thinking of now. I don’t see how you could afford such a risk in today’s age of modern yard tools.”
A (Contrived) Analogy
This dialogue, of course, is contrived, but you’d likely agree that if you were that customer, you’d walk out of the store, perhaps worried that the clerk was mentally disturbed.
What intrigues me, however, is that this is essentially the same conversation many have with high tech companies when they release their latest, greatest social media tools. If we replace the word “roto-mill” with “snapchat,” for example, the above suddenly seems more familiar and somehow less absurd.
I’m the first to admit that this thought experiment is not perfect: there’s money involved in buying a yard tool, but not so directly involved in trying an online tool; entertainment is perhaps not being valued fairly; etc.
But still, an interesting Monday afternoon thought…
(Image by Lance Fisher)
March 2nd, 2014 · 44 comments
The Double Degree
A reader recently pointed me to the following question, posted on Stack Exchange:
I am studying a combined bachelor of engineering (electrical) and bachelor of mathematics; I just started this year and will graduate in 2018. The reason why I am doing double degrees and not a single degree is because I love both electrical engineering and mathematics and I could not ignore any of them. So with this in mind, I am thinking of doing two PHDs when I graduate (one in electrical engineering and one in mathematics). Is this a good path or I should concentrate on only one of them?
The responses in the comment thread for this question are fantastic, but in this post I want to add an additional thought to the conversation.
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February 26th, 2014 · 27 comments
The Evolution of Louis C.K.
I sometimes listen to a stand-up comedy channel on Pandora. Driving home the other day, it served up an old clip of Louis C.K.
Here’s what surprised me: he wasn’t that good.
His material wasn’t original (one of his gags was about wearing adult diapers) and his pacing was rat-a-tat-tat night club style.
Louis C.K. today, of course, is an exceptional comedian — arguably the best stand-up in the business at the moment.
I bring this up, because American culture (similar to ancient Greek culture) likes to attribute significant accomplishment to outside sources. Whereas the Greeks attributed moments of great heroism or creativity to the presence of the relevant God, Americans love stories of prodigies imbued at birth with stunning talent, or people driven with clarity to their destiny by an unmistakable passion.*
These stories are compelling, but I’m more drawn to narratives like Louis C.K. — narratives of people who polish their craft deliberately, night after night in crappy clubs and hothouse writer rooms (C.K. honed his asburdism writing for Conan O’Brien), then, one day, look up and are surprised to realize that they’ve become a star.
* Please don’t, at this point, tell me that Louis C.K. persisted only because he had a clear passion for comedy. This necessity-of-pre-existing-passion fairy tale is common but I think just as absurd as depending on a Greek God to guide you. Work and life is complicated. Comedians like C.K. suffer from extensive insecurity and doubt. They don’t wait to feel like they are doing the right thing, they work hard to make it the right thing.
February 23rd, 2014 · 26 comments
The Gatekeeper Complex
I recently stumbled across an interesting podcast about fiction self-publishing, titled, appropriately enough, the Self-Publishing Podcast. The show is hosted by three fiction writers who are experimenting with a new model for genre fiction production, based on book series fueled by funnels (think: first volume free).
Something that caught my attention about this show is the tagline read by the host at the beginning of every episode:
The podcast that’s all about getting your words out into the world without contending with agents, publishers, or the other gatekeepers in traditional publishing.
I’m highlighting this statement because I think it captures a sentiment common in the DIY/Lifehacker world: gatekeepers (book editors, admissions officers, venture capitalists, prestigious academic journals, etc.) are obstructing your quest to do interesting and valuable things.
I understand this sentiment: this is a heady time when lots of innovation is happening in lots of fields.
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February 14th, 2014 · 18 comments
The Deliberate Strummer
The first step in learning guitar is mastering the major chords. As any new player will tell you, it’s not difficult to learn where your fingers are supposed to go for each chord, the real challenge is training your finger muscles to actually hit the desired positions cleanly.
Of all the major chords, this challenge is most pronounced for the F (pictured above), which not only keeps your fingers devilishly close together on the fretboard, but also requires you to contort your index finger to somehow flatten two strings at once.
There’s no shortcut to learning how to play an F: you have to force your hand into the cramped position, again and again, picking up the speed as soon as you become too comfortable.
Each of these attempts (literally) strains you. This is not Guitar Hero: it’s uncomfortable and not at all fun.
But if you stick with it, your muscle memory improves, and you get faster and cleaner. Then, one day, you’re able to play House of the Rising Sun.
I’m bringing this up because learning to play the F chord provides a perfect case study of deliberate practice. It’s a clear goal that requires you to stretch your current ability and provides immediate and clear feedback on your progress. It’s also a goal that provides tangible rewards if achieved.
Accordingly, it provides a nice analogy when assessing your own work habits. When surveying how you spend your time, it helps, in other words, to ask “where’s my F chord?”
To ask this question is to ask where in your schedule is the time dedicated to straining yourself (uncomfortably) to master something that you can’t do now but would be valuable if you could.
This type of deliberate effort is a pain. It’s why most people give up learning to play the guitar (and why my skill level plateaued pretty quickly when I was younger*).
It’s also why so many knowledge workers end up glorified e-mail sorters, nervous at every round of layoffs.
But here’s the thing (if you’ll excuse the abuse of this analogy): if you’re not willing to strain your fingers, you’ll never end up the professional equivalent of the cool guy, surrounded by girls, strumming soulfully to House of the Rising Sun.
* See Part 2 of SO GOOD for more on my guitar playing career and its relevance to understanding deliberate practice.
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.
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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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.”