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A Conversation with Ben Casnocha

An Interview ExperimentBen Blog Photo

My friend Ben recently pitched an interesting idea for a blog post. He proposed that instead of a formal interview, we just have a conversation, drifting from topic to topic as we find things interesting. Ben’s a fascinating guy. His blog is well-trafficked, he commentates on NPR, he writes professionally, and is, relevantly enough, a college student. So I jumped at the chance.

Below are excerpts from our conversation. Check out Ben’s blog for his version of this post which will include different excerpts.

A Conversation Between Cal Newport and Ben Casnocha

Ben: So Cal, here we are on instant messenger. You have expressed concern about how email can be distracting. You don’t use Twitter because you say you don’t need yet another short-text distraction. Do you IM?

Cal: Not intentionally. Though people occasionally find me on gchat. I don’t like the slow pace and partial attention. Do you?

Ben: No. Same. Slow pace, partial attention. I wonder whether I will flip to other windows during this chat, or just watch the screen say “Cal Newport is typing…”

Do you adopt 4HWW habits with email?

Cal: Not really. I don’t do auto-responders, and I check more than twice a day. The big thing I’ve done with my e-mail was move from a single inbox to multiple “mono-typic pigeon holes.”

Ben: WTF is that?

Cal: This is sort of the height of unnecessary life hackerish geekdom, but I’ll explain: all of my mail gets filtered into one label or the other, so my “inbox” is always empty. Also, all of my mail automatically gets tagged as read, so there’s no difference between read and unread messages

Ben: Interesting. All marked as read. Why?

Cal: It prevents me from using my inbox as a big to-do list. Because I can’t really separate the new from the old, the easiest way to clean out a label (what I call a pigeonhole) is to actually have enough time to deal with everything and empty it out. If I read things quickly and then leave them in there, things get cluttered. It’s supposed to cut down on quick, attention-destroying glances at my inbox every 10 minutes.

Ben: A few weeks ago, I was interviewed for a documentary on lifehackers and the life hacking movement. Among other things I said that people who are big in life hacking tend to be a certain personality type.

Cal: What type did you describe for the documentary?

Ben: Super detail oriented. Neurotic. Oddly, sometimes also big procrastinators — setting up sophisticated life hack infrastructure IS their time wasting device. There was a book a few months ago that came out that said sometimes a messy office is the most efficient. I.e., don’t over-optimize.

Cal: I heard about that. The Perfect Mess, or something… I felt a little dirty, earlier, explaining my inbox setup. It’s something that was kind of useful — like buying a message pad for your phone — but I get uncomfortable focusing too much on those details. I wonder why this is…

Ben: Let’s turn to college for a moment. I’m interested in the idea that substitute experiences can signal as strongly as a formal credential. Some industries don’t require a formal credential.

Ben: Probably.

Cal: What industries?

Ben: Business and technology generally and writing / journalism. Unlike medicine or law, for example.

Cal: I’m assuming there is an implicit “start-up” behind business and technology?

Ben: Maybe. Probably. But even in non-start-up business realms, the formal credential is not required. As someone who will likely spend his life in academia, how do you respond to this? Academia being the credentializing institution of America?.

Cal: My thoughts lean toward the idea that college provides a reasonable and useful benefit behind the credential. However, the pricing and approach of students to the experience has drifted from optimal. In general, I find that a college graduate is a notably more sophisticated writer and critical thinker than a high school graduate.

Ben: Undeniably so. Here’s a question: how transferrable are the “study hacks” you blog about? That is, are you teaching skills students can use in the real world or are they unique to the formal schooling environment?

Cal: Both. A lot is applicable to the real world. Especially issues concerning time management and my essays on how to distinguish yourself or do something impressive. Tips on paper writing, for example, are less relevant to a 40 year-old.

Ben: Fair point. OK. One thing I’ve been thinking of recently is whether college students interested in journalism and politics, in order to stand out, must prematurely coalesce around a political party or established ideology, and hold certain to those beliefs, in order to get the appropriate internships at those publications.

This worries me because college is the time when you’re supposed to be uncertain and maybe proud of wishy-washiness — and yet uncertainty is often seen as counter to a sophisticated political understanding. Or even on the career front. Not knowing what you want to do in life is seen as bad, when in fact this is the one time when you ought to wander and be unsure. Thoughts?

Cal: This was on my mind when I received a recent e-mail from a Dartmouth student who just started his first semester as a freshman. He was worried that he had no specialized enough to be a computer science of physics major. In other words, to him, it was not just fixing on something right away at college, he had the impression that this decision had to be made much earlier…

It’s a challenging question. To do what I do — professional research — certainly requires specialization. I think the same probably holds for politics — intern over your summers! — or journalism — start working up the ranks at the school paper! And I often encourage students to focus, focus, focus…

Ben: Right.

Cal: But I can sense your hesitance…

Ben: Like, if you want to work for the National Review over the summer in college, you need to be bleed Red through and through. So any uncertainty or moderateness is beaten out of you. This is unfortunate.

Cal: Maybe not. If you want reward you need to be better at something than anyone you know. This requires focus. However, this is just one thing. For everything else in your life you can be open-minded. So, sure, the National Review guy is die hard conservative. But it’s probably healthy to have that voice in the conversation. For most other people, who are not focusing on writing for the National Review, they can be open-minded about politics.

Cal: Last topic: advice for the college-aged. What would you tell an 18-year old arriving on campus about a college life well-lived?

Ben: First, read I Am Charlotte Simmons. Have you read it?

Cal: We own it. My wife read it. I haven’t.

Ben: You should. Especially given what you write about! My next piece ofBen Casnocha advice would be to focus on the “little things” — when and where you eat, meal plan, taking advantage of weather, having an ergonomic keyboard/chair, making sure your cell provider gets good reception in college campus, etc. Day in, day out, these little things make a big difference. Beyond that my advice becomes cliche — meet profs, have lots of sex, experiment outside your expected field of choice, etc.

Cal: What about the big question of “what should I do with my life?” As you know, my approach is sort of “there is no wrong answer, choose something and focus on it so you’ll start reaping rewards, you can always change later.”

Ben: Your approach is similar to that great Andy Grove quote, “Act on your temporary convictions as if they were real ones, and when you realize you are wrong, change course very quickly.” The problem with what you said is “…you can always change later” is very, very hard. People have problems with sunk costs and inertia. That’s why I’m not a fan of “focus on something and start reaping the rewards.”

Cal: Do you worry that on the other hand people get too hung up searching for some “right” path that doesn’t actually exist. Getting scared every time anything seems a little boring or annoying.

Ben: Maybe some search for the “right” path that doesn’t exist, sure. But the second thing you said, no. I think people tolerate waaaay too much boredom in their lives.

Cal: Final follow-up: what are the temporary convictions, if any, in your life right now that you are taking seriously.

Ben: One conviction right now that I’m taking seriously is that travel is underrated and harder to do as one gets older, so I’m trying to travel as much as I can.

Cal: I’ve been a big believer in the 10,000 hour rule. Roughly, that being good at anything takes a long time. If you want to be good at something in your 20s, start in college. If you’re willing to wait until your 30s, you can start later. With this in mind, I’ve put my chips down on writing and solving interesting proofs.

Ben: Interesting. What’s the biggest problem in the world right now?

Cal: Unstable governments and massive inequity … which go hand in hand.

Ben: I would say ‘poverty’ more than massive inequity. Inequality is not inherently bad

Cal: We could put it this way: the low end of the scale is too low.

Ben: Do either of your two main tasks – writing and solving proofs – solve this problem? Or do you think about that at all, i.e., world usefulness of your work?

Cal: Neither solves this problem. My writing, I hope, helps the small segment it targets. In some sense, I feel like that leverages my particular abilities to their fullest extent.

Ben: With that, let’s call it a wrap!

3 thoughts on “A Conversation with Ben Casnocha”

  1. RE: Ben’s comment

    People have problems with sunk costs and inertia. That’s why I’m not a fan of “focus on something and start reaping the rewards.”

    I definitely agree that fear of sunk costs and inertia can deter from hitting the ground running with whatever strikes one’s fancy, but I wonder Ben’s suggestions on finding one’s calling?

  2. (Lifehackers are) sometimes also big procrastinators — setting up sophisticated life hack infrastructure IS their time wasting device

    It’s like they have a habit of always trying to set up infrastructure and never really having a default infrastructure supports their habits. In short, they’ve chosen the wrong habit. Actually this is probably the most difficult issue I’ve dealt with in productivity: defining when you are done with hacking for a particular facet of your life. Getting caught up in all the would/should’s really drains your productivity.

  3. Ben’s a fascinating guy. His blog is well-trafficked, he commentates on NPR, he writes professionally, and is, relevantly enough, a college student.

    Not to mention he’s really cute! But then, I have a thing for glasses. ;]


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