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A Productivity Lesson from the Prison Debate Team that Defeated Harvard


The Underdog Debate

News broke wide earlier today about something unexpected that happened last month at a maximum security correctional facility near Dannemora, New York: a team of prisoners won a debate contest held against Harvard’s vaunted three-time national champion team.

As reported by the Washington Post, a twist that made this outcome even more unlikely is that the prisoner team completed their extensive preparation without access to the Internet.

They were forced instead to make formal requests to the prison administration for the books and articles they required, and to then wait for days — and sometimes even weeks — for approval.

The easy storyline here is that this underdog team triumphed despite the hardship of being less connected. While this description might be largely true, the Post’s reporting suggests that something more interesting might have also happened:

[I]t’s worth asking whether circumstance forced the prisoners to devise an approach — in which limited resources demanded sharper focus and more rigorous planning — that resulted in superior lines of argumentation.

This is an important point. Removing the prison team’s access to the Internet made their debate preparation harder, but because it forced them to focus without distraction on exactly what they wanted to say and how to say it best, it also produced better results.

Easy Versus Effective

I think this confusion is common in the professional world: we too often mistake the idea of making our working lives easier with making our work better. But these are two different things.

Slack makes life easier in the moment for computer programmers, but it also leads them to produce messy, distracted code.

General purpose e-mail addresses really simplify corporate communication, but the resulting inbox madness is burning out a whole generation of knowledge workers.

And so on.

I’m not trying to argue for something radical here, but am instead suggesting a subtle shift in mindset. Don’t just focus on what might become harder if you sidestep some new type of connectivity, but also ask what you might gain due to this adversity.

When it comes to digital work, in other words, easy is usually good, but sometimes harder is better.


An Exciting Announcement

Given that this post is about how to master hard things effectively, I thought this might be a good opportunity to briefly mention something related that I’m really excited about.

Over the past three years, Scott Young and I have been developing an online course called Top Performer. This course teaches you how to identify the skills (e.g., career capital) in your career that matter the most, and then rapidly and massively improve them in a short amount of time by applying deliberate practice techniques.

We’re going to launch this course in a couple weeks. If you want to learn when the course opens, and answers to common questions, sign up for my e-mail newsletter (the form is at the top right of this page) where I’ll be sharing more details.

26 thoughts on “A Productivity Lesson from the Prison Debate Team that Defeated Harvard”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this dichotomy; in an era of greater access to information, people are more poorly prepared than ever. At least is seems that way, in my industry anyway. I mean, the trappings are great -logos, self promotion and such but that’s not real work. People’s preparedness with respect to the nuts and bolts is much less than it was 20 years ago. Perhaps it is due to so much noise, bad advice couched with such authority that neophytes fall for it. It used to be that the majority of my clients succeeded with their endeavors, now the opposite is true. It is very disheartening.

  2. Once again you give me life-changing advice that helps me improve my college work ethic.

    I never thought about it but you are right. I always thought that the point of the quiz/recall method and organizing my work schedule was so that life would be easier but that’s not the case (at least for me). Life is certainly more in control than before, but the workload is still hard (I’m a 3rd year Biomedical engineering student doing premed) and being strongly disciplined to sit down and follow that schedule diligently is hard, but it is effective.

    Thank you for reminding me that the point of all this isn’t to make my life easier, its to make my life better.

  3. Neal Stephenson, a famous deep-focuser, wrote a whole novel (Anathem) about a group of monk-like scientists who voluntarily cut themselves off from modern conveniences in order to focus on their research. Some of them waited 1000 years for a new shipment of library books.

    On the other hand, even Stephenson is now on Twitter. Cal may be the last holdout.

    • I definitely need to read Anathem (I saw him speak about it back when I lived in Cambridge). I found it funny that when Stephensen joined Twitter (Why Stephen! Why?) he felt compelled to write a long form essay about how he will be bad at using it.

  4. I found this akin to computer programming in that sometimes what makes life easier on the programmer makes the program itself less efficient. It’s a skill in and of itself to know which to weigh more heavily.

    Cal, do you have any decision frameworks for when attempting to strike such a balance?

  5. That’s a good point! Also, I believe these are not just simple if-then problems. Yes, the resources available for prisoners were limited, and hence their preparations were focussed. Fine!

    At the same time, I believe they won not just because of this, but because of the under-preparation of the other team. They too could have a more focussed preparation, with even more appropriate and relevant resources. It brings back to your main point, how to get maximum relevant content in minimal time, without following so many potential threads each new information opens..

    Looking forward to the course topics..

    • Of course: many factors were involved. Another big factor was surprise: they took a line of argument that the Harvard team had assumed they never would, and therefore the Harvard team wasn’t prepared to counter it. But even that reflects careful thought and preparation…

  6. This reminded me of Jack White from The White Stripes. He talks about deliberately making things harder to push himself to do better (using cheap guitars, putting the piano farther away than he can comfortably get to, etc).

    I’ve been doing no internet until 2pm lately, and I do feel a lot more focused and get more done.

    Great blog, btw.

  7. The Toyota Production System is the outgrow of “lack of resources”. Sometimes its constraints that bring out the greatest creativity.

  8. I saw your video on “Talks at Google” on YouTube. You said,”An initial interest blossoms into a stronger and stronger passion as time goes on.”
    Doing what I love to do and doing what I’m interested to do; aren’t they similar?

  9. They were defeated by Westpoint & another school – they would have made an even better argument with the Internet.

    The Internet can make you lose hard focus if you are weak/untrained with its distractions.

  10. What the hell are you trying to say. The inmates were allowed to win by a group of people who let them win so that their adversity could be brought to light. Don’t be dishonest and say something that isn’t. Criminals are manipulative anyways and good people should guard against them.

    • Sayjack1. Document that. Prove that. At this point, you’re coming across to me as somebody with a kneejerk, emotion-based supposition.

  11. This is precisely what members of the inner circle of the Beatles observed. The producer George Martin, and the engineer Geoff Emerick, both said that the lack of technological resources available to the Beatles forced them to be more innovative and focused. George Martin said that, in this day of an infinite number of recording tracks to play with, the urgency from having your back to the wall technologically is lost. Sergeant Pepper, which many consider to be the Beatles tour de force, was done on a four-track machine. This had to accomodate recording a symphiny orchestra, a string quartet, etc. I’m thinking of the film Apollo 13. The astronauts’ support crew had to come up with some crazy makeshift solutions to save their asses after an explosion had disabled their craft. One line was something like, “I don’t care what it’s designed to to do; I just care what it CAN do.” The brought the astronauts home safely using such “high tech” equipment as repurposed socks, to name one example. When you give too many resources to an invidual, it can diminish the power of innovation. Here’s the Apollo 13 sock hack:

  12. I did enjoy the little example story of how much hard work can do. Experience and knowledge can do a lot, but if you have those and no hard work then what is that going to do for you In your life. In today’s world we can definitely see that

  13. I think this makes sense. A personal experience that may or may not be related:
    I have noticed that when I am weightlifting, especially bench-pressing, when I am at the end of my set, and I’m really struggling with the last lift, as soon as my spotter starts to help a little bit, something happens and it seems to get a whole lot heavier. Maybe my subconscious motivation, my resolve to lift that bar, lessens noticeably once my brain knows I am getting help.

  14. Hello Cal,
    I was really amazed and felt great about those prisoners who won that competition. I am even proud of them.
    One more reason that contributed to their success would be that whatever they were talking about had their emotions in those words. Prisoners live a hard live, have no access to public. So, I think they took the opportunity and they were feeling like blessed and wanted to say all they wanted to. On the other hand Harvard guys live a prosper lives. So being in public won’t be such a special deal for them. I think this difference was also a reason that prisoners performed well than our Harvard guys.

  15. Without the internet, is that advantage or disadvantage? Harvard students
    have to deal with the constant distraction. But those guy can do some deep thinking without the distraction, right? They don’t have to check what movie star look like 20 years ago. That save a lot of time. So their victory is perfect affirmation of cal’s theory.


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