The Dune Revelation
In July 2009, I took a trip to San Francisco. At some point, I ended up hiking at a sand-duned nature preserve, not far south from Monterey on Highway 1.
What I remember about this hike is a thought that struck not long into the route. In the summer of 2009, I was two months from defending my PhD dissertation. I had arranged for a post doc after graduation but found the academic market beyond to be uncertain for me and my skills. It was in this context that I had my insight:
Why hadn’t I systematically studied the most successful senior grad students when I first arrived at MIT?
Every year, a small number of computer science students at MIT easily generate multiple job offers while the rest have to sweat the process. What do these students do differently from the others? It’s a basic question and yet almost no one arriving in Cambridge seeks an answer. We instead carve out our paths blindly, sticking our heads up only at the end to see if we’ve stumbled anywhere near our destination.
I ended up fine, landing a great tenure track position at Georgetown, but the 2009 version of myself did not have this certainty, and my failure to more systematically plan for my arrival on this market suddenly seemed a glaring omission.
The $100 Startup
This 2009 experience came back to me earlier this week as I read an advance copy of Chris Guillebeau’s new book: The $100 Startup. In this book, Chris tackles a topic made popular by Tim Ferris: how to build a lifestyle business in a digital age.
Lots of people are enamored by the idea of having a business that requires little investment and yet supports you financially while injecting flexibility into your life.
What sets Chris’s book apart, however, is that he was not content inventing a bullet-point system that simply sounds good. He instead systematically studied people who had actually made these types of businesses work. He started with a survey of 1500 such entrepreneurs which he then narrowed down to 100-200 that he interviewed in more detail. He lists them by name in his appendix.
The result is often messier than the internally-consistent, inspiration-boosting acronmyized systems of competing books and blogs, but the advice come across with an authenticity that’s rare for this topic.
Put another way: Chris did with his interest in lifestyle businesses what I should have done as a grad student with my interest in becoming a professor. The only plan he was interested in was a plan grounded in reality.
The Big Question
I’m telling these stories because they inspire an important question: Why do so few people do what Chris did? Most of us are content, it seems, to work hard and build complicated systems, but we avoid basing our efforts on a reality-based assessment of what really matters.
And I think I finally have an explanation…
The Pseudo-Striving Hypothesis
Why do so many ambitious people approach their quest for remarkability in the way I approached grad school, and not in the way Chris Guillebeau approached lifestyle entrepreneurship? Here’s my tentative explanation:
The Pseudo-Striving Hypothesis
It’s significantly more pleasant to pursue a goal with a plan entirely of our own construction, then to use a plan based on a systematic study of what actually works. The former allows us to pseudo-strive, experiencing the fulfillment of busyness and complex planning while avoiding any of the uncomfortable, deliberate, often harsh difficulties that populate plans of the latter type.
- For the aspiring writer, embracing National Novel Writing Month is pseudo-striving. It feels good to sit down every morning and throw a few hundred words on a page. But the reality of writing would tell you that getting your fiction chops to a publishable level requires the training that comes only in the form of writing for someone else — be it an MFA classroom or edited publication. You need the fear of rejection to push your writing skills. Then you still need to experience that rejection time and again during the period where your skills are just starting to improve. It’s much easier to sit on your deck with your MacBook and a cup of coffee and applaud yourself for your dedication.
- For the aspiring grad student, seeking research ideas that fall comfortably within the scope of what you already know how to do, and then trying to convince other people that your work is important, is pseudo-striving. Reflecting on my experience, I notice now that academia is much more likely to reward the strategy of spending the 12 – 24 months of deliberate practice necessary to master an important emerging field. This is really hard. But those who persist end up doing work with impact.
- For the aspiring lifestyle designer, dedicating hours to e-mail auto-responders, WordPress widgets, and social network engineering is also pseduo-striving. It gives you lots to do, nothing is really judged a success or failure, and nothing is really hard, but you feel engaged and active. It’s quite pleasent. Many of the successful entrepreneurs from Chris’s book, by contrast, had a reality-based fixation on actually making real money from real people before doing anything else (be it leaving their job or optimizing a web site). This is less pleasant, because you might fail time and again to convince people to give you their money, but ultimately it’s all that matters, so that’s where your initial energy should be focused.
When it comes to constructing a remarkable life, I’m increasingly convinced that pseudo-striving is a common trap with devastating consequences. It lulls you into a rhythm of busyness and complexity that might have very little to do with real accomplishment.
I’m not sure why our instincts lead us to flee reality-based planned, but they do. The more explicitly we recognize the difference between pseudo-striving and the messy difficulty of real world accomplishment, the better, I hope, we can refocus our efforts onto what matters.
(Photo by rooksbane)
67 thoughts on “Do What Works, Not What’s Satisfying: Pseudo-Striving and our Fear of Reality-Based Planning”
So do you have some idea of what makes for superstar graduate students? It’s a question I’m personally interested in.
Love this insight. I noticed a similar principle at work in things like exercise and “personal productivity”. People confuse the discipline of going to the gym, the ritual of donning their workout clothes, and counting reps with their actual goal of stimulating the body’s recovery mechanism – we call this the real objective vs. the perceived objective. I’ve also seen it in the cult of personal productivity – when it becomes easier to focus on the next to-do list app or task manager than on the work itself. Thanks for the post.
i agree with shrutarshi above. i am a junior in college thinking of pursuing a ph D in history though im not sure what i want my field to be.
this is just in time for my finals – thank you for the tremendous insight. I greatly look forwad to your next post.
third that? Really need more insight on grad student superstars.
That aside, though, I think that your insight isn’t necessarily a new one. It’s not that we avoid studying reality– it’s that we avoid difficult situations or situations outside our comfort zone, and the people who are successful are those who are willing to step outside their comfort zones and face challenge, rejection, and failure. All the examples you provided fit rather cleanly into that category.
Thanks for the post, great writting.
Now that I am finishing my master’s degree in find myself in this
kind of thinking every day. Thank you for helping me on the
general framework to answer my questions.
Ouch. I might have won NaNoWriMo five times in a row, so the example really hits home, but you still speak to truth. Now we need a “No Agent, No Angst!” book to compliment the “No Plot, No Problem!” one written for the event.
Thanks for sharing this insight. Reality-based assessment is something I think we should have more of and I plan to use an equally rigorous approach in a few years time on a project.
But I also think we need to be wary of the extreme version of this, in the sense that making a 100% reality-based assessment could limit how you tackle an aspiration.
A little naivety can work in your favour sometimes and perhaps even lead to a much more creative approach.
I am not talking about sitting on your laptop and writing 1000 words everyday without action. I am talking about finding another way to hone writing chops, for instance, without having to spend years writing for someone else as you gave in your example.
Thank you for the post Cal! This post indirectly answered a comment I left on a different post.
Thanks for the article. I thought your examples about the grad student and writer hit home. Another example that comes to mind for me is athletes: many will spend enormous effort optimizing their equipment, tweaking little things in their diet, making complicated spreadsheets of their training, etc. That effort could just go into the training itself!
There’s a closely-related article by Anna Salamon you might like. She outlines roughly the same idea, and hypothesizes a bit about why it should be this way
Daniel Kahneman covers aspects of this in Thinking, Fast and Slow (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planning_fallacy), as does Paul Graham in How to Lose Time and Money (https://www.paulgraham.com/selfindulgence.html).
What you describe seems partly self-delusion and partly a lack of data around paths towards success and benchmarks & probabilities. Paths are tricky, but benchmarking should improve as behavioral data grows. For example, stickk.com uses averages to prevent people from setting unrealistic weight loss goals, as well as inform which incentives are likely to increase the likelihood of success.
There has long been the notion that we should model success on people who have done it.
1. Decide you want to be a successful grad. Define ‘successful grad’ with specific measurable descriptors.
2. Gather a large sample pool of people who ‘did it’, select the top and interview them extensively.
3. Statistically regress common attributes (what they are doing right).
I always admire the extreme vigor of treating a quest like a campaign, “there is no try”; you gotta have the resolve and sharp thinking and maniacal methodicalness to carry out a systematic exercise…
Great post, Cal — and thanks so much for your kind words about The $100 Startup.
A recommendation from you carries a lot of weight around World Domination HQ (and elsewhere).
My experience in academia has been the opposite.
Academia definitely rewards pseudo-strivers. Working in comfortable areas and spending all of your time convincing others of your results will get you 1) talk invites, 2) accepted papers, 3) job offers, 4) fame. In particular, it rewards those who excel at pseudo-striving. I’m in neuroscience, by the way. And I’m a bit cynical about the state of the field.
“I’m not sure why our instincts lead us to flee reality-based planned…”
It is very simple – to delude (from a psychological perceptive) oneself into thinking that one can stumble upon a new idea; discover some new ‘data’ (‘knowledge,’ etc); just that sense of mystery (that we project on/ perceive in our disciple)/yet to be unveiled solution(s) to one’s proposed problem(s) that “one tends to flee from the reality-based plan.”
On the other hand, if one take an objective approach to all aspects of our life, it readily becomes banal. Hence, pseudo-striving is a ‘psychological-mechanism’ that we employ to initiate ourselves into believing that what we are doing is meaningful, and that -even though, one knows that one should focus on what works- (i.e., based on the available data, and objective judgments) what we take to be our paragon for our behavior is the only way to find a solution to a problem, etc. For instance, every morning a writer sitting on his or her writing-desk scribbling (or maybe writing something original), and producing no publishable material is fleeing the reality-based method. Why? because this gives them a sense of purpose/ and a ‘feeling’ of acquainting themselves with the unknown that is based on praxis. Hence, pseudo-striving, and fleeing from the reality based planning.
Just a thought!!!
I think you are onto something, Cal!
For the aspiring lifestyle designer
Have not read Chris’s book (well it is not released yet) but I found this helpful in getting beyond the myths and to the real work.
The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup
From Amazon “Drawing on a decade of research, Noam Wasserman reveals the common pitfalls founders face and how to avoid them. “
What always disturbs me with the above attitude, i.e., look at the successful people and do what they do, that it is not enough. You also have to look at the countless people who are not successful. The problem is that most successful people are outliers, and their method of working is probably a necessary, but not sufficient condition to their success… There are just as many or more people who are doing the same as the successful ones, but don’t get the same success…
The problem is, it is much harder to gather data for the counterexamples (i.e., the people who don’t succeed or just give up at some point).
So anecdotes are fine, but they are not a surefire method for success, and this kind of books are anything but scientific…
One more thing:
the problem with methods like the above, that they imply that correlation equals causation, which is of course not true. There are no controls in the experiment or observation, so you cannot know if the methods are a byproduct of some invisible trait, or are really responsible for success… And that makes a big difference, because if they are only a byproduct then without the underlying trait they are not effective, so emulating them won’t lead to success and if you are unlucky they could actually harm your progress…
How would this apply to a programmer? I’m a beginner interested in learning to program so that I can build apps in the future (either web apps or mobile apps).
From my perspective, that is being a beginner and not having studied other programmers, I would assume pseudo-striving to be spending hours learning from various textbooks about not only the language but its nuances without constant production of any real-world mini-apps.
If you’re a programmer, what’s an example of pseudo-striving and real-world backed planning?
I think this is a useful strategy for grad school and for an assistant professor.
However, as tenured faculty I have found pseudo striving quite enjoyable.
Great post, as usual, Cal. I just have one small point of disagreement. I have never done NaNoWriMo (I’m a non-fiction writer) but I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of pseudo-striving. People have a number of difficulties with writing including: finding enough time to do it and finding the confidence (ie: displacing the fear).
Because the demands of NaNoWriMo are so outrageously excessive, they take care of these difficulties surprisingly easily. This is a GOOD LESSON for writers and an effective way of getting rid of writer’s block.
Of course, if a person writes ONLY during NaNoWriMo, or enters the event year, after year, then I take your point: pseudo-striving looms. But if you do it once or twice to convince yourself that writing a novel is possible, then I think it’s actually intelligent striving.
Otherwise, I agreed with everything else you said!
@Jookanq: A proper response to your question would be rather lengthy, and I don’t want to hijack Cal’s blog, but your question relates to an important topic for me, and that is programmer education (particularly self-education).
The shortest answer I can give is to not concern yourself with the books that purport to teach you language X on platform Y in Z . Don’t get caught up with buzzwords or fashionable platform (web, mobile, cloud, etc.) Rather, learn multiple programming languages, both high- and low-level, and learn what’s going on underneath the code that you write. Learn to compare and contrast languages and find their strengths and weaknesses. Read lots and lots of code, but remember that not all code you read is good; even popular and widely used open-source applications can be poorly written and bug-ridden. Give yourself challenges like reproducing a simple or well-known application with your own implementation, or implementing a portion of a language’s standard library (the C standard library would be an excellent choice). After a few exercises like that you’ll start to discover ways to challenge your ability and expand the frontiers of your knowledge.
This is addition to my previous post…
Another reason why people flee from the ‘reality-based-plan’ has to do with the ‘culturally conditioned psyche.” For instance, so and so has such and such / and doing/getting such and such (i.e., whether that be a master’s degree/or a PHD, or etc). And the thinking goes as follow: i need to out-compete my opponent (although mythic – not real!), and or either be on the same level, etc. You see , only if people face the reality as such, people will not pursue worthless Master and PHD degrees. But to satisfy their culturally conditioned psyche, they turn on a pseudo-striving mode. LOL… And yet, most will always remain unhappy, due to not acting on “reality-based-plan”!!!
Just a Thought!!!!
It’s significantly more pleasant to pursue a goal with a plan entirely of our own construction, than to use a plan based on a systematic study of what actually works.
This is another excellent post.
Someone asked about programming and how pseudo-striving applies. Don’t study and languages instead think of a real world application, either mobile or web doesn’t matter, and design and built it. Get your work out there.
The first version may not be great but you’ll get started. Iterate and get better and better.
Some, me included, study the language or technology but way better to apply and build things. Plus you’ll learn more and maybe able to sell your app.
Chris G is such a good example of someone who ignores fear and gets his work out there. He has a lot of courage and guts.
Love Study Hacks blog. The Straight A book that Cal wrote did a similar thing that Chris did: Cal studied successful students and wrote a book about what they do different. It was an awesome and practical book.
I think an incident today explains the point clearly.My friend is truly a genius at chess and he spends most of his time studying the subtle ideas in his opening repertoire and solving endgame studies.This is thrilling comfortable work for him.But his actual results in tournaments do not fully reflect his talent or this kind of effort.
Today in a FIDE rated tournament he ended up with 7 points in 10 rounds-6 draws and 4 wins.I suggested he he go really very deep into these games for a few days to find out on his own any typical pattern that is at the root of so many draws.He was evasive.He seemed uncomfortable even with the idea of looking at his own games.The reason seems to me to be the point in the article- a reluctance to stretch beyond the comfort zone to find out your own the reason for your sub optimal performance rather than just say depending on a software program to easily do that.Only by treading the uncomfortable path can he go beyond his current playing strength.
I wrote an article a while back titled: Some thoughts on grad school. It contains some of my thoughts on this question. I certainly have some more — I will try to write about it soon. The short answer, however, is a focus on building valuable skills first and then looking for innovative applications.
Great example. Another great example is people studying for professional exams, such LSATs or medical boards. I’m always surprised how resistant med students become, for example, to the idea that they should go study people who did well on the boards before coming up with their detailed study systems. They would rather seek the perceived objective of working a lot and being tired than the real objective of mastering targeted material efficiently.
Agreed. There is something here about naivety helping to fuel creativity…certainly a deep vein to mine.
That’s not my experience. 99% of the time, if the work is not actually important it will not have legs. I’ve noticed that a lot of people in academia fall back on a “it’s all marketing” slogan to explain away the hyper successful, but at least in my corner, it seems like the famous people are deservedly so.
I agree. A lot of times, reality-based planning is not so much about learning what specific people did, but understanding the process that generates success. In the grad student example, one of the main things you’re really trying to learn is what the academic hiring process rewards. In the novel writing example, one of the main things you need to know is what the publishing industry looks for in the writing, and what type of people are able to offer it and why. Starting with the successful people can be a way to connect up with the processes that generated their success.
In my experience, there’s an art to decoding patterns of success, because they’re subtle. Rigorously scientific methods often fall short, because in the need to standardize and control you wash out the nuances that actually matter. Though it’s not always replicatable, I’ve had the most success with immersing myself in a world, spending time with the successes, failures, and gatekeepers, then falling back on a subjective intuition to find out what’s going on here.
I am looking forward to non-striving after tenure! 🙂
I’m not a big believer in this overcoming fear argument (I have a section about this in my new book, where I talk about the effect of the courage culture that NaNoWrMo is a part of.) This goes back to my procrastinating caveman idea: we’re not held back from starting on our aspirations due to arbitrary, misplaced fear, but instead we’re usually held back because our mind correctly notes that we don’t have a believable plan for succeeding.
Thanks for chiming in, Paul. Programming is not something I know a lot about.
I think I’ve been pseudo-striving most of my life. >___<
Cal, you just became my favorite computer-science academic in all of history. 🙂
I’m all for the idea of looking at the strategies of people who are successful in your area. But struggle a bit with the idea that this will lead to a strategy for you to follow. If someone got offered lots of exciting roles upon graduation because they did research in an emerging area, then you should do the same (- do research in an emerging area). However, how they ended up doing their research in an emerging area is likely a strategy that you can’t follow because it is unique to their situation. Therefore some of the strategies that emerge from such studies are not going to be that applicable, but are formulated as such.
It’s easy to find reasons for your success in retrospect, that lead to an interesting narrative to why you got to where you are. But it’s a rose tinted view of the world, sometimes you just need to battle through a tough time and be uncertain. If you had followed a strategy, would you be where you are now, on a tenure track at Georgetown? Or is there somewhere ‘better’ you might be? The advice seems to be that you should keep in touch with reality by seeing what other people did to do what you want to do, presumably you should then do what they did. But what you want to do will be different, and the talents you bring and challenges you face will be different. Therefore you can only end up with a range of relatively general strategies to follow, which in the end are likely to be pretty far from your own reality.
Actually, Tim also talks about it in his book when he makes a distinction between efficiency and effectiveness.
I think that deeper problem here is that in complex goals such as becoming finacially, location and time independent one often does not know where to invest his or her time. Unlike preparing for college admission, it cannot be planned accurately. Nor there is a clear way to forecast what would give you a better return on your time.
Great post as usual Cal, just one question:
Does this apply to someone like me where some of these ideas fall comfortably in what I already do, but trying to make sense of it? This is where I am at – I’m currently researching finding a way of doing what I already do, but I’m trying to make sense of it and contextualise it. In other words, is this process my deliberate practice or am I really missing the point?
Totally disagree about Nanowrimo. For many people, having a month where they are pushed to write every day is the thing that really releases writers’ block. The editing and the agent come later.
RB, I have to disagree with you there. Why should writing be confined to a specific month? If you want to get good at something, you prioritize your time to make whatever you want to get good at get at least some attention every day. If you want to learn French, for example, you dedicate even a few minutes every day (of the year, not of the month or of the week) to reading a French newspaper, watching an American show with French subtitles, talking to a French person, etc. It’s the only way you’ll ever improve.
Limiting any area you want to be better at to a set time period, and then not touching that area for another year until your special practice time comes again won’t get you very far.
If put simply, those who satisfactorily shy away from deliberate practice do that by pseudo-striving?
Another fascinating thread. You say, however: “Another great example is people studying for professional exams . . . . [They] would rather seek the perceived objective of working a lot and being tired than the real objective of mastering targeted material efficiently.”
Yes and no. I find many law school graduates preparing for the computer-graded part of the bar exam (“Multistate Bar Exam” or “MBE”) by doing 50 or 35 or some other large number of multiple-choice practice questions a day. They think they are working hard, they are working hard, and they are exhausted at the end of the day. If they nonetheless fail the exam, they conclude that they did not do enough practice questions, not that they were pseudo-striving.
The reason for this apparent irrationality is not, however, that these bar candidates failed to look for successful people and imitate them. Rather, first, many commercial bar-prep companies–seemingly authorities on success, with years of experience–*tell* bar candidates to do 50 or more practice questions a day. So bar candidates are following the advice they are paying for. Second, those who have already done well on the exam do not understand very well why they did well. Normally, in any event, they, too, did 50 or more practice questions a day, and so that’s the advice they give to anyone who asks.
In fact, doing well on the MBE takes (a) knowing and understanding the law in a way that fits the structure of the bar exam and (b) being a sharp reader. Unfortunately, if you don’t know the law, doing 50 questions a day won’t teach it to you. But processes that will in fact get a bar candidate to a sufficient, well-tailored, knowledge of the law if he or she doesn’t already have it is ‘way beyond the reach of most commercial bar-prep companies. The successful people have the knowledge, of course, or else they are tremendously good readers. But they, too, have rarely done a kind of self-analysis that would yield useful information on their own processes. So, everyone, everyone, says “Do 50 MBE questions a day.” That’s why people taking these exams are so resistant to contrary advice.
The first time I saw this concept introduced was by a bodybuilder named Martin Berkhan. On his site leangains.com, he has a post about a disease called “f—arounditis”. It’s not about people being lazy but about people going through the motions, avoiding honest self-assessment, etc. etc.
I think it’s worth looking at because even though it’s about a very different domain, he talks about it almost entirely in terms of concrete things people do at the gym.
Let me know if this was informative. Also, the irony is too thick not to say that sometimes I read these (otherwise awesome) blogs out of pseudo-striving. Good thing that my pseudo-striving led me to this post.
Also, there’s one other important thing to add. It’s hard to find information on those who don’t succeed. This is very important, or else we are just left with a terrible survivor bias in our data.
Great post, although I disagree on the NaNoWrMo example. I don’t think anyone NEEDS to do an MFA or write for someone else to do a novel. People have been writing novels for centuries without having to get an MFA or get approved by other people. I especially worry about convincing people they need an MFA, since everyone I know who has gotten one tends to consider it a waste, or overpriced.
Cal, I swear you had said, “Another great example is people studying for professional exams . . . . ” Mary
Hi, everyone. Recently, I found an article in the Chronicle about how to prepare yourself during graduate school in order to win that coveted academic job:
The author has also written blog posts on creating a five-year plan:
I think success really means playing by your own rules and showing people your unique worth. I read this article today about how to stand out from the ocean of college graduates about to start searching for jobs! Great advice! Enjoy!
@ Joanne, Thanks for the links to Karen Kelsky’s article and blog posts about how to succeed in an academic career. I had a good job on the tenure track when I left the academy, decades ago. What Kelsky says is true. So much truth all at once takes the breath away.
Pseudo-striving is all too common amongst early achievers. They get so used to the adulation and favored position they will do nothing to risk it. No more risky courses that might lower the GPA. No more risky theories that might get them laughed at. They quickly become just another mundane.
There are too many young people, dreaming about satisfying activities, that generates a lot of money, but after facing some difficulties they quit. That’s why there are too many older people working jobs they hate. For me, having some great successful examples and the desire not to work 9-5 job was and is the biggest drive.
The implications of this argument in the arena of politics are terrifying and — sadly, — all too real. At least in North America, where evidence-based decision making is on the decline.
older people working jobs they hate. For me, having some great successful examples and the desire not to work 9-5 job was and is the biggest drive.
This is the most disappointing thing I have ever read on your blog. You’re asking readers to take things on faith. I’m all for using observations to generate creative new hypotheses, but for goodness sake, that doesn’t excuse you from testing your models properly and acknowledging where you might be smoking your own exhaust.
I woke up this morning unsure what I should really be doing, feeling that all my projects are time-filling, not really important. (pseudo-striving) I sat down to work through making hard decisions in response to this impetus, only to create a complex life-planning system completely devoid of reality – and put myself safely back in pseudo-striving. (In fact, I’m reading your blog as part of my search on personal planning that is part of this pseudo-productivity.)
I really should do something in response to being slapped in the face by reality. I guess I’ll have to sit down tomorrow and give that session another shot.
When I glanced through Chris book today and say the caption: Do what you love, I immediately wanted to know what cal thought about this book.
So I tan a query through Google with these exact words”what does cal Newport think about the $100 startup” and I’m glad I did, now I can go ahead and read the book