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Einstein’s Rubber Ball

Detecting Deep Work

An interesting nugget from Robert Greene’s new book, Mastery: when Einstein was working on the theory of relativity, he held a rubber ball that he would squeeze when straining his mind to grapple with a particularly hard piece of the theory.

Elsewhere in the book, Greene talks about Einstein’s lifelong commitment to the violin as a tool with which he trained himself to focus. (This might be from Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code; I’m reading both simultaneously and often confuse the two)

These are tantalizing hints supporting my hypothesis that the ability to think deeply and produce real value is something that requires technique and practice. They’re also another reason why I get annoyed when people begin and end a discussion on making an impact with a dumbly simple slogan like “follow your passion!”


18 thoughts on “Einstein’s Rubber Ball”

  1. Cal, I totally buy into your argument that “follow your passion” holds no water. However, I’m beginning to realize that there’s more to it. Follow you r passion could also be interpreted as “Quit your current activity and go do that thing which you were kinda good at”. I’m a just out of college entry level software developer and landed a job that requires me to work on Microsoft technologies in the business domain. However, my heart lies in Linux and the systems domain. I had to urgently take up that job due to visa constraints and stuff, else I’d have continued looking for jobs that require skills that I “sort of” possess (not at the level so-good-they-can’t-ignore-you :)). Sure I can forget all that and get started systematically building my skills and “work up” a passion for my current domain but I just yearn so much to take the other road wherein my heart lies. I cannot imagine letting those years roll becoming really good at .NET and C# and at the same time letting go of my true interests. And as you keep stressing on being good at one thing, I don’t want to focus on microsoft during the day and hack linux on my evenings. I wana focus fully on just one area, and that happens to be linux, which I have a little background in.

    So, I’ve been kinda neglecting skill-building in my current job and focussing hard on my actual interests so that in a few months, I can actually quit my current job and go follow my “passion”!

  2. Just finished the book not too long ago. I absolutely agree. Having just started a new job I’ve realized I need to practice my “focus endurance.” There are a couple of elements to this: the first is being able to eliminate external distraction. This is tough as I’m always getting e-mails and such. The other is the “suck factor.” Knowing something is going to suck makes me procrastinate, and then if I do start working its tough to focus.

    I’ll be trying to develop some techniques that will work to help develop intense focus and deep thought.

  3. Cal,

    This is my first comment though I have read your content for a long time. Thanks for the consistently outstanding material.

    I have two older brothers and a younger sister that I would like to introduce to your ideas. My sister is 21 and extremely hooked on the passion obsession. She is extremely whimsical and hardly productive. My brothers are 27 years old (twins) and are both in trade school. They went down empty paths out of high school and are fixing things now. None of them would do well with a book that requires fairly high reading comprehension.

    Could you recommend a book with the ideas like those in Mastery and Talent Code (I’ve read neither but making assumptions here) that gives the information in plain language? The obvious answer is your new book but I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet. Thanks.

  4. I have felt the mental fatigue of DB, and it is not fun at all. There are many times you want to quit but you have to keep going. I have to try the rubber ball!

    Recepie becoming so good is:

    1. Study the greats.
    2. Deliberate practice. Embrace failures! Love it! It is an oppurtunity to grow. Many people have sadly wrong attitude about failures.

    3. Persistence

  5. How is the rubber ball relevant here? How is that an instance of ‘deep work’?
    (It may have something to do with embodied cognition though. There are some studies that found interesting that squeezes one hand versus the other activated different brain regions.) May be a bit of a case of mixing up causation with correlation.

    I find your thesis interesting and I suspect you’re onto something. But so far, I feel I still haven’t found too much that is useful to really applying the idea of deep practice to knowledge work. (Did read ‘So Good’).

  6. Should you really be reading two books simultaneously if you keep getting them confused!? I realise you’re probably reading as an escape from your regular “deep focus” work, but it does seem contrary to your other advice too.

  7. I really vibe with your message that “follow your passion” has become an ugly bromide. It’s the hypocrisy of most of those speakers that literally makes me sick to my stomach. Not figuratively, literally. See, I’m a high school student, and I’ve actually been following my passion (Business, Product Design, Electronics Design), and have put in huge amounts of my free time on that, to the detriment of my grades. If there was anybody following their passion in my class, then that’d most likely be me. So I get told by the same people to “Follow your passion” and “You’re throwing away everything”.

    Truly immersing yourself into something takes sacrificing things of lesser value, but to the politically correct disciple of the college admission board, to its priests and preachers, nothing is of value except the supreme GPA, the measuring gauge of human potential. Cut the c*.

    The amount of disrespect and ignorance levied by those indoctrinated to teach is astounding.

  8. Yes! I’m so glad you’re reading The Talent Code. Ever since I started reading your blog, I’ve been wanting to ask you if you’ve read it. I just finished my second read, and my mind is spinning with all the different techniques and concepts I can implement in my second job as a freestyle snowboard coach.

  9. Cal, I like your theory, and although sometimes I think you oversimplify by saying passion has no place in the workplace, I am glad that your voice helps drown out the “quit your job and follow your passion” magical thinking folks. But please don’t try to pass off a rubber ball and a violin as empirical evidence for your theory. I certainly don’t speak for your whole audience, but at this point, personally, I’d like to see you replace some of your anecdotal evidence with larger data and with connections to other theories in psychology and sociology.

    And more importantly, I’d like to see guest posts from people who are not professors (i.e., almost completely autonomous at work) with tips on how to implement your strategies. How should the entry level office worker engage in deep practice when his boss simply wants consistent, dependable, measurable productivity? How can a teacher engage in deep practice without worrying that the constant failure inherent to that process will disrupt the lives of students?

    You’ve got a great theory. I think it can stand on more than anecdotal evidence, and I believe it’s relevant to others besides physicists, violinists, and computer scientists.

  10. I found it interesting that you are reading Robert Greene’s Mastery Cal. I bought, read, and enjoyed your new book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” because from the title alone I know it was all about achieving excellence. I bought Robert Greene’s (who I also respect) Mastery book also but was somewhat hesitated reading it because of it’s length and depth, that’s why I decided to buy (and immediately read) your much shorter book. I haven’t read Robert’s Mastery yet though so I can’t make a comparison between his and you’re book which is about excellence, but I bought another Mastery book by George Leonard (pretty short) and will give it a read. By the way, do you know about some NLP Cal (also has some things to do with achieving human excellence)? I know some people dismiss it as new age woo-woo but if you’ll keep an open (and critical mind) there is some value to it. Thanks.

  11. Hi Cal,

    big fan of your work, loved your latest book. What do you think of Timothy Ferris’ 4 hour chef –or whatever the latest book is called. What it promises is basically strategies to learn anything to the point your in the top 10 percentile in a radically reduced time period. So he argues against the 10 000 hour rule. He uses the example of becoming a highly skilled chef which I think is a disingenuous example for many, many reasons. He uses other examples in his book which I casually flipped through such as how to shoot a perfect 3 point shot in basketball and various physical challenges and some other mental ones.

    If I had the opportunity to publicly debate him I would off him three counterexamples or challenges where his supposed universal principle of learning anything in a radically reduced length of time is totally inapplicable. 1) learning to play a musical instrument 2) becoming an effective stand-up comedian 3) becoming a skilled and innovative painter.

    Actually I think just the musical instrument example would do him in. I would have liked him to prove he could become a skilled violinist in 8 months or whatever the time period was to become a chef. I don’t think it would be possible and I do think the example is fair since playing a musical instrument well is a great synthesis of both deeply mental and physical/physiological achievements. Regardless, I would be incredibly interested to know what you think of Ferris’ most recent book. I’m highly skeptical.

  12. Einstein straining the rubber ball is a cool anecdote. It reminds me of some other embodied cognition brain-body metaphors like warmth~kindness, or weight~importance. Or, I guess, that work can be deep.

  13. Passion and love may change in the lifetime. To do what you are passionate about might change in time – I am more than sure about ability to produce real value. So many people tell me every day that you need to be “born” with talent and skill for ideas – I reply: You can learn how to come up with ideas. Ive been presenting some ideas at the University about brainstorming advanced techniques and mindmapping and I would say, they are really cool techniques how to come up with ideas even with related ones.

  14. What’s the technique to think deep? What does it really take to generate real value? Take a look at this piece that also carries a short but valuable nugget from Robert Greene’s ‘Mastery.’ Don’t forget to share the wisdom anonymously.

  15. My research experience tells me that I need a damned good time management system in order to do deep work. The reason is simple – my mind won’t allow me to do deep work when it’s bombarded by time demands that haven’t been properly managed. They take away from creativity and make it much harder to focus, due to the nagging but insistent piece of attention that must be devoted to each extraneous, unmanaged commitment.

    Also, one’s techno-environment has to be managed so that new time demands don’t come pinging in on someone else’s schedule, interrupting my deep work.

    These are skills that permit deep work to be done (so they are bit meta) – and without them… there’s no hope because life will intrude and disrupt.

    (There are other skills needed also, of course.)


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