August 31st, 2016 · 7 comments
Some Insights from a Geek’s Heresy
I recently began reading Kentaro Toyama’s 2015 book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.
To provide some background, in 2005 Toyama cofounded Microsoft Research India, which focused on applying technology to social issues. He then left for academia where he began to study such efforts from an objective distance. Geek Heresy describes what he found.
I’m only through around 100 pages, but so far Toyama’s conclusions have been bracing.
He leverages a blend of research and firsthand experience to dismiss the cult-like belief (common in Silicon Valley) that hard social problems can be solved with the application of the “right” technology (an illustrative target of Toyama’s critique is Nicholas Negroponte’s belief in the power of cheap laptops to cure all that ails the developing world).
For the purposes of this post, however, I want to highlight a powerful observation detailed in Chapter 2. It’s here that Toyama introduces what he calls the Law of Amplification, which he defines as follows:
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August 25th, 2016 · 67 comments
I don’t like talking about myself (outside discussions of hyper-specific productivity techniques), so I’ll keep this announcement brief…
At some point early on in my graduate student career I set two somewhat arbitrary goals for my academic trajectory: to become a professor by the age of 30 and tenured by the age of 35.
I ended up starting at Georgetown at the age of 29, and earlier this summer I earned tenure at the age of 33 (though I since turned 34).
There are many factors that help fuel an academic career, and many fell outside my direct control.
But reflecting on these past five years, it’s easy for me to identify what was by far the highest ROI activity in my professional life: deep work.
I know I’ve said similar things a million times before. And it’s not sexy. And it’s not a contrarian “hack.”
But in my case, focusing intensely on hard things that people unambiguously value, day after day, week after week, was more or less the whole ball game.
August 22nd, 2016 · 13 comments
Recently, I’ve been collecting stories from people who held the same type of job before and after the introduction of email. Something that struck me as I sorted through these recollections is their variety.
Email was a miracle to some.
For example, I talked to a woman who has spent many years in mergers and acquisitions. These deals, it turns out, require large contracts to be received and sent with urgency at unexpected times.
Before email, this meant weekends camped out at the office.
“If I was expecting a new version of a merger agreement, I would have to stand outside the fax room waiting for my 200-page document and then call to ask the other side to re-fax any missing pages,” my source recalled.
“If there was even a possibility that I would be needed, it made no sense to go home…people would sleep at the office.”
With email, these same urgent documents could suddenly reach her anywhere — greatly reducing time wasted squatting by the warmth of a fax modem and increasing time with her family.
“Email has been a plus,” she concludes.
But email was also a curse to many others.
One teacher I spoke with, for example, told me about how the arrival of email made teachers at her school suddenly available to parents in a way they never had been before.
The school eventually instituted a policy that all such emails must be answered within 48 hours.
“Email exploded,” my source recalled. “My planning period was spent reading and answering emails…forget planning. [It became] a huge distraction from the already very difficult job of teaching.”
A Useful Heuristic
How do we make sense of these contradictions?
As I sorted through more stories like the above an interesting pattern emerged.
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August 3rd, 2016 · 29 comments
A Primal Movement
The primal/paleo philosophy argues that we’d all be better off behaving more like cavemen.
In slightly more detail, this school of thought notes that humankind evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to thrive with a paleolithic lifestyle. The neolithic revolution, which started with agricultural, and quickly (in evolutionary timescales) spawned today’s modern civilizations, is much too recent for our species to have caught up.
By this argument, we should look to paleolithic behavior to shape our basic activities such as eating, exercising, and socializing. To eat bread, or sit all day, or center our social life on a small electronic screen, is to fight our genetic heritage.
Or something like that.
This philosophy attracts both righteous adherents and smug critics. And they both have a point.
I maintain, however, that this type of thinking is important. Not necessarily because it’s able to credibly identify “optimum” behaviors, but because it poses clear thought experiments that are worthy of discussion.
An Interesting Thought Experiment
It’s with this spirit of exploration in mind that I pose the following prompt: what would the primal/paleo movement have to say about productivity?
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