March 30th, 2017 · 26 comments
A Non-Obvious Question
In a recent podcast interview, the host asked me: “what’s something that seems obvious to you, but not to most other people?”
It was a good question because it spurred me to articulate an idea that has long lurked in the background of my thinking on work and productivity in a digital age. Here is (more or less) how I answered:
“When it comes to the world of work, more connectivity and more communication is not necessarily better. In fact, it often makes things worse.”
People are quick to admit that some of their habits surrounding workplace communication tools could use some improvement, but it’s widely agreed that the tools themselves — email, slack, smartphones — are a positive development. These technologies make communication faster and easier, providing a pleasing patina of industriousness and agility to your daily efforts.
To not use these tools would make communication slower and more difficult: how could that possibly be a good thing?
There seems to be wide agreement about this point, but as my above quote indicates, this consensus does not include me. There’s a good reason for this dissension: the idea that more communication is better goes against everything I’ve learned as a computer scientist.
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March 25th, 2017 · 20 comments
The Focused Tribe
The Himba people of northwestern Namibia are semi-nomadic sheep and cattle herders that have largely avoided contact with modern cultures. Their villages consist of wooden huts organized around a sacred fire that connects them to their ancestors. Their living spaces are devoid of western artifacts.
It was against this backdrop that not too long ago a researcher named Jules Davidoff, from Goldsmith’s University in London, gained permission from a Himba tribal chief to bring in a team ladened with electronic equipment to conduct psychological experiments.
As detailed in a 2011 paper appearing in the journal PLOS ONE (also reported on by a recent BBC article), the results were surprising.
The Himba people, it turns out, literally see the world differently than westerners. But perhaps more important to our discussion here is their “striking” ability to resist distraction and to focus. As summarized in the BBC article: “they appeared to be the most focused of any groups previously studied [by Davidoff’s team].”
At the risk of drawing too broad a conclusion from narrow findings, these results might help explain an observation that I emphasized in Chapter 3 of Deep Work: human beings seem wired to find great satisfaction in concentrating intensely.
We can label ourselves “digital natives,” and extol the virtues of hyper-connectivity, but as the Himba people demonstrate, our affinity for deep concentration is ancient, and its attraction is something we cannot easily discard. Evolution shaped a mind optimized to concentrate, and our recent embrace of distraction is an exception to our past.
I think this observation is something we should keep in mind when reflecting on how best to build a meaningful life in an increasingly distracted world.
(Photo of Himba village by Tee La Rosa; citation hat tip to Michael V.)
March 13th, 2017 · 54 comments
The Charmed Career of Yuval Harari
The 41-year old Israeli historian Yuval Harari has enjoyed a career rise that any academic would envy. He earned his doctorate at Oxford, specializing in medieval military history. He went on to publish a prodigious number of well-respected books and articles on the topic, winning, along the way, several important awards in his field, a place in the Young Israeli Academy of Sciences, and a tenured professorship at Hebrew University.
In 2011, he published (in Hebrew) his first work of “macro-history.” It was called, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (which I read and recommend), and it offers a sweeping history of our species organized, in large part, around our unique ability to make things up.
The book was a bestseller in Israel and was soon translated into 30 different languages, becoming an international phenomenon. In America, both Barack Obama and Bill Gates publicly recommended the title. Mark Zuckerberg choose it for his online book club. Last month Harari published his follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which became an instant New York Times bestseller.
Given the magnitude of these accomplishments and the diminutive status of Harari’s age, you might assume that the young historian must be phenomenally busy.
But as he revealed in a recent interview on Ezra Klein’s podcast, he’s working less than you might expect…
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March 3rd, 2017 · 32 comments
So Good They Can’t Ignore Him
Yesterday, Tyler Cowen published a blog post about the 23-year old chess grandmaster Wesley So. It begins: “[So] should be starring in a Malcolm Gladwell column”
As Cowen notes, just a few years ago So was seen as an up-and-coming player who lacked the strategic polish needed for elite play. Cowen was surprised to learn recently that So had risen to number nine in the world rankings. Since then, So won four top tournaments in a row including a win over world champion Magnus Carlsen.
“Arguably he is the second best player in the world,” Cowen writes, “and the one most likely to dethrone Carlsen.”
There are many explanations for So’s rise. But there’s one contributing factor, in particular, I want to emphasize. Here’s So in a recent interview:
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