Study Hacks Blog Posts from March, 2008 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Monday Master Class: How to Transform Your Professer Into Your Paper Writing Partner

March 31st, 2008 · 8 comments

One is the Loneliest…Partner

Working on college assignments is a lonely affair. It’s just you, a big pile of ambiguously defined work, and that lovely little voice in your head, trying, with all of its devilish might, to navigate you down some of the worst possible work paths — “No,” it yells, “it would be ridiculous to start so early, you have, literally, hours before this assignment is due…let’s go drink.” The result: last minute frenzies; all-nighters; angry conversations with your parents about how they don’t understand the difficulty of your schedule. The usual.

Team Professor

Here is a simple strategy to add some accountability into this process (at least, the process as it applies to writing major papers): Meet with your professor every other week during her officer hours, starting with the week the paper is assigned. Use this time to discuss your paper in progress and refine your efforts going forward.

Worry not. You’re not disrupting the professor: office hours are mandated by the school and this time is open for exactly this purpose — students wanting to discuss issues relevant to class. Indeed, many professors are glad to have any student actually show up.

The question, of course, is what to talk about. Let’s start with the bad…

What Not to Discuss

A few ground rules:

  1. Don’t ask a professor to read a draft. The writing is your job. If you need help, visit your campus composition center.
  2. Don’t list your woes. For some reason, and I haven’t quite figured this out yet, many students ask for help by trying to convince the other person that they are beyond help. Avoid this. Don’t run down your sad sap list about how hard it is for you to make progress on the paper. (“I looked everywhere, and can’t find a single mention of this person…”)
  3. Don’t ask “what’s next” questions. These meetings can be used to discuss specific issues or ideas. Don’t just say, “I don’t know what to do,” and hope the professor will start making decisions for you.

What You Should Discuss

With these prohibitions out of the way, we can turn toward to good. So what do you discuss in these meetings? In general, follow this structure:

  1. Summarize the work you’ve done so far. What sources have you looked at? How did you find them?
  2. Discuss the content, not the assignment. Forget the paper for a second. What interested you in the research you’ve done so far? What surprised you? What was a waste of time? Discuss the current version of the story you are putting together for the paper.
  3. Outline your options for moving forward over the next two weeks. Where do you want to be in two weeks? What’s your plan for getting there?
  4. Ask for advice. Now that the professor understands where you stand intellectually and logistically, she can offer some guidance. She might, for example, challenge you on your story, pushing you in places to develop more nuance. She might also point you toward some sources that you did not know about. Finally, she might have some tips for accomplishing your two week goal. Take it all in…

Make it Happen

Finish what you said you would. When you show up in two weeks, you should have completed what you discussed in the last office hours and have a new set of insights and goals to review.

The benefits of this process are two-fold. One, you’re making regular progress, early on in the assignment. Two, your efforts are being tweaked and shaped by the most useful possible source: your professor. This ensures that not only is your paper going to get accomplished without crazed, all-night frenzies, but that, also, you’re on your way toward producing a sophisticated piece of writing.

In short: Less pain. Better grade.

How to Get a Book Deal: Lessons From My Adventures in the World of Non-Fiction Publishing

March 28th, 2008 · 51 comments

A Charmed LifeBook Deal

I signed with my literary agent at the age of twenty. At twenty-one I signed my first book deal with Random House. The next year, I signed my second deal. Neither titles became New York Times Bestsellers, and I’m yet to appear on Oprah, but beyond these two exceptions I have, more or less, lived out all of the standard writer daydreams that first led me down this path. Among other things:

  • I’ve appeared as an expert on NBC, ABC, and CBS.
  • I’ve been interviewed on well over 50 radio programs and have been featured in big newspapers.
  • My books have been translated into exotic languages (my favorite is the Korean edition of How to Win at College, which features, bafflingly, images of robots watering flowers.)
  • I have had publicists and editors and agents and assistants all working on my behalf.
  • I’ve been flown around the country.
  • I’ve been projected on the Jumbotron in Times Square and put up in a $500 a night hotel overlooking Central Park.

All in all, not a bad way to spend the first half of my twenties.

The Inevitable Question

Because of these experiences, I often get asked the inevitable question: how did you get your book deal? I love talking about the process because I find it fascinating. But I thought it might prove useful to dump everything I know into one post — a definitive answer that captures all the little insights and tricks that might elude me in casual conversation.

In this post I describe everything I’ve learned about how a first-time writer can maximize his chances of landing a non-fiction book deal. This is based only on my specific experiences. But if you have writer ambitions, it’s a good place to start.

My “Secret” Process

Here are the steps in my process:

  1. Don’t write the book first.
  2. Become a non-bad writer.
  3. Identify a first-timer compatible idea.
  4. Pitch the right agent.
  5. Practice proposal yoga.

Below I explain each step in detail, and, when useful, provide examples from my experience selling my first book.

STEP 1: Don’t write the book first

For non-fiction, you don’t write the book until after you’ve signed a book deal. If you’ve already written the book, pretend like you haven’t. Definitely do not self-publish if you plan on later trying to sell to a publisher. Unless you can sell an extraordinary number of copies (think: Chicken Soup for the Soul), having an existing version will hurt your chances of getting a deal.

STEP 2: Become a non-bad writer

You don’t have to be a good writer to land a book deal. I’ve been writing seriously for 7 years and am still trying to figure out how to become good. You can’t, however, be a bad writer. Your writing has to be tolerable for 200 pages. In other words, you have to shake off the stench of amateurism before you start talking to people in the publishing world. Trust me, one of the first things a potential agent or editor will want from you is writing samples, writing samples, and more writing samples.

How do you know if you’re bad? If your only writing experience is e-mails and school papers then assume you’re bad.

How do you become non-bad? My rough rule: spend at least one year writing for edited publications.

My Experience: I started writing seriously at the beginning of my sophomore year. I eventually worked myself up to become a columnist for the daily paper and the editor of the campus humor magazine. About six months before I began shopping my book idea I started writing freelance advice articles for student-centric magazines. I ended up sending samples of all of this writing to my agent-to-be when she was deciding whether or not to take me on as a client.

STEP 3: Identify a first-timer compatible idea

There are all sorts of interesting non-fiction book ideas. Most of them, however, are off limits to a first-time writer. If you’re not famous or an established journalist, then your idea most satisfy the following:

  1. It is something that a large audience will feel like they have to buy.
  2. You are uniquely suited to write about it.

Most first-timer writers have ideas that satisfy at least one of these rules. Few, however, hit both.

If your idea is simply interesting (e.g., a book about some new youth phenomenon) then you’re violating rule #1. Interesting ideas need to be really well-written to succeed, therefore publishers will allow only established writers to tackle them. Your idea needs to be more than interesting, it needs to be something that people need to have — regardless of whether or not the writing sparkles.

Similarly, if your idea is a must-buy, but has little to do with your unique skills, then you’re violating rule #2. The publisher will look past you to someone who is a better fit. If I had pitched Random House a book on finding balance in your life, they would have tossed it right out — as a 20-year-old I wouldn’t have had the relevant experience to talk convincingly about such issues.

My Experience: For How to Win at College, I satisfied rule #1 by arguing that this book would be the only advice guide that focused on doing well as oppose to just “surviving.” Therefore, for any student who wants or needs to do well in school, my book would be a must-buy. I satisfied rule #2 because I was a student who was doing well at a good college and had been writing about these issues for national publications.

STEP 4: Pitch the right agent

Books are sold by agents. If your idea is not good enough to get an agent then it’s not good enough to be bought by a publisher. As a first-time writer, an agent is the only reasonable path to get your idea considered by a publisher. The implication: get an agent.

Roughly speaking, the process works as follows: you send a one-page query letter to targeted agents. The agents who are interested will follow-up and ask for more information on you, your writing ability, and your idea. Those who are still interested will offer representation.

If you have a personal connection to an agent, you can probably skip the query-letter stage by contacting them directly. However, if your idea does not satisfy the Step #3 conditions, they’re not going to work with you, regardless of who you know.

How do you identify the right agents to pitch? Here’s the trick that worked for me. Go to the bookstore and find books that are similar to your idea. Flip to the acknowledgments. The author will thank his agent. Google the name to see if the agent accepts unsolicited queries. If so, pitch.

How do you figure out how to write a query letter? Buy a book on writing query letters and follow the instructions. There’s no dark magic here. I used this guide.

STEP 5: Practice proposal yoga

Once you have an agent, she will guide you through the process of writing the proposal that she’ll take to the publishers. Listen to her! She’s the one who talks to editors every week. She knows what they want, what they don’t want, and the thousands of ways authors can sabotage their chances of landing a deal. So be flexible.

My Experience: I stayed true to the core concept of my first book, but it otherwise was subjected to a lot of tweaks to make it more palatable. My tone was toned down, my chapter length expanded, new topics inserted, more students interviewed. This is not how I would have written the proposal if left to my own devices. Then again, the proposal I would have written would probably have never been bought.


The process of selling a book idea is not as difficult as many people think. It is, however, sensitive. That is, if at any point you veer from the accepted path, you run the risk of immediate rejection — regardless of the quality of the idea. Therefore, if you’re serious about writing a book, be serious about figuring out how this world works. If you do, you might be surprised by how smoothly the experience can proceed.

Case Study: How Kristianne Simplified Her Life, Demolished Stress, and Became More Successful

March 26th, 2008 · 6 comments

A True Story Simplify

I’ve been preaching recently about the importance of simplifying your college life. To help put some faces to the theory, I want to share with you the story of Kristianne (not her real name), an undergraduate at a western university. Inspired by my recent post on How to Be Happy, Kristianne shared with me her own story of transformation. In this tale, she took a machete to her overcrowded schedule and pruned it down to a few points of meaningful focus. The results have been nothing short of outstanding.

Kristianne details the whole saga in the following interview…

What were you involved with before you simplified your life?

During my freshman year, I tried to join everything (and I mean everything). I was the VP of the Asian-Pacific American Association, staff writer for the student newspaper, in the Honors program, a member of the Alpha Epsilon Delta pre-med honor society, giving tours, hosting students for admissions, and, it seemed, constantly volunteering to do all these small things for people.

Ignoring my already frustrated self, I took on even more during my sophomore year. I moved up to associate editor with the paper, gained a leadership position for AED, and became a liturgical minister for masses throughout the week.

What was your life like under this big load of commitments?

I was definitely hard-pressed for time. Add that to my perfectionist mentality for my homework, and — surprise — I was barely getting enough sleep. I often pulled double all-nighters and once, even, a triple all-nighter!

A lot of people didn’t know the frustration I felt trying to keep up. I think trying to keep my unhappiness a secret was perhaps the most tiring of all.

What made you finally reevaluate your lifestyle?

The worst came last semester. I had agreed to be editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, and, for some reason, agreed to become the Intern for Admissions, while still doing everything else.

There were just too many times last semester when my “energy reserve” simply ran out. I soon found myself requesting extra time on even small assignments.

Enough was enough.

Describe the changes you made.

This semester, I definitely took control over my own schedule and lifestyle. I resigned my leadership position for the APAA — too much time required for too little actually being accomplished. I also blocked spots in my schedule (especially at night), during which I refuse to work. That time is for me to sleep, watch T.V., cook…or whatever I want, so long as it’s not school or extra curricular related. For the AED honors society, although I am still a member, I’ve cut back the amount of time I’m obligated to spend. I’m good friends with the president, so I can still keep up to date and help out with activities when I can.

With the Admissions internship, I’ve learned to say: “I have enough for this week, can I get this to you by next week?” I still get things done, but without feeling so overwhelmed.

I still serve as a liturgical minister, but only specifically chosen days where I know I don’t have something big coming up, like a test or paper due.

How did these changes affect your daily life?

All the small changes added up to a lot more free time, and generated confidence-boosting results.

Do you fear cutting back will make you less accomplished?

Not at all. Since cutting back, I’ve received a competitive summer scholarship at Notre Dame. I also got research grants to work with my Organic Chemistry professor, and another scholarship to attend the Democratic National Convention (something that usually costs $10,000, and is also very competitive). And that’s not all, I also got into the Jesuit Honor Society (also extremely competitive, only accepting less than 4% of the top 15% of students).

The big revelation is that now I don’t feel so obliged to fill my resume with mediocre extras. I can finally accept what my teachers were telling me in high school, and my professors have been telling me since freshman year: I am a smart, capable student and shouldn’t worry so much about my abilities.

What activities are you focusing on now that you’ve simplified?

I’m in the honors program, I have an interdisciplinary academic focus, and I now focus seriously on just two extracurricular activities: the paper and the admissions internship. As my recent awards attest, this is more than enough.

In fact, I’ve arranged to drop my internship for next year to take time to spend on my upcoming honors thesis. (Last semester, I would have just added it on and let the stress pile.) I realized that producing a great thesis is more important to me than worrying about an Internship that takes too much time (9 hours a week), and which won’t contribute to my future interests.

Final thoughts?

Taking control of my schedule has been one hell of a confidence booster. It’s not as scary as you think. Try it.

Some Points to Notice

There are few interesting lessons lurking in Kristianne’s tale. First, notice how she suffered from the incredibly common undergraduate apprehension that the way to be successful is to do as much as possible. I see this all the time. Indeed, it is probably the most common cause of problems when I talk with students. Being busy is fine. It’s when you get to that point that you lose control of your schedule that the real stress (and triple all-nighters, and unhappiness) takes over.

Next, notice how after she simplified her schedule she realized that she needed only a small number of core activities to show off her abilities (and earn her a huge number of awards). In Kristianne’s case, here is what makes her impressive:

  • Good grades.
  • An interesting, interdisciplinary major.
  • Her role on the student newspaper.

The other stuff was fluff. Sources of stress that didn’t add much to her life or her story.

Finally, I think the biggest point: Kristianne did not abandon all of the other activities that she was interested in. She did no stop giving masses, or resign her AED membership, or quit the Internship (yet). Instead, she simple transformed them from obligatory to non-obligatory. She renegotiated her involvement such that she could be involved when she had time, and not feel guilty about ignoring them when her schedule gets tight.

This a crucial subtlety to the Radical Simplicity Manifesto. You don’t have to do very little. You just need very little that you have to do. Kristianne demonstrates this beautifully.

Think about her story for a moment. Then ask yourself an important question:

How would your schedule change if you were to tackle a similar program of simplification?

Monday Master Class: Pulverize Large Assignments with the ESS Method

March 24th, 2008 · 10 comments

APulverize Student’s Worst Enemy

Large, longterm assignments are the bane of undergraduate life. There is no more tempting invitation to procrastination than to see “start work on major, terrible, huge assignment” on your to-do list. So what happens? This particular task gets skipped. Again. And Again. Until, finally, you enter “oh shit!” mode right before the deadline and begin that terrible last minute scramble.

The ESS Method

In this post I describe a simple system that will help you avoid this fate. I call it the ESS method (short for: Early-Small-Soon). It’s a generalization of the strategies that many of the efficient students I’ve interviewed over the years use to defang large assignments.

It can be presented in three rules — one for each piece of the ESS acronym…

RULE #1: Early

Start work on large assignments as early as possible. For projects due at the end of the semester, this might mean right after midterms. Don’t balk. You don’t need to start burning the midnight oil months early. But you do need to start thinking about what lies ahead. It helps if at the beginning of each semester you put a “project start” reminder on your calendar at an appropriate date for each of the major assignments you face. Once you reach that date it’s time to apply the next rules…

RULE #2: Small

Forget the end result. Focus, instead, on the next manageable chunk of work. Try to identify a chunk of work that will require somewhere between 2-6 hours. That is, more than you can whip through in one sitting, but not so much that you can’t find the time over the span of a week or two. At this point, the large assignment means nothing to you. This small chunk is what your world is about. It is what has to be done next.

RULE #3: Soon

Here’s the anti-procrastinatory glue that holds the method together: once you’ve identified your small chunk, set an arbitrary deadline for its completion. Depending on how busy your schedule and how large the chunk, consider time frames that are somewhere between 1 – 3 weeks. Make the deadline non-negotiable. This is when this chunk has to be finished. If it requires a mini-scramble when the deadline looms, then so be it.

The Method in Action

What’s interesting about the ESS method, and why, I think, I see variations of it pop up again and again among high scoring students, is that the arbitrary deadline trick actually works. Even though you know you made it up, we’re wired to respond to the pressure of deadlines, and this spurs you to accomplish that next manageable chunk.

Once you’ve finished one chunk, you plan the next, and your progress continues in this manner. As the deadline gets closer, the arbitrary deadlines tend to become more ambitious, and more gets done, until, well, you’re done with the whole assignment.

Yes, at the end, you still might have some scrambling. But the overall experience is significantly less stressful. Instead of grappling with one monstrous beast of an assignment, you are lightly sparring, week by week, with mini-assignments. By the time the final deadline looms, you have a base of quality work and not that much left to complete.

Related Posts

How to Be Happy

March 21st, 2008 · 28 comments

Dr. Happiness SpeaksTal Ben-Shahar Lectures

A few weeks back, I went to see a talk by Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar. The topic: How to be happy. Dr. Ben-Shahar helped kick off the recent happiness-mania that seems to have infiltrated the American zeitgeist. His positive psychology course at Harvard begin as a six-student seminar and expanded over the subsequent few years to over 1400 students — making it, at its height, the university’s most popular offering

What this tells me: his advice rings true for college students.

From Him to Me to You

In the spirit of last week’s Radical Simplicity Manifesto, I want to share Dr. Ben-Shahar’s insights. Below I have included his most interesting points — drawn from both his lecture and his book. I follow this summary with some observations and questions about what would happen if you were to apply this philosophy to your student life.

We start with the basics…

What is Happiness?

Happiness is the “overall experience of pleasure and meaning. A happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving her life as purposeful.” The balance here is key. Neither hedonism nor rat-racing delayed gratification can satisfy alone.

Allow Yourself to Be Human

An important caveat: don’t expect to be “happy” all the time. You will sometimes be sad. You will sometimes be anxious or nervous, you’ll get dumped, and you’ll feel overwhelmed. These are human emotions. Don’t fear or be embarrassed of them. Instead, embrace them; they are part of life. Your life. As Dr. Ben-Shahar said: “there are some people who always feel happy, they’re called psychopaths.”

The goal should be that over the aggregate of your life you have a large number of pleasurable moments and feel, on the whole, engaged in meaningful activities.

Happiness is the Ultimate Currency

This is a dangerous thought for college students. Increasingly, however, I’ve been pushing it: Make happiness the ultimate goal in your life. Build everything around this; from your course schedule to your career path.

Enough big picture ideas, let’s get to the specific advice…

Tip #1: Set Goals

Research shows that the pursuit of goals that are concordant with your values can produce significant increases in your sense of well-being. Interestingly, the data show that achieving goals (or failing to do so) doesn’t seem to matter so much. There is something about having a focus on something important that helps us get more out of each present moment.

Tip #2: Seek Flow

The magic state for increasing well-being is to be neither bored nor overwhelmed. This means you should seek challenges that exactly meet or slightly surpass your current abilities. For college students, in particular, this translates to finding that perfect course load that pushes you intellectually without overwhelming you with more work than you can easily manage.

Tip #3: Simplify Your Life

Psychologist Time Kasser has shown that time affluence consistently predicts well-being whereas material influence does not. For the uninitiated: Time affluence is “the feeling that one has sufficient time to pursue activities that are personally meaningful, to reflect, and to engage in leisure.” In other words, under-schedule what you have to do so you have plenty of time to deal with what you want to do at the moment. For college students, this means resisting the urge to fill all of your time with coursework and activities. Instead, purposefully under-schedule, and then use the excess hours for the cool stuff that randomly pops up.

Tip #4: Focus on Happiness

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven.” The practical translation: put in an effort to both seek out happiness-boosting experiences and learn to express gratitude for what you find. There will always be crap lying around in your life. This will never go away. If you focus on it, your world will become Emerson’s hell. The real trick is to learn how to keep moving amidst this crap — acknowledging that its a part of life that spares no one — and continually seek out or construct experiences that make you happy. Don’t just have these experiences, but also reflect on them later and show real gratitude. Dr. Ben-Shahar points to compelling research that mindful reflection on what you enjoyed during your day can significantly boost self-reported well-being.

Case Study: The Happy College Student

Let’s take Dr. Ben-Shahar’s advice out for a spin. Here’s an interesting question: Assume you built your undergraduate life around the concept of happiness, what would it look like? Here’s one proposal:

  • Our hypothetical happy-focused student has a single major that he finds interesting. He is careful to keep his course load light; mixing easy with hard courses each semester so he is never overwhelmed with work. By deploying a smart arsenal of study habits he further reduces the difficulty. This allows him to really dig into the material; spend extra time thinking about the bigger implications, arguing in class discussions and finding himself often getting struck, at the most unexpected moments, with little shivers of inspiration. He doesn’t dread schoolwork, because he doesn’t have enough of it to make it painful.
  • He’s involved in some activity that he finds really important. For example, as a philosophy major, perhaps he believes in the movement to re-emphasize the importance of the liberal arts in college education. This might translate, practically, into him being an editor of the undergraduate philosophy journal and helping to organize the journal’s guest lecture series that brings interesting liberal thinkers onto campus.
  • However, this is his only real time-consuming extracurricular activity. Combine this with his manageable course load, and he has plenty of free time. He uses this for all sorts of purposes. Maybe he’s taken up Yoga, and has learned to take advantage of the daily shuttle from campus to a local ski slope. We can imagine that he’s constantly hanging out with friends and has been known to spend an afternoon reading random books at the bookstore cafe. He attends talks that seem interesting. Watches a lot of movies. And has become a beer snob, to the endless amusement of his natty-lite swilling roommates. At the same time, these extra hours also let him take advantage of more unexpected (and impressive) random opportunities: like writing an op-ed, pitching an article to a magazine, or volunteering to help setup a conference. He’s flexible, engaged, and low-stress. This leads him to interesting places.
  • This combination of being engaged in his schoolwork, doing something important, and finding lots of opportunities to inject some pleasure into his day leads to one happy undergrad.

My Questions For You

This is, of course, just a hypothetical scenario. But the big ideas are concrete:

Like what you have to do; don’t do too much of it; get the most out of the free time that remains.

It’s a simple philosophy. Yes, some might say radically simple. But it’s worth thinking about. Here are the key questions to ponder:

  • What changes would you have to make in your student life to make happiness your ultimate currency?
  • How would this impact your potential paths after college?
  • Does this impact matter?

I’m curious to hear the results of your ruminations…

Q & A: Complicated Study Systems, Complicated Productivity Software, and Complicated Achievements

March 19th, 2008 · 6 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I want to know about your studying strategies, beyond just quiz and recall. While I do find the quiz and recall method to be VERY helpful it doesn’t offer much structure in comparison with say the SQ4R or 4S=M methods. Is there a way to reconcile these methods with your quiz and recall method? Perhaps you can describe your blow by blow study sessions including what you do with the notes you take in class.

Cal responds:

I’ve never met a high-scoring student who used a system like SQ4R. The reason: they’re too time-consuming! What these students do instead is discover simple, streamlined and devastatingly effective heuristics that can be easily adapted to specific classes. The three biggies described in How to Become a Straight-A Student are:

  • Quiz-and-Recall: Review by explaining the idea or demonstrating the problem out loud, as if lecturing a class.
  • Question/Evidence/Conclusion Note-Taking: Gather the information in lecture and reading assignments into big ideas — described by a question, a conclusion, and the bullet-point notes that connect the two.
  • Sample Problem Gathering: In technical courses, attempt to gather as many sample problems as possible. If you don’t understand the example or technique being explained ask a question right away.

All of my studying follows from some combination of these simple techniques…

From the reader mailbag:

I don’t know if you address this in your books or not, but what kind of software do you recommend for keeping productive?

Cal responds:

None. Or, equivalently: whatever. Here’s my thought: If you follow the first two pillars of the Straight-A Method — (1) capture and regularly review everything you need to do, and (2) plan the hours of the day — you’ll be as productive as you need to be. Whether this means a cheap paper calendar on your desk or a ridiculously sophisticated piece of tricked-out GTD goodness, so be it. Just make sure it’s simple enough that you actually use it.

In case your curious, here’s what I do: I use Google calendar to keep track of day-specific things. I store my tasks in Gmail. Most of my obligations show up as e-mail so the easiest possible way to process them is to slap on a label and then hit “archive.”

When I was an undergraduate, by comparison, I used some freebie calendar program on my iMac and tracked my tasks on a legal pad. They key was always to use whatever seemed easiest at the time.

From the reader mailbag:

I’ve noticed recently that you’ve been emphasizing the idea of focusing on a single activity/goal/project in order to accomplish something significant. I have a question on the exception to the rule: Polymaths. Do you think your philosophy applies to individuals such as Ben Franklin or Da Vinci.

Cal responds:

Here’s the problem. People think they can become a polymath by keeping a brand in several different fires. In the end, however, they become competent, but not unequivocally successful in each of the endeavors. The real reward-generating, stand out achievements tend to come from really focusing on one thing. Reflecting on people I’ve encountered who have are known for several grand accomplishments, it typically turns out that their first big score came from obsessive focus. (Franklin, for example, first became a successful printer, then turned to his science experiments, which made him famous, then turned more attention to political activities.) My point: it’s harder than you think to become really good at just one thing, so why make things even harder by gunning for more at the same time?

Monday Master Class: Drop Courses Every Semester

March 17th, 2008 · 16 comments

Course OverloadToss

One of the key concepts of last week’s Radical Simplicity Manifesto was the importance of a manageable course schedule. Organizational techniques can only take you so far. Eventually, the confluence of too many hard courses becomes too much to handle. Avoid this problem by avoiding overwhelming schedules.

The advice described in this post goes a long way toward this goal. I first learned this unexpected nugget way back in 2003, when I was conducting the initial interviews for How to Win at College. It stuck with me for two reasons. One, it’s simple. Two, it opened my eyes to how much control elite students maintain over who or what gets permission to demand their attention.

The rules reads as follows: Drop a course every semester.

From Overload to Reduction

Allow me to elaborate. At the beginning of each semester, sign up for one or two more courses than the normal load for your school. During the first two weeks, attend all of these classes. Read the syllabi. Get a feel for the professor’s lecture style and personality. Ask questions about what the tests or papers will be like. Complete a few reading assignments and gauge what the ensuing discussions require.

Once you have completed this scholastic recon: drop the courses you liked the least; leaving yourself with a normal course load. There is no penalty for dropping courses. It costs no money. It doesn’t show up on your transcript. But the advantages to you can be substantial…

A Little Pain to Avoid a Lot

Yes, I agree, it’s annoying to sit in on extra classes. But it’s just for two weeks. And the first two weeks of the semester are the easiest. This is a small price to pay to avoid a toxic course — the type of mood killing, time stealing, kick in the groin monsters that have a way of thoroughly trashing unsuspecting undergraduates. In How to Win, I referred to this technique as an Academic Insurance Policy. It protects you against disaster semesters.

From Controlled to Control

The students who first taught me this advice had a strong desire to control their experience. One of the ways they were able to support a Rhodes Scholar lifestyle, without going insane, was by fastidiously eliminating any potential source of mental friction in their day to day schedule. They realized that taking great care in course selection is a crucial piece in ensuring that their college experience foldings the way they wanted. My humbles suggestion: follow their lead.

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Weekend Links: Radical Simplicity Edition

March 16th, 2008 · Be the first to comment

Interesting links from around the web to help you through your weekend Study Hacks withdrawal…

In honor of the Radical Simplicity Manifesto, this week’s link post celebrates advice for simplifying your student life and focusing on what’s important.

  • The Curve of Life | Ben Casnocha
    Ben discusses a talk by management guru Charles Handy. The focus is the curve of life — a sinuous trajectory that dips, rises, then falls. Handy claims that most life endeavors follow this up and down trajectory. The key, says Handy, is to to spawn a new curve before the current one begins its degredation.
  • The Big Secret Key to High School Success | Gearfire
    The folks over at Gearfire invited a high school student to write a guest post. The student choose to focus on what he discovered to be the key to having a successful high school career. What is it? I’ll give you a hit, it starts with a “b,” but you’ll have to follow the link to learn the rest.
  • Where are the aids for increased genuine productivity | Life Hack
    Over the past month or so, Life Hack writers have been waging an unofficial war against the generic concept of productivity — challenging the definition and questioning its universal goodness. This post is a good example of what this thread is about. In it, Adrian redefines productivity to center on expending less effort not accomplishing more things. Amen.
  • Arete: The Meaning of Life | Scott Young
    Scott’s been blogging recently about the concept of “Arete” (a terrible word but exciting concept). In essence, the idea of arete is seeking extreme quality in everything you pursue. In this post, and another, Scott has begun the work of spinning a life philosphy around the concept. I think he’s on to something interesting here.
  • Twitter – A Success Story | Hack College
    Kelly over at Hack College talks about how random twittering got him a free pass to SXSW; a good parable on the value of leaving time in your life to explore, and experiment, and seek out crazy random opportunities. (The Hack College crew seems to be constantly flying around the world and attending random, interesting conferences. They’re a great example of how to have an excellent, engaging time at college without overloading yourself with a dozen obligatory on-campus activities.)