Study Hacks Blog Posts from June, 2009 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Diligence vs. Ability: Rethinking What Impresses Employers

June 26th, 2009 · 16 comments

Note: I’m leaving tomorrow for a one-week California vacation. With that in mind, I give my normal warnings about being slow to moderate comments, reply to e-mails, and post new articles until I return.

Graduation WisdomGraduation

With graduation season winding down, job hunting is on many students’ minds. Because of this, I have a habit of sharing career advice around this time. Last year, I pitched the idea of lifestyle-centric planning. This year, I want to briefly discuss a crucial distinction that can shape the character of your college experience: the difference between diligence and ability.

The Diligence Hypothesis

Over the years, I’ve advised hundreds of stressed college students. The reason for their stress is almost always the same: time famine. The student are taking more than the normal course load and often have an absurd number of extracurriculars commitments.

This leads to an interesting question: why are they doing this?

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On the Value of Hard Focus

June 22nd, 2009 · 113 comments

Running WisdomMurakami

I recently began reading Haruki Murakami’s excellent mini-memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. If your life requires a non-trivial amount of creative work, I highly recommend this quick read.

Today, I wanted to focus on a few quotes that resonated with my thinking. On page 77, Murakami remarks:

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus — the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value.

You’ve heard me make this argument before. But Murakami takes the idea somewhere interesting when he then notes:

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The Grade Whisperer: Alice Escapes Her Academic Hell

June 15th, 2009 · 11 comments

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

Academic HellAdvice

Last December, I received an urgent e-mail from a reader whom I’ll call Alice. At the time, she was halfway through her sophomore year at one of the country’s best known public universities.

“I definitely need advice about switching to a zen valedictorian lifestyle,” she began.

As the e-mail continued, I learned that Alice had entered college as a pre-med major because, in her words: “I considered it a ‘difficult,’ technical major and thought it would be a safe option.”

As Study Hacks readers know, such a poor justification for your major is a recipe for deep procrastination. Sure enough, Alice was soon struggling. To compensate, she decided to switch majors. This time she chose a double concentration in business administration and economics — once again driven by her quest for something that was “difficult” and “safe.”

Not surprisingly, she fared no better with this new direction. By the first semester of her sophomore year, life became grim.

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Drastically Reduce Stress with a Work Shutdown Ritual

June 8th, 2009 · 84 comments

Schedule Shut Down, CompleteSchedule

Here’s what happens, without exception, at the end of my normal work day.

First, I make sure my master task lists are up to date. During the day I tend to collect todos in a text file on my computer desktop because it’s fast and easy. I also have a small spiral notebook that I use to capture things when I’m away from my desk. (I always have this with me!) I transfer everything new from these collection bins into my master task lists.

I then read over these lists in their entirety. If something pops out as being somewhat urgent, I set its due date for the near future. Because I use Google Tasks, this means it will show up on my calendar as well. I do this review every day so that I trust that if I put something on a task list, it won’t be forgotten. Without this trust, the tasks would still percolate around my brain.

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The Pyramid Method: A Simple Strategy For Becoming Exceptionally Good

June 3rd, 2009 · 58 comments

The Power of GoodSickabod Sane

In early May, I received an interesting e-mail from a reader. After the standard introductions, he said:

Though I’m progressing towards my goal to become a physicist, I’m also very interested in writing a novel.

He noted that before diving into a novel he would probably have to first “write a short story or two.” He wanted my advice for how to kick off this project in time for summer.

“This sounds like a great idea for a Grand Project,” I replied. “But I would first be definite that this is an important goal in your life, because I predict you’d need at least five years of focused work before landing a book deal becomes a possibility.”

My answer reflects an observation that plays an increasingly important role in my understanding of the world: if you want to do something interesting and rewarding — be it writing a novel, becoming a professor, or growing a successful business — you have to first become exceptional. As Study Hacks readers know, I think Steve Martin put it best when he noted that the key to breaking into a competitive and desirable field is to “become so good, they can’t ignore you.”

In other words, there’s no shortcut. If you want the world to pay attention to you, you have to provide a compelling reason. It doesn’t care about your life goals.

In this post, I want to discuss a simple method with a complicated back-story. It’s a technique that can help you move efficiently down the road toward becoming exceptionally good.

The story behind this advice starts with an old friend who possessed an unlikely talent.

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