Study Hacks Blog Posts from September, 2010 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

How Double Majors Can Ruin Your Life: Two Arguments for Doing Less

September 27th, 2010 · 88 comments

The Overwork Ethic

I recently received an e-mail from a freshman at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It began: “I’m trying to follow your advice and avoid killer semesters, but it seems kind of hard.”

He then detailed his crowded course schedule, which included electrical engineering, physics, computer science, and an organic chemistry class, the last of which he described as “hellish,” because it included a time-consuming lab in addition to regular problem sets.

“I know that on your site and stuff it says avoid doing shit like this,” he admitted, “but I’m not really sure what to do.

This last line confused me.

If a student says he “doesn’t know what to do” about a tough course schedule, you might expect he needs the courses to complete his major and graduate on time, or perhaps to meet the requirements of a graduate program. Clearly, however, physics, computer science, and organic chemistry can’t all be part of the same major or program prerequisites. Furthermore, this student was in the first semester of his freshman year: how could he possibly be feeling credit pressure already?

When I dug deeper, it turned out that he had no particular reason to be taking those classes. In fact, as he later admitted, he arrived at college with a ton of AP credits, and could, if he so decided, coast to graduation early without ever taking a hard semester.

The real reason for his killer course load was that he was considering transferring schools, and felt, with an unquestioned certainty, that doing more was important for standing out. “I guess that having a schedule like this looks more impressive on my transfer apps,” he said

The idea that killer schedules are necessary to be impressive was so deeply ingrained in this student that the idea of simplifying his course load never crossed his mind as an option.

This mindset is a problem that we must solve before we can make progress with the Romantic Scholar approach to student life, as it’s near impossible to find fulfillment in your school work when you’re constantly struggling to keep up with an overwhelming load.

To convince you to do less, however, I must first convince you that doing more is not a reasonable alternative…

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The Romantic Scholar: A New Approach to Student Life

September 24th, 2010 · 36 comments

The Age of Wonder

Around midnight, on March 13, 1781, William Herschel, an amateur astronomer from the West Country of England, was surveying the northern sky with a custom-built reflector telescope. As the Gemini constellation slid into view he noticed a new object moving slowly across the foreground. On a lesser telescope, the object would probably be dismissed as a new comet — one of the hundreds being discovered at the time.  But the precision of Herschel’s five-inch, hand-polished reflector mirror was unmatched in England, if not the world, allowing him to note the absence of a comet’s distinctive tail.

This was something different.

If you review Herschel’s journal entries from this period you’ll notice that he’s no stranger to hard work. On most nights, during the good winter observation months, his notes begin around 7 pm and end near dawn. He repeated this laborious work, night after night, year after year, systematically mapping the northern sky. As Richard Holmes details in The Age of Wonder, his epic survey of the Romantic Era of science, Herschel enjoyed these labors. In a letter written to the Royal Astronomer, Nivel Maskelyne, for example, Herschel excuses his sometimes unrestrained excitement, saying it “may perhaps be ascribed to a certain Enthusiasm which an observer…can hardly divest himself of when he sees such Wonders before him.”

The attraction of these “Wonders” is made clear by the events that followed that long March night. Though it required another nine nights of careful observation before Herschel made his first “tentative communications” regarding the new object, and several months to receive confirmation from other astronomers,  its importance had long before become obvious. Herschel had discovered Uranus — the first new planet since the age of Ptolemy; an event, as Holmes puts it, that would “[change] not only the solar system, but [revolutionize] the way men of science thought about its stability and creation.”

The Romantic in the Classroom

Herschel was a man of the Romantic Era, a period spanning from the mid 18th century into the early decades of the 19th. The scientists of this era recast their work from an exercise in cold rationality to an aesthetic experience. They reveled in the difficult work of teasing truth out of a reclusive Nature, and experienced frequent moments of awe.

As a young scientist myself, this era is appealing for obvious reasons. More surprising, however, is its relevance to my role as writer of student advice. I claim that we can draw from the ethos of these Romantic Scholars a new approach to student life: one that can transform your education experience — high school through graduate school — from a trial to survive into the foundation of a life well-lived.

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A Major Newspaper is Looking for Student, Parents, and Professors to Interview About Getting Into Hard Courses

September 20th, 2010 · 4 comments

Quick Note…

I just spoke with a reporter from a major national newspaper. She needs interview subjects for an article she’s writing on college. Specifically, she’s looking for…

  • students at selective colleges who have had a hard time getting into a popular course (or found an innovative way to get in);
  • parents of students who are frustrated that their tuition money does not necessarily gain their student access to all of a university’s resources; and
  • professors with a strong stance on whether this is good or bad.

If you’re willing to be interviewed, send me a short e-mail explaining who you are and where you go to school (or where your child goes to school, or where you teach). If possible, put “[Interview Request]” in the subject so I can notice your message. I’ll forward them on to the reporter.


In other news…

I published an interesting guest post over on Ramit Sethi’s blog; it discusses the danger of “getting started.” It fits in well with our recent discussion on rethinking passion.

You can expect my next post on Friday (God willing): it has to do with specific advice for transforming your student life from a trial to survice into the foundation for a life well lived.

Stay tuned…

Quick Hits: Come Meet Me and Chris Guillebeau at Harvard Square Monday Night

September 11th, 2010 · 18 comments

Two quick notes before we return to our regularly scheduled posts…

Come Meet Me and Chris Guillebeau at the Harvard Coop Bookstore at 7 PM on Monday, Sept. 13.
Chris is giving a talk about his provocative new book, The Art of Non-Conformity. Come hear his challenges to live a life that’s both engaging and useful to the world. After the talk, Chris and I will be hanging out in the Coop Cafe until closing to talk shop about remarkable living, writing, and whatever else interests you. We hope to see you there!

Learn More, Study Less
If you’re among the many readers who enjoy Scott Young’s blog in addition to Study Hacks, then you should give some serious consideration to his new video course, Learn More, Study Less. I spent an interesting morning earlier this week watching Scott’s lessons. Some of his approaches will sound familiar to fans of my books, and some I wish I had thought up first (his lesson on procrastination and time management, for example, are worth the price of the whole course); others clash with my philosophy: I’m not a fan of mind mapping style notes — too inefficient, in my opinion.

For the advanced student who is serious about optimizing habits, it’s worth taking a look at more details on the course — Scott offers an original point of view on these topics.

The Danger of the Dream Job Delusion

September 10th, 2010 · 70 comments

The Ivy League Farmer

Earlier this summer, Julie and I attended a dinner at Red Fire Farm, a 110 acre organic farm in rural Granby, Massachusetts. The dinner celebrated the strawberry harvest and the farmhands had setup tables under a tent overlooking the fruit fields. As we poured our wine, the farm’s owner, Ryan Voiland, stood up to say a few words about this year’s harvest.

Ryan is young, only in his early thirties, a fact he tries to hide with a grizzled black beard. As he spoke, his few words stretched into an enthusiastic dissertation on rain fall and cabbage yields. Eventually, Ryan’s wife, Sarah, took over, leading the group in a prayer to the “earth goddess.” As we sipped strawberry gazpacho, a group of college-aged farm interns formed a song circle in a patch of grass near the chicken coop.

In the comfort of cynical Boston, the event would have felt over the top, but in the shaded fields of Granby, it made sense. When I looked over to the main table, I saw Ryan take in the scene. He was smiling.

What makes Ryan’s story canonical is its start. Ten years earlier, he walked out of Cornell University with an Ivy League diploma in his hand and headed straight into the offices of the Farm Service Agency, where he secured a loan to buy his first farm property. A decade later, Red Fire is a success: it sells organic produce straight to the consumers through farmers markets and a sold-out CSA. When I last visited the farm, in mid-August, they were installing a $200,000 solar array. Ryan loves what he does and does it well.

The Dream Job Trope

Ryan has a dream job — which I define to be an occupation built around a hobby or casual side interest that you enjoy.  (Growing up, Ryan loved to garden, so, naturally, he started a farm.)

The dream job is a powerful trope in the job satisfaction literature. For example, here’s the opening paragraph from a popular career advice guide:

“[A] New York investment banker becomes a small-town college chef. A college professor becomes a chocolatier. An entrenched corporate exec…converts to the ministry.”

These are all dream jobs. When Tim Ferriss tells his famous story of an attorney who drops everything to open a Brazilian surf shop, that’s also a dream job, as are most of the examples touted in the perennially popular quit your terrible cubicle job to start a business advice guide niche.

You like to cook? Become a chef! Love chocolate? Open a chocolate shop! Like surfing on exotic beaches? Open a surf shop! And so on.

We’re entranced by dream jobs. When we hear stories like the one that opened this post, we feel a rush of aspiration. Hundreds make a living writing books and blogs about mustering the courage to pursue dream jobs, and millions dedicate their day dreaming to the topic. In this post, however, I want to argue that this is a problem.

The dream job trope isn’t the path to job satisfaction, and it’s not just harmless wistful thinking: it’s instead downright dangerous.

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