Study Hacks Blog Posts from April, 2011 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

On Becoming a Math Whiz: My Advice to a New MIT Student

April 28th, 2011 · 46 comments

Here’s how to become a math whiz:

Keep working on your problem set after you get stuck.

Don’t just sit and stare at it: think hard; until you’re exhausted; then come back the next day and try again. This will be uncomfortable, but that discomfort is the feeling of your brain stretching to accommodate new abilities.

This advice came to mind recently when I received an e-mail from a high school senior. “Yesterday, I was accepted to MIT,” he began. “I’m ecstatic, but on the other hand, I’m a little nervous…I was hoping you could give me some tips.”

I explained that I had been studying theoretical computer science and mathematics at a high-level for the past decade, much of it spent right here at MIT. Over these years, one conclusion has become increasingly clear: the more hard focus you dedicate to a technical subject — be it computer science, chemistry, or physics — the better you get.

Junior graduate students think senior graduate students are smarter, but they’re not: they simply have more practice.

Senior graduate students think junior professors are smarter, but they’re not: they simply have more practice.

And so on.

When I arrived at Dartmouth, to name another example, I didn’t consider myself good at math. I had taken AB calculus during high school (not BC), and had scored a 4 on the AP exam (not a 5). By my sophomore year of college, however, I had made a name for myself by snagging the highest grade out of 70 students in an advanced discrete mathematics class. What happened in between? A lot of hard focus.

Eventually, this all becomes clear, but for an incoming freshman, it’s not intuitive. When you struggle with a calculus problem set while a classmate knocks it out in an hour, it’s easy to start to thinking that you’re just not a “math person.”

But this isn’t about natural aptitude, it’s about practice. That other student has more practice. You can catch-up, but you have to put in the hours, which brings me back to my original advice: keep working even after you get stuck.

That’s where you make up ground.

Dispatch: Rethinking Meaningful Work at the Bluegrass Frat House

April 19th, 2011 · 20 comments

Dispatch is a regular feature in which I meet with interesting people to learn interesting things about creating an interesting life.

My Afternoon at the Bluegrass Frat House

Jordan Tice is 24. In the world of traditional work, this is young. Given that Tice recorded his first solo album while still in high school, however, it’s clear that in the world of acoustic guitar he’s no rookie.

This past weekend, I met up with Tice at the rambling Victorian he shares with a revolving set of fellow musicians. “Welcome to the bluegrass frat house”, he greeted me.

As Study Hacks readers know, I’m fascinated by Steve Martin’s advice to performers, “be so good they can’t ignore you,” as I suspect this axiom holds the key to a compelling life in almost any field. I was drawn to Tice because I wanted to better understand what it meant to live this ideal.

Here’s what struck me about Tice: he’s painfully modest.

At one point in our conversation, for example, he mentioned that while still in high school he began to tour with a well-known singer songwriter. “Jordan, this is a big deal,” I pushed. “I’m sure he knew lots of great, professional guitar players, but he chose you: a 16-year-old.”

Tice seemed uncomfortable at the implication that this was at all exceptional, and the conversation stuttered into silence.

As the afternoon continued, I began to realize that Tice’s modesty is not a personality quirk; it is instead a trait that’s shared by many serious songwriters. “Here’s what I respect,” he explained, “creating something meaningful and presenting it to the world.”

To be arrogant is to assign value to yourself, whereas in the world of songwriting, the value is consolidated in the songs themselves.

There’s something very Greek about Tice’s modesty. When he explains his songwriting there’s a piece of it that he sees as out of his control (he uses the phrase “bubbling to the surface” to describe how he discovers melodies). To be arrogant is to tempt the Muses into abandonment.

“There was this kid I knew at college, who posted a website, and it actually said something like: ‘I’m a composer, educator, and visionary,'” Tice said. “I was like, ‘dude, you’re a fucking tool.’ If you have to call yourself an artist, you don’t know what it means to do it.”

Notice the sharp contrast between Tice’s mindset and the self-centered perspective most of us apply to our work. Driven by the passion hypothesis, we’re terrified that we haven’t found the exact right job. If we’re not excited by every hour of every day, we start to question whether this is truly our “passion.” When we’re not immediately given great autonomy, creativity, and recognition in our work, we begin to deride our jobs as tolerably mediocre and start scheming a dramatic escape into an ill-conceived, one-man start-up.

Performers like Tice, by contrast, are happy to spend their afternoons in a small room in an overcrowded house, dedicating hour after hour to painstakingly improving their technique, all the while remaining ambivalent toward praise. They’re content to let what they produce speak for itself — even if it takes a long time, and a lot of hard work, for their output to find a voice.

To ask Tice whether he’s passionate about playing the guitar misses the point. Contentment in his world does not come from following passion, but instead in deploying it, day after day, in a quest to produce work so good it can’t be ignored.

Lesson Learned: There seems to be something deeply satisfying about turning your focus from what the world can offer you and onto what you can offer the world. This craftsman mindset might provide an effective and meaningful alternative to the passion mindset (i.e., worrying whether a job is your true calling) when navigating your career.

(Photo from Jordan Tice)

The Grade Whisperer: How Do I Start an Impressive Project if I Don’t Have an Impressive Interest?

April 11th, 2011 · 9 comments

The Grade Whisperer is a regular feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of doing less and doing better to help students solve academic problems.

Warren’s Missing Aspiration

Recently I heard from a college student named Warren. “I’m conjuring up a few ideas for grand projects after reading about them in your yellow book,” he said. “The thing is, I don’t really have any heartfelt aspirations. I don’t know what to do with my life yet.”

As fans of the yellow book know, I advise college students to embrace a “grand project,” my terminology for a project that, when described, makes people say “wow!” These projects help inject motivation and spontaneity into a student life that is otherwise heavily prescribed. They also tend to make you really impressive to the outside world.

Warren’s response to this advice is common: How do you launch a grand project if you don’t have a grand passion?

Here’s how I replied:

  • I don’t believe that there’s some magical right pursuit waiting for you to discover.
  • Choose something that seems reasonably interesting and really go after it. Keep exceeding people’s expectations.
  • Over time, this will grow into something meaningful in your life. (See my article about getting into Harvard by doing less for more details on this idea.)
  • It will also lead you in completely unexpected and fascinating directions. (See my article on getting into Stanford with a B on your transcript for more details on this idea.)

It turns out, for example, that Warren has written some screenplays. That’s as good a starting place for a grand project as any. He should consider, I advised, applying the pyramid method to his writing: i.e., pick a venue that will give clear feedback on his work, and then focus on this venue until his work is unabashedly great. There has to be a student contest, or something similar, where he could put the method into practice with his writing.

Above all, remember that for most students: Passion follows impressive accomplishment; not the other way around.


Boston-Area Readers: Come See Me Speak Monday Night in Belmont

April 7th, 2011 · 8 comments

A quick administrative note:

I’m giving a public lecture this Monday, April 11th, as part of the Friends of the Belmont Public Library Author Series.

The event will be held at the Belmont High School Auditorium and will start at 7:30 pm.

I will be talking about reducing stress in college admissions by adopting my do less, do better philosophy.

The event is open to the public, there will be books for sale, and I’m doing a signing. I love any chance to meet Study Hacks people, so if you’re able to make it on Monday, I’ll be excited to meet you.

Is It Possible to Feel Passionate About Being a Tax Consultant?

April 4th, 2011 · 40 comments

The (Lack of) Passion of the Tax Consultant

In the summer of 2008, I met John, a rising senior at an Ivy League college. He was worried about his impending graduation.

“What advice can you give to a student who wants to live more spontaneously?”, he asked. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but was clear about his “dreams to do something big.”

I gave John some advice, mainly centered around lifestyle-centric career planning, and then we went our separate ways.

That is, until two weeks ago, when John sent me a note.

“Well, I ignored your advice at my peril,” he began. John had taken a job as a corporate tax consultant. Though he found the work to be “sometimes interesting,” the hours were long and the tasks were fiercely prescribed, making it difficult to stand out.

“Aside from not liking the lifestyle”, John complained, “I’m concerned that my work doesn’t serve a larger purpose and, in fact, hurts the most vulernable.”

Longtime Study Hacks readers are familiar with my unconventional stance on finding work you love. I don’t believe in “following your passion.” In most cases, I argue, passion for what you do follows mastery — not from matching a job to a pre-existing calling.

John’s story, however, strains this philosophy. It poses a question that I’ve been asked many times before: can I generate a passion for any job?

In other words, is there a way for John to grow to love being a corporate tax consultant?

Here was my answer: probably not.

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