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

Lab Notes: My Closed-Loop Research System

June 23rd, 2011 · 43 comments

Lab notes is a regular feature in which I report on my efforts to make my life more remarkable.

The Zurich Initiative

Around this time last summer, I found myself at an espresso bar in Zurich Airport’s newly redesigned Terminal 2. I took out my idea notebook and titled a blank page: “Core Principles: Computer Science.” I then sketched out a new, three-part system for tackling my academic research.

As I explained in my last blog post, I’m fascinated by people who build remarkable careers. In my field, building a remarkable career requires remarkable research. This is why as I sat sipping espresso in Switzerland, my last pre-professor year looming, I decided it was time to get serious about exactly how I tackled my work.

My original three-part system, sketched at the airport, quickly faltered in practice. It called, for example, for me to separate “exploration days” from “logistics days,” a level of isolation I found unrealistic.

In other places, it was so vague as to be useless. It said, for example, that “when an exciting problem presents itself, [I should] start working on it early and persistently” — a request way too abstract to translate into day to day action.

But I kept at it: I studied the CV’s of professors I admired; I read books on innovation and craftsmanship; I dissected many years worth of award-winning papers from relevant conferences; and above all else, I tried things — lots of things — to see what actually worked.

Now that I’m a month away from starting my new position at Georgetown, I’ve arrived at a relatively stable research strategy. I assume it will evolve as I gain more experience as a professor, and I’m somewhat nervous that the more experienced among you will scoff at my naivety, but it’s a starting point — a way to start my new position with a proactive (not reactive) mindset.

In this post, as part of my effort to be more transparent about my own quest to build work I love, I explain this system.

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On Minecraft and the Launch of Project Remarkable

June 17th, 2011 · 34 comments

The Minecraft Revelation

Markus Persson got me thinking.

Markus is three years older than me, he’s Swedish, and he’s rich. He made his money in an field not usually known for its wealth-generation: indie computer game development.

Markus’ story starts in 2009, when he quit his job as a game programmer for to build Minecraft, a java-based world building, zombie fighting, mine digging sandbox game. (You probably have to see it to understand to it.)

People, it turns out, really like Minecraft. In January of this year, Markus sold his millionth copy. Earlier this month, sales passed the 2.5 million copy mark. Markus has made somewhere between $30 – 40 million dollars on the project.

Here’s what troubled me about the Markus Persson story. On Study Hacks, I’ve been promoting the idea that you have to be good at what you do before you can expect your job to be good to you. This is why I push myself and others to stop worrying about their “passion” and day dreaming about courageously bucking the status quo. Navel-gazing and conformity-defiance, I argue, is not how people end up loving what they do. Instead, they start by getting good at something rare and valuable, and then leverage this “career capital” to construct — not discover — a fantastic career.

Markus seemed like a good case study of this philosophy. Before he could develop Minecraft, he had to become excellent at game development. Not surprisingly, it turns out he started programming at the age of eight and then after college worked for a half-decade at a game company to further hone is skills.

But here’s the problem: lots of other people are also really good at programming and also build indie games, but are nowhere near as successful at Markus. The implication here is one that I’ve been encountering time and again, in many different settings, and I realize I can’t ignore it any longer: Becoming “so good they can’t ignore you” is a pre-requisite for building a remarkable life, but it’s not necessarily the whole story.

Once you have acquired career capital, you still have to figure out what to do with it, and the best strategies here — the strategies that separate the Markus Perssons from the hordes of other talented game programmers — are not obvious.

Project Remarkable

I want to explore these non-obvious strategies. In other words, I’m going to assume that my Rethinking Passion series has throughly convinced you that “follow your passion” is bad advice and that you must instead start by becoming good at something. Now it’s time to figure out what comes next.

Here’s my plan: I’m going to use myself as the guinea pig. As I start my new job as a professor, I have a base of rare and valuable abilities to draw on, in that I’m relatively adept at producing cutting-edge research in my field. But so are lots of other young professors. The question, then, is how can I most productively leverage this capital to stand out from the crowd and nudge my career in a more remarkable direction.

Over the next few months, I’ll use my Lab Notes series to report on the efforts I’m deploying. But in the meantime, I want to learn from you. If you’ve found success leveraging hard-earned ability to take control of your life and move it in a remarkable direction, chime in on the comments and share what you’ve learned.

That is, if you can tear yourself away for a few minutes from the sweet new tower you’re building in Minecraft.

(Photo of Markus Persson and his newly formed development company by paulamarttila.)

It’s Not About You: David Brooks’ Contrarian Advice for College Graduates

June 1st, 2011 · 35 comments

Debunking the Passion Hypothesis

For the past couple years I’ve been advancing a controversial argument: “follow your passion” is bad advice.

I’m not against feeling passionate about your work — in fact, I think this is a fantastic goal. But from my experience studying this issue, passion is not something that you discover and then match a job to; it is, instead, something that grows over time along with your skills.

In other words, working right trumps finding the right work.

Over the weekend, I received support for my contrarian philosophy from an esteemed source. In his most recent column for The New York Times, David Brooks laid out an argument that will sound familiar to Study Hack readers.

“If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days,” writes Brooks, “you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself.”

“But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.”

As Brooks elaborates:”College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to.

“It’s excellence…that we admire most”

Brooks argues that you shouldn’t place yourself — your passions, your non-conformity — at the center of your universe. What matters to the world is what you do not what you want — and things worth doing are often “arduous and miserable.”

I love to see smart people like Brooks engage the sacred cows of American career advice. The more we question tropes like “follow your passion,” the more equipped we’ll become to squeeze the most out of life.

Beyond Passion

The timing of Brooks’ column was fortuitous.

Over the path few months, as part of a secret writing project (to be revealed this summer), I’ve been traveling around New England, meeting interesting people who love their lives. My goal was to find answers to a crucial question: if “follow your passion” is bad advice (as David Brooks and I both argue), what works instead?

Among other adventures, I’ve spent the day with Ivy League-educated farmers, interrogated an entrepreneur who gave away his millions to charity, had coffee with an elite medical resident who was the first in the history of his program to take time off to pursue other interests, toured the lab of a thirty-something Harvard biologist curing some of the world’s deadliest diseases, and met an academic archaeologist who stars in his own TV show.

What I’m trying to say here is that if you agree with Brooks and my thoughts on passion, and you’re interested in the follow-up question of how people really build remarkable lives, stay tuned.

I’m just getting started…

(Photo by gurdonark)

Quick Hits: My Move to Georgetown, Live Interview, and Experiments with Forced Batching

June 1st, 2011 · 20 comments

Excuse this brief diversion from my normal post schedule: I want to clear out some administrative notes that have been piling up…

Note #1: I’m Moving to Georgetown

My long-stated goal of becoming a “genial advice-spewing professor” is finally coming to fruition: this fall I’m starting as an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

Two points related to this move:

  1. Study Hacks will Continue. My role as a professor should provide interesting new insights for my student-centric posts, and having a “real job” for the first time in my life should provide needed nuance to my career-centric posts.
  2. Come Work With Me. If you’re a rising senior or a masters student studying computer science, and you have an interest in applying distributed algorithm theory to exciting new problems, and you’re thinking about pursuing a doctorate: drop me a note. I’ll be recruiting my first PhD students soon. Maybe it could be you?

Note #2: I’m Doing a Live Online Interview and Q & A Session Thursday Night at 8PM EDT

The interview is for the Future of Education series, and I’ll be talking about my blue book. You can listen to the interview live and ask questions (click here for details). Hope to see you there.

Note #3: My Article for The 99%

My latest article for The 99 Percent online magazine is live. It talks about my experiments with batching. The moral: batching is a lot harder than people assume…