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

Interested in Lifestyle Design? Get a PhD.

August 17th, 2011 · 36 comments

David had his epiphany not long after hiking an erupting volcano in the Fimmvörðuháls pass of southern Iceland. (Pictured above.)

At the time, he was a masters student spending a semester working with a team of seismologists.

He was also trying to figure out what to do with his life.

“I came full-circle on this issue of building an exciting life,” he told me. “I ultimately rejected the low-cost, Internet-based cash-flow business model that Tim Ferriss and others advocate as the silver bullet.”

To understand what he meant, you must first understand that David loved his time in Iceland. He developed a close group of friends and “spent evenings socializing, partying, exploring, and weekends hiking.” He climbed volcanoes and bathed in hot springs. He got to work with world class researchers solving interesting problems in beautiful locations.

“It broke my heart to leave,” he said.

David realized that an academic path could offer the exotic travel and flexibility promoted by lifestyle design gurus such as Ferriss, while also providing a sense of engagement and intellectual stimulation that would be hard to match on one’s own.

So on returning to the States, he decided to continue into his school’s PhD program. His first step, true to his desire to create an interesting life, was to “apply to every fellowship under the sun.” He won an NSF award to research in Japan, where his work on earthquake prediction had suddenly taken on a renewed sense of importance.

“My long-term goals aren’t clear yet,” he told me.  “But I hope to place myself in a position where I can choose a nice place to live after the doctorate.  Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, New York, and California are all on the list.”

The Lessons of David

What interests me about David’s story is that it’s relevant to both my student and my career advice.

Read more »

Don’t Quit Your Day Job, Transform It: Why Following Your Passion is the Wrong Way to Find Occupational Happiness

August 13th, 2011 · 48 comments

Rethinking Plan B

A recent New York Times article opens with the story of Rona Economou, a young woman with a career saga that follows a familiar arc.

Rona was a lawyer at a large Manhattan law firm and worried that her job wasn’t her calling. After being laid off during the recession she realized that this was her “one chance” to follow her dreams. Inspired, she opened a Greek food stall in the Lower East Side’s Essex Street Market. She wanted to “indulge her passion, lead a healthier life, and downshift professionally.”

Almost every career blog and book on the planet would applaud Rona’s courageous decision.

She’s no longer so sure.

As the Times reports, Rona now works harder than she ever had as a lawyer. Six days a week she’s up at 5:30 am doing strenuous labor: “she hoists 20-pounds bag of flour, gets burned and occasionally slices open a finger.” Her one day off a week is dedicated to the administrative side of the business.

She makes much less money and has much less flexibility in her schedule. Something as simple as catching a cold can be a disaster: “I can’t afford to shut the shop down.”

Rona discovered that her dream job was not as dreamy as she had fantasized — and she’s not alone in recognizing this cold dose of reality. The Times article tells story after story of young people with similar experiences:

  • Mary Lee Herrington quit her $250,000-a-year law job to become a wedding planner. She exhausted herself working 17-hour days. When she crunched the numbers, she was making less than $2 an hour.
  • Charan Sachar ditched his software engineering job to sell teapots on Etsy. He was surprised to find that instead of leisurely days spent at the kiln, up to 70% of his time is now dedicated to administrative tasks.”He’s not only his own boss,” the Times notes, “he is his own accountant, sales director, marketing manager and shipping clerk.”
  • Jennifer Phelan left a marketing job to become a private pilates instructor. She found the 14-hour days to be physically exhausting. She has since returned to her old job.
  • And so on.

A Better Approach

After reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of a college friend who not that long ago was in situation similar to Rona Economou. He was a lawyer at a big firm in a big city, and he also felt that his life lacked a certain spark.

But instead of leaving the law to start from scratch, he leveraged his value as a highly-trained lawyer to take control of his career.

Read more »

The Career Craftsman Manifesto

August 11th, 2011 · 82 comments

On Foundational Philosophies

In 2008, I introduced the Zen Valedictorian philosophy, which argued that it’s possible to lead a student life that’s successful and impressive at the same time that it’s low-stress and enjoyable. All my student advice comes back to achieving this goal.

It came to my attention recently that I don’t have a similar clarifying vision for my career advice. If the Zen Valedictorian is the epitome of what I think student life should be, what’s my equivalent abstraction for maximizing life after graduation?

The need for this answer led me to develop the newest entrant to the Study Hacks canon: the Career Craftsman. I introduce this philosophy below in a pithy manifesto format. These ideas are a work in progress, and the propositions that follow mark the start of my exploration of this new direction in my thinking.

A Career Manifesto

Career advice has fallen into a terribly simplistic rut. Figure out what you’re passionate about, then follow that passion: this idea provides the foundation for just about every guide to improving your working life.

The Career Craftsman rejects this reductionist drivel.

The Career Craftsman understands that “follow your passion and all will be happy” is a children’s tale. Most people don’t have pre-existing passions waiting to be unearthed. Happiness requires more than solving a simple matching problem.

The Career Craftsman knows there’s no magical “right job” waiting out there for you. Any number of pursuits can provide the foundation for an engaging life.

The Career Craftsman believes that compelling careers are not courageously pursued or serendipitously discovered, but are instead systematically crafted.

The Career Craftsman believes this process of career crafting always begins with the mastery of something rare and valuable. The traits that define great work (autonomy, creativity, impact, recognition) are rare and valuable themselves, and you need something to offer in return. Put another way: no one owes you a fulfilling job; you have to earn it.

The Career Craftsman believes that mastery is just the first step in crafting work you love. Once you have the leverage of a rare and valuable skill, you need to apply this leverage strategically to make your working life increasingly fulfulling. It is then — and only then — that you should expect a feeling of passion for your work to truly take hold.

The Career Craftsman thinks the idea that “societal expectations” are trying to hold you down in a safe but boring career path is a boogeyman invented to sell eBooks. You don’t need courage to create a cool life. You need the type of valuable skills that let you write your own ticket.

The Career Craftsman never expects to love an entry level job (or to stay in that job long before moving up).

The Career Craftsman thinks “is this my calling?” is a stupid question.

The Career Craftsman is data-driven. Admire someone’s career? Work out exactly how they made it happen. The answers you’ll find will be less romantic but more actionable than you might expect.

The Career Craftsman believes the color of your parachute is irrelevant if you take the time to get good at flying the damn plane in the first place.


Here are some past articles that can help you adopt the Career Craftsman philosophy in your own working life. Expect many more to come:

(Photo by dio5)

Studying by Startlight: Adventure Studying and the Quest to Take Back Control of Your Academic Experience

August 5th, 2011 · 22 comments

An Adventurous Academic Alcove

Alex’s trouble started with a mathematics course. Something about the material just didn’t click.

“I grew to to dislike the course so much that I could stare at the problem set for hours and get nowhere,” she told me.

Then she came up with a solution:

The image above was taken from the roof of the science center at Alex’s university. This is where she started to take her math homework — usually late at night.

She was definitely not supposed to be up there, but she went anyway — and for good reason.

“I would slip out onto the roof, and go to a little protected alcove I discovered. There was a roof light that lit the area and I had a nice place to sit” she said.

“The total isolation and silence, the total lack of distractions, the novelty of the location, the limited time: it made these sessions really excellently productive.”

The Return of the Romantic Scholar

Alex’s tactic is an example of what I call adventure studying. I introduced this idea back in 2008, but I’m reintroducing it today as part of my ongoing  series on the Romantic Scholar approach to student life. As you might recall, this series presents tactics for transforming your student experience from a trial to survive and into the foundation of a life well-lived.

Adventure studying, as Alex discovered, is a fantastic strategy for advancing this goal. The antiseptic library and distressed dorm lounge are so burdened with cultural significance — studying is hard, boring, tedious work — they make it near impossible to reimagine your academic experience.

Change the context, however, and you gain freedom from these signifiers. Study by a waterfall or at a quiet pub, and you take back control decisions about what role your school work plays in your life.

Keep this strategy in mind as the new semester lurks closer. Tackling your assignments can be a sublime experience, but it’s up to you to make this happen.

Just don’t let the janitor see you sneaking up the fire escape.


This post is the fifth in my series on the Romantic Scholar approach to student life, which details a collection of strategies to transform school from a trial to survive into the foundation of a life well-lived.

Past articles:

How to Tutor Your Own Child

August 5th, 2011 · 6 comments

Last night I went to a book launch party. It was held at 826 DC, a fantastic youth tutoring non-profit  that oozes with hipster whimsy.

Appropriately, the author we were celebrating, Marina Koestler Ruben, is an educator. Her book is titled: How to Tutor Your Own Child.

I read an advance copy, and it’s good; the type of book that will continue to sell for years and years because it offers solutions to a universal problem:  how to be useful when your child struggles with school work. Also, unlike many advice guides, it’s actually well written, which likely owes much to Marina’s writing degree.

There was, however, a bigger point that struck me as I listened last night to Marina talk about adopting the parent-tutor lifestyle: achieving this goal is not obvious.

Do you know, for example, the six steps that define a quality tutoring session, or when to make the shift from parental to professional help? I didn’t.

Tutoring, it turns out, is a craft.

This brings me back to an argument that I made obliquely in my recent post on the case method for defeating procrastination: the more ambitious among us like to take action toward our goals, but we don’t necessarily want to put much time into figuring out which actions we should be taking.

When our children struggle with their homework, we’re quick to dive in and offer advice, but how many look to the Marina’s of the world to first figure out how to do so effectively?

In other words, if you’re on homework patrol in your household, buy this book. If you’re not, buy into the broader lesson it exemplifies: taking action and taking the right action can be two very different things.