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

Atul Gawande Thinks You’re Not As Good As You Think You Are

September 28th, 2011 · 30 comments

In Search of Excellence

By any reasonable measure, Atul Gawande is an expert surgeon. He trained at some of the country’s most elite medical institutions and has performed over two thousand operations.

But he could be better.

As Gawande notes in his latest New Yorker feature, he recently brought a coach into his operating room to find places where he could improve. The coach turned up no shortage of suggestions.

“One twenty-minute discussion [with my coach] gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years,” he admits.

The premise of Gawande’s article — the idea that brought him to the extreme step of hiring his own surgical coach — is that most of us are lousy at becoming excellent.

Athletes and musicians know that deliberate practice is the foundation for excellence, and that this style of practice requires a ruthless focus on your shortcomings, which in turn requires coaching. The rest of us, however, tend to flee the discomfort of such directed criticism as soon as we’ve acquired the bare minimum of credentials that allows us to adopt the moniker of “expert.” We wield any foundation of skill — even if skimpy — like a shield against the discomfort required to acquire more.

To Gawande’s reasoning, this is a problem. In many fields, from teaching, to programming, to marketing, we could be a lot better than we are — if only we were willing to let down our guard and embrace guidance on where we still need work.

“This is tricky,” admits Gawande. “Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended”

In the context our our ongoing Career Craftsman discussion, this article piqued my interest. The idea of hiring a coach for a knowledge worker position sounds radical.  But what if the positive results were equally momentous?

I’m pondering…

(Photo by the ALA)

The Calculus of Remarkability

September 22nd, 2011 · 37 comments

The Irrepressible Erez

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to return for the moment to my obsession with Erez Lieberman. As you might recall, Lieberman is a rising star in the science world. He’s currently a fellow at Harvard’s elite Society of Fellows and a visiting faculty member at Google. He was selected for the Tech Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 list, his work has been featured on the front page of the The New York Times, and the NIH just gave him a $2.5 million New Innovators grant.

When Lieberman’s stint as a Harvard fellow is over, he’ll have his choice of academic positions.

In other words, Erez Lieberman is remarkable, and this makes him interesting to us — not just those of us who happen to be grad students or professors, but to anyone who is interested in my Career Craftsman philosophy, which posits that becoming so good they can’t ignore you is the foundation for building a working life you love.

With all this in mind, I thought it useful to dive deeper into Lieberman’s story and see what insights I could uncover…

Read more »

Is It Possible to Apply the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy in Graduate School?

September 12th, 2011 · 23 comments

A reader asked me this question recently. Here’s what I told him:

  • Yes, but it feels different in grad school than earlier in your student career.
  • It’s about being able to focus intensely on what matters — mastering the parts of your field most relevant to your research — and not getting bogged down by everything else.
  • It’s about being able say: “I worked hard on something that matters this afternoon, now I’m done, let’s go find some good beer.”
  • It’s about being able to fall off the radar of people handing out time-consuming busy work, then popping back up suddenly and saying: “I just did something important. Again.”
  • Grad school done right is hard work, but also quite Zen — not in a sitting back and relaxing sort of way, but in a minimalist, focused, Shaolin Monk, living life with crystal clear clarity and few complications sort of way.

A Major Paper is Looking for Students to Interview

September 9th, 2011 · One comment

Speaking of major national newspapers, a reporter I know from one such publication wrote me recently and asked the following:

“I’m trying to get in touch with current students or recent graduates whose parents went to Ivy League schools — and they didn’t, either because they didn’t want to apply or they didn’t get in.”

If this describes you and you’re interested in being interviewed, you can contact her directly at pamela [at]

Thomas Friedman Thinks You Should Stop Whining About Your Passion and Work Harder

September 8th, 2011 · 25 comments

Last night, I watched Thomas Friedman’s interview with Piers Morgan. He was talking about his new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. At one point during the interview, when Morgan asked Friedman his advice for young workers, Friedman replied, in his trademark catchphrase style, “the Age of Average is over.”

He then continued: “You should aim to be an artisan…everything thing you do, you should be proud of, willing to put your initials on it.

This sounds an awful lot like my Career Craftsman philosophy, which argues that compelling careers are crafted (not discovered), and the fuel for this process is producing things of real value. This philosophy requires that you approach your work, to use Friedman’s term, as an artisan, worrying about what you offer the world, not what the world can offer you.

In a hyper-competitive, globalized economy (to use more Friedman terms), believing that the working world owes you a dream job is no longer tenable.

What’s interesting is that Friedman is not the first Times columnist to echo the career ideas we’ve been exploring here. Back in June, David Brooks argued that “follow your passion” is bad advice — a theme I’ve been hammering home for years.

I think there’s only one conclusion to make in light of these recent events: The Gray Lady takes it cues from Study Hacks.

(Photo by Center for American Progress)


On an unrelated note, longtime friend of Study Hacks, Scott Young, just posted a bunch of free material from his popular Learning on Steroids student advice program. To find it, click here then follow the links on the right under the heading “Bootcamp Schedule.”