Study Hacks Blog Posts from January, 2012 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Closing Your Interests Opens More Interesting Opportunities: The Power of Diligence in Creating a Remarkable Life

January 29th, 2012 · 56 comments

The Banjo Player

Steve Martin made the comments around twenty minutes into his 2007 interview with Charlie Rose. They were talking about how Martin learned the banjo.

“In high school, I couldn’t play an instrument,” Martin admits.

“I remember getting my first banjo, and reading the book saying ‘this is how you play the C chord,’ and I put my fingers down to play the C chord and I couldn’t tell the difference.”

“But I told myself,” he continued, “just stick with this, just keep playing, and one day you’ll have been playing for 40 years, and at this point, you’ll know how to play.”

Learning banjo is not easy, especially at a time and place (1960’s California) where banjo lessons were not a possibility. Martin’s technique was to take Earl Scruggs records and slow them down from 33 RPM to 16 RPM. He would then tune down the banjo to match the slower speed and start picking out the notes, painstakingly, one by one.

Years later, Martin began to integrate the banjo into his act.

“The reason I played [banjo] on stage,” he explained in an ABC interview, “is because…I thought it’s probably good to show the audience I can do something that looks hard, because this act looks like I’m just making it up.”

As he kept playing and practicing he got better.

In 2009, Martin released his first album, “The Crow.” It won a Grammy. (Last month he was nominated for his second Grammy.)

This was 50 years after Martin picked up his first Banjo — not far off from the 40 years he had predicted as a teenager it would take him to “know how to play.”

Martin’s Diligence

One of the things that has always impressed me about Steve Martin is his diligence. In his memoir, Born Standing Up, he emphasizes this theme — defining diligence not just in terms of persistence, but also in the ability to ignore unrelated pursuits.

Martin was, of course, being facetious when he pepped himself up with the idea that it would only take 40 years to get good at the banjo (he was playing at a high-level in his act within 5 – 10 years of starting his training), but this statement reflects a deeper truth: getting good at something is not to be taken lightly; it’s a pursuit measured in years, not weeks.

Read more »

Distraction is a Symptom of a Deeper Problem: The Convenience Principle and the Destruction of American Productivity

January 21st, 2012 · 42 comments

The following line is from an e-mail I recently received from Georgetown’s HR department. It references “GMS,” the slick new database system they installed to unify all employee services:

Please remember to log in to GMS a few times each day to check your Workfeed for any items requiring your attention and/or approval.

Among the tenure-track faculty, the message was a source of amusement: the idea that professors at a research university should be checking with the HR department several times a day, just in case there is some administrative task waiting for them to complete, runs counter to everything we’ve ever been taught about how people succeed in academia.

I’m mentioning this note here, however, because I saw it as an example of a deeper principle currently shaping the American knowledge work environment — a principle with destructive consequences.

Read more »

A Major Newspaper Wants Your Thoughts On Passion

January 20th, 2012 · 8 comments

A reporter from a major national newspaper is looking to interview people about their experiences with “passion.”

In more detail, he’s looking for the following two types of people:

  1. Those who set out to follow their passion and were disappointed.
  2. Those who discovered the more complicated reality of how people actually end up loving what you do (for example…)

If either (or both) describes you, and you’re interested in being interviewed for a major national newspaper, e-mail me a brief summary of your story at author [at] and put “[Interview]” in the subject line. (I’m interested in reading your stories as well.)

As a side note, it’s nice to see that the skepticism about passion that we’ve expressed for years here on Study Hacks is starting to gain traction…

Intelligence is Irrelevant: An MIT Alum’s Advice to a Struggling Student

January 9th, 2012 · 46 comments

A Reddit Gem

A reader recently sent me a link to this fascinating Reddit thread. It’s titled:”I’m not as smart as I thought I was,” and it features a high school senior worried that his intellectual abilities are lacking.

Over 700 people wrote comments in response. One of the top comments was from an MIT graduate who had struggled with and then overcame similar feelings of inadequacy when he first arrived in Cambridge.

Below, I’ve reproduced key passages from his note (edited slightly), as I think he has something important to say — for both students and graduates — about the psychological complexity of the quest to become so good they can’t ignore you…

The people who fail to graduate from MIT, fail because they come in, encounter problems that are harder than anything they’ve had to do before, and not knowing how to look for help or how to go about wrestling those problems, burn out.

The students who are successful, by contrast, look at that challenge, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, and then begin to take steps hiking that mountain, knowing that bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top. They ask for help, they acknowledge their inadequacies. They don’t blame their lack of intelligence, they blame their lack of motivation.

During my freshman year, I almost failed out of differential equations.  I was able to recover and go on to be very successful in my studies. When I was a senior, I would sit down with the freshmen in my dorm and show them the same things that had been shown to me, and I would watch them struggle with the same feelings, and overcome them. By the time I graduated MIT, I had become the person I looked up to when I first got in.

You feel like you are burnt out or that you are on the verge of burning out, but in reality you are on the verge of deciding whether or not you will burn out. It’s scary to acknowledge that it’s a decision because it puts the onus on you to to do something about it, but it’s empowering because it means there is something you can do about it.

So do it.

Beyond Flow

January 5th, 2012 · 39 comments

A Deliberate Day

Earlier this week, after three days of trying, I proved an interesting theorem. I was studying a certain type of scheduling problem in graphs. I was finally able to prove that without lots of knowledge about the graph no algorithm can solve the problem fast.

This morning I set out to extend this result. I wanted to know what happens if you have more knowledge. After about an hour, I had a partial answer: If the graph is small in a certain way there is an algorithm that can solve the problem fast — I know this because I found it.

Unfortunately, for more general structures I couldn’t make the math play nice. I had a hazy intuition, but attempt after attempt to make it concrete failed. I couldn’t hold the pieces straight in my head. (See here for more on the style of problem I’m talking about here.)

After another 3 – 4 hours I had to stop for the day.

Read more »