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

Walking in Merlin Mann’s Footsteps and a Book You Should Know About

April 29th, 2012 · 3 comments

Two brief administrative notes…

A2 Earns an A

When I first started blogging in 2007, I needed web hosting. I noticed that Merlin Mann had a note on 43 Folders about his happiness working with a company named A2 Hosting. That was good enough for me: I signed up for their introductory package.

That was five years ago and I’ve been nothing but happy with their service ever since.  Now, in a nice bit of circularity, they’ve agreed to sponsor Study Hacks in much the same way they were sponsoring 43 Folders back when I got started with blogging.

So if you’re looking for web hosting, you have my recommendation.


Community College Success

Speaking of recommendations, I have one more to make. An important segment of my readers is community college students. I like these students because they are often way more pragmatic than their counterparts at four year institutions. They see school as an investment and want to get the most out of the money they put in, and therefore they tend to focus more on the nitty-gritty of their strategies (which I enjoy) and less on whether their major is their passion (which I don’t enjoy).

Anyway, a shortcoming of my student writing is that I’ve never done systematic studies of community college students, so my advice in this area is somewhat tentative.

This is why I am happy to enthusiastically recommend Isa Adney’s new book: Community College Success.

If you’re in community college and are looking for advice tailored to your specific setting, Isa’s book is a great place to start.


Do What Works, Not What’s Satisfying: Pseudo-Striving and our Fear of Reality-Based Planning

April 29th, 2012 · 67 comments

The Dune Revelation

In July 2009, I took a trip to San Francisco. At some point, I ended up hiking at a sand-duned nature preserve, not far south from Monterey on Highway 1.

What I remember about this hike is a thought that struck not long into the route. In the summer of 2009, I was two months from defending my PhD dissertation. I had arranged for a post doc after graduation but found the academic market beyond to be uncertain for me and my skills. It was in this context that I had my insight:

Why hadn’t I systematically studied the most successful senior grad students when I first arrived at MIT?

Every year, a small number of computer science students at MIT easily generate multiple job offers while the rest have to sweat the process. What do these students do differently from the others? It’s a basic question and yet almost no one arriving in Cambridge seeks an answer. We instead carve out our paths blindly, sticking our heads up only at the end to see if we’ve stumbled anywhere near our destination.

I ended up fine, landing a great tenure track position at Georgetown, but the 2009 version of myself did not have this certainty, and my failure to more systematically plan for my arrival on this market suddenly seemed a glaring omission.

The $100 Startup

This 2009 experience came back to me earlier this week as I read an advance copy of Chris Guillebeau’s new book: The $100 Startup. In this book, Chris tackles a topic made popular by Tim Ferris: how to build a lifestyle business in a digital age.

Lots of people are enamored by the idea of having a business that requires little investment and yet supports you financially while injecting flexibility into your life.

What sets Chris’s book apart, however, is that he was not content inventing a bullet-point system that simply sounds good. He instead systematically studied people who had actually made these types of businesses work. He started with a survey of 1500 such entrepreneurs which he then narrowed down to 100-200 that he interviewed in more detail. He lists them by name in his appendix.

The result is often messier than the internally-consistent, inspiration-boosting acronmyized systems of competing books and blogs, but the advice come across with an authenticity that’s rare for this topic.

Put another way: Chris did with his interest in lifestyle businesses what I should have done as a grad student with my interest in becoming a professor. The only plan he was interested in was a plan grounded in reality.

The Big Question

I’m telling these stories because they inspire an important question: Why do so few people do what Chris did? Most of us are content, it seems, to work hard and build complicated systems, but we avoid basing our efforts on a reality-based assessment of what really matters.

And I think I finally have an explanation…

Read more »

The Father of Deliberate Practice Disowns Flow

April 9th, 2012 · 67 comments

Feeling Low on Flow

In a trio of recent articles, I emphasized that flow is dangerous (see here and here and here). It feels good, so we’re tempted to seek it out, but it doesn’t actually help us get better: the key process in creating a remarkable life.

Most of you liked this concept, while a few of you thought I had missed the boat. Here’s an example of the latter sentiment:

I disagree with [your] point. Flow is the experience of being lost in one’s effort. That can easily happen when one is highly challenged and enjoying the intense effort.

There was also quite a bit of discussion on what, exactly, “flow” means, with enough different points of view presented that I soon felt that the whole issue was becoming muddied and difficult to wade through.

Then someone sent me an article penned by Anders Ericsson — the psychologist who innovated the study of how we get better by introducing the idea of deliberate practice. In this article, which was published in 2007 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Ericsson addresses the difference between flow and deliberate practice:

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (‘‘flow’’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

In other words, the feeling of flow is different than the feeling of getting better. If all you seek is flow, then you’re not going to get better. There is no avoiding the deliberate strain of real improvement. (This is not the say, however, that you should not seek flow in addition to deliberate practice as a strategy to recharge, or experience it as unavoidable when you put your deliberately honed skills to use.)

Ericsson concludes by echoing a warning familiar to Study Hacks readers:

The commonly held but empirically unsupported notion that some uniquely “talented” individuals can attain superior performance in a given domain without much practice appears to be a destructive myth that could discourage people from investing the necessary efforts to reach expert levels of performance.

He said it. Not me.


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

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(Photo by Kofoed)