A Productivity Lesson from the Prison Debate Team that Defeated HarvardOctober 7th, 2015 · 26 comments
The Underdog Debate
News broke wide earlier today about something unexpected that happened last month at a maximum security correctional facility near Dannemora, New York: a team of prisoners won a debate contest held against Harvard’s vaunted three-time national champion team.
As reported by the Washington Post, a twist that made this outcome even more unlikely is that the prisoner team completed their extensive preparation without access to the Internet.
They were forced instead to make formal requests to the prison administration for the books and articles they required, and to then wait for days — and sometimes even weeks — for approval.
The easy storyline here is that this underdog team triumphed despite the hardship of being less connected. While this description might be largely true, the Post’s reporting suggests that something more interesting might have also happened:
[I]t’s worth asking whether circumstance forced the prisoners to devise an approach — in which limited resources demanded sharper focus and more rigorous planning — that resulted in superior lines of argumentation.
This is an important point. Removing the prison team’s access to the Internet made their debate preparation harder, but because it forced them to focus without distraction on exactly what they wanted to say and how to say it best, it also produced better results.
Easy Versus Effective
I think this confusion is common in the professional world: we too often mistake the idea of making our working lives easier with making our work better. But these are two different things.
Slack makes life easier in the moment for computer programmers, but it also leads them to produce messy, distracted code.
General purpose e-mail addresses really simplify corporate communication, but the resulting inbox madness is burning out a whole generation of knowledge workers.
And so on.
I’m not trying to argue for something radical here, but am instead suggesting a subtle shift in mindset. Don’t just focus on what might become harder if you sidestep some new type of connectivity, but also ask what you might gain due to this adversity.
When it comes to digital work, in other words, easy is usually good, but sometimes harder is better.
An Exciting Announcement
Given that this post is about how to master hard things effectively, I thought this might be a good opportunity to briefly mention something related that I’m really excited about.
Over the past three years, Scott Young and I have been developing an online course called Top Performer. This course teaches you how to identify the skills (e.g., career capital) in your career that matter the most, and then rapidly and massively improve them in a short amount of time by applying deliberate practice techniques.
We’re going to launch this course in a couple weeks. If you want to learn when the course opens, and answers to common questions, sign up for my e-mail newsletter (the form is at the top right of this page) where I’ll be sharing more details.