Study Hacks Blog Posts on Features: College Admissions

The Art of Activity Innovation: How to Be Impressive Without an Impressive Amount of Work

May 28th, 2008 · 53 comments

The Power of InnovationImpressive

At the core of the Zen Valedictorian philosophy is the idea that if you really understand the psychology of impressiveness, you can, in effect, hack your image — making yourself outrageously impressive without having to become outrageously hard working.

I introduced two techniques for achieving this goal. The first, focus, stated that becoming very good at one thing was more impressive (and less time consuming) than becoming kind of good at many. The second technique, innovate, was more difficult to parse. It stated that any activity that made someone think “how did he do that!?” would yield rewards that were disproportionately large compared to the effort put in.

In this post, I dive into the details of this idea and describe both why the innovate factor is so strong and how you can achieve it.

Some Innovative Examples

Let’s begin with some examples. Below are three activities that generate the “how did he do that!?” response. Each is based, loosely, off of real students:

  1. A high school student who designed a technology-based curriculum recently adopted by several states.
  2. A college student who setup the U.N.’s first youth advisory council and led the effort to write a youth rights constitution adopted by the Arab League.
  3. A high school student who ran a web design company that involved the managing of a dozen contract employees and servicing 5-figure corporate contracts.

Each of these examples, most will agree, are impressive. These students, no doubt, will have many interesting opportunities afforded to them: they’ll get accepted to good colleges (relative to their grades) and have their pick of cool jobs. Lurking behind this reality, however, is an insistent question: why, exactly, do these activities command so much respect?

Some Non-Innovative Examples

To help answer this question, consider, as a point of comparison, the following list of more standard activities:

  1. A high school student who was the president of two student clubs and was a member of the varsity tennis team.
  2. A college student who did well in a double-major and also sat on two different student activity councils.
  3. A high school student who played trumpet in her state’s regional orchestra.

Compared to the previous list, these three activities probably did not elicit the same level of admiration. Certainly, these students are more impressive than the average schlub, but, on the other hand, we don’t imagine them necessarily breezing into top colleges or having their pick of post graduation jobs. Whereas the students in the first list might be called superstars, these latter students might be stuck with the moniker of “grind,” “hardworking,” or, pronounced, no doubt, with a note of disdain: “ambitious.”

Why do we judge these two student groups so differently?

If pressed, you would likely guess that impressiveness is a function of talent and hard work. The above examples, however, falsify this hypothesis. The activities of the second list require just as much hard work, and, in many cases, such as varsity tennis and regional orchestra, more natural talent than the activities of the first list. Yet, the first list strikes us as much, much more impressive.

Indeed, the real reason the first list is so much more impressive can be attributed to a little understood phenomenon…

The Failed Simulation Effect

When presented with a student biography we tend to oblige our instinct to mentally simulate the path that led to that student’s achievements. For example, when we hear about a student holding down two different club presidencies and a spot on the tennis team, we imagine the hectic, running from meeting to meeting lifestyle that supports that volume of tasks. We have no problem with this simulation. We know students like this. We feel that, with a high enough tolerance for pain, we too could be that busy. It’s hard work. But it’s not mysterious.

What happens, however, when presented with the story of a student who works with the U.N. and drafted a constitution for the Arab League? Our simulation apparatus fails. We don’t know how, exactly, one becomes a player in major international organizations.

The effect of this failed simulation: a sense of novelty and wonder.

And it is exactly this feeling that we end up interpreting as the sensation of being “really damn impressed.” In other words: The first three sample students elicit great admiration not because they are harder working or more talented than the second list, but because we cannot simulate the path they took to their achievements. This failure intrigues us. We don’t feel like we could have done the same. We don’t feel threatened. A sense of novelty and wonder sluices through our synapses.

Leveraging the Failed Simulation Effect

Understanding this subtle mental effect allows you to maximize the impressiveness you reap from the effort you expend in activities. The key, we now understand, is to push activities into a realm where most people cannot easily imagine the steps that got you to your destination. Here’s the good news: such pushes are a function more of planning and creativity than of hard work.

From my experience in deconstructing the paths taken by these types of students, I can identify three steps that will help you get to this impressiveness sweet spot:

  1. Enter a Closed World and Exceed Expectations. The first step is to get involved as an insider in a world that interests you. This might mean landing an internship, or shadowing someone, or joining a relevant club. Once there — and this is key — tackle the opportunities given to you with vigor. Complete them fast. Go slightly above and beyond. In such entry-level, non-full time situations, the people above you will be pleasantly surprised that you are getting things done. You will soon be rewarded for this.
  2. Package Insider Connections. After you’ve proved yourself in this world, you’ll begin to notice interesting opportunities that only an insider, like yourself, would know about. Look for an opportunity to lead a project that would be available only to someone on the inside. Leverage your insider knowledge to its fullest extent.
  3. Escalate. The solo project from (2) will defeat most people’s simulation apparatus as it was built upon connections available only to insiders. In this final step, leverage this effect, and the good job you did your past project, to shake loose an even more un-simulatable project. Repeat this process a few times, with each iteration ramping up to an even more insider-supported, harder to simulate project.

Case Studies: How The Three Example Students Applied These Steps

Let’s examine how these three steps were applied by the sample impressive students at the beginning of the article.

Case Study #1: The high school student who wrote the curriculum.
She satisfied step (1) by taking a student internship at a well-known technology company. She then satisfied (2) by getting involved — and following through — on an internal project involving the application of the company’s technology to educational settings. Finally, (3) was satisfied when she volunteered, as her main intern project, to package up these findings into a full curriculum. By doing a good job and following through, she got the company to pitch the curriculum to their school partners; several picked it up.

None of this required any more effort than the standard high school summer job. But because it leveraged opportunities only available to someone working inside the education department of a technology company, it appears, to an outsider, to be un-simulatable — “how do you get states to adopt a curriculum you wrote!?” — and thus really damn impressive.

Case Study #2: The college student who worked with the U.N. and Arab League.
Attending school in the middle east, this student met up, by coincidence, with an old friend who had started an international youth activism network. To satisfy (1), he agreed to start a chapter of the organization in his own neck of the woods. He pushed the chapter to meet regularly and grow. By doing so, he met some important contacts and identified some important youth issues in the middle east. To satisfy (2), he made a lateral move to start his own organization focused solely on middle east youth issues. By attending conferences, and making phone calls, people got to know him. Finally, to get at (3), he leveraged this status and his connections to get invitations to help lead relevant initiatives at the U.N. and the Arab League. No mystery. He ran a youth organization in an under-represented region. These international bodies wanted to work on these issues. It was a natural fit.

This was hard work. But no more so than the running of any large club. Because, however, it dealt with an insider world — a vibrant sub-culture of international youth activism — it yielded rewards — involvement with the U.N. and Arab League — that, to an outsider, seem absolutely inexplicable.

Case Study #3: The high school CEO.
I’ll come clean: this story is based on the company I started in high school with my friend Michael Simmons. Mike and I knew how to design basic web sites because we were, well, nerds. Hoping to make some money, we stumbled across a local guy who ran a business directory web site for the Princeton area where we lived. To satisfy (1), we setup a little deal to help small business he listed build simple web sites. To satisfy (2), we leveraged the portfolio and experience this provided us to strike out on our own. One of our key insights working with the business directory was that it was easy to find sub-contractors that would, for a cut of the fee, tackle most of the time-consuming tasks of designing web sites. We landed a few clients and made some money. Finally, to satisfy (3), we leveraged the fact that our company looked like a big deal to hire a CEO, print some fancy marketing materials, buy suits, build up our team of sub-contractors, and, most importantly, raise our fees.

The company was fun. We never had more than one or two clients at a time. And our responsibility was mainly keeping them posted while our sub-contractors did the work. Looking back, Mike and I estimate the time we spent was roughly equivalent to being the president of a student club. The rewards, however, were so much higher. Because we leveraged the insider knowledge gained by working with a local web portal, we were quickly able to get to a point that foiled most people’s simulation apparatus.

In Conclusion

I apologize for the length of this article, but the subject of activity innovation is tricky. It is also, I must admit, one of my favorite issues to explore. If you’re looking to make an impact in this world — and you want to do so without suffering a steady stream of stress-induced panic attacks — you need to look beyond the standard exaltations to simply “get started!” and “work hard!” and “follow your passion and it will all work out!” Instead, think carefully about how impressive achievements really come about. When you know what you’re doing, you will be surprised by how soon you can get somewhere that earns serious admiration.

How to Become a Zen Valedictorian: Decreasing Your Stress Without Decreasing Your Ambition

April 18th, 2008 · 93 comments

The Zen Valedictorian DecodedThe Zen Valedictorian Framework

Last week, I introduced the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. This concept captures the general approach to student life that I’ve been promoting on this blog. The big idea is to find a way to become less overloaded and less stressed without becoming less impressive. I believe that a student should be able to have an engaging, fun college experience, and still get into a top graduate program or professional school, and have the ability to choose between outstanding job opportunities. I lived this dream. I’ve met dozens of other students who have as well. In this article, I explain how you can achieve it too.

The Framework

As with the Straight-A Method — which provides a structure for all of my study advice — here I will describe a general framework for the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. This framework can be realized with any number of specific strategies. Specifically, there are three main principles: underschedule, innovate, and focus. If you can satisfy all three — however you do it — you can achieve the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle.

PRINCIPLE #1: Underschedule

The Zen Valedictorian has more free time than he has activities or classes to fill it. He does not stuff his schedule to capacity. Instead, he purposefully underschedules. Rare are the days in which the Zen Valedictorian is working for most of his waking hours. More common are relaxing nights and last-minute adventures.

The goal of this principle is to leave room in student life for relaxation and participation in activities that generate happiness. It rejects the degenerate belief that if you’re not working every free minute than you’re somehow failing as a student. It also provides the flexibility needed to pursue the random interesting opportunities that often lead to big positive results.

To satisfy this principle requires two strategies:

  1. Simplification: Have one major. Balance easy courses with hard courses during a given semester. Slash and burn your extracurricular commitments to the bare minimum.
  2. Efficiency: Improve your study and productivity skills. Live the pillars of the Straight-A Method. The better these skills, the easier it will be to underschedule.

Previous posts that will help you understand and satisfy Principle #1:

PRINCIPLE #2: Innovate

The Zen Valedictorian strives to be interesting not widely accomplished. The psychology of impressiveness reveals that people are more impressed by someone who makes them ask “how did he do that?” than someone who has a sizable laundry list of standard activities. Achieving the former, fortunately, requires less time — and significantly less stress — than achieving the latter. The Zen Valedictorian takes advantage of this reality by constantly looking to push his involvements into the rarefied territory of interestingness.

The goal of this principle is to stand out from the crowd by means other than simply outworking your peers.

To satisfy this principle keep looking for low-hanging fruit. That is, identify interesting, unexpected directions toward which you can push your involvements. Take the normal course of action for someone in your situation then pump up its ambition by 50%. Next ask: if I had to make this happen, what would it really require? More often than not, you’ll realize that what once seemed hopelessly ambitious is, in reality, possible if you’re somewhat clever and, more importantly, actually follow-through. Keep completing. Keep pumping up your ambition and finding ways to get somewhere more lofty. The interestingness will rise sharply with each new push.

Previous posts that will help you understand and satisfy Principle #2:


The Zen Valedictorian is a specialist. He focuses on a small number of areas and works consistently over time to become outstanding in them. He realizes that the relationship between reward and skill level is not linear, but, instead, exponential. A corollary of this truth: being excellent at one thing can yield significantly more rewards than being good at many. Even though the former requires much less time than the latter.

The goal of this principle is to maximize the rewards and interesting opportunities afforded while minimizing both the time investment and the schedule footprint; i.e., total number of unique activities: a metric that strongly predicts stress. The world rewards experts. It is indifferent to generalists. And it could care less how hard you worked.

To satisfy this principle the Zen Valedictorian will, by default, make his academic major an area of focus. He chooses a subject that intensely interests him (not the subject that seems most practical). Because he believes in underscheduling, he has the time need to put serious thought into his class assignments. He soon becomes a department star, which opens up a wealth of exclusive opportunities and rewards hidden from most students.

He will also typically chooses a single extracurricular activity in which to become excellent. By the time he graduates, a Zen Valedictorian should be well-known on campus for his focus-area skill.

Previous posts that will help you understand and satisfy principle #3:

Pulling It All Together

The Zen Valedictorian Framework derives from a careful understanding of two important questions:

  1. What generates stress?
  2. What makes someone impressive?

It notes that the answers to the two questions are different. It takes advantage of these differences to make possible the dream of a low-stress impressive student lifestyle.

Specifically, it notes that stress comes from having too many obligations pulling at your time. The principle of underscheduling prevents this situation from occurring.

Impressiveness, on the other hand, comes from doing things very well in a way that defies expectation. The principles of innovation and focus generate these accomplishments. The principle of underscheduling indirectly helps the effort by keeping you low-stressed and providing the time needed to chase down relevant random opportunities as they arise.

Moving Forward

We have a lot more ground to cover. Each of the three principles provides a rich area of exploration. Over the coming months we will dive into these ideas and improve our understanding of how to satisfy them and the types of strategies that might work. Also expect more case studies of real students who are living the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle.

My goal here is nothing less than to dramatically remake your vision of a successful college career. This transformation is not trivial. But I assure you it will be worth it.

As always, I look forward to your feedback and interaction.

An Open Letter to Students Waiting for Their College Admissions Decisions

April 2nd, 2008 · 23 comments

Dear Student,Letter

It’s April. If you’re a high school senior, this means college admission decision season. Fat envelopes will soon be arriving. Though, as I understand it, stalking the mailman has long since been replaced with the ritual of obsessively refreshing the admission department’s web site. Same idea. Your fate will soon be known.

Yes, within weeks you’ll know who got in where. The rumor mill will begin its frenetic churn. You’ll begin trying to pattern match the results, attempting, vainly, to figure out the logic behind the decisions. But no matter how hard you cogitate, no model you devise will really explain why that asshole Peter got into Dartmouth while you were rejected from Northwestern.

Eventually, you’ll come to the conclusion that the decisions are more or less random. They’re not. But you don’t have nearly enough information to understand them, so don’t sweat it.

The next thing that will come to mind is a simple question: what’s next?

This is where I come in…

Your temptation will be to treat college like another admissions process. You probably imagine that four years down the line the task of getting a job, or getting accepted to graduate school, will be, more or less, like getting into college. Roughly speaking, you believe that some collection of admission-style officers will one day review your college resume, check your activities, your grades, make sure you’re well-balanced in all the right ways, and then promptly reject you so they can hire that asshole Peter.

But here’s the thing, and I really can’t stress this enough: it’s not like this at all.

No one cares about your college resume. If you’re applying for a job, your grades and, maybe, your major, will be used as a rough screen to see whether or not you’re granted an interview. That’s it. The rest is about you.

No one cares about your laundry-list of activities. No one cares that you tripled majored or took really hard course loads and were often up late and unhappy and grinding it out because you — dammit — are hardcore! [Sound of no one caring]

If you end up applying to graduate school, here’s another secret: there are no admissions officers for grad school. It’s professors who will review your application. And they care about exactly one thing: do you have the ability to do research? Again, laundry-list, triple-major: irrelevant.

Even the vaunted professional schools — law school, med school — are much more formulaic in their decisions than you might imagine. Do you want to go to Harvard Law so you can use your lawyerly skills to save the indigent and help the downtrodden? Get a high LSAT score. Your 19 different volunteering gigs and that expensive week spent building houses in South America won’t matter here.

How then should you fill your time? The answer is simple: living the best possible life. College is not just another stage to help set you up for your position in the real world; it’s not a process you have to suffer through to achieve the real benefits down the line. College is the real world. If you don’t start living the life you want now, then when are you going to start?

Here a few ideas to keep in mind:

Take courses that interest you. Don’t pile on too many hard subjects during the same semester. Allow yourself to really get into the material. Think about your readings. Question what you encounter.

Allow yourself the time needed to do your schoolwork without becoming overloaded. This means: don’t sign up for too many activities. Find one thing you really enjoy and focus on it. That’s enough.

Explore with your free time. Go to talks. Make friends. Chase down wild, random opportunities.

Here’s where it gets interesting. If you follow this approach, and live the life you want to live starting from your first day on campus, two things happen.

One, you’ll be happy. (A non-trivial feat in today’s age of overburdened undergraduates).

Two, you’ll be surprisingly successful when it comes time to hunt down post-graduation opportunities. Your grades will good, because you didn’t overload your schedule and you engaged what you were learning. That focus you afforded to a single activity will probably have taken your involvement to really cool places. And that free time spent chasing down random opportunities led you to actually catch a few, making you one of the more interesting people in your graduating class.

And here’s the relevant rule for post-graduation: Interesting things happen to interesting people. Boring things happen to over-scheduled boring assholes like Peter.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. When your college acceptances arrive, take a moment for congratulations. Then put the whole admissions experience behind you. It’s time to stop thinking about the future and start thinking about your now. In the real world — the world beyond the high school pressure cooker — the rest has a way of taking care of itself.


Debunking the Laundry List Fallacy: Why Doing Less is More Impressive

March 14th, 2008 · 31 comments

Clinging to the Laundry ListThe Human Peacock

Earlier this week I gave a talk at a Boston area high school. I decided this venue would provide a good opportunity to test out my new Radical Simplicity Manifesto. The students were generally receptive. But it became clear to me that there was still wide skepticism regarding one of the central tenets of the manifesto: the laundry list fallacy.

As you may remember, the laundry list fallacy claims that the longer your list of accomplishments, the more impressive you become. For the students at this high school, many of whom had just completed the college admissions process and were currently awaiting, with exhausted anticipation, the results of this struggle, the rejection of the laundry list fallacy did not come easy.

As one young woman asked, in response to my presentation: “Right. But do you think I did enough to get into Dartmouth?”

Unexpected Bedfellows

How can I be sure that the laundry list fallacy is indeed a fallacy? I’ll admit: I conceived of the concept based on intuition and anecdotal experience. I was pleased to discover, however, that over the past several years, the scientific community has been reinforcing this idea with mathematical and experimental rigor.

To better understand this unexpected support, we must turn our attention to an unlikely source: a pair of economists, working alongside a Bureau of Labor statistician, who, starting in 2002, waged a campaign to change the way we think about bragging.

Too Cool for School

In 2002, economists Nick Feltovich and Rick Harbaugh, in collaboration with statistician Ted To, set out to answer a simple question: Why don’t the smart kids raise their hands more in school?

To address this social anomaly, they turned to the field of signalling theory. Originally developed by evolutionary biologists in the late 1970s, and since expanded to a variety of fields, from sociology to economics, signalling theory studies systems in which agents send costly signals to convey value. It can provide insight into problems as diverse as the peacock’s plumage to men’s fascination with sports cars.

In classical signally theory, agents send costly signals to transmit desirable traits. Because the signals are expensive, only the most fit agents can afford to send them. Accordingly, the signals are honest. That is, if you receive a braggadocios signal (think: the peacock with the outrageous plumage) you can trust that the sender is worth bragging about (only a fit peacock can afford to grow such an extravagant display).

In this new paper, however, the authors added a twist: a side channel that sends extra signals about the sender with a probability based on sender’s fitness. In other words, miss peacock will likely hear some rumors on the street about the prowess, or lack thereof, of her potential suitors.

The Peacock in the Classroom

When Feltovich, Harbaugh, and To applied this model to the classroom, they defined the side channel to convey extra information about the intelligence of the students. The smarter you are, the higher the probability that people will hear, through the grapevine, about your abilities.

Once this crucial extra element was added, it turned out that the best strategy for the smartest kids to communicate their intelligence was to not answer many questions in class. When you deconstruct the mathematics of the result, the finding follows a graceful logic. The medium ability students have to signal their ability through answering questions. If they don’t, and the side channel does not happen to convey positive information about their skills (a definite possibility as their skills lie only in the middle of the range), then they will be indistinguishable from the low ability students — a bad fate.

The top students, however, with their high probability of the side channel saying good things about them, are best off not answering questions. They make this decision exactly because the medium ability students can’t risk it. In other words, only a student who is truly confident about his skills can afford to avoid constantly trying to show them off.

They named this strategy: countersignalling. And the more they looked, the more it popped up.

Beyond the Classroom

The researchers went on to validate this concept in the lab: putting real students in real scenarios, and paying them for successfully conveying value. With actual money on the line, the cash-strapped student’s behavior soon converged to the countersignalling approach predicted by the math.

Soon, more behaviors were examined and then explained by this framework. In a job interview, for example, it turns out that if you’re a top candidate, it’s best not to brag about your good grades. Similarly, for a new professor, the better the school where you teach, the less need you have to emphasize that you have a PhD.

(This last prediction was verified in an elegant experiment in which professors in the California public university system were called late at night so their voice mail would pick up. Sure enough, the better the school, the less likely you were to hear: “You’ve reached Doctor…”)

Debunking the Laundry List

These results shed powerful insight on the laundry list fallacy. Consider your resume. Each item is a signal. In addition, you have a side channel conveying extra information about your ability. If you’re applying to college or graduate school, this might include your recommendations. But it also covers intangibles, such as the type of awards or honors you’ve received or the impression left in an in-person meeting.

Countersignalling theory predicts that the best strategy for the best candidates is to have a short resume. If you have many items, this will brand you as a medium ability candidate desperate not to be mistaken for a lower ability candidate. Only the top applicants have the confidence to trust the side channel.

Applying Countersignalling

These studies point toward a few conclusion for maximizing your impressiveness:

  1. Don’t send mediocre signals. An easy way to represent yourself as a medium ability candidate (be it for college, grad school, or a job) is to present a laundry list of activities none of which are all that difficult to achieve; e.g., club memberships, a summer program, a two-week mission trip. None of these signals convey a particular impressive trait, and the list as a whole makes you seem like someone desperate to differentiate yourself from the low ability candidates. The top people don’t have this worry.
  2. Send a small number of strong signals. The real world is messier than what math predicts. Help the reviewer follow a high ability story line by having one or two activities that are really impressive — that is, required an desirable trait, like creativity or deep values, and not just persistence. Seeing a small number of excellent things, and no low-value bragging, will convey a strong sense of confident ability.
  3. Prime the side channel. In the formal model, you have no control over the side channel. In the real world, you do. Be interesting. Make people like you. Actually convey the traits that you want the channel to communicate. If you’re a high school student, for example, this means you should actually be a curious, nice, energetic person that engages the class material. Teachers notice this, and admissions officers admit that such traits easily come through in the recommendations.

In Conclusion

This philosophy, like most, is riddled with exceptions and caveats. But the general point is clear. Less is more. Not just for your health and sanity, but also for the power of value you communicate.

Crowd Wisdom: The Worst Part of the College Admissions Process

January 22nd, 2008 · 10 comments

Share Your Wisdom

I’m working on a post about the college admissions process. I need your wisdom to help pull it together. Specifically, here is my question for you:

From your experience, what part of trying to get accepted to college was the most time-consuming and/or caused you the most stress?

Some example answers:

  1. Taking a course load that my guidance counselor would describe as “very difficult.”
  2. Trying to keep my GPA in the top 10% of my class.
  3. Trying to build an impressive extracurricular resume.
  4. Attempting to deduce what the hell “passion” means.
  5. My convoluted plot to kidnap the admissions director and replace her with a meticulously constructed, realistic looking robot programmed to sway the decision in my direction.

I’m interested in your insights. You can either shoot me an e-mail or leave a comment on this post. If you could, mention where you went to high school and where you currently attend college. All answers, as always, will remain anonymous.

The Slacker Paradox: Myth or Reality?

January 3rd, 2008 · 4 comments

The Successful Slacker

While conducting background research for an ongoing writing project, I’ve had several people mention an intriguing paradox involving high school students and college admissions.

I want your help to figure out if it is a true phenomenon or just a rare occurrence.

Here’s the supposed phenomenon: In most high senior classes there is at least one student who surprises everyone by getting accepted to a good college even though he or she seemed to do a lot a less hard things than other students who get rejected at the same places.

My question to you: Was this true for your high school senior class? And if so, what’s your theory to explain it?

To answer confidentially just shoot me an e-mail. You can also leave a comment on this post.

Is the slacker paradox real or just sour grapes from a disgruntled few? Help me figure out what’s really going on here!

The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More By Doing Less

October 10th, 2007 · 67 comments

EinsteinEinstein’s Push

Between the years 1912 to 1915, Albert Einstein was a focused man. His previous work on the special theory of relativity and the quantization of light, among other topics, was starting to gain notice. Einstein left the Swiss patent office, and, after hopping from professorships in Germany and Prauge, ended up, in 1912, at Switzerland’s ETH Institute.

Once there, he met mathematician Marcel Grossman and became convinced that if he applied the new non-euclidean math studied by Grossman to his own work on relativity, he could generalize the theory to account for gravity. This advance would be huge. Nothing short of overturning the single most famous law in the history of science.

Einstein set to work.

Between 1912 to 1915, he became increasingly obsessed in his push to formalize general relativity. As revealed by several sources, including his recently released letters, he worked so hard that his marriage became strained and his hair turned white from the stress

But he got it done. In 1915 he published his full theory. It stands as one of the greatest scientific accomplishments — if not the single greatest — of the 20th century.

The Einstein Principle

Einstein’s push for general relativity highlights an important reality about accomplishment. We are most productive when we focus on a very small number of projects on which we can devote a large amount of attention. Achievements worth achieving require hard work. There is no shortcut here. Be it starting up a new college club or starting a new business, eventually, effort, sustained over a long amount of time, is required.

In a perfect world, we would all be Einsteins. We would each have only one, or at most two, projects in the three major spheres of our lives: professional, extracurricular, and personal. And we would be allowed to focus on this specialized set, in exclusion, as we push the projects to impressive conclusions.

But this doesn’t happen…

In Search of Your Own Theory of Relativity

Our problem is that we don’t know in advance which project might turn out to be our theory of relativity and which are duds. Because of this, most ambitious people I know, myself included, follow a different strategy. We sow lots of project seeds. We e-mail a lot of people, join a lot of clubs, commit to a lot of minor projects, set up lots of meetings, constantly send out feelers to friends and connections regarding our latest brainstorm. We don’t know which seed will ultimately take root and grow, so, by planting many, we expose ourselves to enough randomness, over time, to maximize our chance of a big deal, interesting, life-changing success eventually happening.

These numerous seeds, however, have a tendency to transform into weeds. While some of them clearly grow into pursuits worth continuing, and others die off quickly, many, instead, exist in a shadowy in-between state where they demand our time but offer little promise of reward in the end.

These weed projects violate the Einstein principle.

We can no longer focus on a small number of important project, but find ourselves, instead, rushing between an increasingly overwhelming slate full of a variety of obligations. This time fracture can prevent real accomplishment. Imagine if Einstein maintained a blog, wrote a book, joined a bunch of clubs at ETH, and tried to master rowing at the same time he was working on General Relativity? We’d still be living in the age of Newton.

The Productivity Purge

Most of us will never fully satisfy the Einstein Principle. It’s too risky. If you invest fully in one thing, and then it fails, you’re left empty. More importantly, it can be boring. Life requires zigs and zags.

There is, however, a simple strategy for coming as close as possible to satisfying the principle without giving up a quest for the unexpected next big thing. It’s called the productivity purge. And it works as follows:

  1. When it feels like your schedule is becoming too overwhelmed, take out a sheet of paper and label it with three columns: professional, extracurricular, and personal. Under “professional” list all the major projects you are currently working on in your professional life (if you’re a student, then this means classes and research, if you have a job, then this means your job, etc). Under “extracurricular” do the same for your side projects (your band, your blog, your plan to write a book). And under “personal” do the same for personal self-improvement projects (from fitness to reading more books).
  2. Under each list try to select one or two projects which, at this point in your life, are the most important and seem like they would yield the greatest returns. Put a star by these projects.
  3. Next, identify the projects that you could stop working on right away with no serious consequences. Cross these out.
  4. Finally, for the projects that are left unmarked, come up with a 1-3 week plan for finalizing and dispatching them. Many of these will be projects for which you owe someone something before you can stop working on them. Come up with a crunch plan for the near future for shutting these down as quickly as possible.
  5. Once you completed your crunch plan you’ll be left with only a small number of important projects. In essence, you have purged your schedule of all but a few contenders to be your next Theory of Relativity. Here’s the important part: Try to go at least one month without starting any new projects. Resist, at all costs, committing to anything during this month. Instead, just focus, with an Einsteinian intensity, on your select list.

The productivity purge is a necessary piece of project gardening. By doing these regularly, you keep yourself focused on whats important. You get at least one month after every purge in which serious work gets done on a small number of projects. It’s during these focused months, when the Einstein Principle comes into play, that you’ll end up making the progress on those activities that might end up becoming life changing.

Case Study: My Most Recent Purge

As I write this, I’m in the second week of a two week purge. After a busy summer of traveling and wildly sowing project seeds, I’ve been looking forward, for a long time, for a focused month — spanning mid-October to Thanksgiving — during which the Einstein Principle can be in full effect.

Here’s how the purge is taking shape:

In my professional life I’m clearing some lingering research projects off my plate. This includes, among other things, finishing some revision on papers under submission and finalizing some proofs for some close to being finished new work. My crunch plan has me pushing to finish this lingerers with a rabid intensity.

My focus, for this upcoming period, is on two research projects that I think hold great promise. I look forward to spending 90% of my academic time wracking my brain on these pursuits, which, I think, will shape the direction of my first year or two after graduation. Bring it on!

In my extracurricular life, I’m finishing up the final articles in a long series of those I owe various editors through various pitches conducted over the summer. With this slate cleared, I can spend my focus period on exactly two things. The first: producing quality, user-tested content for this blog. The second: finally completing the preliminary research for my second book idea. I need to either officially abandon it, or get my agents blessing and start work on the proposal.

In my personal life, I’m turning my focus back to some lifestyle improvement issues that have fallen fallow recently (it’s time to throw out clothing I bought before college…). I am also planning to push into overdrive the variety of interesting things I do each week. I have a long list of other projects I would love to tackle, but they can wait.

In Conclusion

If the Einstein Principle holds, come Thanksgiving, I should have: a fully developed new book idea, a much expanded readership of this blog, interesting new academic research results, and a mind overstuffed with new experiences and ideas. I’m looking forward to it!

How would your life change if you were to plan a productivity purge today?

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Unconventional SAT Prep

August 18th, 2007 · One comment

Something I’ve been curious about lately is how my study advice does or does not apply to the related arena of standardized tests. I’m interested in collecting some real life stories…

If you did well on your SATs, and you used your own ad hoc methods to prepare (e.g., not a formal test prep course), consider sending me an e-mail to briefly explain your system.

I’ll report back any suprising strategies that show up frequently.