Study Hacks Blog Posts on Features: Life After College

On Minecraft and the Launch of Project Remarkable

June 17th, 2011 · 34 comments

The Minecraft Revelation

Markus Persson got me thinking.

Markus is three years older than me, he’s Swedish, and he’s rich. He made his money in an field not usually known for its wealth-generation: indie computer game development.

Markus’ story starts in 2009, when he quit his job as a game programmer for to build Minecraft, a java-based world building, zombie fighting, mine digging sandbox game. (You probably have to see it to understand to it.)

People, it turns out, really like Minecraft. In January of this year, Markus sold his millionth copy. Earlier this month, sales passed the 2.5 million copy mark. Markus has made somewhere between $30 – 40 million dollars on the project.

Here’s what troubled me about the Markus Persson story. On Study Hacks, I’ve been promoting the idea that you have to be good at what you do before you can expect your job to be good to you. This is why I push myself and others to stop worrying about their “passion” and day dreaming about courageously bucking the status quo. Navel-gazing and conformity-defiance, I argue, is not how people end up loving what they do. Instead, they start by getting good at something rare and valuable, and then leverage this “career capital” to construct — not discover — a fantastic career.

Markus seemed like a good case study of this philosophy. Before he could develop Minecraft, he had to become excellent at game development. Not surprisingly, it turns out he started programming at the age of eight and then after college worked for a half-decade at a game company to further hone is skills.

But here’s the problem: lots of other people are also really good at programming and also build indie games, but are nowhere near as successful at Markus. The implication here is one that I’ve been encountering time and again, in many different settings, and I realize I can’t ignore it any longer: Becoming “so good they can’t ignore you” is a pre-requisite for building a remarkable life, but it’s not necessarily the whole story.

Once you have acquired career capital, you still have to figure out what to do with it, and the best strategies here — the strategies that separate the Markus Perssons from the hordes of other talented game programmers — are not obvious.

Project Remarkable

I want to explore these non-obvious strategies. In other words, I’m going to assume that my Rethinking Passion series has throughly convinced you that “follow your passion” is bad advice and that you must instead start by becoming good at something. Now it’s time to figure out what comes next.

Here’s my plan: I’m going to use myself as the guinea pig. As I start my new job as a professor, I have a base of rare and valuable abilities to draw on, in that I’m relatively adept at producing cutting-edge research in my field. But so are lots of other young professors. The question, then, is how can I most productively leverage this capital to stand out from the crowd and nudge my career in a more remarkable direction.

Over the next few months, I’ll use my Lab Notes series to report on the efforts I’m deploying. But in the meantime, I want to learn from you. If you’ve found success leveraging hard-earned ability to take control of your life and move it in a remarkable direction, chime in on the comments and share what you’ve learned.

That is, if you can tear yourself away for a few minutes from the sweet new tower you’re building in Minecraft.

(Photo of Markus Persson and his newly formed development company by paulamarttila.)

The Craftsman in the Cubicle

July 25th, 2010 · 33 comments

Old Town Zurich

An Old Town Wander

Earlier this evening, I explored the cobbled lanes of Zurich’s old town center. Switzerland is infamous for shutting down on Sundays — a legacy of a rigid Protestant past — and tonight didn’t disappoint; I often had whole streets to myself: the fading sun lighting the Renaissance-style row houses in the same way it has for hundreds of years, stretching back to when the city was still run by the guilds.

The scene, naturally, infused me with a sense of timeliness. I imagined the craftsman and apprentices who honed their skills in this late-medieval industrial center, and this got me thinking…

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In Search of Purpose: Esther Duflo and the Pre-Conditions for Finding Your Life’s Mission

May 21st, 2010 · 21 comments

Note: I’m leaving today for a week-long overseas trip. I won’t have Internet access (by design), so I give my usual apologies about not being able to moderate comments or respond to e-mail in the near future.


The Maverick

Esther Duflo, a professor of economics at MIT, discovered her life’s mission in graduate school. It started with a class taught by Abhijit Banerjee, a pioneer in the field of development economics. Duflo ended that semester with a clear vision: when helping the world’s poor, rigorous and controlled experiments can be used to determine which programs work and which fail.

Other thinkers had toyed with this idea, but Duflo boasts, as Ian Parker notes in his recent New Yorker profile, “[a] faith in redistribution…[and] the optimistic notion that tomorrow might turn our better than today.”

This confidence translated into an ability to conceive and then execute development experiments on an unprecedented scale. Her dissertation, titled “Three Essays in Empirical Development Economics,” became a standard in the field. As Parker reports, Duflo received offers from every top economics department in the country, with the exception of Stanford. In 2003, she co-founded a Poverty Action Lab at MIT, which has since conducted over 200 empirical development experiments. In 2004, she was made a full professor at MIT. In 2009, she won a MacArthur Genius Grant.

When reflecting on Duflo’s life, it’s clear that her mission is the foundation for her rapid success. Lots of young economists work very hard, and many have more technical ability than Duflo, whose accomplishments are more logistical than mathematical. But she focused her attention on a worthy mission, which accelerated her, to an almost ridiculous speed, along the path to becoming so good they couldn’t ignore her.

I’m fascinated by the concept of a life mission,which I define as devoting the bulk of your professional energies toward an under-served but unambiguously useful cause. As Duflo’s story emphasizes, missions can help spawn a remarkable life.

But the closer you look at the concept, the murkier it becomes…

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How to Become a Star Screenwriter: A Case Study in Modern Craftsmanship

May 10th, 2010 · 33 comments

Screenplay in Progress

The Shane Black Effect 

The story is a Hollywood classic. At the age of 23, two years after graduating from UCLA with a theater degree, and eager for a source of income while waiting for his acting break, Shane Black decided to try screenwriting. He penned a buddy cop flick, featuring a deranged lead seeking redemption. He gave it the type of clipped, masculine title popular in the mid-80s blockbuster era: Lethal Weapon. The script was scooped up mega-producer Joel Silver for a quarter million dollars, catapulting Black into screenwriting stardom. Within a decade, after earning a then record $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodbye, he became the highest paid writer in the industry,

Black’s story, and those like it, drive thousands of hopeful writers to Los Angeles each year, and motivate untold tens of thousands more to bookstores to seek instruction from a bewildering array of expert advice guides. These writer wannabes take this leap with full knowledge that screenwriting is one of the world’s most notoriously elite and inaccessible industries. The Writers Guild of America counts 12,000 professional screenwriters on its rolls — that is, writers good enough to have been paid for their work — and of these pros, it’s estimated that around half are out of work at any given time. To make matters worse for the amateur, a growing number of selective screenwriting M.F.A. programs ensures a constant flow of highly-trained newcomers to compete for the few open slots that remain. In 2009, the Nicholl Fellowship, the most prestigious amateur screenwriting award, received close to 7000 submissions.

If you want to make it in screenwriting you have to be exceptional, and this is what makes it a fascinating case study for our ongoing efforts to decode the secrets of becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

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Corrupted Callings: The Subtle Difference Between Finding Your Life’s Work and Loving Your Life

April 9th, 2010 · 66 comments

McKibben at Home

The Lonely Rise of Sonya Sotomayor

Tucked away in the northeast corner of the Bronx, not far from Edenwald Houses, the borough’s largest public housing project, sits the Cardinal Spellman Highschool — a private, yet still affordable catholic high school (the annual tuition is under $7000), that has been for the past fifty years, as Lauren Collins put it in a recent New Yorker article, home to “strivers of assorted ethnicities” attempting to better their situation.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that a young Sonya Sotomayor found her way to Spellman in the fall of 1968. After distinguishing herself academically (she was valedictorian), Sotomayor graduated from the Bronx to Princeton University and then on to Yale Law School, where she was editor of the Law Review. After paying her career-appropriate dues in the New York District Attorney’s office, she moved into corporate law.

In 1991, Sotomayor was appointed a district court judge, and in 1997 she advanced to the court of appeals. Even at this early stage, her potential to become a Supreme Court justice was recognized (Rush Limbaugh dedicated an entire show during her appeals court confirmation to stalling her “rocket ship to the Supreme Court”). Earlier this year, Sotomayor realized this potential when President Obama nominated her to fill the seat vacated by David Souter.

Sotomayor is great at what she does and loves doing it. Translated into the vernacular of modern career advice: she found her calling.

But at what cost? 

In a column written during Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, David Brooks describes the ambitious jurist as an exemplar of a “meritocracy that gets more purified and competitive by the year, with the time demands growing more and more insistent.” As Brooks noted, Sotomayor divorced twice and is candid about her workaholism.

“Certainly the fact that I was leaving my home at 7 and getting back at 10 o’clock was not of assistance in recognizing the problems developing in my marriage,” she once said.

Sotomayor’s story and Brooks’ commentary were brought to my attention in a trio of posts written by Ben Casnocha. In these posts, Ben argues that a calling — which he defines, quoting Michael Lewis, as “an activity you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it” — is usually pursued at the expense of the other important areas of your life.

“If you want a calling, you don’t have time for a family,” Ben proposes.

Casnocha and Brooks are correct to notice that true callings are often truly corrupting to the overall quality of their subject’s lives. High stakes fields like law or finance, for example, are rich with Sotomayor-style workaholics. But this Faustian trade-off is not inevitable.

In this post, I highlight a different path; one that preserves both elements of the remarkable life — professional engagement and deep enjoyment of daily living. To do so, I’ll enlist the aid of a provocative personality who started life on a similar trajectory as Sotomayor, but then split off in an unexpected direction.

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On Great Teachers and the Remarkable Life: A Deliberate Practice Case Study

February 8th, 2010 · 38 comments


Predicting Greatness

The impact of teachers is profound. If you rank the world’s countries by their students’ academic performance, the US is somewhere in the middle. In a 2009 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell notes that replacing “the bottom six percent to ten percent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality” could be enough to close the gap between our current position and the top ranked countries.

“[Y]our child is actually better off in a ‘bad’ school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher,” Gladwell concludes.

But there’s a problem: “No one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like.”

Or at least, according to Gladwell.

Teach for America, a non-profit that recruits outstanding college graduates to teach in low-income school districts, disagrees. This organization is fanatical about data.  For the past 20 years, they’ve gathered massive amounts of statistics on their teachers in an attempt to figure out why some succeed in the classroom and some fail. They then work backwards from these results to identify what traits best predict a potential recruit’s success.

As Amanda Ripley reports in a comprehensive look inside the Teach For America process, published in the Atlantic Monthly, the results of this outcome-based approach to hiring are “humbling.”

“I came into this with a bunch of theories,” the former head of admissions at Teach for America told Ripley. “I was proven wrong at least as many times as I was validated.”

When Teach for America first started 20 years ago, applicants were subjectively scored by interviewers on 12 general traits, like “communication” ability. (A sample interview question: “What is wind?”)  By contrast, if you were one of the 35,000 students who applied in 2009 (a pool that included 11% of Ivy League seniors), 30 data points, gathered from a combination of questionnaires, demonstrations, and interviews were fed into a detailed quantitative model that returned a hiring recommendation.

This data-driven approach seems to work.  As Ripley reports, in 2007, 24% of Teach for America teachers advanced their students at least one and a half grade levels or more. Two years later, as the organization’s models continued to evolve, this number has almost doubled to 44%.

I’m fascinated by Teach For America for a simple reason: the traits they discovered at the core of great teaching are unmistakably a variant of deliberate practice — not the pure, coach-driven practice of professional athletes and chess grandmasters, but a hearty, adaptable strain that’s applicable to almost any field.

Put another way, these outstanding teachers may have unwittingly cracked the code for generating a remarkable life

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Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do

January 23rd, 2010 · 178 comments

Computer on the Beach

The Great Career

Laura loves what she does. To many people, myself included (I’ve known her for the past five years), she represents the Platonic ideal of  a great career.

Laura  is a database whiz. Companies hire her to wrangle their most gnarly data into streamlined structures. If you’re lucky enough to engage Laura, she’ll assemble a handpicked team of programmers and descend on your office for up to six months. She’ll then take your generous check back to her charming Jamaica Plain bungalow and set about finding novel ways to spend it.

She allows months to pass between projects — the paydays being ample enough to buy her as much downtime as she wants. She has used this time, among other pursuits, to earn a pilots license, learn to scuba dive, and travel through Asia.

In several earlier posts, I argued that mastering a rare and valuable skill is the key to generating a remarkable life — much more important than following your “passions” or matching your career (or academic major) to your personality.  It occurred to me, however, that to continue this discussion, we need to better understand our goal; that is, we need to figure out what exactly makes a remarkable life remarkable.

In this post, I’m going to tackle this question, using Laura as our running example of someone who has achieved the end result we have in mind…

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The Grandmaster in the Corner Office: What the Study of Chess Experts Teaches Us about Building a Remarkable Life

January 6th, 2010 · 247 comments


Becoming a Grandmaster

How do great chess players become great? If you read Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, you probably have an answer: the 10,000 hour rule. This concept, which was first introduced in academic circles in the early 1970s, was popularized by Gladwell in his 2008 book.

Here’s how he summarized it in a recent interview:

When we look at any kind of cognitively complex field — for example, playing chess, writing fiction or being a neurosurgeon — we find that you are unlikely to master it unless you have practiced for 10,000 hours. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.

There seems to be no escape from this work. As Flordia State University Psychology Professor Anders Ericsson reminds us: “even the chess prodigy Bobby Fisher needed a preparation period of nine years.”

The full story, however, is more complex.  Gladwell is right when he notes that the 10,000 hour rule keeps appearing as a necessary condition for exceptional performance in many fields. But it’s not sufficient. As Ericsson, along with his colleague Andreas Lehmann, noted in an exceptional overview of this topic,   “the mere number of years of experience with relevant activities in a domain is typically only weakly related to performance.”

Put another way, you need to put in a lot of hours to become exceptional, but raw hours alone doesn’t cut it. 

To understand what else is necessary, I’ll turn your attention to a fascinating 2005 study on chess players, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. After interviewing two large samples of chess players of varied skill, the paper’s authors found that “serious study”  — the arduous task of reviewing past games of better players, trying to predict each move in advance — was the strongest predictor of chess skill.

In more detail:

…chess players at the highest skill level (i.e. grandmasters) expended about 5000 hours on serious study alone during their first decade of serious chess play — nearly five times the average amount reported by intermediate-level players.

Similar findings have been replicated in a variety of fields. To become exceptional you have to put in a lot of hours, but of equal importance, these hours have to be dedicated to the right type of work. A decade of serious chess playing will earn you an intermediate tournament ranking. But a decade of serious study of chess games can make you a grandmaster.

I’m summarizing this research here because I want to make a provocative claim: understanding this “right type of work” is perhaps the most important (and most under-appreciated) step toward building a remarkable life

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