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Cal Newport’s string of home-run posts

January 2, 2012

I seemed to take a bit of a blogging holiday for the past week. Now that it’s a new year, it’s time to get back on the horse.

Cal Newport, my favorite blogger for all matters related to studying, developing deep interests and leading an extraordinary life has put out a few excellent posts I’d like to highlight here.

Reflections on Perfectionism

In Perfectionism as Practice: Steve Jobs and the Art of Getting Better, Cal describes the difference between controlled perfectionism, which works with in confines we set to continually improve, pathological perfectionism, which is a runaway train to workholism, stress and unhappiness. Cal sums it up as thus:

I want to keep getting better, not necessarily make this particular project the best thing ever.

Debunking an attack on Deliberate Practice

In Is Talent Underrated? Making Sense of a Recent Attack on Practice, Cal takes on a recent article in the NYT titled Sorry Strivers, Talent Matters.

Cal does this by reading the paper from the authors of the article, and comes to a completely different conclusion just by reading a simple graph from their study:

From Study Hacks—a graph of sight reading performance versus working memory capacity for piano players.

This is a great example of why I wish we could teach the world to thoughtfully interpret a graph. This graph clearly shows that at every level of working memory performance, those who undertake deliberate practice at a high level perform twice as well as those who do not. Those with higher working memories (more talent) clearly do better than those with low working memories, but the effect isn’t nearly as dramatic as moving from low to high levels of deliberate practice, something that every piano player can control (as opposed to talent). In fact, Cal points out that the authors themselves conclude that talent is responsible for only 7% of performance—so, why worry about that when the other 93% is under your control?

How to change the world: abandon your careful plans to change the world

In Abandon Your Big Idea. But don’t give up on your Big Ambition, Cal cautions a undergrad who is contemplating a transfer because there’s no professor in her department in the sub-speciliaty she thinks she might be interested in not to be so hasty.

Here’s the huge takeaway quote from Cal:

Students have been taught to place way too much importance on having the courage to follow their passions and change the world, and not nearly enough importance on having the persistence to first build the needed ability to both find concrete projects that matter and accomplish them.

This seems like a prefect recipe for extraordinary accomplishment, and one much less intimidating that the typical “find your passion” advice you often hear. Don’t worry about finding your passion. Dive into something seems quasi-interesting. Be prepared to do lots of crappy grunt work—focus on improving and developing a map of the territory. Eventually, you’ll see the path you need to take to do something truly extraordinary.

Abandon Flow and seek hard work

In Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player Cal provides 4 strategies for becoming excellent from an outstanding pianist:

  1. Strategy #1: Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy
  2. Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
  3. Strategy #3: Systematically Eliminate Weakness.
  4. Strategy #4: Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.

You should read the post for the most complete description of these ideas, but the most intriguing idea to me is that to achieve excellence, you should avoid Flow, the idea of immersive focus pioneered by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. I had always sort of set it out as a goal for my students to help them to get to some state of flow when working on physics, and I find the suggestion that instead they should be focused on digging into their weaknesses which almost assuredly does not involve a sense of flow intriguing. I do agree that students must seek out their weaknesses in physics if they are to improve, but I wonder how to strike the right balance here. Too much focus on weakness, and students can quickly get the feeling that they are terrible at physics and lose most of their motivation. This would seem to be one of the places where you’d need to do a lot of metacognative work with students to get them to fully appreciate the value of this approach.

As a long time reader of Cal’s blog, I’m truly inspired by how he’s weaving each of these threads into an amazing tapestry laying out a very powerful vision for what education, achievement and a well-lived life could be.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2012 2:12 am

    Your concern about “too much focus on weakness” seems counter to what you discuss in other posts. Haven’t you found that the students that struggle and have frustrations with the material, savor/celebrate their understanding much more than those that coast through it? They become the peer tutors to the others; a role reversal that does more for their future success than if they had never worked for it. I understand what you mean about the loss of motivation, but at a certain point, the students need to have the training wheels removed so they can crash the bike and discover it hurts, but the thrill of the ride is worth the scrapes and the pain.

    (And read the wikipedia entry, but it seems like ‘flow’ could only be achieved if hard work and difficulties produced the kind of focus and perseverance necessary to puzzle over a problem. Plus, wouldn’t ‘flow’ flow counter to patient problem solving and the reality that not every problem can be solved or solved in the allotted block of time assigned?)

    • January 2, 2012 6:06 am

      I think you’re completely right, but there is a balance here, and it’s often a tenuous one. I think it is very easy for a novice student to get so fixated on one’s mistakes that they do begin to see themselves as someone who will “never get it.” This is particularly true if they are simultaneously in other classes that do not demand the same level of understanding/analysis/mistake embracing. So what has me wondering is how do you help all students to build this sort of work ethic?

      I do also think you’re right that flow can come from difficult problem solving where you’re making lots of mistakes, it’s just my experience that this is a very difficult state for novice learners to achieve when they are solely focused on getting the right answer.

      I guess the real point is how do we can change students’ conceptions of mistakes…

  2. January 2, 2012 12:22 pm

    As Shawn Cornally stated: get them to drink the kool-aid.

    Changing their conception of mistakes becomes secondary, or at least a by-product of, the development of a work ethic because they discover through doing and attempting that they don’t get it right the first time. I think it’s a dangerous game we play with students when we craft things so carefully that they always ‘succeed.’ I do realize there is a middle ground, but there is something amiss when any student has not had the opportunity to delve within themselves to discover the grit within.

    • jsb16 permalink
      January 2, 2012 8:40 pm

      As you said in your first comment, we need to take the training wheels off at some point. However, that does mean we should start students with training wheels…

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