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By far the most popular project I’ve done publicly has been the MIT Challenge. Starting nearly seven years ago, in the fall of 2011, the idea was to learn the curriculum of MIT’s four year computer science undergrad, evaluate myself by trying to pass the final exams, complete the programming projects and finish in one year.

In simple terms, the project was a success. I did what I set out to do, under the constraints I had imposed upon myself, within my original time limit.

However, behind those simple terms rested a lot of implicit assumptions. Now that I’ve had more time (and hopefully wisdom) between me and the project’s completion, I’d like to dig into some of those assumptions and see how well they’ve held up over time.

Whenever you set a goal in life, there’s a certain simplification of reality. Say you set a goal to lose 15lbs. Implicit, although maybe not articulated, behind that goal are a whole host of assumptions: that you’ll be healthier, look better, that the lost weight will be fat. Even behind those are deeper assumptions you may not even be aware of, such as that being fit is an important value in life.

Therefore, I think any project can be simultaneously evaluated at multiple levels. There is the explicit level of what you stated you were trying to achieve. But beneath that, are many other ideas of success and achievement, some of which you may only realize long after the project has finished.

I believe...

This month we read The Elephant In The Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson.

About the book: Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise.

In fact, the less we know about our own ugly motives, the better – and thus we don’t like to talk or even think about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain.”

Such an introspective taboo makes it hard for us to think clearly about our nature and the explanations for our behavior. The aim of this book, then, is to confront our hidden motives directly – to track down the darker, unexamined corners of our psyches and blast them with floodlights. Then, once everything is clearly visible, we can work to better understand ourselves: Why do we laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do we brag about travel? Why do we prefer to speak rather than listen?

This month, I sat down with one of the co-authors of the book, Robin Hanson, to discuss the main ideas of the book.

If you would like to stream audio on your browser, click here listen on Soundcloud.

Broadly, one the takeaways from this book is that politics isn’t about policy,...

Top Performer is the course Cal Newport and I teach for helping you deeply understand what drives success in your career, and then gives you the strategy for getting really good at those skills. We hold sessions quite infrequently (usually about twice per year), and right now we’re opening registration for another one.

If you’d like to learn more about the course, how it works and whether it’s right for you, see the registration page here.

Everything you need to know about the course is in that link above, but here’s a quick summary of what we teach:

  1. Research — We give you the tools to figure out how any career works and what skills you need to develop to reach the next level. This works for people early in their careers, still trying to figure out what they want to do. It also works for people who have already advanced in their careers and need to know what it will take to reach the next level.
  2. Practice — We break down methods for translating the important research in mastery of deliberate practice to knowledge work. In particular, we teach you how to set up effective projects that will allow you to quickly build new skills and master ones that matter for your career.
  3. Deep Work — Cal and I run...

In Lewis Carol’s novella Through the Looking Glass, there’s a quirky little dialog between Alice and the Red Queen:

“‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

“‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’”

I think about this dialog a lot. Not in the context of bizarre, Victorian-era novellas, but in the normal fact that many of us, unwittingly, are doing the exact same thing.

Think about your professional life. How much of the time do you spend working is getting you to where you’d like to be? How much is creating growth, opportunity, mastery? And, how much is running just to stay in the same place?

Stagnation is Default

K. Anders Ericsson’s pioneering work on deliberate practice was celebrated in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Geoffrey Colvin’s Talent is Overrated. A recurring theme in those popularizations is the idea that mastery takes hard work. Ten thousand hours, as Gladwell puts it, is the requirement to succeed in a field, no way around it.

While the exact ten-thousand hour figure is only an average, there’s a subtler mistake in this account of mastery. That is, it assumes that putting in the hours is...

Last week I published an article arguing for a different hypothesis about how self-discipline works. The standard idea, which even had decent scientific backing, was that willpower was a resource that could be depleted like a fuel.

Now the evidence behind this view is a bit shakier, so I wanted to suggest an alternative: self-discipline is a competition between different “mental habits” or patterns of thinking, feeling and reacting.

This idea is a bit confusing. It’s certainly less intuitive than a fuel analogy to self-discipline. With an idea of fuel being consumed over short-term acts of self-discipline, it’s fairly simple to make predictions. The idea of a messy array of mental habits you’re only partially aware of and which get feedback both internally and from the environment, is not.

The article attracted some outside attention, so I thought I’d take a few moments to clarify what I think the similarities and differences are with the standard resource-based theory.

Side note: It goes without saying that this is speculative. I think there’s evidence in support of this hypothesis, but there’s a good chance it’s wrong either in details or on major points which would undermine some of these conclusions.

Similarities Between Resource-Based and Mental Habit-Based Theories of Will

Some commenters expressed that they believed the correct way to view willpower was of a model of progressive training. You exercise your self-discipline more, and it gets stronger.

Interestingly, this is actually a point of agreement between the two theories, although the mechanisms and specific implications are...

What is self-discipline? I think everyone has at least a hazy picture of what it means to be self-disciplined. From the outside, self-discipline looks like suppressing impulses to do things you shouldn’t do. Self-discipline means not eating too much, not succumbing to the temptation to check your phone every two minutes, ignoring what you want to do and doing what you should.

Everyone has experienced being self-disciplined—that time when you valiantly resisted an impulse you thought you shouldn’t follow. But, more often than not, we have the opposite experience: failing to be self-disciplined, succumbing to temptations.

This outside-view and numerous experiences would make it seem likely that we should all be experts in self-discpline. If not in practice, then at least in theory. We should know why we persist when we do, why we give up and what’s going on inside our heads in both cases. After all, experiences of self-discipline—both in failure and in success—happen every day.

Yet, I think this familiarity doesn’t necessarily equate to understanding. I’ve written about self-discipline for years, but recently I’ve had some experience that make me rethink what it might be all about.

Is Self-Discipline a Resource?

The easiest metaphor, and the one I’ve operated on implicitly for most of my life is that self-discipline is a kind of resource. Use more self-discipline and it will get used up and you’ll feel tired.

Intuitively this seems to be the case. With few exceptions, most people can’t endure indefinitely in a situation that requires constant willpower. Eventually we give...

Classic goal-setting theory says that you first set a goal, then you make a plan to achieve it and finally you start taking action. Recently, I’ve begun to question the wisdom of this approach. Now, I’m inclined to believe that, for certain types of efforts, you’re better of setting goals in the middle.

At first you might be wondering how it’s even possible to set goals in the middle. After all, doesn’t the goal define the project itself? But in general, there’s a lot of different aspects to making a plan, and some of them may not be strictly necessary to begin.

Any goal or project will usually have the following qualities:

  1. A general ambition or motivation. (e.g. get in shape, learn French)
  2. A specific target. (e.g. lose 15 pounds, speak fluently)
  3. A time-frame or deadline. (e.g. in 6 months)
  4. Constraints or methods. (e.g. by eating fewer calories, practicing every day)
  5. Overall impression of effort/time required. (e.g. a few hours per week of moderate effort)

That’s just the basics. A plan can have a lot more details: milestones, schedules, metrics, accountability systems, coaches, etc..

It’s clear from this idea that a goal really isn’t one thing, but a bunch of different features that tend to get bundled together. Some of these are likely necessary for any kind of voluntary action in a particular direction, but some are optional. In fact, unless you’re a very systematic goal-setter, you likely undertake projects all the time with some of the above elements missing.

The question we need to answer in setting goals...

This month we read Seeing Like A State by James C. Scott

Compulsory ujamaa villages in Tanzania, collectivization in Russia, Le Corbusier’s urban planning theory realized in Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward in China, agricultural “modernization” in the Tropics―the twentieth century has been racked by grand utopian schemes that have inadvertently brought death and disruption to millions.

In this wide-ranging and original book, James C. Scott analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. My guest Trent Fowler and I discuss the book and its many insights on why well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition go tragically awry.

If you would like to stream audio on your browser, click here listen on Soundcloud.

One of the ideas that James C. Scott brings up is that even though the functioning of the efficiency standpoint — whether its a farm or forest or society — they did have one powerful advantage was that they increased the legibility of the system that was being under control.

Think of an actual forest; it’s got random trees, it’s got dead logs, it’s got wildlife and different types of plants. From the outside perspective of a state—particularly pre-information technology—it was very difficult for someone, let’s say a King, to send their subjects to find out, for example, how much wood is there in this forest? You couldn’t know.

Indeed, this lack of legibility of the state...

Completing a big project or achieving a goal can lead to an unexpected experience. Part of you feels proud and satisfied—you did the thing you wanted to do. But another part of you can end up feeling totally lost.

On the one hand, completing a hard-won project has given you the thing you set out to get. But, on the other hand, achieving it has also taken something away. That same ambition helped structure your life, your thoughts and your habits. With the goal achieved, there can be a vacuum as you’re not quite sure what to do next.

It’s a bit of a shame that so much ink has been spilled on how to set goals and achieve them, and relatively little on what to do after they’re done.

A Few Common Post-Achievement Experiences

Before I attempt a look at any solutions, it’s probably best to understand the different facets of the problem. I think there’s actually a few different distinct experiences one can have after completing a big project or goal.

#1 – Disappointment

One problem with many goals is that they’re set out to magically fix problems that they really can’t address. You may want to lose weight to address your relationship problems, only to find the skinnier you has all the same anxieties and difficulties from before. You might want to jump ahead in your career to feel successful and end up feeling no more valued than before.

#2 – Boredom

Working hard on a project occupies a lot of time. Putting time...

Say you were to optimize everything you possibly could for a particular learning goal. You used the best time-management system, you picked exactly the right tasks that would drive learning improvement, you applied tremendous motivation and effort. How much faster could you learn something than the status quo would expect?

The answer, of course, will be: it depends. But that’s rather unsatisfying, if true, because the crucial question is: what does it depend on?

Asking how much improvement over the status quo or expected rate of progress is an interesting question in many domains. In some areas, there might be reasons to suggest you could learn something much faster, maybe two or three times as fast. In others, you may not be able to beat expectations much at all, and in others you might actually do worse.

In this article, I’d like to go over what I think some of those conditions are, so you can plan your own expectations.

1. Is the Status-Quo at a Competitive Limit?

Competitive pressures define many areas of life. The type of competition you face can give a good picture of whether it makes sense to be optimistic or pessimistic about your odds of success, as I’ve written before here.

Many activities for learning are actually fairly lousy compared to a well-known alternative. Classroom learning of a language, without extensive extracurricular practice compared with learning via continuous immersion, are pretty clear examples. The former is so much worse, that it’s not unreasonable to expect massive improvements over the...

Psychological research has demonstrated that human beings are particularly susceptible to what are called framing effects. These are differences in the way we respond to a situation, based on how it is framed for us, rather than on its substance.

To take a particularly striking example, American physicians were presented with the following scenario:

“The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?”

To which physicians overwhelmingly preferred the former, less risky option. However, consider this slightly modified scenario:

“The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program C is adopted, 400 people will die. If program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. Which of the two programs would you favor?”

Now the response was inverted. Most physicians preferred the second...

This month we read Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter

This is a fantastically weird and wonderful book. At one level, the book is about a parallel between three people: Johann Sebastian Bach, Kurt Godel and M.C. Escher, in particular how their work in music, math and art manages to loop back on itself and express a kind of self-referentiality. On another level, however, this book is really a hypothesis about the human mind itself, that selves and souls can come out from inanimate matter the same way that M.C. Escher’s hands draw themselves or Godel’s creates math that proves that it cannot be proven.

Gödel, Escher, Bach is a wonderful exploration of fascinating ideas at the heart of cognitive science: meaning, reduction, recursion, and much more.

If you would like to stream audio on your browser, click here listen on Soundcloud. If you’d like to read the transcript, you may do so here.

Here are some of the highlights from this month’s review. First off, we establish what Douglas Hofstadter is referring to when he talks about a “strange loop”; it’s perhaps easiest to refer to the visual artist M.C. Escher to explain this very sophisticated concept:

An example would be [his images] of the drawing hands where he has drawn two pictures of hands which are holding pencils and drawing themselves. Other ones Escher has includes birds which turn...

One of my favorite early lessons in entrepreneurship was the idea of working “on” your business instead of merely working “in” your business.

To see the distinction, imagine running a restaurant. Here, working “in” the business is clear. Make delicious food. Offer great service to your customers. Keep the place clean and inviting. Being able to cook and host is often a motivation for many to start a restaurant.

Running a restaurant is a lot more than cooking and waiting tables. It’s business strategy, marketing, cost accounting and pricing. Working “on” the restaurant means thinking one layer above to examine what processes the business itself consists of and how you can improve them.

Many restaurateurs fail because they can’t think at that higher abstract level. They intimately understand the food and service dimensions. But they struggle because they can’t see the processes and systems that result in high-quality food, new customers and steady profits.

There is a pattern of thinking here, though, that’s a lot more general than just about business success. This is the idea of a basic level of understanding and a “meta” level, which takes as its objects the very elements of thinking in the basic level itself. I believe there’s reason to believe that much of what we deem “intelligence”, as opposed to mere calculation, involves this kind of “meta” leap in conceptual understanding.

“Aha!” Moments When Discovering the Meta

I can attribute one of the biggest changes in my own life to one of these moments of discovering a hidden...

Last month we read Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen. In this eye-opening book, renowned economist and bestselling author Tyler Cowen explains that high earners are taking ever more advantage of machine intelligence in data analysis and achieving ever-better results.

Meanwhile, low earners who haven’t committed to learning, to making the most of new technologies, have poor prospects. Nearly every business sector relies less and less on manual labor, and this fact is forever changing the world of work and wages. A steady, secure life somewhere in the middle—average—is over.

If you’d like to read the transcript, you may do so here.

Here are some of the highlights from this month’s review. First off, we start with a look at how technology trends (automation, outsourcing, and what I call, “clustering”) and how they will change your career path in the future.

How should you be planning your own personal development so that you can take advantage of these trends rather than have them take advantage of you?

This is a popular topic, it seems like every day you see a new opinion piece about robots taking all of our jobs… I think a lot of these pieces exaggerate the facts. Personally I think that although the advancements in deep learning and neural nets are impressive, I don’t think we’re on an imminent path and there’s going to...

Almost all human accomplishments are, directly or indirectly, judged in competition with others. This is most directly true in domains such as sports or entertainment, where awards and trophies go to some, and not others.

What matters here isn’t absolute performance, but relative performance. Absolute performance can often go up and up, yet because it rises with competitors as well, the standards of what counts rise in lockstep. Before Roger Bannister, running a four-minute mile was thought nigh-impossible. Now it happens regularly. The standards get raised, so what determines success as a runner goes up with it.

Even in domains that aren’t directly competitive, there is still a broader, implicit kind of competition. Singular accomplishments are judged on their impressiveness, indirectly, through a complex comparison with other kinds of accomplishments. Learning to speak another language fluently is moderately impressive in North America, where monolingualism is common. But learning to speak several was common amongst the educated elite a few centuries ago in Europe. Thus the friend that speaks a couple languages fluently impresses more in modern America than it would have in seventeenth century France.

I’d argue that even the most private, resistant-to-comparison situations tend to have subtle, unconscious competitive layers. Consider romantic relationships. Only the most crass compete in competitions over who gets the most dates or has the best spouse. Yet, I believe a lot of relationship happiness comes from beliefs as to whether we have a good spouse (in terms of looks, personality, faithfulness).

Since competition, direct or indirect,...

As someone who writes advice for a living, I’m always interested in the ways advice works, how it gets distorted and what the typical advice-receiver can do about it.

Recently, I came across some research that suggests a new way advice-givers aren’t being totally honest with you: paternalistic advice bias.

Here’s the abstract, from the journal article:

“Despite the near universality of the maxim that one should treat others as one ought to be treated, even well-intended advisers often advise others to act differently than they choose for themselves. We review several psychological factors that contribute to biased advice. Absent pecuniary motives to the contrary, advice tends to be paternalistically biased in favor of caution. Policies that would intuitively promote quality advice — such as making advisers accountable, taking advice from advisers who value the relationship, or having advisers disclose potential conflicts of interest — can perversely lower the quality of advice.”

Biased Advice Leads to Excess Caution

The idea here makes intuitive sense. An advice-giver, whether its someone giving advice in the form of a blog article, or a friend or mentor suggesting a course of action, is not merely transmitting what they know from their own experience.

Instead, there’s a subtle cost-benefit calculation that has to be done when giving advice. And here, there’s a big problem: the flaw of bad advice. If you give someone advice that ends up going disastrously wrong, you might get blamed for that. And the blame, reputationally speaking, might be worse than the benefit of helping...

How much can the brain store?

We all know how much our computers and phones can store, if only because we occasionally get the pings of messages telling us we’ve taken too many photos or downloaded too many apps or movies and something has to be deleted to store more.

The brain doesn’t seem to be like this. While we do forget things, this seems to be more a matter of decay from disuse than being actively “pushed out” by new knowledge.

On the other hand, the brain is still subject to the same laws of the universe that govern everything else. It can’t possibly store infinite amounts of data, as that would be physically impossible.

So how much can you actually learn?

Some Upper-Bounds on Memory

A good first attack on this kind of problem would be to look at the potential upper bounds of human memory, based on the laws of physics. These will be wildly too high, mostly because the brain is a living organism and not an idealized information storage medium, but they should give some starting points for thinking about it.

The brain is typically 350-450 cubic centimeters. The maximum possible information you can cram into a volume that size is defined by the Bousso bound, which ends up calculating to roughly 10^70 bits of information. However, in order to get this amount of information, your brain would become a black hole… so let’s try to reduce this bound further.

If we look, somewhat more modestly at the amount of information...

One idea I’ve been pondering over lately is to what extent reading about self-improvement is a complement versus a substitute for taking self-improvement action.

Complements and substitutes are terms that come from economics. A complement to a product is something you buy more of when you buy the product. Think popcorn and movies. The more movies you go to, the more likely you are to buy popcorn (at least here in North America). Wine and fine dining. Cars and gasoline. These are all complements.

The standard view of self-improvement writing, whether it’s fitness books, cookbooks, business books or popular psychology is that it should assist with personal development. That is to say, the more books you read, the more likely you are to actually work on improving yourself.

The alternative view, of course, is that reading isn’t a complement but a substitute.

Substitutes, again from economics, are products that compete with each other. When you go to the movie theater, each movie acts as a partial substitute of the others. If you go to see one, you forego the other. Similarly, Italian wines and French wines are substitutes, as is gasoline from different gas stations.

Here the theory is that what we really want out of personal development, both in active efforts and passive consumption, is that good feeling that we’re doing something to improve our situation. It’s an anxiety-reducing effect that the...

We often reason through analogies. When something is confusing, we can try to tie it back to something we understand better.

Very often, this process it at the heart of scientific understanding. Charles Darwin formed his famous theory of evolution through natural selection by forming an analogy with artificial selection, the process of human intervention to create new breeds of dogs, cats and corn.

However, sometimes this process backfires. An analogy which seems productive ends up giving misleading impressions. The solar-system model of the atom (Bohr model), in which electrons orbit the nucleus, was such a theory. It predicted that electrons would be constantly accelerating, and thus should emit light continuously until they fell into the nucleus. A better analogy, with wave functions and probabilistic clouds, took root instead.

Given this double-edged sword of analogical reasoning, let’s turn to one about learning itself: is the brain like a muscle?

Measuring the Analogy

Obviously the brain is not literally a muscle. It’s made of neurons and glial cells, not muscle fibers. So on this level, the two can’t possibly be equated. But what about in its function?

Here it really depends on what features you want to compare. Muscles can change and improve, and so can the brain. Muscles seem to experience fatigue with use, and although the brain may turn out to be more complicated, I definitely feel tired after solving math problems all day, and I bet you do too.

However, since two different things can be compared in an unlimited number of ways,...


This month we read Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Snakes: Life & Language in the Amazonian Jungle. This book is a memoir of the famed linguist and anthropologist Daniel Everett and his journey into the Pirahã tribe in the Amazonian jungle. 

Normally I invite a guest to discuss this topic but this time I’m going to try something a little different and just share with you what I thought the big ideas were in this book. I’m looking for feedback on this type of format. Do you like it? Would you prefer having a guest? Let me know what you think.

If you would rather read the transcript, click here.

Here are some of the highlights from this month’s review…

The first idea I want to talk about is language learning. I think anyone who wants to learn a language can learn a lot from Daniel Everett’s case. Clearly learning the Pirahã is an incredible accomplishment in language learning; it’s something that has only been accomplished by a few people and it’s fraught with many difficulties.

There’s no language in common, you don’t have the ability to just pick up a book, you know, Pirahã 101, and just read through it. There’s the difficulties of living in the jungle and having to deal with cultural differences. Perhaps even situations where the people who are trying to teach...