• The downside of passion

    09/05 2012

    It’s easy to think that you have to make your life all about your work if you want to succeed, especially when we’re constantly fed stories that repeat the trope that brilliance without obsession (or problems) is impossible.

    Today I had an article on obsessive and harmonious passion published in The Atlantic that discusses this very topic. As it turns out, the workers, students and athletes who don’t respond to threats aren’t lazy, they’re just the ones with a healthier attitude towards their work. Those who react to the idea of failure are the ones you’ve got to worry about.

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  • Steven Johnson on Serendipity

    08/24 2012

    An oldie but a goodie:

    I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student. Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the “binding.”) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books. With music blogs and iTunes, I’ve discovered more interesting new bands and albums in the past year than I did in all of my college years. I know radio has gotten a lot worse, but really — does anyone actually believe that radio was ever more diverse and surprising in its recommendations than surfing through the iTunes catalog or the music sites? It’s no accident that BoingBoing is the most popular blog online — it’s popular because it’s an incredible randomizer, sending you off on all these crazy and unpredictable paths.
    Steven Johnson

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  • The Secret of Your Success? Start early

    08/07 2012

    An Op-Ed in the New York Times by Robert H. Frank an economics professor at Cornell, “Luck vs. Skill: Seeking the Secret of Your Success,” discusses some research by Duncan J. Watts, Matthew Sagalnik and Peter Dodds that I’ve read a few times; it was also discussed in the Fast Company article “Is The Tipping Point Toast?” by Clive Thompson.

    In a nutshell, Watts’s experiment demonstrated the effect that social proof can have on individual behavior. The experiment created a website called the “Music Lab,” in which subjects rated and downloaded songs from a collection of 48.

    Eight times, the experiment was run with subjects who couldn’t see what others had downloaded or rated. In the experiment’s second “social” condition, subjects who were on the same website could see how any times the songs have been downloaded by others in their group.

    Downloading

    What happened? In the social condition, a few hits in the beginning meant increasingly skewed effects. The number one song in one “world” can easily be the least popular in another. There’s no disputing that the role of luck in the markets can far outweigh so-called skill. In the best example of how random the outcomes were:

    The song “Lockdown,” by the band 52 Metro, is a case in point. Ranked 26th out of 48 in the objective ratings, it finished at No. 1 in one of the eight groups, but at No. 40 in another.

    Watts’ experiments help prove that in markets, success has a lot to do with early luck. Just like Olson’s experiments on the social effects of luck helped demonstrate, our behavior is easily influenced by others: we swarm to what looks promising, even if those early hits were the result of pure chance.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that the Op-Ed piece made a strong connection between the experiment and real-world success. But there are plenty.

    The meatier topic underneath is cumulative advantage. While Frank never mentions it in his Op-Ed, the researcher whose study he explains, Duncan J. Watts, wrote about it for the New York Times Magazine a few years ago; he even used the same example of the song “Lockdown” to demonstrate the possible range of outcomes (Whether the song was by 52metro or 52 Metro, apparently, depends on which Times editor was working that day.)

    We don’t have to go very far to see where cumulative advantage, which Malcolm Gladwell referred to in Outliers as the Matthew Effect (PDF of that chapter here), comes into play in the real world. As Dan Pink has demonstrated, and the NY Times Economix blog has written about, there’s a pretty hefty correlation between a student’s SAT scores and parental income. One of my jobs in college was working for a small and pricy tutoring company that specialized in teaching standardized tests. To earn goodwill, some of the tutors took on pro bono clients, typically high-achieving students from Harlem or the Bronx who couldn’t afford our crazy fees. The difference between the pro bono students and their paying counterparts was remarkable. Not only were the children of well-off parents always given the best education, their environments were supportive and conducive to study: they didn’t have to work, could spend more time studying, and always had their own rooms and computers. They were picked up by nannies who immediately started encouraging their efforts.

    The best advice we can take away from cumulative advantage is to start piling on those successes early. Unfortunately, in the academic/professional realm, early success (not to mention how much money we eventually make) stems from something that’s entirely out of our control: how much money our parents make. In the marketplace, most successes I’ve interviewed/read about treat their wins as inevitable. Our inability to run Watts-esque experiments in the real world lets them believe it’s true. But repeatedly demonstrating the large effects of small differences tells another story.

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  • How to Write a Successful Blog

    07/26 2012

    I’ve been looking at a lot of blogs lately to see just what makes a blog successful, and what lessons I can learn from this.

    Actually carrying out this research is something of an exercise in how to mar the scientific process. For one, what actually qualifies as a successful blog is up for interpretation. Secondly, there’s way to accurately get a list of “All Blogs That Were Ever Started” to be able to compare them to blogs that are deemed successful.

     

    1. Successful bloggers love writing.

    There are few things tackier than copying sections out of other people’s blog entries without asking permission, but Chris Guillebeau’s entry on How to Write 300,000 Words in One Year is so full of greatness that I’m inspired to do just that.

    In choosing to write, you must choose the pain of discipline. Good news: it’s not that painful, once you get used to it. You just have to make it more important than other things you could spend time on.

    Make your art your obsession. Fall in love with it. Experience withdrawal symptoms when you don’t give it your attention.

    Say no to other things so you can make art. Learn to view sacrifice as an investment. Writing is a joyful experience that will bring you comfort and satisfaction, but you must put the hours in.

     

    This reminds me of a section in Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write:

    “When we make time to write, we can do it anytime, anywhere…. If we learn to write from the sheer love of writing, there is always enough time, but time must be stolen like a quick kiss between lovers on the run. As a shrewd woman once told me, “The busiest and most important man can always find time or you if he’s in love with you and, if he can’t, then he is not in love.” When we love our writing, we find time for it.”

    You must fall in love with writing. If you’re not in love with whatever it is that you’re trying to be great at, you won’t practice enough to become exceptional. Anyone can become exceptional, but it depends on the quality of your practice. (Talent is Overrated and The Talent Code are my favorite books on deliberate practice.)

    Edison

    2. Successful bloggers keep going.

    By definition, there are no successful abandoned blogs.

    Again, Chris Guillebeau has it right when he quotes Jim Rohn: “We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret and disappointment.”

    Plenty of genius writers have abandoned their blogs: it takes a long time to build an audience. That’s why I love looking at Tim Ferriss’s and Ramit Sethi’s first blogs: no one was reading. You can see it in the lack of comments. Where Ferriss and Sethi (and other successful people) excel is in their ability to consistently favor actions that get long-term results over short-term gains. Even when you don’t lose weight every time you go to the gym, you keep going… and eventually you look hot. Even though you don’t have thousands of readers, you keep writing. And eventually when they start coming, you’ve already got a lot of great content that keeps them hooked.

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  • Not Getting What You Want

    07/15 2012

    Not getting

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  • Think Friday the 13th is unlucky? Keep it to yourself

    07/13 2012

    It can be fun to join in the watercooler talk and blame every little thing that goes wrong today on the fact that it’s Friday the 13th. But here’s a great luck secret: don’t say anything.

    Unlucky When everything is going your way, you’re socially attractive. People want to hang out with you. You’ve got “it,” and are in a key position to key lots of opportunities.

    On the other hand, being the victim of bad luck is also contagious. Just mentioning the words “bad luck” can do some damage to the perception that other people have of you. It sounds irrational, yes, but welcome to the world of dealing with people.

    Kristina Olson, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, studied the social effects of good luck and bad luck. As it turns out, we’re unbelievably to the “just world” hypothesis, a bias that makes us believe that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.

    Even if the layoffs at your company were done at random, the “just world” hypothesis makes us believe that the people left standing deserve it more. Did you get your report stuck in the copier? Maybe it was a technical matter beyond your control, but subconsciously we’re prone to believing that you’re technically inept and (gulp!) deserved it in some way.

    Playing the lovable underdog who believes in bad luck–and then points it out–actually backfires, since we’re subconsciously.prone to believe that people bring on their own bad fortune.

    In Olson’s study, her subjects liked lucky characters (who found five dollars on the ground) almost as much as they liked people who did good, intentional acts. Even friends of the unlucky were affected.

    Think it’s just because of a lifetime of social conditioning? Think again: her subjects were five years old. “Children are just as irrational as adults,” says Olson.

    I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling like today might be my lucky day.
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  • Yes, I Lied: Why Web Design is Important

    07/12 2012

    As you can plainly tell from this website, I’m not a web designer. I’ll never be one. That’s why I’ve finally hired a real web designer, Natalie McGuire, after months of looking for one.

    It’s not just that first impressions count—and they do. When we subconsciously formulate a first impression of someone else, which I previously wrote about, we’re using the posterior cingular cortex, the same part of the brain that’s involved in setting a price and establishing value to something. We’re also using the amygdala, that part of the brain responsible for fear, controlling and moderating our motivations, telling us where to go and why. We’re figuring out if we should flee, if it’s worth staying, and if so, how close we want to be to someone.

    First impressions help us decide the worth of others.

    Think about that. 

    The Halo Effect is usually discussed in positive terms, but when it goes wrong—when you have sweaty hands, don’t blink enough, are dressed like a hobo (all things that can cause bad first impressions)—regaining trust and authority can be impossible. I mean, who has the time?

    You might be incidentally promoting the worst skills in your creative career by insisting that you do everything on your own. The best way to stand apart as a professional is hire other professionals to do what you’re not paid to do. If you’re a writer, focus on your writing. If you’re a tennis coach, please for the love of god don’t design your own business cards. It’s really not that difficult to separate yourself from the pack once you decide that you’re worth it.

    It’s tricky when you’re poor and just starting out, yes, but if you don’t take yourself seriously enough to hire a pro, why should anyone else treat you like a pro? If you don’t have the confidence in your own work, why should others?

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  • Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)

    06/29 2012

    Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t.
    Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t.
    Maybe you’ll divorce at 40.

    Half chance


    Maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary.
    Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either.
    Your choices are half chance.
    So are everybody else’s.

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  • What to do when your friends are all successful: Fast Company, Oprah-level successful!

    06/05 2012

    Last week, I opened up Facebook and saw a photo that not many people get to see on their Facebook feed:

    Yes, that’s right. My friend, author and fellow Portlander Cheryl Strayed, has just caused Oprah to reopen her book club. (Her book, Wild, is amazing. Obviously. Reese Witherspoon bought the rights a while ago.)

    Last week, the big news on my Facebook feed was that Gideon Lewis-Kraus was reviewed in The New Yorker.

     

    A few weeks ago, when I opened up Facebook, I saw my friend Claire Diaz-Ortiz with an announcement of her own:

    She was named one of Fast Company’s 100 most creative people in business, ranking higher than Bjõrk.

    Another one of my Facebook friends, who I first met 12 years ago, Moshe Kasher, is probably going to have his book Kasher in the Rye made into a movie soon.

    To recap: in the last month, my friends have recently met or been anointed by Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, Conan O’Brien, the hip business elite, and the Bible of the literary world.

    Now, there are a few things you can do when shit like this happens.

    The first is what I would have done a few years ago, before I started studying luck and success and why these things happen, anyway. I’m not proud to say it, but I would have done something pretty low and passive-aggressive (thanks for the lifetime of tips, mom!). I’m talking “I left a biting comment on your article” kind of low. “Let’s suggest that the Wikipedia entry gets deleted” kind of low.

    But now I realize that life is not a zero-sum game. You do not lose anything when other people win, and you do not win anything when other people lose.

     

    I’m proud of my friends: they make me work harder. I know how much they’ve sacrificed to get where they are, and for how long they’ve fought. The social networks we belong to are more important than you realize: when your friends gain weight, you gain weight. When they’re happy, you become happier.

    In addition to these network effects, there’s actually an upside to having all of your friends being wildly successful, lucky, or just plain good. I’ll get to that next week!

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  • Truth of the Day

    05/08 2012

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