Thursday, April 14, 2011

Calvin Newport and Wrong Advice

Before starting, I would make one thing clear that I really admire Calvin Newport's writing and it provides great insight about how work should be done. After all, MIT epitomizes brutal work ethics and to manage that and still have a life is something truly remarkable. This insight provides people like me with the opportunity to somewhat decode what remarkable people do to get to where they are.

But there is one problem, it's good to have a remarkable work ethic  but it would do you no good if that work is not valued. You can be a superstar at digging ditches or flipping burgers but it will not get you very far and that will make you lose your work ethic.

Just to illustrate one horror story, the person has a remarkable work ethic but the work metaphorically requires digging ditches. Sadly, he hasn't gotten far and is now angry, miserable and without money.

Downplaying passion is always important, but sometimes downplay hard work should also be considered.  Everyone loses passion about his work if he is made to do that work day in and day out with very few breaks in between. Similarly, you will lose your work ethic if you know that there is nothing at the end of the tunnel.

One of my favorite Nassim Taleb quote is that:
"Preoccupation with efficacy is the main obstacle to a noble, poetic, elegant, robust and heroic life"

When I read Cal's blog, I feel that Cal is preoccupied with "efficacy". The nature of his work forces him to be preoccupied with it. Most of his posts stress on being a superstar and he clearly defines a simple method to being one (which works by the way). But the problem is that if everyone becomes a superstar then you'll only end up raising the bar for being a superstar. A positive feedback loop would be formed. Everyone reading Cal's posts would suddenly do better but the standard of better would change and we would then have to come up with something....."better". This reminds me of George Soros' reflexivity theory.

Reflexivity refers to circular relationships between cause and effect. A reflexive relationship is bidirectional; with both the cause and the effect affecting one another in a situation that does not render both functions causes and effects. In sociology, reflexivity therefore comes to mean an act of self-reference where examination or action 'bends back on', refers to, and affects the entity instigating the action or examination. In this sense it usually refers to the capacity of an individual agent to recognize forces of socialization and alter his or her place in the social structure.

So the problem is in a way compounded. Improving your work ethic would simply make you improve it more in the future. As I look around, I see that the most successful people are those that aren't very brilliant and have a relatively poor "work" ethic as defined by Cal Newport. In Academia, where everything is structured and to an extent properly defined, this might work (I suspect it doesn't).

Do we work for passion or for money or to be superstars? The question itself is hard to answer but there is a certain ambiguous and unclear criterion of success in every field which would be hard to put in words. Success is also relatively defined. You can just look at a person and judge him to be successful or not in an ambiguous and split second intuition. Somebody who is extremely happy with his work and professional life but hasn't been an outstanding employee is inspirational and motivating at times. On the other hand, somebody who has assumed leadership roles but seems to be depressed and overworked might be considered a sorry sight.

As I look around myself, people work for different things, but superstars are never defined by their work ethic. The number one reason for being a superstar is networking, and not just normal networking. It is the type of networking that would make people trust you blindly, say bad things about you but they would still be willing to give you a chance. Making friends and keeping them is a talent that comes naturally. You could improve on it, but the talent comes from within. Somebody who is autistically inclined would love to read books but wouldn't be much interested in people.

In the research field even, networking plays a much more important role than whatever work ethic you possess. Success is not a mathematical equation where it is proportional to the number of papers you have published. Scalability of those papers is important. You can work alone and at best publish 1 paper a year, or you can be scalable and publish 5 papers in a group.

Scalability is everything, networking gives you the opportunity to become scalable. No one would in the end really look into you and see if you possess a good work ethic. I know of people who have possessed really poor work habits but have used their charm to get work out of people who weren't even their subordinates. The ability to get names into papers, where one has done nothing, is true ability and by passes work ethic. It is called being tactful and charming. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs are good examples of this. One has charm and the other has grit. When building a narrative people will write about how hardworking Steve Jobs really is, but that is how we want to see him, when in reality he might just be in it for partying and as a side venture would be selling his apple story. A true superstar is one who understands humans and knows how to take advantage and make things scalable. As I read numerous autobiographies of Edison, I realized that although the person had a remarkable work habit, but it never was his work habit that distinguished him. Almost everyone has a remarkable work habit. Even people who are complete failures have remarkable work habits. The real talent is to make things scalable and to understand humans and human nature.

Another of Taleb's quotes:
"A loser generally bemoans mankinds flaws, contradictions, irrationality; without exploiting them for fun and profit."

Success is a side effect of scalability. Even failures work hard or may have superior work ethics. If passion has to be downplayed then so does work ethic. Passion and work ethic are no match if somebody has the charm and ability to manipulate and control and take advantage of other people's emotional flaws.

So next time if you hear about Edison or Steve Job or Bill Gates, then don't think that they work hard and therefore they are successful, because failures work hard as well. What truly distinguishes success and failure is the ability to make things scalable, the ability to network and charm and control other people.

Scalability and Career Options

One important distinction is still pending and that is that you cannot possibly make non-scalable career or profession scalable. If you're a doctor, then there is only a limited number of patients that you would handle. Your income growth would never be nonlinear, which might be the case if you are in finance.

Never chose a career which is dominated by super stars. Any field that has superstars is dominated by power law distribution where a few superstars get all the acclaim (and the money) while the rest are all considered losers who struggle hard to attain this elite category. Academics is one such field where one superstar ends up with everything while the rest will always be treated as losers. Plus, everyone in academia has more or less a remarkable work ethic, but it is very difficult to remove your loser tag and replace or topple a superstar. So a select few would end up with tenure, while the rest will slave the rest of their life for part time academic jobs.

Gaussian deterministic careers like Medical Doctors have no superstar phenomenon. The credit is always equally distributed (in a guassian way) with few fat tails. I was also reading stats on petroleum geologist who are paid well with few fat tails. Everything is well distributed around a mean.

Hence, if you are starting a profession then carefully read the following;

  1. Choose careers which is not dominated by superstars. Academic careers are dominated by superstars. If you can't find a person in the field who inspires you about that field, then that field has no superstars and might be the right choice for you. Telecom engineers, geologist etc (not writing, academics etc).
  2. Work ethic and passion are not that important. Improving your work ethic wouldn't get you far because even failures have excellent work ethic. Focus on the human side and try to manipulate and take advantage of people's biases.
  3. If you're treated like a loser in your field, then you'll lose the ability to be passionate and hard working. Try not to chose careers with superstars who would make you look like a loser.

Watch this video at the end, where a life of a has been wannabe WWE wrestler is described. Never be a part of a profession with superstars and dominated by power law distribution. Your life would be miserable. That includes Academia as well.

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