When to Obsessively Focus and When to Court Serendipity

Cal Newport writes a lot about the importance of hard focus to produce meaningful accomplishments. I write a lot about randomness and serendipity. A reader of both of ours, Nitin, wrote to Cal to ask whether our emphases are in conflict. Their email exchange follows:

Cal: I tend to our two different foci as complementary. I tend to write about the core underlying philosophy of remarkability: mastering valuable things. Ben’s book does a good job of capturing all the tactics and strategies that orbit such a quest.

Nitin: I agree that your and Ben’s views can be complementary. But I also think there are time tradeoffs. When I think of people who are focused on creating phenomenal products (or when I read about Steve Jobs), it seems that those people single-mindedly and obsessively focus on shipping product. I cannot imagine them e-mailing strangers or seeking randomness. Those people want to ship their product and a minute focused on anything else is a minute not focused on shipping.

Cal: The counterpoint is that serendipitous networking is pretty common among super high achievers (think Einsteins frequent meetings with mathematicians). I think the occasional conversation with other experts in related fields is not the thing keeping people back from focusing on shipping. It’s more things like working on multiple projects, or spending too much time on distraction, etc…Sort of thinking out loud here.

Nitin: Yes…now that I think more about the people I know. They are strict about no distractions, but also frequently collaborate with very smart colleagues within their trusted network. (I am thinking about developers frequently asking questions on forums and making contributions to open source projects and reading academic papers in related fields to learn about the best ideas.) I think they can be complementary. :)

Spending time on hard focus and spending time on serendipity are both important things to do, but perhaps not with equal emphasis at the same time. I believe different stages of your career call for different tempos in this regard. For the past couple years, for example, I’ve been more in “focus” mode than “serendipity” mode, going deeper on fewer things and feeling less interested in meeting new people and exposing myself to randomness. That’s because the projects on my plate right now are so compelling (to me). The balance will surely shift back when I’m at a natural transition point. To be sure, I never dial down the serendipity to zero — when I’m in “focus” or “maker” mode the proactively serendipity seeking probably consumes 10-20% of energy cycles, and when I’m in explorer mode it’s more like 40-50% of cycles.

How to Make Past Experiences Meaningful

Recently, I attended a birthday party in Las Vegas.

On Saturday morning, we rented a cabana at a day-time pool party scene that supposedly is the place to see and be seen in Vegas during the day. We had a good time. The sun was out, the people watching was lively, the food and drink were flowing. It was fun, but also expensive and a bit overcrowded. When I left the party, I gave it a 6.5 out of 10 on the fun scale (taking into account the $$$ required to get in).

Then something interesting happened. Later that night, the group of guys on the trip assembled around the dining room table in the birthday boy’s hotel suite. While eating pizza, we spent 90 minutes informally sharing our memories of the day. “Remember when….?” “Wasn’t it crazy when….?” “Can you believe….?” “Check out this photo of….” We immortalized certain phrases and performed reenactments of key exchanges. Embellishment of detail served the larger mission of hilarity. “That one girl ate a lot of our chips” became “That girl who parked herself next to the bar and stuffed her face full of nachos.”

By the time the pizza boxes were emptied out, the pool party earlier in the afternoon seemed positively epic. I felt closer to the people with whom I had shared the experience. And those feelings persist today.

Happiness research is clear: buy experiences, not things. Experiences make us happy in part because experiences often generate vivid memories, and memories we can recall over and over with pleasure, whereas we quickly adapt to purchased goods like a new car or house.

At the birthday party I was reminded that buying experiences is a start, but we want those experiences to be meaningful. Humans crave meaning. And we will do what it takes — which includes deluding ourselves slightly — to assign meaning to the events in our lives.

One way to do this is through a social process of collective remembering. You can backdate meaning to experienced events by doing postmortems, debriefings, retellings, memory sharing.

So yes, buy experiences over things. (Preferably experiences involving other people.) And keep in mind that for those experiences that’ve already occurred, it’s not too late to make them meaningful: get a group of friends together, and walk down memory lane…

To Live Unseduced by Media Sirens and the Gleam of Envy in Others’ Eyes

Algis Valiunas penned an essay about David Foster Wallace last month that, for its relative brevity, is remarkably comprehensive. Here’s an excerpt from the section on “Moral Beauty” that spoke to me:

We are a nation of addicts, Wallace insists, in a chronic state of denial, craving the wrong kinds of pleasure and undone by the wrong kinds of pain. Purification is called for. By no means, however, does Wallace condemn all activity that is not undertaken purely for its own sake; that would be to condemn almost everything people do. What he does condemn is gross self-seeking ambition that cares only for the prizes and the gleam of envy in others’ eyes. In the absence of a genuine calling, which does not exclude honest ambition, whether one happens to be a lawyer or a businessman or an athlete or a writer, success is a corrosive illusion. Wallace updates Tolstoy, who labored all his life against the insidious collusion of sensuality and amour-propre. To live unseduced by media sirens or the longing for celebrity or fatuous simulacra of love or the urge for simple obliteration is the aim Wallace sets for the reader; it is the aim he set for himself as a recovering addict and mental patient and as a writer serious as he had never been before. However the world might have damaged you or you have damaged yourself, however you might believe you need your substance or fantasy of choice to make it through the day, resistance and integrity and moral beauty remain possible.

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The family-authorized biography of DFW comes out August 30. I contributed a personal anecdote about Wallace to D.T. Max, the biographer. We’ll see if it made the final book.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Look Beyond the Mirror

Tear down the mirror and find people who you can help. That's the key to happiness, he says. Not fame or fortune.

May sound cliche, but Arnold (who's lived an amazing life by any measure) shares a poignant story of helping special olympics kids in the following four minute clip that makes the point well. It's from a commencement speech at Emory University.

Regrets of the Dying

Bronnie Ware works in pallitative care — with patients near the end of their life. In this post, she writes powerfully about the the top regrets that have surfaced again and again from her patients on their death beds. I've pasted the list of five below.

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.

2. I wish I didn't work so hard.

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.

It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice.  They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.

When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.

(hat tip @bfeld)

The Wisdom of Your Former Self

Andy McKenzie quotes the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa:

I often find texts of mine that I wrote when I was very young–when I was seventeen or twenty. And some have a power of expression that I do not remember having then. Certain sentences and passages I wrote when I had just taken a few steps away from adolescence seem produced by the self I am today, educated by years and things. I recognize I am the same as I was.

Usually people shudder with embarrassment at the prospect of coming upon writings of their youth. It's the same logic techno-skeptics use when advising youth not to blog: Your adolescent riffs will come off as naive and immature to your wise, adult self.

Pessoa in adulthood found the opposite. His texts of 17 or 20 years old display insight of a caliber close to what he could have produced as an older man.

Isn't this prospect — that there's little significant difference between your youthful thoughts and adult ones — even more terrifying?

Since few adults today have records of their youth, it's easier for them to maintain self-serving narratives about how far they've come in adulthood. This will change, as more young people publish on Twitter and blogs. 20-somethings today will one day look back at those permanent and forever Google-able writings and either shudder in embarrasement as commonly presumed, or, like Pessoa, they will find them remarkably similar to their adult expressions. In the cases where there's no significant difference, the fact that one must work to become wiser will be unavoidable.

Clayton Christensen’s Purpose-Driven Life

Professor Clayton Christensen, in a recent commencement speech, lays out his life strategy. Excerpt:

For me, having a clear purpose in my life has been essential. But it was something I had to think long and hard about before I understood it. When I was a Rhodes scholar, I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year’s worth of work into my time at Oxford. I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth. That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasn’t studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it—and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.

David Brooks calls Christensen's approach the "Well-Planned Life." Religious people tend to call it the "purpose-driven life." Brooks then contrasts it to what he calls the "Summoned Life":

The person leading the Summoned Life emphasizes the context, and asks, “What are my circumstances asking me to do?” The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation: I’m living in a specific year in a specific place facing specific problems and needs. At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options. The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

I don't think Brooks' description quite nails it, and calling it "summoned" is confusing as it actually implies the opposite of what it means. All in all, though, I am more sympathetic to this second approach. I'm skeptical of the notion that each of us as some singular purpose we need to fulfill.

One friend emailed me about the lack of experimentalism in Christensen's purpose-driven philosophy. Using Brooks' language he added a third experimental option to illustrate his point:

Should I climb a mountain?

  • Experiential: Sure, as long as it's not too risky.
  • Summoned: Is this who I really am? Does this fit my goals or where I'm going?
  • Planned: It's not on the list, sorry.

How was the climb?

  • Experiential: Great! or "I hated it."
  • Summoned: It suited my context
  • Planned: Climb? I was busy talking to Jesus about my destiny.

If You Want to Know How Things Are in Reality

Kaj Sotala, a self-described pursuer of truth, a few years ago offered some tips for those who want to "know how things are in reality." Excerpts below with my bolded highlights:

* Study things from as many points of view as possible, and try to understand as many models of thought as you can. This way, you can better understand the behavior of other people, and how people can think in ways that seem incomprehensible to you. If an atheist, talk to religious people until you understand them well enough not to consider them silly; if religious, talk to atheists until you understand them in the same way….

* Recognize your fallibility. Realize that in a quest for the truth, your own biases become your worst enemy. To defeat your enemy you must understand it, so set forth on studying it….Find the time to peruse articles like Wikipedia's list of cognitive biases and Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgment of Global Risks. In your interdisciplinary studies, especially emphasize the sciences that help you in understanding and combating your bias, and the ones that allow you to think clearly – in his Twelve Virtues of Rationality (which is required reading for you), Eliezer Yudkowsky recommends evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory and decision theory….

* Discuss the same subjects repeatedly, even with the same people. If you are losing a debate but still cannot admit you're wrong, ask for time to ponder upon it. Decide if your hesitation was you being too caught up in the defense of a topic, in which case you only need time to get over it and accept your opponent's arguments, or because there was more relevant information in your mind that you couldn't recall at the moment, in which case you need time for your subconsciousness to bring them to your mind….

* Avoid certainty, and of all people, be the harshest on yourself. 80% of drivers thinks they belong in the top 30% of all drivers, and even people aware of cognitive biases often seem to think those biases don't apply to them. People tend to find in ambiguous texts the points that support their opinions, while discounting the ones that disagree with them. Question yourself, and recognize that if you want your theories to find the truth, you can never be the only one to evaluate them….Meditate on the mantra of "nothing is impossible, only extremely unlikely". Think of the world in terms of probabilities, not certainties.

Here is Kaj's post on his personal values. Here is his "About Me" page on his personal web site where, in addition to basic factual information, he lists his one-paragraph stance on free will, ethics, rationality, love, religion, copyright, distribution of wealth, and medical regulation.

He is 24 years-old. For gender he writes: To paraphrase rm: "If there are men and women, then I'm a man. If there are men, women and transsexuals, then I'm a man. If there are men, women, transsexuals and something else, then I am something else."

50 Ways to Expose Yourself to Randomness

Cal Newport’s three step way to become interesting:

1. Do fewer structured activities.
2. Spend more time exploring, thinking, and exposing yourself to potentially interesting things.
3. If something catches your attention, use the abundant free time generated by rule 1 to quickly follow up.

Below are 50 ideas for step 2. They are all direct quotes from Tom Peters. I bolded the numbers of the best.

1. Go to the nearest magazine shop. Now. Spend 20 minutes. Pick up 20 — twenty! — magazines. None should be ones you normally read. Spend the better part of a day perusing them. Tear stuff out. Make notes. Create files. Goal: Stretch! Repeat . . . monthly . . . or at least bi-monthly.

2. Go to the Web. Now. Relax. Follow your bliss! Visit at least 15 sites you haven’t visited before. Follow any chain that is even a little intriguing. Bookmark a few of the best. Repeat . . . at least once a week.

3. Take off this Wednesday afternoon. Wander the closest mall . . . for two hours. Note the stuff you like. (And hate.) Products, merchandising, whatever. Repeat . . . bimonthly.

4. Buy a packet of 3 x 5-inch notecards. Carry them around with you. Always. Record cool stuff. Awful stuff. Daily. Review your card pack every Sunday. (Obsess on this!)

5. Going the same place for vacation next year? Why not someplace new? Why not one of those university-sponsored 12-day trips to explore some weird phenomenon?

6. Project stuck in a rut? Look through your Rolodex. Who’s the oddest duck in there? Call her/him. Invite her/him to lunch. Pick her/his brain for a couple of hours about your project.

7. Create a new habit: Visit your Rolodex. Once a month. Pick a name of someone interesting you’ve lost touch with. Take her/him to lunch . . . next week.

8. New habit: You’re in a meeting. Someone you don’t know makes an interesting contribution. Invite him/her to lunch . . . in the next two weeks.

9. You run across somebody interesting. As a matter of course, ask her (him) what’s the best thing she/he’s read in the last 90 days. Order it from Amazon.com . . . this afternoon.

10. Take tomorrow afternoon off. Rain or shine. Wander a corner of the city you’ve never explored before.

11. Go to the local Rite Aid. Buy a $2 notebook. Title it Observations I. Start recording. Now. Anything and everything. (Now = Now.)

12. Going out this Saturday night? Go some place new.

13. Having a dinner party next Sunday? Invite somebody — interesting — you’ve never invited before. (Odds are, he/she won’t accept. So what? Go for it. It’s just like selling encyclopedias. No ring doorbell = No sale.)

14. Go past a kiosk advertising local Community College courses for this fall. (Or one of the Learning Annex catalogues.) Grab a copy. Look it over this evening. Pick a couple of interesting courses and topics you’ve always wanted to know more about. Call the professor (with a little detective work, you can find her). If you’re intrigued, sign up and . . . at least . . . go to the orientation session.

15. Read a provocative article in a business journal. Triggers a thought? E-mail the author. So what if you never hear back? (The odds are actually pretty high that you will. Trust me.)

16. At church this Sunday, the pastor announces a new fund drive. Sure you’re busy. (Who isn’t?) Go to the organizing meeting after services. Sign up!

17. You’re working with your 13-year-old on his science project. You find you’re having fun. Go to school with him tomorrow . . . and volunteer to talk to the class about the topic.

18. A crummy little assignment comes along. But it would give you a chance to work with a group of people you’ve never worked with before. Take the assignment.

19. You’re really pissed off at what’s going on in your kid’s school. So run for the school board.

20. You aren’t really interested in changing jobs. But there’s a neat job fair in the next town this weekend. Go.

21. An old college pal of yours invites you to go on a long weekend by the lake. You never do things like that. Go.

22. A really cool job opening overseas comes up. It fits your skill set. You couldn’t possibly consider it. You’ve got a nine-year-old and your husband is content with his job. At least call someone . . . and find out more about it.

23. You’re on the fast track. But a fascinating job opens up . . . far away. It looks like a detour. But you could learn something really new. Really cool. Go talk to the guy/gal about it. (Now.)

24. The eighth grade teacher is looking for chaperones for the trip to the natural history museum. You’re a law firm partner, for God’s sake, making $350,000 a year. Volunteer.

25. You love taking pictures. You pick up a brochure advertising a four-day photography workshop in Maine next summer. Go to the workshop.

26. A friend of yours, a small-business owner, is go-ing to Thailand on a sourcing trip. She invites you to join her. Go.

27. There’s a great ball game on ESPN in an hour. Forget it. Go on that walk you love . . . that you haven’t taken for a year.

28. I’m not much on planning. But how about sitting down with your spouse/significant other and making a list of three or four things you’ve “been meaning to do” that are novel . . . then coming up with a scheme for doing at least one of them in the next nine months?

29. You’ve a-l-w-a-y-s wanted to go to the Yucatan. So at least call a travel agent . . . this week. (How about right now?)

30. You know “the action is at the front line.” Spend a month (two days a week) on a self-styled training program that rotates you through all the front-line jobs in the hotel/distribution center/whatever.

31. Ask a first-line supervisor who the most motivated clerk in the store is. Take him/her to lunch . . . in the next three weeks.

32. You spot a Cool Article in the division newsletter. Call the person involved. Take her/him to lunch. Tomorrow. Learn more. (Repeat.) (Regularly.)

33. You and your spouse go to a great play this Saturday. On Monday, call the director and ask him/her if you can come by and chat some time in the next two weeks. (If the chat goes well, ask her/him to come in to address your 18 colleagues in the Accounting Dept. at a Brown Bag Lunch Session later this month.)

34. Institute a monthly Brown Bag Lunch Session. Encourage all your colleagues to nominate interesting people to be invited. Criterion: “I wouldn’t have expected us to invite — — .”

35. Volunteer to take charge of recruiting for the next year/six months. Seek out input/applications from places the unit has never approached before.

36. Consider a . . . four-month sabbatical.

37. Get up from your desk. Now. Take a two-hour walk on the beach. In the hills. Whatever. Repeat . . . once every couple of weeks. (Weekly?)

38. Seriously consider approaching your boss about working a day a week at home.

39. Take the door off your office.

40. You’ve got a couple of pals who are readers. Start a Reading Group that gets together every third Thursday. Include stuff that’s pretty far out. (Invite a noteworthy local author to talk to your group now and again.)

41. Join Toastmasters. (I know it’s a repeat. It’s important!)

42. Pen an article for the division newsletter.

43. In the quarterly alumni magazine, you read about a pal who’s chosen to do something offbeat with her life. Call her. Tomorrow. (Or today.)

44. Buy that surprisingly colorful outfit you saw yesterday. Wear it to work. Tomorrow.

45. Develop a set of probing questions to use at meetings. “Will this really make a difference?” “Will anybody remember what we’re doing here two years from now?” “Can we brag to our spouse/kids about this project?”

46. Assess every project you propose by the “WOW!”/ “Is it Worth Doing?” criteria.

47. Call the Principal Client for your last project. Ask her to lunch. Within the next two weeks. Conduct a no-holds-barred debriefing on how you and your team did . . . and might have done. Now.

48. Call the wisest person you know. (A fabulous professor you had 15 years ago?) Ask her/him to lunch. Ask her/him if he or she would be willing to sit with you for a couple of hours every quarter to talk about what you’ve done/where you’re going. (Try it. It can’t hurt.)

49. Become a Cub Scout/Brownie troop leader. Or direct your kid’s play at school. The idea: spend more time around children . . . they’re fascinating . . . spontaneous . . . and wise.

50. Build a great sandcastle!

“If I Were Able to Live My Life Anew”

“If I were able to live my life anew, in the next I would try to commit more errors. I would not try to be so perfect, I would relax more. I would be more foolish than I’ve been, in fact, I would take few things seriously.

I would be less hygienic. I would run more risks, take more vacations, contemplate more sunsets, climb more mountains, swim more rivers. I would go to more places where I’ve never been, I would eat more ice cream and fewer beans, I would have more real problems and less imaginary ones.

I was one of those people that lived sensibly and prolifically each minute of his life; Of course I had moments of happiness. If I could go back I would try to have only good moments. Because if you didn’t know, of that is life made: only of moments; Don’t lose the now.

I was one of those that never went anywhere without a thermometer, a hot-water bottle, an umbrella, and a parachute; If I could leave again, I would travel lighter. If I could live again, I would begin to walk barefoot until autumn ends. I would take more cart rides, contemplate more dawns, and play with more children, If I had another life ahead of me.

But already you see, I am 85, and I know that I am dying.”

– Variously attributed to Jorge Luis Borges and Don Herold (via Josh Kaufman)