Cal Newport and Ben: IM Conversation

Cal Newport is one of my favorite people. Although his "day job" is that of a PhD student in theoretical math at MIT, most of us know him as author of the Study Hacks blog, or freelance writer, or bestselling author.

In my ongoing quest to engage Cal’s mind in new and interesting ways, I asked him if he wanted to shamelessly copy Tyler Cowen and Ross Douthat who recently took to the Instant Messenger airwaves.

He agreed, and the other day we chatted for 45 minutes online about whatever came to mind. A lightly edited transcript appears below. Let me know what you think of this format. Topics covered in order:

  • Email habits / lifehacking
  • Career pressures induce ill-advised certainty in college students?
  • Why universities try do both research and undergrad teaching
  • The MacArthur Foundation and funding creatives like David Foster Wallace
  • Advice for those just starting college
  • Whether you should focus on something while young, or experiment widely
  • Temporary convictions Cal and I are acting upon
  • The biggest problem in the world

Ben:  So Cal, here we are on instant messenger. You have expressed concern about how email can be distracting. You don’t use Twitter because you say you don’t need yet another short-text distraction. Do you IM?

Cal:  Not intentionally. Though people occasionally find me on gchat. I don’t like the slow pace and partial attention. Do you?

Ben: No. Same. Slow pace, partial attention. I wonder whether I will flip to other windows during this chat, or just watch the screen say “Cal Newport is typing…”

Do you adopt 4HWW habits with email?

Cal: Not really. I don’t do auto-responders, and I check more than twice a day. The big thing I’ve done with mCalnewporty e-mail was move from a single inbox to multiple “mono-typic pigeon holes.”

Ben:  WTF is that?

Cal:  This is sort of the height of unnecessary life hackerish geekdom, but I’ll explain: all of my mail gets filtered into one label or the other, so my “inbox” is always empty. Also, all of my mail automatically gets tagged as read, so there’s no difference between read and unread messages

Ben:  Interesting. All marked as read. Why?

Cal: It prevents me from using my inbox as a big to-do list. Because I can’t really separate the new from the old, the easiest way to clean out a label (what I call a pigeonhole) is to actually have enough time to deal with everything and empty it out. If I read things quickly and then leave them in there, things get cluttered. It’s supposed to cut down on quick, attention-destroying glances at my inbox every 10 minutes.

Ben: A few weeks ago, I was interviewed for a documentary on lifehackers and the life hacking movement. Among other things I said that people who are big in life hacking tend to be a certain personality type.

Cal:  What type did you describe for the documentary?

Ben: Super detail oriented. Neurotic. Oddly, sometimes also big procrastinators — setting up sophisticated life hack infrastructure IS their time wasting device. There was a book a few months ago that came out that said sometimes a messy office is the most efficient. I.e., don’t over-optimize.

Cal:  I heard about that. The Perfect Mess, or something… I felt a little dirty, earlier, explaining my inbox setup. It’s something that was kind of useful — like buying a message pad for your phone — but I get uncomfortable focusing too much on those details. I wonder why this is…

Ben: OK. Shifting gears. One thing I’ve been thinking of recently is whether college students interested in journalism and politics, in order to stand out, must prematurely coalesce around a political party or established ideology, and hold certain to those beliefs, in order to get the appropriate internships at those publications.

This worries me because college is the time when you’re supposed to be uncertain and maybe proud of wishy-washiness — and yet uncertainty is often seen as counter to a sophisticated political understanding. Or even on the career front. Not knowing what you want to do in life is seen as bad, when in fact this is the one time when you ought to wander and be unsure. Thoughts?

Cal: This was on my mind when I received a recent e-mail from a Dartmouth student who just started his first semester as a freshman. He was worried that he had no specialized enough to be a computer science of physics major. In other words, to him, it was not just fixing on something right away at college, he had the impression that this decision had to be made much earlier…

It’s a challenging question. To do what I do — professional research — certainly requires specialization. I think the same probably holds for politics — intern over your summers! — or journalism — start working up the ranks at the school paper! And I often encourage students to focus, focus, focus…

Ben:  Right.

Cal:  But I can sense your hesitance…

Ben: Like, if you want to work for the National Review over the summer in college, you need to be bleed Red through and through. So any uncertainty or moderateness is beaten out of you. This is unfortunate.

Cal: Maybe not. If you want reward you need to be better at something than anyone you know. This requires focus. However, this is just one thing. For everything else in your life you can be open-minded. So, sure, the National Review guy is die hard conservative. But it’s probably healthy to have that voice in the conversation. For most other people, who are not focusing on writing for the National Review, they can be open-minded about politics.

Ben:  You earlier called yourself a professional researcher. Why do universities try to both do research and teach undergrads? Why in the world should you be distracted with TAing a class, or worse, a senior scientist who has to teach a class on the side instead of finding the cure for cancer?

Cal:  You sound like an MIT professor. Here’s the thing that a lot of people don’t pick up about elite level research, for many of these hot shots (or hot shot wannabes) teaching is a side show at best and distraction to be avoided at worst.

Ben:  So why have undergrads at all? Why not spin off MIT research group from the undergrads? The theory I guess is that undergrads derive some benefit from being in the holy presence of renowned researcher?

Cal:  They have almost done that. An MIT prof has to teach one class a semester, and one class each year can be a graduate level "seminar." Yes, I think you’re right, it’s good for undergrads to be taught by people who are tops in the field…even if they’re not necessarily great lecturers.

Ben:  That’s arguable. I just read this DFW remembrance. See this part: "He was an immensely gifted and original writer, with a brilliant, hyper-analytical mind. The two things such people should avoid are marijuana and universities." It says that after his first novel came out he spent the next 11 years teaching creative writing….and didn’t write another novel. It argues that he got sucked into the university system which proved ultimately a distraction.

Cal:  For a writer… If you’re a mathematician, for example, you’re much better off at Princeton than a cabin in the woods.

Ben:  True. Most fields require facilities, colleagues, etc.

Cal:  Indeed. And to be fair, I do know many professors that do like to teach undergrads. Some get really into the challenges of pedagogy. (Myself included.)

Ben:  I find interesting the article’s reference to "we need a new patron system" for creative people. It’d be awesome if there were 10 MacArthur Foundations!

Cal:  I agree. Otherwise, you do have to find these slots for yourself that might not be a great fit.

Ben:  The only viable slot for most is go teach at a university.

Cal:  Maybe I would be more useful to the world if my setup was more half-time writing and half-time doing research. This doesn’t really exist.

Ben:  Should the New York Times be in a public trust?

Cal:  You mean, something large enough that could basically support the NYT, as is, with no advertising or revenue needed?

Ben:  Correct.  i.e, a non-profit. The MacArthur Foundation basically says, "People like DFW and other creatives are essential for a flourishing society, so we’re going to support them and not have them worry about business model." Most news organizations spend tons of time thinking about business model as opposed to their main work and the question is their main work integral in some way to democracy or society or whatever?

Cal:  I like the MacArthur approach. Microsoft research labs is like that. So is the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton.

Ben:  Right. OK anything else we should discuss?

Cal: Last topic: advice for the college-aged. What would you tell an 18-year old arriving on campus about a college life well-lived?

Ben: First, read I Am Charlotte Simmons. Have you read it?

Cal:  We own it. My wife read it. I haven’t.

Ben:  You should. Especially given what you write about! My next piece of advice would be to focus on the “little things” — when and where you eat, meal plan, taking advantage of weather, having an ergonomic keyboard/chair, making sure your cell provider gets good reception in college campus, etc. Day in, day out, these little things make a big difference. Beyond that my advice becomes cliche — meet profs, have lots of sex, experiment outside your expected field of choice, etc.

Cal: What about the big question of “what should I do with my life?” As you know, my approach is sort of “there is no wrong answer, choose something and focus on it so you’ll start reaping rewards, you can always change later.”

Ben:  Your approach is similar to that great Andy Grove quote, “Act on your temporary convictions as if they were real ones, and when you realize you are wrong, change course very quickly.” The problem with what you said is “…you can always change later” is very, very hard. People have problems with sunk costs and inertia. That’s why I’m not a fan of “focus on something and start reaping the rewards.”

Cal:  Do you worry that on the other hand people get too hung up searching for some “right” path that doesn’t actually exist. Getting scared every time anything seems a little boring or annoying.

Ben: Maybe some search for the “right” path that doesn’t exist, sure. But the second thing you said, no. I think people tolerate waaaay too much boredom in their lives.

Cal:  Final follow-up: what are the temporary convictions, if any, in your life right now that you are taking seriously.

Ben: One conviction right now that I’m taking seriously is that travel is underrated and harder to do as one gets older, so I’m trying to travel as much as I can. You?

Cal: I’ve been a big believer in the 10,000 hour rule. Roughly, that being good at anything takes a long time. If you want to be good at something in your 20s, start in college. If you’re willing to wait until your 30s, you can start later. With this in mind, I’ve put my chips down on writing and solving interesting proofs.

Ben:  Interesting. What’s the biggest problem in the world right now?

Cal:  Unstable governments and massive inequity … which go hand in hand.

Ben:  I would say ‘poverty’ more than massive inequity. Inequality is not inherently bad

Cal:  We could put it this way: the low end of the scale is too low.

Ben:  Do either of your two main tasks – writing and solving proofs – solve this problem? Or do you think about that at all, i.e., world usefulness of your work?

Cal: Neither solves this problem. My writing, I hope, helps the small segment it targets. In some sense, I feel like that leverages my particular abilities to their fullest extent.

Ben:  With that, let’s call it a wrap!

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