The Wisdom of Colin Marshall

ColinColin Marshall is one of the best bloggers on the internet if you enjoy film and a damn good blogger even if you do not. His writing is clear yet stylish. His approach to life seems to entail a winning combination of seriousness and humor. The subtitle to his blog is, "Better living through writing, reasoning, self-engineering, renaissancemandom and suchlike." It is somewhat random but aren't those the most stimulating? He lives in Santa Barbara and is in his mid-20's. You could get lost in his archives for hours — here are some of my favorites:

  • Boredom: Only the boring get bored. "How interested I am in a person correlates almost perfectly with how infrequently that person experiences boredom." I should add this to my litmus test list for how to better predict potential rapport with a person. Just ask, "So, what do you do when you're bored?" It's a good sign if the person's response is a blank stare of confusion. It's a good sign if the concept of boredom is absolutely foreign.
  • New Day: Do only new things for one full day.
  • The "Would I respect me?" question that we should ask ourselves regularly.
  • Escapism: First, John Updike: "The writer must face the fact that ordinary lives are what most people live most of the time, and that the novel as a narration of the fantastic and the adventurous is really an escapist plot…." To which Colin says, "if one finds that one needs to escape, then the opiate of outlandish fiction is just so much branch-hacking. What's really needed is a strike at the root, an attempt to repair whatever's gone wrong and made one's real life necessitate escape in the first place."
  • Fourth estitis: I'm awarded line of the day for a bit I wrote about "cynicism as the cheap path to seriousness" in the context of student journalism and the challenge of being at once serious and self-mocking.
  • On perfection. Embrace suckage. In other words, do stuff even if it seems shitty.
  • Descriptors / phrases not to use in reviews. Authentic, boring, depressing, disturbing, pretentious, pointless, soulful/soulless.
  • Why he didn't travel. Nine reasons why it took him so long to get a passport.
  • Head-land. A long reflection on head-land vs. real-land. David Foster Wallace is quoted. It's similar to my post titled A Morning of Self-Consciousness and follow up post on meta-cognition.

His radio program Marketplace of Ideas has had some amazing guests (with one glaring exception — me!). Here's his excellent Twitter feed. Here's his blog solely on movies.

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!

Marty Nemko Enters the Blogosphere

My friend Marty Nemko has started a blog. Marty is a career coach, contributing editor to US News & World Report, and radio host in the Bay Area. Unlike a lot of "coaches" who are high on fluff and low on substance, Marty is a deep, provocative thinker who loves ideas and argument. Here’s his Best Careers of ’08 feature in US News. Here’s his interview with me last year.

So far he’s blogged on why work life balance is overrated and whether mommyhood should be afforded special privileges. Here’s Marty on why gifted boys are getting screwed in our education system:

1. The widespread abandonment of ability-grouped classes. In most of today’s elementary schools, gifted and slow are placed in the same class. That creates more equality–especially racial equality–but the result is that all children receive a worse education. Imagine for example, that you spoke good Mandarin but wanted to become expert. Wouldn’t you prefer a class with advanced students rather than one that also had beginners? Yet today, we don’t give smart kids (or their parents) that choice. We force them into mixed-ability classes, where dispositive metaevaluations reveal they learn less and are bored. And because, on average, boys are more active than girls, they more often can’t sit still for six hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year, year after year. Rather than the harder task of accommodating to smart, active boys’ needs, countless teachers have urged parents to put these boys, long-term, on Ritalin–a meth-like drug.

2. That elementary school teachers are overwhelmingly female. Today, the percentage is up to 92%, the highest ever recorded. Even if teachers believe they’re accommodating to all students’ needs, they can’t help but tilt their teaching to what appeals to them. Thus, books about male heroism are replaced by those of female relationships and heroines, typically in which an inferior male is shown-up by a wise female. Competition–a prime motivator for boys–is replaced by so-called "cooperative learning," which usually reduces to the bright doing the slow’s work, boring the bright kid and precluding him from learning new things.

3. The media’s continuing to perpetrate the myth that females are oppressed and males are the oppressor. For example, they continue to spout these disproven assertions:
— women earn 79 cents on the dollar compared with men. In fact, according to the definitive book on the topic, Why Men Earn More, for the same work, women earn at least as much as men do.
— women are underrepresented in high-level positions because of sexism. In fact, as documented in recent well-reviewed books such as Susan Pinker’s The Sexual Paradox, women’s not being in high-office comes much more from choosing to have a less work-centric lifestyle.
— the schools shortchange girls relative to boys. (the long-debunked Reviving Ophelia canard.)
— men abuse women–in fact, studies show that 30 to 52% of severe domestic violence is perpetrated by women.

Thus, the feeling among educators, policymakers, and the public, is that we need to do more for females than for males, ignoring such statistics that boys are achieving far worse in school than are girls, much more likely to abuse drugs, commit suicide, and drop out of high school, far less likely to graduate from college, much more likely, as young adults, to be sleeping late unemployed on their parents’ sofas.

4. Society’s bias that says: let’s help those with the greatest deficit rather than those with the greatest potential to profit: "Those smart boys will do okay on their own. Let’s commit our resources to the lowest achievers." I deeply believe that such a philosophy will reduce our society to the lowest common denominator, ironically resulting in a worse life for us all. Besides, it simply is unfair for the public schools to not provide at least a marginally appropriate education for all kids, and right now, smart boys get the very least appropriate education.

Every Saint Has a Past, Every Sinner Has a Future

Bekka Björke, a teenage girl I’ve gotten to know through blogging and email, occasionally posts very thoughtful blog entries about her life and mind. I’m consistently impressed by the intensity and originality of her thoughts. She’s also a superb photographer. I expect big things down the road!

Her most recent post is titled Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future, in which she reflects on how others have reacted to her unconventional life choices. Anyone who chooses the road less traveled must face a constant barrage of second-guessing even by those who love you. Excerpt:

I’ve never claimed to be doing any of this living thing “right"… Dropping out of school, insisting on making a living as an artist, moving in with my boyfriend, my problems with alcohol from such a young age, all have seemed kinda unconventional to the people close to me (not that they really expect me to play by the rules, I’d rather take the pieces and make up something new) and even new faces I meet.

I don’t think I’m as crazy or fucked-up as people like to tell me I am. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not. But it still stings when I hear from my parents, who’ve finally come to terms with my life choices and that couldn’t make me happier, the things the rest of my family has to say about me. Even my friends who probably know me better than I know myself question my actions. I appreciate their commentary, it’s obviously got a strong foundation, but I’m constantly wondering if I’m really doing things so wrong. Drugs are ancient history, as is alcohol for the most part. School is back in the picture, I’m working, I’m learning, I’m functioning as a more or less responsible adult. More importantly, I’m happy.

I’m not trying to repent. I’m not ashamed of things I’ve done, things I’m doing. If that were the case I wouldn’t be living as I do. Call it selfish to live in the pursuit of happiness, but I don’t care. Whether or not living like you’re 25 at the ripe old age of 17 is right or wrong is all subjective. If graduating high school, going on to get a *useful* college degree, living a straight life is what you value, fine, I can totally respect that. There will be no apologies on my end for taking school as an opportunity to learn instead of a necessity, for loving someone although my birthdate makes me obviously too naive to really know what I’m feeling, for having a passion for the arts and the mind that so many people scoff at.

For every critic out there, has your existence really been so perfect? Has every action been admirable and “correct?” And even if so, have you never started with the “what if…”s? This is a not a plea for everyone to throw away their suits and 9-5s, to pick up a paintbrush and leave their wives, no. This, if anything, is bunch of words written on a whim by a scared little girl with knit brows, insane devotion, and a deeply embedded set of morals. I’m not saying, even now, that I’m doing things right. But my lifestyle works. It feels right for me.

Here’s my past post on her struggle with alcohol and another on "the inverse correlation between thinking and participating."

The Years Are Short

My friend Gretchen Rubin, of the Happiness Project, posted a great one-minute video titled "The Years Are Short." Awesome pictures of New York City with one of those relaxing soundtracks that always puts me at ease. Oh, and the idea that "the days are long, but the years are short" is worth remembering. Well done, Gretchen.