I’m fascinated by people at the top levels of every field. Whether it’s CEOs, best-selling authors, presidents, or even Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity, I love learning the techniques and mindsets that pros use to become the best.
At these rarefied levels, top performers use different techniques than average people.
Today, a guest post that will challenge your notions of success and of finding an idea to pursue.
How does a PhD student at MIT get a book published while studying an insanely challenging area, including…
“…distributed algorithms and lower bounds for wireless networks, with a particular focus on the intersection between theory and practice. A major direction in my theory work is the introduction of an abstract interference adversary that incarnates the diversity of unpredictable interference encountered in real wireless networks; e.g., as caused by unrelated devices on the same band, multipath effects, or electromagnetic inteference…”
Here’s one piece of the puzzle: They don’t “just get started” like so many of us have been taught to do.
The fallacy of “just get started”
How many times have you heard someone say, “You just need to get started”?
I’ve even said it myself — that the hardest part of nearly anything meaningful (health & fitness, managing your money, etc) is getting started.
But Cal Newport, a published author and PhD in computer science at MIT, disagrees.
Getting a chance to hear someone disagree with you and back it up beautifully with logic and examples is a rare thing. So today, I’ve invited Cal to write a detailed guest post about the importance of ideas — and the fallacies of thinking “just getting started” is the right answer.
He’ll show you why it’s important to look beyond quick tactical wins and instead focus on the strength of your idea, which takes painstaking practice and ongoing iteration.
In my Earn1k course — where I help people focus on earning money on the side — we blend quick-win tactics with ongoing attitudinal and behavioral change. For example, you can quickly learn which of your ideas will never make you any money. But to find an idea that will be highly profitable, and to construct a referral and lead-generation strategy that will have you drowning in new business…and to price your services so you’re making rich profits…that is not a 1-page worksheet. It takes work. And yet, it’s important to blend the two to capitalize on getting started and dominating over the long term.
Honestly, this is not the kind of stuff most blog readers want to hear. They want “tactics” and “tips” about how to “hack” their lives. But it’s important to blend quick wins with deep theory and rigor. The most successful people know this — and maintain a balance of quick wins and long-term strategy.
Take it away, Cal…
The Idea Virtuosos: Why the common advice of “You just need to get started” is bad advice”
By Cal Newport
Imagine that you’re a computer scientist submitting a paper to SIGCOMM, an elite academic conference focused on computer networks. Your task is daunting: Of the nearly 300 research papers submitted to this year’s conference, only 30 were accepted. Each of these accepted papers survived detailed reviews from at least five different experts and were then subject to an intense debate of their merits at the conference’s 2-day program committee meeting.
Not surprisingly, the papers that make it through this gauntlet are spectacular: they each present an original idea which is then examined, evaluated, justified, and discussed in painstaking detail.
Here’s a typical table; it’s taken from the winner of the best paper award at this year’s conference:
Multiply this level of detail to fill ten double-columned, small-fonted pages, and you’ve got yourself a reasonable submission.
At SIGCOMM there’s no wiggle room: to get a paper accepted your idea must be a blockbuster, otherwise it will crumble under the intense scrutiny it faces both from your own analysis and the many experts who will tear down your claims of importance, piece by piece.
What fascinates me about this feat is that the world’s top computer science professors replicate it many times each year. The professor I work with at MIT, for example, last year published two papers at SIGCOMM, not to mention two papers at equivalently elite networking conferences, and two more at a pair of elite conferences in related fields.
It follows: if you’re interested in the process of finding standout ideas — be it for a start-up, work project, blog topic, or book proposal — there’s perhaps no better experts to learn from than the idea virtuosos running top academic research labs. These professors face an impossibly high quality threshold for their work, and yet manage to match it with a half-dozen or more brilliant ideas each year. Once you dive inside their world, however, an unsettling reality becomes clear: it’s possible that the conventional wisdom about big accomplishment, which says getting started is the key to success, might be dead wrong.
It’s towards this unsettling notion that I turn your attention in this post.
My Scheduled Life
I’ve been at MIT for six years — the first five spent earning my PhD in computer science, and the last spent as a postdoctoral associate. Of the many things that surprised me about the Institute — a list which includes the alarming quantity of yelling and the inexpressible value of white boards — one that stands out is its dedication to meetings.
Here, for example, is a screen shot of my calendar from a typical week earlier this summer:
The events highlighted in red are regularly scheduled meetings associated with my research group, while the events highlighted in yellow are one-on-one research meetings I happened to schedule that week. They all involve the same activities: discussing research papers and debating — often vigorously — the ideas they spawn.
This calendar highlights a reality of life at MIT: discussion and brainstorming are a core component of our research process. It’s understood that only the best ideas can survive the submission process of top conferences like SIGCOMM, therefore a huge effort is invested in identifying the best possible projects before getting started. As seen on my calendar above, it’s not unusual to dedicate 6 or more hours a week in formal brainstorming meetings, with at least another 6 – 12 spent exploring on your own time.
At MIT, the quality of the idea is everything.
Ideas vs. Progress
Notice that MIT’s idea-centric process (e.g., finding the right ideas is key) contrasts with the progress-centric process (e.g., getting started is key) that dominates popular discussion on getting things done.
- Proponents of the progress-centric process says “getting started” is the most important step. To paraphrase a commentator on a past article I wrote on this subject: “You will fail at 100% of the opportunities you never try!”
- Proponents of the idea-centric process, by contrast, note that the vast majority of ideas are mediocre. If you jump at every concept that seems viable, you’ll probably end up accomplishing little of consequence.
- Proponents of the progress-centric process fear that they must tell people to get started right away, or these (hypothetical) others will remain mired in a procrastinatory sea of fear and comfort with conformity. To paraphrase another commenter: “Most folks just sit around waffling on everything and thus don’t do anything except complain about the status quo.”
- Proponents of the idea-centric process aren’t interested in the psychological issues of other people; they want the unvarnished truth on what will maximize their chances of success.
- Proponents of the progress-centric process believe that the only way to test out an idea is to try it. To quote Scott Young (an insightful observer on these topics): “While you can learn something about a field by sitting on the sidelines, you won’t truly know about it until you dive right in.”
- Proponents of the idea-centric process believe that in many fields, deep knowledge and expert feedback can differentiate between mediocre and great ideas. This requires a time-consuming commitment to learning about a field and a thick skin for harsh feedback, but you’d be hard pressed, for example, to find a successful serial entrepreneur, writer, or researcher who would start a project before feeling strongly about its chances for success.
In practice, this leads to the following types of difference:
- A progress-centric person who has an interesting idea for a book jumps right into writing it, while an idea-centric person runs the idea through a wringer — talking to agents and writers, looking for similar works that have sold recently, etc. — before deciding to invest the years required to write and market it.
- A progress-centric person quits his job to start his on blog-based online business, assuming he’ll figure out the details as he goes along, while an idea-centric person invests the months — maybe years — of hard work necessary to find a business idea with a real chance of supporting him, understanding that the right answer might be for him to build a valuable skill before going freelance.
- A progress-centric person spends a month getting the small business she works for a strong Twitter presence, because that’s the thing to do, while an idea-centric person spends the same month studying more successful firms in their space, trying to identify what they’re doing better that could be efficiently replicated.
- And so on…
Hypothetical situations, of course, can only take us so far. Let’s continue with two real world examples of idea-centric thinking in action…
The Difficulty of Finding Good Ideas: From Admissions to Animation
Earlier this summer I published a book on the college admission process. Its premise is simple: most people believe that getting accepted at a top college requires a stressful high school life; to counter this dangerous myth, I tell the stories of students who did well in the process while leading a low-stress and interesting life.
To the outside observer, the idea seems clear and obvious, therefore they likely assume the difficult part of this project was forcing myself to actually write. Reality, however, defies this assumption.
To see why, consider this screen shot from my e-mail archive:
Shown above are two crucial e-mails relating to my book. The earlier message, titled “one more…,” is from a conversation with my agent about potential book ideas. It contains my first reference to the idea of tackling college admissions as a book subject. (In the e-mail, I say: “One of the hottest issues right now is that of overachieving students burning out in their…quest to get into the right college…[but] many of the top students I interview…to put it simply, [are] relaxed.”)
The later e-mail, titled “Broadway Deal,” marks the Broadway Books imprint of Random House buying my book proposal. (Remember, for non-fiction, you sell the idea before you write the book; this e-mail timestamps me selling the idea, with all of the writing coming later.)
Notice the gap between the two dates. I started investigating the topic of college admissions in April of 2007 and didn’t complete and sell my final book proposal until October of 2008 — a span of 18 months!
(I’m not alone in this dedication to getting a book idea right; Ramit told me, for example, that it took him nine months to get from the general idea of writing his personal finance book to a specific 10-page outline.)
This same lesson keeps turning up the more you seek it. Consider, to name another example, the creative process behind the spectacular success of Pixar Animation Studios, which has an outrageously high average international gross of $550 million. In a Wired Magazine cover article, penned by Jonah Lehrer, it’s revealed that the Pixar team is obsessed with getting their movie just right before diving into the business of actually making it.
They start, for example, with a series of intense story discussions in a Pixar-owned cabin, located 50 miles north of San Francisco. For Toy Story 3, it took 123 days between the start of this process and the completion of their first story board. This story board was then turned into a story reel (an animated flip book version of the movie where employees provide the voice acting). Using the reel, the team brutally dissects and improves the script, remaking the reel with each tweak, until the movie flows smoothly — every joke hitting, every plot point unfolding logically.
Up to this point, very little money has been invested. Only once the reel is perfect do they actual start the long and expensive process of animating frames and recording professional voices.
Your Personal R&D Lab
What’s the right way to integrate the idea-centric process into your own work flow? I want to conclude with a few practical guidelines for moving away from The Cult of the Start and embracing the importance of finding the right idea.
- Learn the Field
The ability to distinguish between mediocre and good ideas requires that you understand your field. In some fields this might require diving into a series of (probably) mediocre starter projects to get a feel for how things work. In many fields, however, talking to insiders and finding examples of both good and bad projects (and understanding the difference), can take you surprisingly far.
- Seek Feedback
Find people who know what they are talking about and ask for their unvarnished opinion on your idea. Assume most of your ideas will get shot down. (At MIT, for example, I assume a ratio of 1 paper for every 6 – 10 ideas that I give serious thought towards.) This is okay; even top idea generators expect a low hit rate.
- Be Specific
Establish a specific routine for systematically sorting through and exploring potential ideas. If you don’t have a routine, it’s easy to default to doing nothing at all. This routine should include regular exposure to material related to your field (for a writer, for example, this might mean subscribing to Publisher’s Lunch and keeping tabs on what’s selling and who’s writing it). Have a separate routine to follow after an idea passes a viability threshold. This routine should involve both harsh expert feedback and a thorough search for people who have done something similar (and their fate).
- Seek Compulsion, Not (Internal) Consistency
Your threshold for acting on idea should be an indefatigable compulsion to get started. That is, after looking at the idea from many different angles, comparing it to similar works, and seeking expert feedback, if it still seems strong: get started. Most people, by contrast, act on any idea that seems internally consistent. That should be your criteria for starting to investigate an idea, not your threshold for action. (Notice, defining this threshold is one of the hardest challenges of the idea-centric approach, and is something that requires practice and experience. If you want to see a well-defined threshold in action, talk to a venture capitalist — they are among the world’s experts on sorting the potentially big — no one, of course, can predict certain success — from the probably small.)
If your goal is to increase the speed that you churn through your project list, then this advice is not for you — the sooner you get started on optimizing your TweekDeck configuration, or whatever, the better. The same applies for lifestyle changes (be it a new fitness program or learning a new language): these can be important projects in your life, but they’re not the type of accomplishment where the quality of the idea matters — so ignore what I say here.
On the other hand, when you’re talking about lasting accomplishment — the type you’ll be remembered for — it’s hard to avoid the reality that great ideas require a great investment of time to uncover. The sooner you make peace with this mindset — even if it means waiting longer before quitting your job to become an entrepreneur or diving into your brilliant book idea — the sooner you can start making important things happen.
Cal Newport’s latest book, How to Be a High School Superstar is ostensibly about hacking the stress out of the college admissions process, but is secretly a guide for anyone interested in building a more interesting life.