Category Archives: self-development

Be confident — but not too confident

Do you lack confidence? Are you afraid to set up a new business, embark on a new career, commit to a relationship or take up hang gliding?

Don’t worry too much about it. You might be making the right decisions. Being too confident can be worse than not being confident enough.

But how can you tell? Turn to Don A. Moore’s new book Perfectly Confident. It’s about making the best decisions.

            Moore says most popular treatments assume that more confidence is better. People just need to overcome their fears and jump in. This is true for some people and some decisions. But it can also be disastrous.

When you see a sports star making a seemingly brash prediction of winning, you might imagine that being really confident is necessary for success. After all, if you’re not confident, how can you do your best? Not so quick, says Moore. There’s actually little evidence that super-confidence improves performance. Those sports stars have worked hard and long, and may be making reasonable judgements about their chances of victory.

Overconfidence is potentially dangerous and can lead you to take unwarranted risks. If you’ve never tried base jumping, it’s better to be very cautious and prepare carefully before your first jump. Most new small businesses fail within the first year. Perhaps their owners were overconfident.

            There is evidence that most people overestimate how good they are at things. In a classic survey, 93% of US drivers said they ranked in the top half. Most young people think they are more honest than average and better than average at relationships. The reason is that people think, “I’m honest most of the time, so I’m better than average” but don’t stop to think that most other people may think the same way. Moore says the way to fix your perception of superiority is to be more specific. For example, if being a good driver is specified as never having had an accident or a ticket, then fewer people will overestimate their abilities.

There’s another side to people’s thinking about their own capabilities. When it comes to an uncommon skill, like riding a unicycle or subtracting large numbers in your head, most people underestimate their abilities. You might think, “I wouldn’t last three seconds on a unicycle” and forget to think that most other people might have the same difficulty.


Could you unicycle across China?

            One of the methods Moore recommends is to think probabilistically. Consider all possible outcomes of your decision. Consider the new business. You might guess that there’s a 10% chance of making a lot of money, 40% of making a little, 30% of losing a little and 20% of losing a lot. Just writing down the possibilities can be sobering. Overconfident people never stop to think of failure and hence can make unwise decisions. Assigning probabilities also helps in overcoming the tendency to think in terms of yes or no, success or no success.

You also need to weigh up the benefits against the costs. In setting up the business, you might be working 90-hour weeks. This can be exhilarating but it might also be exhausting. You should factor these possibilities into your decision. Vital here is the idea of opportunity cost. All that money and those hours of effort might be invested in some other activity. Thinking in terms of different possible outcomes and opportunity costs can help counter overconfidence.

A confident scholar?

Many times in my career as an academic I’ve had to make decisions about whether to write an article or a book and then, after writing it, where to submit it. When I was first starting out, I’d write an article and then try to figure out where to submit it. Before long, I learned this was not a good strategy, because sometimes there was no suitable outlet. Moore would say I was overconfident and needed to consider the possibility of wasting effort, at least for the purpose of publication, which is crucial for aspiring academics.

These days, before writing an article, I think about where I plan to send it, and the likelihood of it being accepted. Sometimes there is a high-prestige journal that I think could be worth trying. I might estimate the chance of acceptance as 5 percent, one out of twenty. I have to weigh up the effort of tailoring the article to this journal and going through the admission process, along with associated delays, against the 95% chance of rejection.

In many cases, I decide not to bother with the high-status journal and go straight to one where the odds are better. This points to another factor to consider when writing an article: are there fall-back options should my first-choice outlet reject my submission?

Another decision is whether to undertake a PhD. When I did my own PhD, aeons ago, I didn’t think about failure. I took a risk without considering the full range of outcomes. Now, as a potential PhD supervisor, I regularly talk to prospective students. They need to make several decisions: whether to pursue a PhD, what university to attend, what topic and what supervisor. It’s a big decision because writing a PhD thesis requires years of effort. Although about three quarters of students who’ve started with me as their supervisor have graduated, the cost for those who don’t finish can be large: they could have been doing something else with their time and energy. On the other hand, a student can acquire skills and obtain satisfactions along the way, a sort of consolation prize for non-finishers.

            Therefore, in advising prospective students, I point to the large and sustained commitment required and note that most PhD graduates do not obtain academic posts. After reading Moore’s book, in future I’ll recommend that prospective students assign probabilities to different outcomes. That will help counter overconfidence.

For students who are part way through their theses, a more common problem is under confidence. The challenge seems enormous. It can be helpful to have the courage to continue, knowing that most students, including most of those who finish, go through periods of self-doubt.

A confident whistleblower?

Another area where Moore’s recommendations are relevant is whistleblowing. Thinking from the point of view of managers in organisations, he says that being results-oriented is not necessarily a good thing. Being results-oriented often means rewarding employees for success and penalising them for failure.

This sounds logical but it misses an important consideration: sometimes it is wise to take risks even though some of them don’t pan out. If developing a new app costs $1 million and has only a 10% chance of success, it’s still a good bet if success means a return of $100 million. But when employees are penalised for failure, they won’t take risks like this. Apple never would have developed spectacularly profitable devices if it hadn’t supported risk-taking with positive expected returns.

Imagine being a manager and one of your employees reports possibly fraudulent activities in the organisation. You investigate and discover your employee is wrong. Does this warrant a penalty? Moore would say that this whistleblower should be encouraged even if the report was wrong, at least if there’s a reasonable chance it might have been right.

In practice, employees who make allegations of wrongdoing are often penalised even when they’re right, especially when the wrongdoing implicates higher management for being involved or for tolerating it. That’s another story.

            The whistleblower, treated badly, then turns to a watchdog agency such as an ombudsman or anti-corruption agency or court. A good idea? Moore’s advice would be to consider all possible outcomes and assign them probabilities, and also to consider other options. Few whistleblowers do this. They want vindication and assume that some higher authority will provide it. They do not investigate the success rate of previous whistleblowers, which can be abysmal. Because they know they are right, they do not consider the possibility that justice will not be done, and that many previous whistleblowers also knew they were right but failed in their efforts to be vindicated.

Moore recommends learning from experience. When you have a decision to make, assign probabilities to potential outcomes and consider alternative courses of action. When you learn the outcome, go back to your probabilities and figure out whether you may have been too confident or not confident enough. Gradually, over time, you can improve your skill in predicting outcomes.


Don’t just jump in! Learn to predict outcomes.

            This is good advice for many purposes. However, when you’re faced with a decision that is likely to be made just once in a lifetime — like doing a PhD or blowing the whistle — then it’s sensible to learn as much as possible about what others have done in the same situation. Why make your own mistakes when you can learn from others’ mistakes? By undertaking this sort of investigation, you minimise the risk of making a wrong decision. And when things don’t work out, remember that you still might have made the right decision. If you are successful in everything you try, you probably aren’t taking enough risks!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

 

Indexing your book

You’ve just written a book and checked the proofs. Now it’s time to prepare the index. How do you go about it?

One option is for someone else to do it. There are some talented indexers available. This is easy for the author, but there’s one catch. Nearly always, you as the author know your material better than anyone. (If you don’t, maybe you’re a celebrity and didn’t write the book with your name listed as the author. In this case, you might learn something by doing the index.)

In my experience, the person most likely to rely on the indexes in my books is me! A few years after writing a book, I want to check a point or a name for something new I’m writing, but I can’t remember the details. So I turn to the index of one of my books.

Back to your book. Let’s assume you’ve decided to prepare the index yourself. How do you start? It’s worth looking at indexes in a variety of books, especially ones similar to yours. You can also read advice on preparing indexes; there is some good material available.

I once read that indexes are typically between 2% and 10% of the length of a book. You can aim for a minimal index, 2% or less, or a comprehensive one, closer to 10%. Sometimes the publisher will impose constraints, for example on the number of pages allowed. By using very small print, you can pack in more entries.

You as the author know your own style and your work habits, and it’s important to find an approach that suits you. What I’ll do here is describe a couple of the ways I’ve gone about indexing in case you might find a useful idea or two. I’ll use examples from my latest book, Official Channels; you can download it for free and see the index for yourself.

Here are the first few entries in the index.

academic exploitation, 81–83, 128–29, 133
acknowledgement practice. See plagiarism
activists, 59, 101–5, 187–89. See also political jiu-jitsu
Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17, 166

A page-by-page approach

Before word processing, indexing involved going through the text page by page, adding entries to a handwritten list. Word processing makes things easier. Here’s one way to proceed. Go through the text page by page. When you see a word that should be in the index, make an entry in your index list, in no particular place. If you see that the word is relevant for several pages, include those pages, but otherwise don’t worry about whether you’ve already included the word. When you get to the end of the book, put everything in alphabetical order. You’ll have to amalgamate entries with the same word. For example, after putting entries into alphabetical order, you might find:

Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17
Acton, Lord, 166

Just put them together to form

Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17, 166

What a computer can’t do well

Assuming you have an electronic copy of your book as it will appear, you can use a computer program that automatically compiles a concordance, which lists every mention of every word. The problem is that the program has no knowledge of what your book is about, so it chooses words without any understanding. That means there’s still a lot of work to do. Eliminating words such as “the” from the list is easy. However, there are two other problems.

Let’s say the program lists Zambia in your index. Did you really discuss Zambia? If you said, “Every country from Albania to Zambia,” then Zambia is not a useful entry. Someone using the index would expect that you’ve said something specific about Zambia. Maybe you did, just not at this particular page.

Suppose the program gives a list of page numbers for “community.” You did discuss the role of the community in your book, but you also used the word in a generic sense, for example, “In this community …” A useful index will include only those pages where there’s a substantive attention to the concept of community. This means that you need to check every instance where you used the word and eliminate the unhelpful instances.

Finding every use of a word is one thing. An index has added value when it includes relevant pages where you didn’t even use a word. Suppose you’re writing about torture. You might have some pages about sensory deprivation where you don’t use the word torture, but it’s useful to include those pages.

Some indexes stick to words found in the text but give little information about the connections between the words. This is where the author, or a highly knowledgeable indexer, can provide guidance, especially using See and See also.

bill of rights. See First Amendment

In my book, I do not discuss the US bill of rights, but do discuss one important part of it, the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Using See does not necessarily imply that the bill of rights is the same as the First Amendment; it just gives an indication of where to look for something relevant to the bill of rights.

courts, 13, 23, 86–87, 109–10, 156–57. See also defamation; First Amendment; law; official channels

See also points to related topics. If I’m trying to think of the First Amendment but can’t remember the name, maybe I’ll think of courts or the law. Under entries for “courts” and “law,” the First Amendment is listed after See also. Unlike the bill of rights, I actually discuss courts, so those page numbers are included.

A skim-and-check approach

After indexing quite a few of my books, I found a method that works well for me. There’s one important requirement: I have a pdf of the entire book. It’s most convenient if page 1 of the book is page 1 of the pdf.

I start by going through the book from page 1. Typically there are one to five entries on each page, though this can vary considerably. On page 5, for example, I discuss the whistleblowing case of Vince Neary, so I begin an entry for him.

Neary, Vince, 5

It’s more than a passing reference: I discuss Vince’s case for several pages. So I look forward to see how long this is.

Neary, Vince, 5–10


Vince Neary

There’s also an entry for State Rail, about which Vince blew the whistle, and “whistleblowing” as a general topic. I add these to my index file, in alphabetical order.

In the text, I say that Vince had come to Australia from England. Should I include “England” in the index? Perhaps, for a very comprehensive index, or maybe if I discuss other individuals from England. But in this book, I don’t discuss England as a country, so I don’t include it in the index.

Another issue: State Rail, for which I’ve created an entry, is a government organisation in the Australian state of New South Wales, commonly abbreviated NSW. Should I include an entry for NSW, with a See cross-reference from “New South Wales”? I know that later in the book I have lengthy treatments of two other NSW organisations. So it would be reasonable to include “NSW” in the index. However, I don’t actually say anything specifically about the state of NSW, for example the population, the government or the climate. Because of this, I decide not to include “NSW” in the index. This is the sort of decision that determines how long the index becomes.

There are numerous decisions of this sort in any index. Should a word be included? What cross-references should be listed? Making decisions requires mental effort. This is why indexing is not a mechanical process — or at least shouldn’t be a mechanical process, if the index is to be really useful. This is also why I don’t work on the index for long stretches of time. An hour per day is plenty. That way I keep fresh, and on the following day my mind has processed some of the issues I had confronted.

To keep everything on the screen, I use two columns and a small font. I keep adding entries and adding page numbers to existing entries until reaching the end of the book. Through this skim stage, I’m not too worried about being comprehensive. The main thing is to pick up all significant topics.

Next I glance through the index to pick up anomalies and start adding See and See also cross-references. Then I start through the index, searching the book pdf for each word or phrase. Proper names are the easiest. One of my entries is Lord Acton. I search the pdf for Acton, noting the pages where it appears. If I picked up all instances in going through the text, the pdf search will find all those instances. Sometimes, though, I missed an instance or incorrectly typed a page number.

For some entries, I don’t want to list every mention in the text. Many of the case studies in my book are Australian, so when I search the pdf for “Australia” there are a lot of hits. If I listed every one, there would be so many pages that the entry would be useless. No one wants to look at 50 or 100 different pages to find what they’re looking for. So I only include those pages where Australia is discussed, not just mentioned. Also, I have considerable discussions about several Australian organisations, for example Whistleblowers Australia. I add “See also Whistleblowers Australia” to the entry and don’t include the pages for Whistleblowers Australia under “Australia” unless there’s a comment about Australia as a country. The result:

Australia, 19, 22–26, 37, 43–47, 77–78, 119, 168–69, 172–75, 179–81. See also ASIC; HCCC; ICAC; Whistleblowers Australia

Because this entry has a fairly long list of pages, it is more unwieldy than most other entries. But it’s still more helpful than if I had listed every page where the word Australia appears. As well, the word “Australia” is not part of the name of the HCCC or ICAC. These are organisations in Australia, so the See also reference goes beyond a simple cross-reference to the word “Australia.”

Next consider a more challenging entry, discussed earlier:

courts, 13, 23, 86–87, 109–10, 156–57. See also defamation; First Amendment; law; official channels

I searched the pdf for the word “court” and decided to list some but not all pages where the word appears. Sometimes in the text I listed several examples of official channels — “grievance procedures, ombudsmen, anti-corruption agencies, and courts.” This sort of reference to courts isn’t worth including in the index because I haven’t said anything much about courts. It’s only when there is some substantive comment about courts that I want to include page numbers.

Along the way, I thought about other areas where courts are regularly involved, leading to See also references to defamation and the First Amendment. Courts are a type of official channel, so there’s a See also reference to official channels. Then, I thought, courts are intimately bound up with the law. At that stage I didn’t even have an entry for law. So I searched the pdf for all mentions, going through the same winnowing process, leading to this:

law, 33, 200–1. See also courts; First Amendment; injustice; official channels; SLAPPs
     and crusades, 44
     defamation, 24–25, 176, 179
     and HCCC, 229
     and myth system, 37–38
     and operational code, 38, 46
     serving power, 33
     whistleblowing, 19, 22–26, 28, 42–43, 45–48

In this entry, I list pages where I discuss law in general at the outset (law, 33, 200–1) and then have sub-entries for when law is part of a discussion of specific topics. Note how these are in alphabetical order in a peculiar way, with the main word potentially either before or after “law”. For example, the first item on the list, “and crusades,” is connected as “law and crusades” whereas the second item, “defamation,” is connected as “defamation law.” The “and” is not taken into account in forming the alphabetical order.

The final sub-entry in this list, “whistleblowing,” is connected to “law” as “whistleblowing law.” Technically, it would be more appropriate to refer to “whistleblower law.” However, elsewhere in the index I made a major entry for “whistleblowing,” and for the purposes of the index it seemed to me unnecessarily discriminating to have separate entries for “whistleblowing” and “whistleblower.” Perhaps on another day I might have chosen differently.

For this index, I laid out the complex entries using the format above. Another option is:

law, 33, 200–1; and crusades, 44; defamation, 24–25, 176, 179; and HCCC, 229; and myth system, 37–38; and operational code, 38, 46; serving power, 33; whistleblowing, 19, 22–26, 28, 42–43, 45–48. See also courts; First Amendment; injustice; official channels; SLAPPs

This format is more compact, and I’ve used it in the past. However, it is not quite as convenient to read.

After completing a draft of the index, it is worthwhile looking through it all again, noting any obvious problems. It is definitely worth checking the alphabetical order. If you use a sort function, it may not result in an order that you want.

There are a few complications in arranging entries in alphabetical order. Consider these two entries:

Whistleblowers Australia, 2, 5, 9, 14–16, 19–20, 52–54, 236–37
Whistleblower’s Survival Guide, 19–20

I’ve ignored the apostrophe for the purposes of alphabetical order, but my sort function put the two entries in reverse order.

Then there are numbers:

Ferguson, Adele, 172–75
5th Pillar, 69
First Amendment, 175–81

I’ve included “5th Pillar” as if it were spelled “Fifth Pillar.” You might prefer to put numbers at the beginning, before letters.

For “#MeToo,” I ignored the #:

medical dominance, 225–27
#MeToo, 114–15
Milošević, Slobodan, 166–67

Then there are titles with indefinite articles:

political jiu-jitsu, 144–52. See also backfire
The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 145
power, 27–29

I could have written the book entry as Politics of Nonviolent Action, The, 145. There are rules for most of these sorts of issues. I usually follow the rules because they are designed to make things consistent and easy, but sometimes I use my own judgement. Given that I’m the one likely to use my index more than anyone else, I want it to be convenient for me.

Ideally, you should find someone to check your index. Spots checks would involve looking at random pages, seeing words or topics, and seeing whether the index includes the words or topics with those pages. Though I can’t remember ever asking anyone to check my indexes, it’s a worthwhile precaution. A friend told me about a book by a well-known author for which the page numbers listed in the index were in disarray, with few of them correct. How could this happen? Imagine that you accidentally use a version of the text with the wrong page numbers — even just an extra paragraph added early in the book could cause subsequent pages to be changed — or the publisher adds a foreword and renumbers all the subsequent pages. Not a pleasant thought.

When preparing an index, sometimes I wish that I could rewrite aspects of the book. The index alerts me to inconsistent uses of words, of words that are overused, of repetitions in the text, and of important concepts that I’ve not addressed. Preparing the index offers a perspective on what you’ve written that may be slightly different from what you gained from the writing and proofreading. If you gain insights from the index, write them down for later. It’s possible you’ll prepare a second edition of your book!

Is there a politics of indexing, in other words does indexing reflect the exercise of power? Any book has a politics in this sense. It’s your way of making sense of something, and in doing this you make assumptions and give a partial perspective via the words you use and don’t use. The index reflects the book’s politics, namely its perspective, and sometimes highlights or accentuates it. Does your index include emotive words such as abuse or exploitation? Does it include contentious topics?

If there’s a book about the politics of indexing, it would be fascinating to look at its index.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anneleis Humphries and Jason MacLeod for valuable comments on drafts.

Natural talent and beyond

A lot of people believe in natural talent. They believe that some individuals have a genetic advantage, enabling them to perform far better than others. For example, Mozart is assumed to have a natural talent for music and Einstein for physics, and there are numerous star athletes whose performance seems so fantastic that they must be genetic freaks.

Researcher Anders Ericsson challenged this belief. With two colleagues, he studied violinists at a violin academy in Berlin. They divided the students into three groups: the most highly accomplished, those least accomplished and those in between. They then asked students how much violin practice they had undertaken in their lives.

If some of the violin students had natural talent, you would think that they could be in the most highly accomplished group with far less practice than others. But no, all of the top performers had put in large amounts of practice. Although the correlation between practice and performance was far from perfect, nonetheless none of the students seemed to be able to reach the highest level without thousands of hours of practice.

Furthermore, the practice needed to be of a particular type, involving students intensely concentrating on performance challenges at the edge of their abilities, under the guidance of experienced teachers. Ericsson called this “deliberate practice.” Just playing through the same easy pieces didn’t enable improvement. Deliberate practice did.

Ericsson went on to further investigate what is called “expert performance,” which refers to high-level performance in a domain where there are well-established and relatively objective criteria. Such domains include classical music, chess and competitive sports. In art, law or business, for example, measuring performance is more subjective.


Practice is essential for success in classical ballet

            Although practice may be essential for outstanding performance, lots of practice does not guarantee such performance. It is difficult to determine the quality of an individual’s practice, given that this involves the level of focus interacting with the suitability of the challenge for one’s development. One person’s ability and willingness to focus may differ quite a bit from another’s. There is still much to learn about deliberate practice.

The strong interpretation of research on expert performance is that there is no such thing as natural talent. In some sports, like basketball, inherited physical attributes such as height make a difference but, other than this, the key to high-level performance is practice.

When you learned to drive a car, you had to practise. However, most people, after they can drive competently, stop practising. After you obtained your licence, you had no need to continue to improve. You can gain experience by driving a lot, but this does not do much for your skills. If you want to learn to drive a bus or a race car, this requires additional training.

In most domains, people practise until they are competent but then use their skills without additional focused practice. This applies in sales, carpentry, nursing and indeed most occupations.

Not everyone accepts the research on expert performance: belief in natural talent is deep-seated. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m no good at maths.” Underlying such statements is an assumption that they lack natural talent and hence can never hope to achieve even a modest competence. Additionally, some researchers contest claims made by Ericsson and others who study expert performance.

In 2008, science writer Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers was published. Gladwell popularised expert performance research, including the “10,000 hour rule,” the idea that to become a world-class performer in any field, it’s necessary to devote 10,000 hours to deliberate practice. Gladwell gave the example of the Beatles, who spent long hours performing in German night clubs before their breakthrough into stardom. Unfortunately, Gladwell’s account of expert performance research was flawed.

            Ericsson, in collaboration with writer Robert Pool, wrote the book Peak, published in 2016. I reviewed it at the time. Peak provides an accessible treatment of research on expert performance and its implications for a variety of endeavours. Along the way, Ericsson and Pool address Gladwell’s example of the Beatles.

They say that Gladwell had one important point right, namely that developing high-level skills requires a great amount of practice. However, contrary to Gladwell, 10,000 hours is not a special number for attaining world-class status, nor is any “rule” involved. The Beatles did indeed spend many hours performing in German nightclubs, but this was performance, not practice, and would contribute little to their skills. In any case, the Beatles never became great performers. Their most significant contribution was in song-writing, especially by Lennon and McCartney, so attention should be on the amount and quality of time that Lennon and McCartney spent becoming better song-writers.


Lennon and McCartney at work songwriting

            David Epstein is another popular writer who has addressed expert performance. In his 2013 book The Sports Gene, he explored the role of genetics in sporting eminence. It is a fascinating book, with many examples. Epstein gives an account of research on expert performance, arguing that genetic factors play a much greater role. As a counter-example to the requirement for extensive practice, Epstein describes the case of a basketball player named Donald Thomas who jumped an impressive height at his first attempt at the high jump and before long won the world championship.

Ericsson has made a special project of studying claims of elite performance without much prior practice and found all of them wanting. In Peak, Ericsson and Pool point out that Thomas had competed in the high jump in high school. Subsequently, as a basketball player, he prided himself on dunking the ball, something that involves many of the same jumping muscles and skills as the high jump. So actually he could not be considered as lacking practice relevant to high jumping.


Donald Thomas

            Having read The Sports Gene, I saw Epstein’s new book Range, and read it hoping to see how he would respond to Ericsson’s analysis. Range is an engaging account of what it takes to succeed in a variety of fields. Epstein argues that early specialisation and training may not be the best option. Instead, it is worthwhile to explore a range of activities until you find the one that best matches your interests. Range gives many revealing examples of individuals who have sampled diverse careers before finding one at which they excelled. Epstein also tells of how non-specialists can sometimes solve difficult problems that stump specialists.

Range in some ways seems to be a reply to Peak. Indeed, Epstein at various points argues that the 10,000-hour rule is relevant only for a narrow group of individuals and activities. As I read through Range, I found many valuable insights about what it takes to succeed, but also an unfortunate dismissal of insights about expert performance. It makes sense to try out different activities and then to pursue one that appeals to you. But once you’ve obtained what Epstein calls “match quality,” namely matching your interests to an endeavour, then it’s time to put in lots of practice. However, Epstein hardly mentions the effort required after finding your ideal match.

            By my reading, deliberate practice is a necessary counterpart to finding the activity you want to pursue. I asked myself, why didn’t Epstein give due acknowledge to the role of practice? Why didn’t he take on board the arguments in Peak? I can’t answer these questions, but I did make a more detailed analysis of the arguments in Range in the light of expert performance research. This has been useful for my own understanding.

To become a best-selling author, like Gladwell and Epstein, perhaps it helps to make striking and memorable claims. Few scholars are good at this: to be published in academic journals, it’s usually necessary to write in scholarly style, with citations of previous work, exhaustive details about methods and results, and commonly in indigestible prose. When scholars seek to write in a more accessible way, often they are assisted by co-authors or editors, indeed as with Ericsson and Pool’s Peak. Some popularisations are true to the underlying research but others may have misrepresentations. How can you tell the difference? There’s no easy answer. All I can suggest is that if a topic is important to you, it is worthwhile exploring some of the underlying research papers yourself, reading reviews, and looking for contrary points of view. Along the way, you’re developing your own understanding. After a few thousand hours of this exploration, you might become really good at it!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

The value of asking

It’s worthwhile learning effective ways of asking for help, and to do more asking.

Asking has a bad reputation. There’s an old saying, “It is better to give than receive.” Research shows that helping others is a reliable way to increase your happiness, but the research says little about receiving help.

In some areas, asking has become associated with marketing. Advertisers in essence ask people to become customers. Politicians ask citizens to vote for them. Large charities use professional marketers to refine their pitches. In these arenas, people need to develop resistance to those seeking their money or support, and this resistance can rub off to become negative attitudes about asking.

In an illuminating book titled Give and Take, Adam Grant describes three types of people — givers, matchers and takers — in the context of US business. Givers help others without any expectation of receiving anything in return; matchers operate on a reciprocity basis; and takers accept help but don’t give anything in return. Most people are matchers.

The normal assumption is that givers won’t get ahead. Grant argues that they can, and offers many examples of highly successful givers in business. But not all givers get ahead, because they can be taken advantage of. Grant says givers can do very well when they also look out after their own needs. He calls these “otherish givers.”

“Selfless giving, in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming. Being otherish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how, and to whom you give.” (p. 158)

Grant presents ideas via detailed stories of individuals who have a giver style. He uses the stories to make points, supplemented by descriptions of relevant research, of which there is quite a lot. Give and Take is a highly readable book, independently of the important messages conveyed.

Adam Grant

Asking

If you care about others, then you don’t want to be a taker. But there’s still a place for asking for help, according to Wayne Baker, author of All You Have to Do Is Ask, just published. Baker has worked closely with Grant, and like Grant focuses on US businesses.

Asking others for help can make a tremendous difference to your career and your life. You might save lots of time and money by getting a tip on how to improve, a contact to a lucrative venture, or information that can save a life.

One of the techniques used by both Grant and Baker is called a reciprocity ring. Bring together a group of maybe 20 people and invite each of them in turn to make a request about something, work-related or personal, on which they need help. The more diverse the group the better, because unexpected ideas and personal connections are more likely.


Posterboard for a reciprocity ring

When takers join reciprocity rings, the public nature of the process moderates their taker tendencies. Because they want to look good to the group, they can offer valuable assistance to others. This suggests that giving, matching and taking depend not just on personal characteristics but also on the circumstances.

Baker says some ways of asking are better than others. He recommends an approach with the acronym SMART: specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound. He also gives advice on when and where to ask. He recommends accepting rejections gracefully, giving thanks for acceptances, and letting the other person know what happened in the aftermath.


Wayne Baker

I decided to examine this approach in light of a type of scholarly asking.

Checking citations

In writing an academic paper, authors usually cite various other publications. Some of these citations are important. Asking can be used to make them more accurate.

Scott Armstrong, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, was co-author of a 1977 paper about correcting for nonresponse bias in survey research, and hundreds of other authors cited this paper. Years later, Armstrong collaborated with Malcolm Wright to examine some of these citations. They found that of 50 papers that cited Armstrong’s 1977 paper, only one reported its findings correctly.


J Scott Armstrong

Wright and Armstrong recommend that researchers contact authors whose work they cite, asking them whether the citation is correct. This is most important when your results and methods rely heavily on another’s work or where you discuss it extensively.

After reading Wright and Armstrong’s paper (and writing a commentary on it), I adopted their approach myself. When I’ve discussed an author’s work, usually I send a draft of what I’ve written to the author, asking whether I’ve cited it correctly. Sometimes this isn’t possible: the author is dead or otherwise uncontactable. But in many cases it’s possible. Here’s a typical but fictional email (adapted from an actual one) written to the author of The Definitive Investigator.

Thank you for your valuable study The Definitive Investigator. I’ve been working on a book titled Official Channels. In chapter 15, I’ve discussed and quoted from your book in a short section on investigating. Could you have a look (bottom of page 230 of the pdf or page 12 of chapter 15, or search for your name) and let me know if anything needs fixing? Comments most welcome on any other part of the chapter and book.

This was written before I read Baker’s book on asking. So let’s see how well I’ve followed his SMART approach.

  • Specific. My request is quite specific: it refers to a “short section,” with details of how to find it and what I’m asking.
  • Meaningful. I’m asking the author to check what I’ve written about their work. For most authors, this is very meaningful. In fact, it’s hard to resist looking at what someone else says about your work. I’ve known academics who, when looking at a new book in their field, turn first to the bibliography to see whether their own publications are cited.
  • Action-oriented. I’ve asked the author to check what I’ve written.
  • Realistic. My request is fairly small. It doesn’t take much time to check my text and write a short email in response. In my experience, most authors respond promptly and helpfully.
  • Time-bound. I didn’t satisfy this criterion: I should have given a time frame for replying. In practice, nearly all authors who respond do so within a day or two.

I find it rewarding to make small specific requests about citations. In most cases, authors say that what I’ve said about their work is fine, which is reassuring. In a few cases, they offer corrections, which are valuable in improving the accuracy of what I’ve written. As well, a few engage with the material and send me extensive comments, often including additional references. This is highly stimulating.


Malcolm Wright

I’ve told quite a few colleagues and correspondents about the benefits of seeking feedback about citations, but nearly all seem reluctant to use this method. This brings me back to Baker’s book. In it, he offers eight reasons why people don’t like making requests, and counters each one.  He writes,

“Asking for what we need doesn’t come easily for most of us. Asking is a behavior that must be learned. It requires three steps: determining your goals and needs, translating needs into well-formulated requests, and figuring out whom (and how) to ask.” (p. 85)

In relation to checking citations, Baker’s comments are spot on: scholars are reluctant to ask and need to learn how to do it. The three steps aren’t so hard in this case: improving the accuracy of writing is the goal, requests follow the SMART formula, and cited authors are the people contacted.

In other areas, determining your goals and needs may not be so easy. If you are feeling vaguely unhappy about the way things are going, what exactly is your goal? What do you ask? Who do you ask: a family member, a friend, a counsellor, a stranger? Here’s where Baker’s advice is again valuable. Asking requires skill, and as you obtain more experience you should get better at it. And you can learn from Baker’s book. Remember the title: All you have to do is ask.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Ageing: how to do it better

“If I had known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

There is an important truth in this saying. People in many countries are living longer than ever before. Surviving into your 80s, 90s and beyond is no longer unusual. However, quality of life in later years is not always the best due to dementia, disability, pain or loneliness. What can you do to ensure that your life is healthy for as long as possible?

            For the most comprehensive and up-to-date treatment available, turn to Daniel Levitin’s book Successful Aging, just published. Levitin is a neuroscientist who has written a number of books for general audiences. For Successful Aging, he said he examined more than 4000 scientific papers, many of which are listed in the back of the book. The main text, though, is free of academic apparatus. Levitin interviewed many individuals, including prominent ones like the Dalai Lama. His book is filled with anecdotes, quotes and stories as well as descriptions of research findings.

            Did you ever want to know how the brain operates? Consider your memory, something many older people worry about. Why does it seem to be getting worse? Levitin delves into the details of acquiring, storing and retrieving memories, telling about how there are different memory systems distributed across the brain. Did you know you can learn things better after exercising or that a chronic shortage of sleep can undermine acquisition of memories?

            Levitin tells about how many of the body’s systems degrade with age. Muscles become weaker, nerves respond less quickly and the mind is less receptive to new experiences. It sounds all downhill, but Levitin repeatedly emphasises the positives of being older.

As our senses acquire more experience, our minds become better at interpreting fuzzy sensations. The mind becomes more efficient at filling in incomplete perceptions, which means less effort and energy are required. So in some ways, perceptual capacities improve.

Older people, with their life experience in doing different things, have learned which ones give them satisfaction, and spend more time doing them. Older people, Levitin says, are less likely to dwell on negatives, instead focusing on positives. The result is that, according to surveys, people are happiest in the 80s, despite physical frailty and health problems. However, this is an average result: some oldies are unhappy while others flourish. Even so, for anyone younger, this is hope for the future.

Exercise and diet

Levitin emphasises several things that are especially important for ageing well. One of them is physical activity. Through various processes, it improves both physical and mental health. The biggest impacts come from modest amounts of activity when compared to none; successive increments of additional activity are beneficial but with declining marginal utility.

            Older people, at least those with aches and pains or with serious health conditions, may feel like they need to take it easy, but the evidence is that activity is beneficial to all. Levitin, giving special attention to mental functioning, recommends activity that requires mental alertness. He cites trekking on new paths, noting that the process of identifying the best spot to next put your foot stimulates the mind. Other options that do this include orienteering and competitive sports. On the other hand, using an exercise bike has more limited demands on the brain.

Another important contribution to healthy old age is an appropriate diet. Levitin canvasses a range of evidence about various options, for example the Mediterranean diet and the paleo diet. He concludes that the most important thing is to avoid processed foods and deep-fried foods. Aside from this, he says, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much what you eat.

Then there’s the question of how much to eat. Experiments with rats show that reducing the number of calories (or kilojoules) consumed leads to increases in longevity, but the evidence about this for humans is less than solid. Levitin notes that some researchers in this field have adopted occasional interruptions to normal eating patterns, skipping meals or fasting one day per week.

            Levitin is sceptical of the value of vitamin and mineral supplements, saying there is little evidence they significantly improve health. However, he is all in favour of vitamins and minerals ingested via a varied diet. More generally, he is sceptical of alternative medicine. He doesn’t mention that many in the alternative health area recommend fasting as a health practice.

Sleep and work

As a neuroscientist, Levitin gives plenty of attention to sleep because of its importance to functioning of the brain. Sleep enables consolidation of memories. It is also probably helpful in reducing the risk of dementia. Yet many people spend much of their lives in a sleep-deprived state. Levitin explains why. Prior to widespread artificial lighting, most people slept according to the cycle of day and night. Now, with electric lights, natural cycles are interrupted, and light from mobile devices extends the interruption.

            Most people use drugs to maintain alertness while awake — think coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks — and sometimes to fall asleep. Levitin provides information on the down sides of this cycle, recommending a lifestyle that is closer to pre-industrial, for example avoiding blue lights (from screens) in the time before bed. There is also a cultural challenge: getting plenty of sleep is seen as an indulgence inappropriate for those trying to impress their colleagues about their commitment to work.

Re work, Levitin makes a strong recommendation: “Never retire.” He doesn’t mean to keep working at a job you hate. He means keep doing whatever provides challenge and a purpose in life. There’s no particular challenge in watching television or sitting beside the pool sipping a martini.

It is common to distinguish between work and leisure, and to see leisure as better. However, for quality of life, working at things you care about is important. Work provides a mental challenge. Also, interacting with people is good for the brain. Levitin recommends spending time with younger people, children and adults, as a way of maintaining mental openness to experience. Oldies have a harder time learning new things, so the pressure of interacting with youngsters is valuable in preventing getting stuck in mental routines.


Daniel Levitin

            What about doing puzzles such as sudoku and keeping mentally active through electronic brain training exercises? Levitin says these are fine but there’s no evidence that they prevent dementia. Doing sudoku helps you get better at sudoku but doesn’t seem to have any general benefit for mental functioning. That’s true of most activities: they help you do better at specific tasks. So for overall brain health, activities that stimulate the mind in varied and varying ways, including unpredictable ones, are the most beneficial.

People

Being lonely is bad for you: bad for you both physically and mentally. An important part of ageing well is maintaining social connections. This requires effort. As you get into your 70s and 80s and beyond, many of your long-time friends and contemporary family members are likely to die, so effort is required to build new personal connections, and this sort of effort tends to be greater for older people. For those with children and grandchildren, contact with a younger generation may be readily available, assuming they are nearby. Otherwise, though, it is important to try new activities, ones that are stimulating socially, mentally and physically.

Beyond individualism

Levitin’s advice is based on the latest scientific studies of ageing, nutrition, exercise, sleep and social interaction. His approach is most suited for affluent people. One thing is missing: social change. Levitin describes what you can do as an individual, assuming society is fixed. His recommendations could be turned around to become prescriptions for how society might be organised to support successful ageing.

Sleep, for example, has become more difficult because of the 24-hour economy and the proliferation of digital devices. Those who feel obliged to work the night shift pay a penalty in terms of their sleep and hence their health. Digital addictions, fostered by companies who profit from them, are also hindering sleep.

Similarly, societies organised around the car and labour-saving devices make it more difficult to get adequate exercise, and societies organised around the nuclear family make it more difficult to have everyday interactions with younger people.

It is fascinating to imagine a society organised to maximise brain rejuvenation. It would facilitate working at advanced ages, build physical activity into doing everyday things like shopping and commuting, and foster intergenerational interactions. The title of Levitin’s book, Successful Aging, might become Social Change for Ageing. Don’t expect this to happen quickly, or even in your lifetime. But promoting this sort of social change could provide a purpose in life, a purpose valuable for you and many others.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Postscript: a few quotes from Old age ain’t no place for sissies

“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. – Satchel Paige

“Old age is like climbing a mountain. You climb from ledge to ledge. The higher you get, the more tired and breathless you become, but your views become more extensive.” – Ingrid Bergman

“Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” – Maurice Chevalier

“The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.” – Lucille Ball

“Surely the consolation of old age is finding out how few things are worth worrying over” – Dorothy Dix

How old is old? Kids answer.

“I can’t imagine living past 45 or so. I think I’ll be so bored by then.” – Jenna, age 12

“No one is ever old until they’re dead.” – Leroy, age 11

On being successful

If you want to succeed in your career, it’s useful to study what it takes.

Albert-László Barabási’s book The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success was published in 2018. The title sounds presumptuous. Can there be laws of success, much less universal ones? It turns out there’s much to learn from this book.

Barabási is a complex-networks researcher. He took his toolkit and applied it to the issue of performance and success, collaborating with others to produce a string of scientific papers. The Formula is a popular account of research on the topic.

To clarify: “success” here refers to careers and is measured by recognition and income, in other words fame and fortune. Success in other ways, for example being a good parent, being honest or helping others behind the scenes, is not covered because it is too hard to study mathematically.

Is this your idea of success?

A fundamental idea behind Barabási’s laws is that individual success derives from the community’s response to an individual’s performance, not from the performance itself. Barabási calls his five laws “universal,” but whether they apply outside the US requires further investigation. In any case, The Formula is fascinating. It is informative and engagingly written, and worth reading even if success in conventional terms is not your personal goal.

Performance and networks

The first law is “Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success.” In some fields, for example chess and competitive individual sports, performance can be measured by observing who wins. If you want to succeed in chess, there’s no substitute for becoming a high-level performer.

In most fields, however, performance can’t be measured in a straightforward way. Barabási uses the example of art, giving examples of visual artists who are highly talented yet languish in relative obscurity because they exhibit only in local galleries. Artists who take the initiative to promote their work more widely then have opportunities for being exhibited in higher-profile venues, leading to ever more recognition.

Another example is the Mona Lisa. Did you ever wonder whether its fame is due to its unique artistic merit, or something else? Barabási tells how the Mona Lisa went from obscurity to world recognition.

The implication is that if you’re a very hard worker, willing to put in tens of thousands of hours of dedicated practice at your chosen craft, and willing to wait decades for recognition, then you have a chance in a field where performance can be measured. On the other hand, if you’re keen on networking and don’t want to work quite so hard, then pick a field where measuring performance involves a lot of subjectivity.

Success unbounded

Barabási cites a study of elite classical music competitions. In piano competitions, each player performs difficult works, some assigned, some their own choice. There might be a dozen expert judges, who make their assessments independently. Everything seems fair. However, the trouble is that in classical music performance, the standard is so very high that it’s hard to tell the players apart. The judges might actually choose in part according to who looks like a virtuoso. The differences between elite performers are so small that a break — for example, a competition prize — can launch someone on a solo career, while others of equal calibre are left behind.

            This is an example of Barabási’s second law, which is “Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded.” Saying performance is bounded means that top performers, like the pianists, are all so good that it’s hard to tell their performances apart. But if you are the chosen one, getting a few lucky breaks, in particular endorsements from gatekeepers, then your fame and fortune can be enormous. Unbounded success like this comes only to a few, and it’s unfair, in the sense that so much depends on luck.

Think of the Olympic games. The gold medal winner in a popular event can become a household name. The silver medallist might be just a second slower but receives only a fraction of the glory and opportunities.

Success breeds success

Barabási’s third law is that previous success, combined with fitness, predicts future success. The academic term for success breeding success is “preferential attachment.” It has an amazingly strong influence.

One experiment involved people listening to unfamiliar pop songs. Members of one group of subjects gave ratings to each song without knowing what other group members thought of the same songs. In a different group, subjects were able to see the ratings of other listeners. The experimenters were tricky: they seeded the ratings, giving some songs a head start. These songs ended up being the most popular.

The message is that most people go along with the crowd. Their preferences are influenced by what others rate highly.

In academia, this is what’s going on when certain theories and theorists are favoured. If lots of researchers are citing Foucault, then the common assumption is that Foucault’s ideas are more incisive or fruitful — better than those of other theorists. There’s a good article about this sort of favouritism, titled “How to become a dominant French philosopher: the case of Jacques Derrida.”


Michel Foucault: a beneficiary of preferential attachment?

            Preferential attachment is important in business. A start-up known to have received funding is likely to receive more funding. One way to rig the system is to pretend your own money is from someone else, giving the impression of financial endorsement.

Because of preferential attachment, the first public rating of a product, for example a book on Amazon, is more likely to be an indication of its value. Later reviewers are likely to follow the crowd, so when a product has lots of ratings, its final rating deviates more from its fitness. So when you read a book, don’t read the endorsements first — judge it for yourself.


Judge for yourself: is this painting worth $100 million?

The team: who gets the credit for success?

Barabási’s fourth law is that when a team needs diversity and balance to succeed, an individual receives credit for the team’s achievements. Unfair!

Barabási has quite a few suggestions about how to make a team effective. He says, “Trust someone to be in charge and build an expert, diverse support group around him or her.” This is essential for breakthroughs. Top-rate individual team members are not enough, and can actually derail a group. “What matters is that people are offered opportunities to build rapport and contribute in equal measure.”

            There’s an obvious tension here between building a top team and the merit principle in recruitment. In hiring employees, selection is supposed to be on the basis of merit (though there are lots of deviations from this). But choosing on the basis of individual merit isn’t always the best way to develop a productive team, at least one that has autonomy and is expected to be innovative.

Barabási says that credit for teamwork is based on perception, not contribution, and that a single individual receives credit for team success. So if you’re an aspiring newcomer, part of a productive team, at some point you will need to venture out on your own. There are additional biases involved. Studies of academic economists show that men lose nothing by collaborating, but women gain little, and women who collaborate with men gain nothing at all.

Be persistent

Among mathematicians, there is a common belief that to make a great breakthrough, you have to be young. Some famous mathematicians, like Évariste Galois, made their mark when quite young. By age 35, you’re over the hill.


Galois

            Barabási’s fifth law challenges this belief. The law states that with persistence, success can come at any age. The key is persistence. Barabási found that young researchers are more productive: they write more articles each year. However, their articles written at older ages are just as likely to be breakthroughs. They are less likely to make breakthroughs at older ages because they aren’t trying as hard. (Maybe they become jaded or go into administration.)

Making a breakthrough is a matter of luck. You don’t know in advance which idea or project will be highly successful, so you just have to keep trying. For Barabási, this finding is encouraging. He’s getting older but now knows it’s worth persisting.


Albert-László Barabási

Should success be a goal?

For me, reading about Barabási’s “universal laws of success” raises the question of whether the conventional idea of success, as fame and fortune, is an appropriate goal. Who benefits from your success?

Surely you benefit from your own success. That’s obvious enough — or is it? Research shows that acquiring a lot of money is not a particularly promising way to increase happiness; other routes, such as physical activity, relationships, gratitude and optimism are more reliable for promoting happiness. Fame is not a reliable road to happiness, either. It can create some relationships but undermine others.

Some Olympic athletes fall into depression after they achieve their goal of a gold medal. Many athletes, and non-athletes, achieve more satisfaction from striving towards a goal than actually achieving it. As the saying goes, “There is no road to happiness; happiness is the road.”

Do others benefit from your success? That depends quite a lot. You might be very generous in helping and supporting others, using your skills and networks to assist those who are less fortunate. You might be a role model for others. On the other hand, you might have trampled over others in your efforts to get ahead, and become a heartless exploiter, continually on the lookout for challengers who must be crushed. Some business leaders are generous; others are better known for their ruthlessness and bullying.

Developing skills to a high level seems like a good thing. Surely it’s worth becoming an outstanding teacher or violinist. Again, it all depends. Some people with advanced skills, and who achieve success as a result, may be causing more harm than good. A soldier can become a highly skilled at killing. Is that good if it’s the bad guys are being killed or bad if the good guys are the target? A politician can become highly skilled at manipulating public perceptions. It might be for a higher cause or it might be just to obtain power.

The implication is that success alone is not necessarily a worthy goal. It can be better to have worthwhile goals, such as being ethical, enjoying life and helping others. If, in pursuing such goals, you achieve success, that’s just a little added bonus.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Painful routes to happiness

To achieve happiness, can it be useful to pursue pain and discomfort?

            Many people make enormous efforts to avoid stress and strain. They will search for a convenient parking space rather than walk a few hundred meters. When the temperature gets too hot or cold, they turn on the cooling or heating. For headaches, there are analgesics. For emotional pain, therapy or maybe a stiff drink.

While avoiding pain, people often pursue pleasure. This can be comfortable chairs, tasty food, thinking positive thoughts and becoming absorbed in social media. Pleasure is commonly seen as the opposite of pain.

But what if much of this quest is misguided? That is the argument presented by Brock Bastian in his new book The Other Side of Happiness. Bastian, a psychology researcher at the University of Melbourne, reports on studies by himself and others that support a seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion: pain can be a route to true happiness.

Seeking pain

Bastian begins by noting a curious phenomenon. Despite the apparent vanquishing of both physical and emotional pain, levels of anxiety and depression in young people seem to be increasing. I noticed this among students in my classes. Colleagues who deal with student issues tell me the entire university sector is affected. Richard Eckersley has written about the problems affecting young people who, despite reporting high happiness levels, seem to suffer inordinately high levels of psychological distress.

Bastian reports on something else: the pursuit of pain. You might ask, who, except for masochists, would voluntarily seek painful experiences? Actually, quite a few do. Running a marathon is gruelling, yet surprising numbers of people see this as a worthwhile goal. Likewise climbing mountains. Eating a hot chilli pepper can be bracing. Some people get a thrill out of scary rides or jumping out of aeroplanes, even though (or because) these cause a huge adrenaline rush.

There are also painful emotional experiences. For some, singing in front of others requires enormous courage, yet this is undertaken voluntarily. Others find it nerve-racking to approach someone they revere.

            How should a psychologist go about doing controlled studies of how people handle pain, both physical and emotional? It’s hardly feasible to have subjects scale mountain cliffs or have an audience with the Queen.

For physical pain, one ingenious method is to ask subjects to hold their hands in a bucket of ice water. This is quite painful but not harmful. Before or after the ice water treatment (or, for controls, some other activity that isn’t painful), subjects then are asked to do other tasks. The way they react to these tasks reveals something about the role of pain.

For example, one experiment used a task that tested generosity, such as donating to a worthy cause. What do you think: would experiencing physical pain make people more or less generous? (The answer: more generous.)

For emotional pain, a clever technique is to simulate ostracism. In a computer game, subjects find they are being left out of the interaction by the other players. So strong is the urge to be included in a group that even in this short simulation being neglected is a distressing experience.

            As well as studies in the lab, psychologists also undertake survey research. For example, one finding is that early stress in a marriage can make it resilient in the face of future challenges, and lead to greater satisfaction.

Based on a wide range of evidence, from lab studies to studies of trauma victims, Bastian concludes that it’s better to encounter some adversity in our lives. It shouldn’t be overwhelming, just enough to build the capacity to overcome it. In this process, we become emotionally stronger. Conversely, hiding from pain gives it extra power to cause distress.

“The key to healthy psychological functioning is exposure. If we want to be happy, we cannot afford to hide from our challenges and surround ourselves in protective layers of comfort. To achieve emotional stability and the capacity to handle challenges when they arise, we may be well advised to occasionally seek out discomfort and to take ourselves outside our proverbial comfort zones more often than we do.” (p. 95)

Bringing people together

In 1980, Lindy Chamberlain’s baby Azaria was taken away by a dingo. In television interviews, she put on a brave face, hiding her grief. Unfortunately, this was damaging to her credibility, because not showing emotions makes others think you deserve your pain.


Lindy Chamberlain

            On the other hand, expressing your physical or emotional pain triggers support from others. This is observed in the outpouring of generosity after disasters. It is also observed in combat, which bonds fighters together.

Support from people you know or trust makes a difference: it actually reduces the pain. Bastian notes that even a photo of a loved one can have this effect. It is not surprising, then, that experiencing pain encourages people to seek social connections.


Keep a photo of your loved one handy

            There is another fascinating social effect of hardship: studies show it can promote creativity. So perhaps there is some truth in the stereotypical image of the struggling artist. Bastian concludes, “We need to endure the challenge of sometimes stressful, novel and potentially threatening environments to foster true originality.” (p. 125)

This idea might be used to justify unpleasant working conditions, and precarious employment. On the other hand, it could also justify reducing executive salaries and putting political leaders in small, cramped offices.

There’s an important qualification that needs to be emphasised. When discomfort is voluntary, then inhibiting desires can improve performance. An example is uncomfortable yoga postures, which can help train the mind to focus. But involuntary discomfort, for example chronic pain, reduces performance. The implication is that imposed pain should be reduced or relieved, while there should be more opportunities for voluntary discomfort.

Meaning

Bastian cites eye-opening data showing that people in poorer countries report greater meaning in their lives. Perhaps this should not be such a surprise given the number of well-off people who seem to lack purpose, spending time on fleeting pleasures rather than pursuing deeper connections. Note that country comparisons can be misleading and that having a meaningful life is not the same as being happy.

Negative experiences, including being reminded of death, trigger a search for meaning, leading to a greater sense of purpose that isn’t there when there is no suffering. Bastian describes research on an earthquake emergency. People who had thoughts of dying during the earthquake were more likely to shift their priorities from extrinsic to intrinsic ones. This meant, for example, putting less priority on income and possessions and more on relationships and beliefs. Bastian concludes, “The more we consciously engage with our own mortality the more likely we are to focus on things that matter; to seek out things that are ultimately likely to provide more depth in our lives.” (p. 170)

Happiness research

The Other Side of Happiness provides a powerful counter to the usual emphases in society, in which the priority is seeking pleasure and reducing pain. It also puts a somewhat different perspective on happiness research. Happiness researchers have challenged the usual emphasis on possessions, income, good looks and education, saying that, outside of poverty, they have only a limited impact on wellbeing. Instead, changing one’s thoughts and behaviours has greater impact, for example expressing gratitude, being mindful, being optimistic, building relationships and helping others.

However, happiness research gives little attention to the benefits of physical and emotional pain. This is addressed by implication in recommendations for physical activity, building resilience and pursuing a purpose. However, the painful sides to these activities are seldom emphasised, perhaps because it is not easy to sell a recommendation for seeking pain rather than pleasure.


Brock Bastian

            Yet that is exactly Bastian’s recommendation. He says there is a need to recognise that stress, struggle and pain can bring happiness. Examples include intense exercise, having children, working hard and helping others. The key is to recognise the process, namely to see the positive side of negatives.

The takeaway message: seek out calculated risks and challenges, and let your children do the same. Search for discomfort and embrace feelings of sorrow and loss. Recognise that experiencing and valuing unpleasant experiences can be a path to greater satisfaction.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anneleis Humphries and Jordan McKenzie for useful comments.

Write, write, write

Researchers need to write as part of their job. It’s remarkable how stressful this can be. There is help at hand, but you have to be willing to change your habits.

Writing is a core part of what is required to be a productive researcher. Over the years, I’ve discovered that for many of my colleagues it’s an agonising process. This usually goes back to habits we learned in school.

Sport, music and writing

Growing up, I shared a room with my brother Bruce. I was an early riser but he wasn’t. But then, in the 10th grade, he joined the track and cross-country teams. Early every morning he would roll out of bed, still groggy, change into his running gear and go for his daily training run. After school he worked out with the team. He went on to become a star runner. At university, while majoring in physics, he obtained a track scholarship.

As well, Bruce learned the French horn and I learned the clarinet. We had private lessons once a week and took our playing seriously, practising on assigned exercises every day. We each led our sections in the high school band.

I also remember writing essays for English class, postponing the work of writing and then putting in hours the night before an essay was due. At university, this pattern became worse. I pulled a few all-nighters. To stay awake, it was the only time in my life I ever drank coffee.

Back then, in the 1960s, if you wanted to become a good athlete, it was accepted that regular training was the way to go. It would have been considered foolish to postpone training until just before an event and then put in long hours. Similarly, it was accepted that if you wanted to become a better instrumentalist, you needed to practise regularly. It was foolish to imagine practising all night before a performance.

Strangely, we never applied this same idea to writing. Leaving an assignment until the night before was common practice. And it was profoundly dysfunctional.

Boice’s studies

Luckily for me, while doing my PhD I started working regularly. On a good day, I would spend up to four hours on my thesis topic. I also started working on a book. Somewhere along the line I began aiming to write 1000 words per day. It was exceedingly hard work and I couldn’t maintain it for week after week.


Robert Boice

In the 1980s, Robert Boice, a psychologist and education researcher, carried out pioneering studies into writing. He observed that most new academics had a hard time meeting the expectations of their job. They typically put most of their energy into teaching and neglected research, and felt highly stressed about their performance. Boice observed a pattern of procrastination and bingeing: the academics would postpone writing until a deadline loomed and then go into an extended period of getting out the words. However, these binges were so painful and exhausting that writing became associated with discomfort, thereby reinforcing the pattern. If writing is traumatic, then procrastination is the order of the day.

Procrastination and bingeing is just what I did in high school and undergraduate study. It’s what most academics did when they were younger, and they never learned a different pattern.

Boice observed that a small number of new academics were more relaxed and more productive. They didn’t binge. Instead, they would work on research or teaching preparation in brief sessions over many days, gradually moving towards a finished product. Boice had the idea that this approach to academic work could be taught, and carried out a number of experiments comparing different approaches to writing. (See his books Professors as Writers and Advice for New Faculty Members.)

In one study, there were three groups of low-productivity academics. Members of one group were instructed to write in their usual way (procrastinating and bingeing). They ended up with an average of 17 pages of new or revised text – in a year. That’s about half an article and far short of what was required to obtain tenure.

Members of the second group were instructed to write daily for short periods. In a year, they produced on average 64 pages of new or revised text. Members of the third group were instructed to write daily for short periods and were closely monitored by Boice. Their average annual total of new or revised text was 157 pages. This was a stunning improvement, though from a low baseline.

It didn’t surprise me too much. It was the difference between athletes who trained just occasionally, when they felt like it, and athletes who trained daily under the guidance of a coach. It was the difference between musicians who practised when they felt like it and musicians who practised daily on exercises assigned by their private teacher.

Gray and beyond

Decades later, in 2008, I came across Tara Gray’s wonderful book Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar. In a brief and engaging style, she took Boice’s approach, extended it and turned it into a twelve-step programme to get away from procrastinating and bingeing. Immediately I tried it out. Instead of taking 90 minutes to write 1000 words, and doing this maybe one week out of three, I aimed at 20 minutes every day, producing perhaps 300 words. It was so easy! And it promised to result in 100,000 words per year, enough for a book or lots of articles.

Gray, adapting advice from Boice, recommends writing from the beginning of a project.  This is different from the usual approach of of reading everything about a topic and only then writing about it. For me, this actually reduces the amount of reading required, because I know far better what I’m looking for. Over the following years, I gradually changed my writing-research practice. Previously, writing an article happened late in a project. Now I write from the beginning, and there is more follow-up work. The follow-up work includes looking up references, doing additional reading, seeking comments on drafts from non-experts and then from experts. It’s much easier and quality is improved.

I introduced this approach to writing to each of my PhD students. Some of them were able to take it up, and for them I could give weekly guidance. I also set up a writing programme for colleagues and PhD students. Through these experiences I learned a lot about what can help researchers to become more productive. An important lesson is that most academics find it extremely difficult to change their writing habits. Many can’t do it at all. Research students seemed better able to change, perhaps because their habits are less entrenched and because they think of themselves as learners.


Tara Gray

With this newfound interest in helping improve research productivity, I looked for other sources of information. There is a lot of advice about how to become a better writer. Our writing programme was based on the work of Boice and Gray, so I looked especially at treatments that would complement their work. Excellent books include Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot and W. Brad Johnson and Carol A. Mullen’s Write to the Top! It was encouraging that most of these authors’ advice was similar to Boice’s and Gray’s. However, there seems to be very little research to back up the advice. Boice’s is still some of the best, with Gray’s research findings a welcome addition showing the value of regular writing.

Jensen

To these books, I now add Joli Jensen’s superb Write No Matter What, and not just because it has a wonderful title. Jensen, a media studies scholar at the University of Tulsa, draws on her own experience and years of effort helping her colleagues to become more productive. As I read her book, time after time I said to myself, “Yes, that’s exactly my experience.”

“Writing productivity research and advice can be summarized in a single sentence: In order to be productive we need frequent, low-stress contact with a writing project we enjoy.” (p. xi)      

Jensen excels in her exposition of the psychological barriers that academics experience when trying to write. She approaches this issue — one pioneered by Boice — through a series of myths, fantasies and fears. An example is the “magnum opus myth,” the idea held by many academics that they have to produce a masterpiece. This is profoundly inhibiting, because trying to write a bit of ordinary text feels so inadequate compared to the shining vision of the magnum opus. The way to avoid this discrepancy is to postpone writing, and keep postponing it.

Another damaging idea is that writing will be easier when other bothersome tasks are cleared out of the way. Jensen calls this the “cleared-desk fantasy.” It’s a fantasy because it’s impossible to finish other tasks, and new ones keep arriving: just check your in-box. Jensen says that writing has to take priority, to be done now, irrespective of other tasks that might seem pressing.

Then there is the myth of the perfect first sentence. Some writers spend ages trying to get the first sentence just right, imagining that perfecting it will unleash their energies for the rest of the article. This again is an illusion that stymies writing.

A colleague once told me how she was stuck writing the last sentence of a book review, with her fingers poised over the keyboard for an hour as she imagined what the author of the book she was reviewing would think. This relates to the perfect first sentence problem but also to Jensen’s “hostile reader fear.” Jensen also addresses the imposter syndrome: the fear that colleagues will discover you’re not a real scholar like them. Then there is the problem of comparing your work with others, usually with others who seem to be more productive. Upwards social comparison is a prescription for unhappiness and, in addition, can inhibit researchers. If others are so much better, why bother?


Joli Jensen

Write No Matter What is filled with valuable advice addressing all aspects of the writing process. Jensen offers three “taming techniques” to enable the time, space and energy for doing the craft work of writing. She has all sorts of practical advice to address problems that can arise with research projects, for example when you lose enthusiasm for a topic, when you lose the thread of what you’re trying to do, when your submissions are rejected (and subject to depressingly negative comments), when your project becomes toxic and needs to be dumped, and when you are working on multiple projects.

She says that writing can actually be harder when there’s more unstructured time to do it, something I’ve observed with many colleagues.

“When heading into a much-desired break, let go of the delusion that you will have unlimited time. Let go of vague intentions to write lots every day, or once you’ve cleared the decks, or once you’ve recovered from the semester. Acknowledge that academic writing is sometimes harder when we expect it to be easier, because we aren’t trying to balance it with teaching and service.” (p. 127)

Jensen is open about her own struggles. Indeed, the stories she tells about her challenges, and those of some of her colleagues, make Write No Matter What engaging and authentic. Her personal story is valuable precisely because she has experienced so many of the problems that other academics face.

With my experience of running a writing programme for a decade and helping numerous colleagues and research students with their writing, it is striking how few are willing to consider a new approach, how few are willing to admit they can learn something new and, for those willing to try, how difficult it is to change habits. Boice’s work has been available since the 1980s yet is not widely known. This would be like a successful sporting coach having superior training techniques and yet being ignored for decades.

To me, this testifies to the power of entrenched myths and practices in the academic system. Write No Matter What is a guide to an academic life that is both easier and more productive, but the barriers to shifting to this sort of life remain strong. In the spirit of moderation advocated by Boice, Gray and Jensen, read their books, but only a few pages per day. And write!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Doing your best under pressure

When under pressure, your performance can suffer. There are many proven ways to overcome this problem.

Are you ever nervous at a crucial time? It might be an interview for a job you desperately want. Or a public talk in front of friends or critics. If you play sport, it could be a big game.

Most people have performance anxiety at some times. It is cruel. Not only does it make you feel terrible, but it can harm your performance. Speakers at a big occasion freeze up and can’t remember their lines, or speak in a leaden voice while reading a text. A golfer misses a crucial putt, commonly called choking.

 

I’ve read that many people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying. Some famous opera singers are anxious throughout their careers and have to be pushed onto the stage. I’ve talked with academics who never get over their worries about giving lectures. Some professional musicians take beta blockers to calm their nerves.

            Decades ago, I played competition chess, and eventually began to become nervous about making a blunder, a bad move that meant the game was lost. Strangely, after making a blunder I would totally relax, because I knew I didn’t need to worry any more. After several games like this, I stopped playing.

Pressure can also have a more drawn-out effect. I see this among colleagues who have trouble finishing articles and sending them to journals. Their anxiety is caused by thinking their work is not good enough. Some of them fear rejection; others cannot measure up to their own internal critics.

If you suffer performance nerves in any part of your life, I recommend the book Performing under Pressure by Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry. It draws on the large amount of research in this area. Best of all, it has a multitude of practical tips.

Pressure

You might imagine that you perform better under pressure. A looming deadline concentrates the mind, enabling you to get the work done. But in many ways pressure can have a negative impact.

You are in the middle of a crucial interview or presentation. To do your best, you need all of your mental capacity directed to the task at hand, with no distractions. However, the pressure of the situation may cause you to worry about making a mistake. You might even start thinking of worst-case scenarios, if you mess up entirely. It doesn’t matter exactly what you’re thinking of: if it’s anything except the task at hand, it saps mental energy and prevents you from doing your best.

For some tasks, you rely entirely on your unconscious mind: you do things without thinking consciously about them. Your breathing is an example. When you learn a skill well, like a golf swing, eventually it becomes automatic, and you don’t need to think consciously about it. Under pressure though, if you start doubting yourself, you may pay attention to what is usually routine. You start thinking about your golf swing rather than where the ball will go. You lose the benefit of unconscious, automatic processing, and your skill level declines. You may end up choking: your stroke is way off!

Solutions

Part 2 of Performing under Pressure describes “pressure solutions.” When you’re under pressure, these are things you can do to perform better. There are 22 of them!

Pressure solution 1 is “befriend the moment”.  The way you think about pressure makes a big difference.

“… individuals who perceive a task or situation not as a threat but instead as a challenge, an opportunity, or fun are far more likely to perform up to the level of their ability, increasing their changes for success.” (p. 112)

Number 13 is “pressure yourself.” When preparing for a high-pressure situation, the idea is to practise what’s involved with pressure. I did this years ago when preparing to play the Weber clarinet concerto #2 with the Wollongong Symphony, a really high-stress occasion for me. I practised the piece for months, of course,  and rehearsed with the orchestra. Then, closer to the concert, I simulated some of the circumstances. At home, I played through the entire concerto without stopping. I played it along with a recording. I dressed up in my performance clothes and played it, imagining being in front of an audience of 500. At the concert, I was very nervous beforehand but relaxed as soon as I walked on stage. I’m sure that pressuring myself in advance made a difference.

            Pressure solution #15 is to write down your fears. There is a considerable body of research showing the power of writing to reduce the mental effects of traumatic experiences. The technique is simple: spend a few minutes writing down what happened and how you felt or feel about it. This straightforward exercise, spending just 20 minutes writing on three days, has been shown to have lasting benefits. Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry report on one study about using writing in advance of a stressful challenge.

For students who didn’t write out their thoughts and feelings, there was a high correlation between test anxiety and performance – the more anxious the student, the worse the performance. In contrast, those students who wrote about their test thoughts and feelings showed no relationship between test anxiety and performance. In fact, the highly anxious students did as well as the less anxious students. (p. 140)

With 22 pressure solutions on offer, you should find it easy to find at least a few that work. It’s a matter of trying them and seeing what difference they make, and recruiting a few friends who can provide an independent assessment of the outcomes.

I think a big obstacle is that many people do not want to talk about their performance anxiety, or even think about it, perhaps with the fear that this will make it worse. Avoidance is easier in the short term. Checking out solutions means confronting what causes anxiety.

The COTE of armour

In part 3, Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry take a step back and look at ways for people to become more resistant to performance anxiety and more able to use it to their advantage. They present four generic personality strengths: confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm. Each one can be fostered.

Consider optimism. Many people believe that pessimism or optimism are character traits, which is true enough, but also believe that they are unalterable. Actually, though, there ways to change.

Optimism is not just thinking that everything will turn out okay. It involves several features. One is permanence. An optimistic attitude involves assuming that good things will continue but that bad things are temporary. A promotion at work is taken as a sign of continued success, but rejection of a promotion is treated as a short-term setback to be overcome by trying harder.

A second important feature of optimism is pervasiveness. An optimistic attitude treats positives as pervading all parts of life and treating negatives as restricted in relevance. A pessimistic salesperson, having a bad day, might say “I’ll never be any good at anything” whereas an optimistic one might just say “It was a bad day but tomorrow will be different.”

An important part of optimism is looking for positives, even in disastrous situations, and working towards them. The willingness to continue is important.

As well as describing the value of confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm, Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry give tips on becoming stronger in each of them. For example, to become more tenacious, they recommend setting meaningful goals, practising focusing, being adaptable enough to look for alternative paths to achieve goals, and thinking of obstacles as opportunities.


Hendrie Weisinger

Putting it into practice

Performing under Pressure is a valuable manual for improving in clutch situations. Following the authors’ suggestions will lead to short-term solutions and long-term improvement. Eventually, pressure that used to cause anxiety will be welcomed as a challenge and as a prod to doing ever better. Too good to be true? For many individuals, the challenge is to just get started.

Based on my observations, many people seem resigned to their current set of skills. Rather than study and practise how to become better under pressure, they are more likely to continue what they’ve always done. To improve requires a willingness to become involved in self-transformation, to think of yourself in a different way, and to put in the effort to achieve the vision.

Ironically, those with the most confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm are most likely to benefit from the authors’ insights and advice. It requires a degree of tenacity to obtain and read a book, think about its relevance and to institute a programme to implement some of its suggestions.

My guess is that the most promising way to improve is to find one or two friends and work together at changing, helping each other. How to proceed is straightforward. The challenge is to begin.


J P Pawliw-Fry

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

To do your best work, focus

To tackle the biggest work challenges, it’s vital to reduce distractions.

In today’s Internet-connected world, it is easier than ever before to spend time without thinking deeply. Texts, tweets, Facebook posts, emails, web stories: they all serve to attract your attention and keep your mind flitting from one item to another.

For many people, mobile phones have become an addiction, checked at every opportunity. When life becomes just a little boring, out comes the phone.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But if your job requires intellectual effort, then it’s vital to be able to focus on the most difficult challenges.

I coordinate a “high-output writing programme” based on research by Robert Boice and Tara Gray about how to become a productive researcher. The core of the programme is daily writing. I recommend 5 to 20 minutes writing “new words” and then additional time revising previously written text, reading, collecting data and all the other components of research work.

Quite a few participants tell the same story: “If I start work by reading emails and looking at the web, my day is gone. I need to write first, otherwise I get nothing important done.”

Facebook and email can be addictive: “I’ll just check to see if there’s anything important.” One link leads to another, and hours can go by. This undermines the commitment to writing.

Deep Work

In this context, I was attracted to a recent book titled Deep Work. The author, Cal Newport, is a US computer science professor, and a writer. For him, “deep work” refers to intellectual work focused on the most difficult parts of the job. His basic contention is that by devoting more time to deep work, you can dramatically improve your productivity.

Deep Work is aimed at white-collar workers in large US businesses, the workers who are supposed to be contributing to productivity through their ideas. Newport says “Deep work should be a priority in today’s business climate. But it’s not.” (p. 70) He gives several reasons for this, including that less taxing tasks are more enticing, that looking busy has become more important than achieving goals, and the assumption that everything to do with the Internet must be worthwhile.

You may think, “Well, this book isn’t for me, because I’m not a high-level brain worker in business.” This is a legitimate response, but there’s also a different approach. Rather than judge a book overall, either accepting or rejecting it, instead I often look for useful ideas. Sometimes an author’s work may be flawed, largely irrelevant or just plain annoying, but still there are some valuable things to learn from it.

There are two aspects to increasing the amount of deep work: devoting more time to it, and cutting back time on the more trivial activities, called “shallow work.” Newport tells of some leading figures who cut themselves off from interruptions entirely, for days, weeks or even months at a time. How do they do it? They have assistants who answer messages. This isn’t practical for most people. But it does provide a useful pointer: think of ways to protect yourself from distractions.

Newport points out that great thinkers often work to a routine rather than wait for inspiration. Not coincidentally, this is the basis for the writing programme. Newport quotes journalist Mason Currey, who studied the habits of prominent thinkers such as Charles Darwin:

There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration – that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where . . . but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration. (pp. 118-119)

Newport addresses collaborative work, which has the advantage of sparking ideas. Nevertheless, he recommends separately undertaking individual deep work and, when interacting, for collaborators to push each other towards thinking deeply.

Newport, with young children at home, a demanding job and the self-imposed task of writing books, nevertheless finishes work at 5pm. He advocates working hard when you’re working and then finishing, and being sure to get plenty of rest. For intellectual work, good quality sleep is vital.

Doing deep work

In essence, deep work involves concentrating intensely on addressing an issue or task. It is thinking. Concentrating intensely doesn’t happen automatically. It requires practice to do well. And you can’t do it well, or even practise, if you’re being distracted. Constant distractions, such as reading online posts, make it harder to concentrate even when you have the opportunity. Deep work requires training.

What counts as deep work? If you’re writing a thesis, thinking about the structure and key arguments is deep work whereas attending to emails is not. This much is obvious, but what about other sorts of tasks? Newport provides a useful test: figure out how much training would be required for someone to do the task for you. To prepare someone else to undertake your thesis would probably require years of training, whereas to train someone to sort through your emails, deleting some and selecting others as high priority, might take only a few days or weeks. This criterion can be used when trying to decide whether something you’re doing is high or low priority in your deep-work time.

What about the problem that you have so many demands on your time that you can’t set aside much for thinking deeply? Newport creates more deep-work opportunities by undertaking focused thinking during daily tasks like walking the dog. One of my PhD students, who had a very busy life, used to think through her topic while doing the ironing. Other possible opportunities are while swimming or standing in a queue.

To make full use of such opportunities, it’s necessary to prepare by developing lists of topics to think about, preferably the most challenging ones. Few people do this. My guess is that very few of the people you see checking their phones are thinking deeply about anything.

Newport developed a method for reducing the number of Internet distractions. For any particular service, such as Facebook or Twitter, he says to stop using it for a month, and then to ask two questions.

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?

  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service? (p. 205)

If answers to both questions are no, then you should quit permanently. Newport says social media are particularly damaging to possibilities for concentrated thinking.

In order to have more time for deep work, it’s important to schedule all your time so it is not frittered away.

Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter. (p. 227)

To schedule every minute might seem constraining. But scheduling is compatible with doing things you find satisfying. When you’re in the moment doing something, you’re not thinking of whether or not it was scheduled.

One of Newport’s counterintuitive recommendations is to schedule your leisure time. Often, leisure opportunities are frittered away in doing what seems easiest at the time, and end up being unsatisfying.


Cal Newport

Satisfaction

When you read about that’s required to engage in plenty of deep work and become highly productive, you might think “Is it really worth all that effort?” Newport has an answer: deep work is satisfying. Engaging in it can involve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” in which you are totally absorbed in exercising a skill at the limit of your ability. More generally, research shows that if you want to be happier, you need to put effort into practices known to improve happiness, such as physical activity, expressing gratitude and being mindful. This clashes with a common belief that happiness simply happens when you do pleasurable things. Having a purpose in life and working towards it brings satisfaction.

Newport comments that “The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits.” (p. 263) It’s easier to engage in social media and other shallow activities and uncomfortable to try to achieve your very best, because you might not measure up to your expectations. But it can be satisfying in a deep way.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anne Melano and Holly Tootell for valuable comments.