Extras: Hacking the curve: do less, but do it better

Here is more of the interview with Calvin Newport. We couldn’t fit it all in the paper, so here’s the rest!

The Tech: So how would you address the problem of keeping your options open?

Calvin C. Newport: As far as I can tell, your options will come from your ability to demonstrate that you’re a star at something. It’s not really important what you’re a star at – it’s more about showing someone “I took this capability and I was a star at it.” That’s what people want you to do, be it in a job or a project, and that’s why I advise people to do much less, but do it much better. It’s not about what specific opportunities this will open up, because in some sense, just being a star at something opens up a broad amount of opportunities, so I downplay the notion of figuring out what you want to do and matching it, and I emphasize the notion of proving that you have the capability to be a star at something.

I call it the law of complementary accomplishments: if you start doing something well, all of these really fascinating opportunities start popping up. Your core resource in the world is your ability to do something useful, and the better you are it, the more you get of this resource, and you can invest it to get more and more interesting things.

TT: So it’s like you’re advocating the lifestyle of the one kid in high school who had their entire life planned out?

CCN: No, far from it! Don’t worry so much about what specifically you’re going to do, worry more about practicing how you’re going to do it. Take something and be a star at it, and don’t worry so much about what it is. What you’re doing essentially is showing the world that you have the capability to be a star at whatever you’re doing, and the best way to do that is to be very minimalist: one major, very careful with your activities and your courses. Don’t sweat too much about the exact right major – think to yourself: “It’s an interesting major so I’m going to take that and run with it.”

Of course, there are certain things that require certain courses, so if you have something in mind, do that something, but if you don’t, just do something and do it well. I’m not this big believer that there’s some sort of special, right thing for people, that people are meant or destined to be, you know, an investment banker, for example.

TT: What about extracurriculars? I think in the case of MIT students, extracurriculars play a large role in what most people are bogged down by – students are often part of three different clubs, each with leadership responsibilities.

CCN: I think that’s a bad approach. There’s no admissions board in your future. Really, once you’re at MIT, no one’s going to care about the quantity of extracurriculars you do. If you’re applying to graduate school, I don’t think the admissions committee, which is made up of professors, is going to care about the salsa club or whatever it is you’re doing.

TT: What if you have a lot of varied interests?

CCN: Well, my philosophy is this, and I tell students this all the time: let’s say you have five different things that you love to do. That’s a great situation to be in – you have plenty of things you love to do. You’re not going to love your life any less because you’re doing one of those things instead of five, so I say do less extracurriculars: have one thing that’s major and then one not very time-consuming social thing. I think that when I talk to college students, it can seem kind of radical when I say to do much less, but often, when you step out into the world beyond college, it’s a normal thing. Let’s use the Oscars for an example. James Franco is kind of weirding people out right now – he’s doing all of these different things and they don’t really mesh together – but then they take Natalie Portman and say oh, look at her, she’s a craftsman. In the world of acting, we really respect her because she’s done this one thing very well. Out of college, it’s weird to do five or six things kind of half-assed.

TT: What are your current ideas on addressing the problem [of the culture of overwork]?

CCN: So my high level idea is that we need models, that students need to be told “hey, here’s a model for what it means to be a successful student and what it takes to get there.” What I do on my blog is that I present a particular model, and I’m very specific. However, the big picture is that there should be more models out there. Colleges should have models for their students; different departments should have competing models – students shouldn’t have any shortage of examples, or here’s-one-way-to-thrive-heres. That’s sort of my big picture mission. What I do on my blog right now is give one particular model, one particular answer, but in my perfect world, there should be a lot more to choose from.

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