Hacking the curve: do less, but do it better
Postdoc, author, and blogger Calvin Newport shares his ideas on how to excel at MIT
CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: Additional content from thisinterview with Calvin C. Newport is available on The Tech’s blog at techblogs.mit.edu.
I step into the office of MIT postdoc Calvin C. Newport PhD ’09, and his dog Bailey greets me with a couple of excited, energetic yips, prancing back and forth between the open door and the room’s strange intruder. Newport watches with amusement from behind a thermos full of coffee. So here’s the man behind How to Win at College, written while he was still an undergraduate at Dartmouth, and Study Hacks, a study skills blog (http://www.calnewport.com/blog/) with over 19,000 readers. Here’s the man who preaches “less is more, even when it comes to school,” and I get the sense that he applies this generously to his own life. He pursues his interests passionately, saying, “My friends and I had an N64, so we tried to master every level of Mario Kart.” He gives himself enough free space to create an enjoyable life.
Newport’s first book, How to Win at College, was published in 2005 and is a distillation of advice from successful students into 75 pithy rules. In 2006, he published his second book on study skills, How to Become a Straight-A Student, which inspired the start of his popular blog Study Hacks.
The Tech: I followed your blog during my senior year of high school. It’s funny, because students at MIT seem the least likely to read your blog.
Calvin C. Newport: MIT has an interesting culture. Having a packed schedule is somehow synonymous with success. It’s a very unusual thing; if you look at people who are successful and interesting, you don’t find it anywhere else — this notion of packing your schedule — except for on college campuses. It feels unnatural to take only four classes, but anywhere else in the world, it’s very unusual to do more. There’s this model here that you should be overloaded to be a successful student; otherwise, you’re a slacker student.
TT: But this is MIT — you’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t pack your schedule or do a bunch of things.
CCN: An MIT student seems to have this notion of “options”: the explanation for taking a class is, “this is to keep my options open in case I want to do this.” There’s this matching game. For different opportunities after college, there are different things you have to do during college, and since you’re unsure of what to do, you try to keep lots of options open.
TT: What compelled you to write How to Win at College?
CCN: The first book I wrote because I couldn’t find a book quite like it. At that time — this was around 2003 — most of the college advice books were of the survival kind, and you couldn’t find a serious book. Publishers were afraid that students would think that it was “un-cool” or something. That’s when I had the idea that someone should write a college advice guide like people write business advice guides.
TT: So then you started Study Hacks because you wanted to expand on your books?
CCN: Yeah. I started Study Hacks after my second book came out, and it was supposed to be material that didn’t fit in the book — that’s what I thought it would be. What was interesting was that the blog put me in much more rapid back-and-forth communication with students, and that’s when I found out about these major issues I hadn’t addressed in my books, mainly these issues around cultures at schools — cultures of overwork — where you have to be stressed or overloaded to be successful.
Early in the blog, I did this series called “College Chronicles” where I worked with three students to help them improve their habits, and one of those students was an MIT student. Basically, she had this ludicrously over-scheduled MIT schedule, and it literally didn’t work. I had a schedule that was starting at 8 in the morning and going until 11 at night, and we still weren’t fitting [all the things she had to do] into the week. I thought the obvious solution was to just do less, but she balked at this idea — she refused to do it. That was my rude introduction to the notion that hey, there are these other issues that need to be addressed. The study skills stuff is really important, and if you don’t have good study skills, you’re wasting your time, but I realized I had to also address this sort of cultural issue, these cultures of overwork and stress. Before, I hadn’t even realized that this was a problem.
TT: Did you follow your own advice when you were in college?
CCN: Yeah. I never had an issue with this culture of overwork, because this wasn’t an issue with the culture of the time when I was at Dartmouth, but the philosophy that I preach in my model was my philosophy in college. I had my one major, computer science, which I took very seriously, and then my other thing was writing, which I also wanted to take seriously. I was very careful not to let anything else come in there and gunk up my schedule. When I started to do research for computer science, I tried to get grants for over the summer, and then when I had to do it during the school year, [I used] independent study and research courses to gain more time to work on it. I didn’t want it to conflict too directly with my writing. For example, when it got to a point in my senior fall, where either [my independent study] courses or my thesis would take a lot of time, I scaled back my writing responsibilities. I was the editor of a magazine — I passed it on to the next generation. I always wanted focus: a small number of things, with a lot of time to work on them.
Here’s the results of those approaches: I started getting serious about academics after my freshman year, so during my sophomore, junior, and senior years, I got a 4.0 every semester except for the last one, where I got one A-. During that entire time, I never once did an all-nighter and very rarely studied at any time past dinner. That came from being very careful about my habits, treating how I study with a lot of respect and care, and also being very careful about not overloading. That led to good places, too; I got to come to MIT, and because of that, it opened up many interesting options and job offers. The same thing with my writing; I wrote my first book at Dartmouth, and I think my writing led to interesting places. For me, it was a success. I really enjoyed my college experience; I rarely felt overloaded. I was very interested in a small number of things and brought them to interesting places, and that was a fulfilling life for me. This is the model I’m preaching to students: do less, but do them very well, and that will lead to many interesting things that’s compatible with a life that’s actually enjoyable to live.
TT: I think this is a philosophy that will take some time to catch on here. Is there anything you want to tell MIT right now?
CCN: There are a few arguments I’ve been making recently, and I’m just going to throw them out there. Again, I’m not saying these are right or wrong; I just think this is the kind of conversation that many more people should be having. In the future, I hope there are a lot of other people who are talking about the same thing, with their own answers but the same conversation we’re having.
So here are two things I think are interesting. The first one is that I’ve been pushing back recently against the survival mindset, where you see what you’re doing [in college] as something to survive in order to open up opportunities later. However, the need to stand out in order to have interesting things happen to you doesn’t ever go away. It doesn’t go away after college — all throughout life you have to continue to be impressive and stand out, so the survival mindset is not sustainable. It’s a recipe for a whole life full of “well, I don’t enjoy my life right now but maybe somewhere in the future, I will,” and what happens is that somewhere in the future keeps moving farther and farther into the future. Then you kind of forget about it altogether, and you’re 40 and you have an embarrassing midlife crisis. That’s one of the things I’ve been pushing back against. Your goal in college is to figure out how to be successful and impressive while at the same time enjoying yourself. If you want interesting, fulfilling work that you also enjoy on a day-to-day basis, you have to figure this out, and I think college is the perfect time to do it. How can you be impressive and successful while maintaining the bottom line that you actually enjoy your life on a day-to-day basis? What do you have to do in order to get that?
My message number two is about one way to do that, and that’s to do less, but do what you do real better. Be radical in simplicity. Be a minimalist. It’s a very interesting life to not be overloaded but to be operating at a very high level.