how to be awesome

Cal Newport is an MIT computer science post-doc and college advice dude. He has some books and an interesting blog. I thought orgtheory readers might enjoy this post about a computer science professor named James McLurkin. It’s hard to find such a nice statement about what it takes to be a truly good academic. The post is about how he earned his reputation as a top researcher in grad school, which lead to an excellent career.

Here’s the key passage:

  1. To become a star, in graduate school or elsewhere, you need to make an important advance in your field.
  2. Important advances require bleeding-edge expertise. (Once this expertise is gained, however, the breakthrough itself will probably seem obvious.)
  3. Therefore: To become a star, you should focus on getting to the bleeding edge of your field as quickly as possible.

Newport observes that step #3 is really, really hard because it requires a person to go beyond their comfort zone, but not too much. How does that work? Most people tend to repeat what they know. It is daunting to work on a project where you don’t know the answer, or how it will work out.  If you stick with what is easy, you don’t progress. Conversely, if your project is too hard, then you won’t be able to learn from it and you will get stuck.

The trick is to build up skills by doing projects that stretch you, but not too much. If you can do that a few times in a row, you will likely get to the cutting edge of the field:

James describes this lesson as perhaps the most valuable he learned as an undergrad at MIT. Under the tutelage of his supervisor, he honed his ability to choose projects that were hard enough to stretch his ability, but still reasonable enough that he could complete them. She wanted him to be ambitious and set big goals, but she had no tolerance for goals so big that they were beyond his ability to finish in a reasonable time frame.


Written by fabiorojas

September 3, 2010 at 12:05 am

3 Responses

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  1. I’m glad to see someone talking about this. It is certainly one of the larger elephants in the faculty lounge and raises profound questions about what we think we are doing with our PhD students.

    But what – in practice – might we mean by a ‘bleeding edge’? Are our edges (in OT or management theory) anything like those in IT or CS?

    It is not obvious that the natural and social sciences are the same in this respect. With some rare exceptions, the physical sciences’ methodologies are determined and stabilized by disciplinary convention, so bleeding edge really means ‘topics of current interest to our journals’ editors’. In the physical sciences these are topics such as memristors, beta-blockers, black-holes, and so on. The topic-oriented structure of research helps explain why PhD students work on their mentors’ topics rather than their own.

    The rare exceptions arise when a science’s methods are changed – such as Einstein’s adoption of what were essentially novel philosophical a-priori notions or ‘principles’ for thinking about sub-atomic phenomena.

    The social sciences are seldom ‘cumulative’, so its ‘bleeding edges’ do not move ‘through’ an experimentally framed topic-domain in the same way that, for instance, over the last 30 years astro-science’s understanding’ of black-holes has progressed accumulatively from a degree of naivete to a degree of sophistication.

    For those that think the social sciences, such as OT, are about something ‘real’, such as Parsonian social systems with their own characteristics and ontology, our discipline’s evident inability to accumulate is maddening and leads to calls to ‘end theorizing’. The implication is that the real bleeding edge is empirical, stressing the priority of checking out some of our theoretical baggage in a falsification purge.

    Whether or not this leads to a viable research program – clearly I do not believe it does – it is not obvious we have many exemplars of its success. The most influential of all experimental projects in the organization science – the Hawthorne studies – has not stood up well to later historical analysis. Do we have better exemplars of the effectiveness of the physical sciences’ in our field? There is surprising little on ‘exemplary research’ in our field that might guide our PhD’s research work – Van de Ven, Argote & Darr, Frost & Stablein, Taylor & Spicer, …

    These occasional expressions of our non-progress are not widely shared. Most in our discipline congratulate themselves on how our ‘knowledge’ is advancing.

    But similar feelings of non-progress and frustration among economics students led, for instance, to the Post-Autistic Economics movement – an example of a ‘bleeding edge’ that is primarily methodological. Whether or not one agrees with the PAE manifesto, it illustrates a feature of the social sciences that is often ignored in the physical sciences – except by those such as Law, Latour, Collins, etc. engaged in SHOT and ‘science studies’.

    The implication is that academic activity is less about a relationship between our thinking and the ‘real’, to be policed by positivistic methods, than a discourse about our experience of being alive in a social and natural situation.

    From an epistemological and methodological point of view the switch from a positivist neo-realist (or even critical-realist) position towards a discursive or linguistic one, clearly carries one to an entirely different part of the ‘bleeding edge’.

    Apart from anything else it means that academic activity is less about ‘testing’ theory or focusing on empirical anomalies to drive theorizing forward and more about being ‘rigorously critical’ in the sense of ‘literary’ or ‘philosophical’ criticism i.e. being focused on the respectful study and careful critique of what others have said about specific empirical phenomena – such as cross-cultural management or private-sector responses to economic downturns.

    This framing presents our field as a rather random collection of social and economic phenomena, many of which have been around since the beginning of recorded social history, and takes our knowledge about them as the sum total of what has been said. There is no axiomatic sense of an external reality independent of the discourse. The only reality, so to speak, is that of the present of human action, the moment of the practice of the phenomena about which we think it meaningful and useful to talk in retrospect.

    To take students to the ‘bleeding edge’ here calls mostly for training in the critical study of what has been said. Thus we not only have to read Barnard (always a fruitful experience), but also work out how to critique his thinking. In general we can say – if we adopt this view of academic activity – that we do not ‘understand’ what authors such Barnard have to say until we are both familiar with the materials available – always an accident of history and prone to being changed – and have reflected enough on those materials to have discovered some cracks, wrinkles, lacunae, contradictions, and so on in the argument/s.

    This is a different kind of ‘bleeding edge’ and it needs to be constructed anew by each student as they move from being a novice to being an academic practitioner in a particular field of study. It is only through the discovery of discursive anomalies that they can move towards a new discourse.

    This methodology – and the consequences of doing it properly and so becoming a ‘star’ – is well illustrated by Kuhn’s SSR.

    The proposition, then, is something of a Habermasian one, that our discipline’s objective is a ‘more perfect’ discourse that stands on the a-priori acceptance that perfection arises not from its being a ‘true’ representation of ‘reality’ presumed knowable, but a never-to-be-reached end-point of a long plod towards getting our ideas straight.



    September 3, 2010 at 2:25 pm

  2. PS I forgot to mention Peter Klein’s Aug 31st O&M blog piece on ‘How to read and academic article’. Excellent basic training in the critical method.



    September 3, 2010 at 2:51 pm

  3. […] “How to Be Awesome” by Fabio Rojas […]


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