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:
- To become a star, in graduate school or elsewhere, you need to make an important advance in your field.
- Important advances require bleeding-edge expertise. (Once this expertise is gained, however, the breakthrough itself will probably seem obvious.)
- 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.