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eliminating distraction

At age 16, my bedroom looked like daVinci's studio or Einstein's lab. Electronics, chemistry, philosophy, literature -- it was all right there. I could explore nearly any universe from early in the morning until late at night. While I didn't know it at the time, though, I was really studying human productivity.

Malcolm Gladwell, in the book Outliers, proposed the "10,000 hour rule." He suggests that you master a particular subject when you've had about 10,000 hours of practice. You can do that math, but I'll tell you the answer: It takes a really long time to amass 10k hours of decent practice. And it's probably more a rule of thumb, because there are some people who aren't 10,000 hours old who master things that the rest of us could never do, and there are some people who've been doing the same thing for seventy years, but still aren't really that good at it. All things being equal, though, it's probably a useful approximation.

40,000 Hours

Since the age of about thirteen, I've apparently spent at least 40,000 hours studying electronics, chemistry, physics, engineering, writing, music, medicine, the Bible, biochemistry, rocket science, computer programming, systems design, education, and lately, productivity directly. Only recently have I realized that productivity was the real subject. What I was looking for wasn't necessarily scientific or philosophical insight; instead, I was trying to understand the psychology of different types of pursuits, and how that psychology was crucial to becoming an expert.

My method was simple, though not easy: I wouldn't bother to learn the material first. Instead, I would hang out with the masters -- teachers, professors, professionals -- to see how they thought. My mom called it "masking," pretending to be someone for the purpose of understanding them, and she thought it was a rare genetic trait. There was a really bad TV show about that, but the premise was sound. Only after I could get inside the master's head did I start to study the subject, and it seemed to help. I won't hang all my trophies here, because they're not the point, but I will highlight one that helps illustrate what I've discovered: organic chemisty.

No Perfect Score

There was a professor at my college who prided himself on the depth of his instruction. He often mentioned that nobody had ever made 100% on any of his tests. I didn't really plan it, but I guess I accepted the challenge. I started being a fixture at his office hours and study sessions. I went to see him in off-hours to discuss anything, including organic chemistry, but lots of other things as well. I started hanging around in his lab and doing small experiments for him. I asked his advice in different ways, but really I was eliciting his philosophy. Eventually, he even hired me to teach some of his classes, as an undergraduate. I was actually a sophomore, teaching organic chemistry to seniors (boy, was that a kick!).

When it came time for the big first test, I studied more than most. In fact, I remember sitting outside the lecture hall, on the ground, studying the book for hours before the test. I made 100%. No wrong answers. Every nuance correctly explained, every question thoroughly and correctly answered. And I forgot to put my name on it. Remember that last part, because it's significant.

When we got the tests back, there were two people who hadn't put their name on them. One received 6%, the other, 100%. The professor made us come down front, stand back to back at the lecture tables, and answer a question in real time. A very hard question. I got mine right, the other person gave up.

Useful Indicators

What's really important about this story isn't the grade or the method, but that I inadvertently left my name off the paper. The professor interpreted that act in a way that was favorable to me. First, he concluded that whomever had left their name off, but gotten every answer so elegantly right, was so interested in organic chemistry that they didn't even care about getting the credit. Whoever wrote that test paper couldn't be bothered with trivial things, instead wanting to get directly into solving the questions. Second, it softened the blow of losing his perfect record, because there was no name on the test. In any case, he probably wouldn't have had an issue, as we'd struck up a friendship that made the grade more palatable.

But that mistake is even more important in my own understanding of what I was doing. I left my name off  because I was confused about who actually took the test. Was it me, or the professor? During the test, looking out through my eyes, I held the mental image of being this professor. My own persona was gone. The way I breathed, moved, thought, and responded was an almost exact copy of this person. Like my mom so often said, I'm a genetic mime. So when it came time to put a name on the test, whose name did I put? My brain locked up on that point.

And it's always been that way, almost 24/7 for me: If I think back to any event I remember in my life, I can remember not only what happened, but which persona I was emulating at the time. Weird? Maybe, or maybe it's just that I'm admitting it. But my point isn't about my own weird mutant gifts, it's about the insights I've picked up along the way.

I know that it's been an entire month since my last post. This doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would, and I'm very happy about that, because the break has given me a chance to make a final pass through my 50+ years of study -- and get a break to "percolate" the ideas. And I feel like I've gotten two huge insights out of it all.

Localized Philosophy

The deepest and most powerful secret I think I've learned -- and this revelation is quite recent as something I've actually acknowledged -- is that, for most people, the big philosophy doesn't matter. That is, your particular attitude toward life, the universe, and everything has very little impact on what you do and how you do it. Your religion doesn't drive you as much as you think it does for most people. Why? Because you rationalize what you want to do anyway, and then you make up the necessary filler to justify your goals.

I know it just sounds wrong, but it's absolutely true. I've been an instant expert in a dozen different professions and a hundred different hobbies, all by getting inside the heads of masters. There's one thing I can guarantee that nearly all of them have in common: Their philosophy is localized.

By "localized," I mean that they don't overthink their principles. They may have a religion or an overarching philosophy, but they don't apply it to their work in a practical way. They may say, "Well, God gave me this talent and I want to use it wisely," or "The universe has called to to Astrophysics...," but that's as far as it goes. Their zeal may come from their big beliefs, but the actual principles they apply in mastering their craft aren't tied back in a recognizable way.

Unified Field Theory is Anathema

Unless we are 100% committed to our values, trying to deeply rationalize big questions with our daily behavior can actually hold us back. If you know that your goals aren't consistent with the "average" tenets of your philosophy, you'll struggle and argue with yourself and end up changing directions (again). For example, if you're a fundamentalist Christian, but you want a nice house and money in the bank, you'll never get there if you think too deeply about your faith. Why? Because material things aren't supposed to matter to someone who's only real mission should be to convert others. But then someone points out that, "...a man who doesn't provide for his family is no better than an infidel...," and you're in deadlock mode, unable to rationalize two big, conflicting ideas.

What's the solution? Give up on finding an overarching philosophy. That's right, stop seeking answers to the big questions. I'm not proposing that you become an atheist, or abandon your feelings about the purpose of life (I'm not sure that's possible). But if you can't totally surrender to your beliefs, you can't set your course by them.

Why not? For one thing, they're too tentative. No matter what explanations you give yourself for who created us (or not) and why we're here (or not), the question is too big to actually answer for most people. As a race, we aren't that far along in our intellectual development, and given the size and scope of the universe, I'm not sure we'd ever be able to answer those questions on our own. Certainly, these questions are too big to apply to everyday life, unless you're completely convinced that your philosophy is the right one.

I'm not saying our thoughts about existence shouldn't influence our choices; I'm not sure we can totally avoid that. But I am saying that, after at least 40,000 hours' experience trying to tie life philosophy in to your day-to-day choices, you can't get it to work with a part-time philosophy, and I'm a professional Pretender (yes, I used to be paid by the government to do it; no, it isn't like the TV show; and yes, you can get shot doing that, and that's why I stopped doing it, but then again, I was never here :-). If it were possible, I would probably figure it out over all that time. 

But I haven't had one shred of luck with incomplete, lukewarm, mostly-committed beliefs. There are just too many unanswered questions, and even the things we take on faith -- regardless of our religious position -- are too vague to actually help us. So we default to justifying what we want to do with our philosophical stance, and this slows us down. 

Bottom line? Go whole hog or give up on the idea of meaning. Lukewarm doesn't actually help us do anything better. In fact, most of the time, it doesn't really help us do anything different. People would pretty much do those same things anyway, just for a different reason -- a different rationalization -- than they previously chose.

Big Philosophies can be Leeches

My second big "aha" moment is this: Most philosophies of life are just a big distraction, used by us to relieve us of the responsibility of choosing for ourselves. If we can choose someone else's ideas, we're not fully responsible for the wrinkles, all the places there the philosophy falls apart. But we give up something else in the process -- our originality.

What makes each of us unique as individuals, and what America still largely gets right, is that each of us brings something unique to the table, even if it's only the ability to emulate anyone accurately after just a few minutes of conversation. In order to be yourself, you don't need any other person to tell you that you're wrong, or that you're going to hell for thinking like that, or that you haven't found the one true way.

Whenever I need a break from my pretending, usually about once every three or four weeks, I always come back to plain text files on a UNIX system. I know that sounds like gibberish to some of you, but for a computer scientist, that's just the equivalent of a basic pad of paper and an old-fashioned pencil. The tool is completely clean; what you get out is exactly what you put in, no more, no less. With UNIX, though, that's by design, by a "non-philosphy" that says, among other things, "Mistrust all claims for the one true way."

I think that's what I've learned from 50+ years and 40,000+ hours of studying human productivity: mistrust everyone who comes to you with the one, true way. There's no Secret, no manifesto, no magical thought waves that will solve your problems, because they're all too general and too broad in application to actually help. 

Stop with the big questions, or stop and answer them completely, or you'll never get anywhere. Start where you are and answer the little ones, and then progressively move on to bigger and bigger questions until you've found something worth your loyalty.

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