Lessons from Magellan

"The achievement of one courageous man will awaken the courage of an entire generation" - Stefan Zweig

I recently discovered the story of Ferdinand Magellan - the famous explorer who captained the first expedition that successfully circumnavigated the globe. The story as told by the excellent Stefan Zweig had me completely captivated from start to finish, and I’ve had it on my mind ever since.

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The Hard Thing Rule

In our family, we live by the Hard Thing Rule.
— Angela Duckworth, Grit

Last week, I wrote about Grit, the excellent book written by Angela Duckworth. In it, she makes a compelling case for why the most important personality trait to develop is not talent, it's grit

The most successful people in any domain, whether they are Olympic athletes or leading scientists, tend to have very high levels of grit. They don't quit things easily and have a long term goal that remains unchanged for very long periods of time.

Fortunately, the message of the book is that your level of grit can change over time. I wanted to revisit one more idea before moving on because it has been something I've been thinking about over the last few days. Duckworth calls it 'The Hard Thing Rule'.

The Hard Thing Rule

The Hard Thing rule is a rule that Duckworth's family has in place, and it's designed to help her family (and particularly her kids) to develop their level of grit. There are three main aspects:

  1. Everyone has to do a hard thing.
    The first part of the rule is that everyone has to do a hard thing. A hard thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice, such as playing the piano or playing a sport. As mentioned in my previous post, deliberate practice is a specific type of focused practice in which you deliberately stretch yourself and get out of your comfort zone. You focus on the areas you are weakest and develop strategies for improving them.

    Deliberate practice is not particularly fun, but it is an incredibly efficient way to improve. This is why you need a high level of grit to do it consistently. And also this is why it's called the "Hard Thing" rule.
  2. You can quit, but not any time.
    The second part of the Hard Thing rule is that you are allowed to quit, but not until a 'natural' stopping point arrives. That means you can't quit until the football season is over, or this term's music lessons are done. The goal is to finish whatever your begin and so you cannot quit just because you had a bad day, or someone shouted at you, or you feel disheartened about your progress.
  3. You get to pick your hard thing.
    The third part of the Hard Thing rule is that each person gets to pick the thing that they want to work on. An intrinsic part of being gritty is being passionate and interested in what you're doing, so it's important that you pick an activity you are interested in from the beginning. Being forced to play the piano when you always hated it will not lead to developing grit, it will lead to resentment and wasted time.

These are the three main aspects of the Hard Thing Rule, but Duckworth mentions that since her kids are getting a bit older they are introducing a fourth part:

4. Two year commitments. 
You must commit to at least one activity (whether new or continuing an old one) for at least two years. This ties back to the second aspect of the rule. The goal is to become the sort of person that finishes whatever he or she starts, and doesn't quit easily. Long term commitments like this will help develop grit more effectively.

Practice makes perfect

To some, the Hard Thing Rule may appear harsh or too strict, but it's hard to refute the reasoning behind it given that it's coming from the woman who literally wrote the book on this!

If you believe the research Duckworth talks about then developing grit is essential to going far in your domain of expertise. If your ambition is to be the very best that you can be in some area then you simply have to be (or become) a gritty person. Lucky for us, it is possible to build up your grit, but it takes practice. The Hard Thing Rule is a great example of how you can build in systems and rules that specifically target grit growth.

For me, my Hard Thing is to write for this blog every day. I don't manage to publish every day, but I make sure to at least write for a set period of time. It's not particularly easy and there are days when I struggle to bring myself to do it, but the Hard Thing Rule is my new favourite motivation.

Getting back on the horse

At the beginning of the year, my goal was to write something every day. It was a deliberately ambitious mission because it's only by stretching yourself that you can hope to improve.

I started off well in January with 10 entries out of a possible 30, but February turned out to be an unmitigated disaster - just 1 post in the whole month!

The funny thing about setting goals for yourself is that if they aren't ambitious enough then you're unlikely to develop or to feel proud of your accomplishment at the end. On the other hand, goals that are TOO stretching are easy to abandon as hopeless.

I believe the mistake I made last month was that once I had gone a couple of days without a post, I decided that in order to make up for it my next one would have to be really long or really detailed. The handful of times that I did start to write something, I realised that my intended topic was far too large, but instead of cutting it down or simply starting with one portion, I stopped writing at all and went to do something different.

Still, the time has come to get back on the horse, so to speak.

This is me pressing the reset button and refocusing on what I decided at the beginning of the year was an important goal.

Watch this space!

The Most Important Question In The Universe

I am a big believer in the value of thinking deeply about your career. I graduated from university in 2011 having spent literally no time at all thinking about what I should do next, and spent the next 6 months waiting tables at a five star hotel. When my perfect job didn’t fall into my lap after that point, I figured maybe there was something I could be doing more proactively.

So, I followed the only career advice that everyone knows is true: follow your passion. I got a job working for the English Lacrosse Association. A life spent teaching, talking and playing lacrosse all day was my idea of paradise so I promptly moved to London and took up my new job spreading the game in the South East of England.

Unfortunately, as everyone really knows deep down, “Follow Your Passion” is truly horrible career advice. As Cal Newport has persuasively argued in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, passion is something that comes as a consequence of becoming really good at what you do. You need to develop skills that are ‘rare and valuable’. As you improve your skills, you will become so good that you will have more ability to control important things like where you work, who you work for and how much you earn. Most importantly though, people become passionate about things they are really good at.

Exceptions to the rule are easy to find, certainly. No doubt David Beckham was passionate about football before he was a super star, but we can’t base our decisions on the lives of outliers alone.

So, is that the answer? Become really really good at something? Almost, but not totally.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink outlines the research that has shown that the ingredients for a truly fulfilling career are: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. (And no, passion is not a prerequisite).

Mastery means that people are motivated by improving themselves and mastering a skill - further support for the value of developing a rare and valuable skill set as proposed by Cal Newport. In addition, the more you become so good that you can’t be ignored, the more autonomy you will receive. That could be because you receive promotions and so become the boss, or because you strike out on your own with your expert skill set ready to support you.

However, what’s not covered is most certainly the most important one: Purpose.

So how do you find purpose?

The short, blog sized, answer is this: to have a purpose is to solve an important problem. If you don’t already know what your purpose is, then you should pick a problem to solve. Delivering clean water to subsaharan Africa, establishing gender equality in the UK or protecting the world from the potential threat of an AI superintelligence that destroys mankind. All of these are good examples of a purpose problem.

For best results, the problem you pick should be big, it should be solvable in principle, and, ideally, it should be one that isn’t being addressed sufficiently by other people and organisations already.

Once you have picked a problem, you must decide how you will solve it. The good thing about really big problems is that there are lots of things you can do to have an impact. So, you could become a computer programmer, a writer or a great entrepreneur. Sure, if you want to cure cancer then a medical degree might be a requirement to have a direct impact, but it’s certainly not the only way to contribute. In addition, by identifying your purpose, you’ll have a better way of working out which skills you next need to develop or improve next.

Your purpose can change (despite what people say) because you can choose to work on a new problem. Obviously your chances of making progress to solving the problem are likely to be slim if you change direction every six months. But also, we shouldn't pretend that people don't change and grow over time. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of good enough. It only matters that you choose an important problem and get to work, not that you are certain it is exactly the right one for you. Most likely when you get stuck in, and your rare and valuable skills come into play, you will identify specific parts of the problem which seem to have been perfectly designed for you.

The upshot of all this is that, contrary to popular belief, the first step to a fulfilling career is not answering the question "What are you passionate about?" That question gets the whole thing back to front and upside down. Don't worry about passion because the passion will come later. The most important question in the universe for any person to answer is this: What big, important problem will you solve?

Too Long; Didn't Read - A Summary

A fulfilling career requires three elements: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. To have mastery and autonomy you must focus on developing a set of expert skills that are rare and valuable. Which skills should you choose to master? The ones that will give you the best chance of fulfilling your purpose. And if you don’t already know what your purpose is, then you must pick a big, important, but solvable problem.

Pick the problem, identify the skills, become a master, receive autonomy. And live happily ever after.

That is why the most important question in the universe is this:

What big, important problem will you solve?

Recommended Read: One Man's Quest To Change The Way We Die

A story was featured in the New York Times recently about B.J. Miller, a doctor specialising in end of life care, who also happens to be a triple amputee. It's about the hospice he set up in California that takes an unconventional approach to looking after the dying.

The majority of the piece is about Randy Sloan, a guy in his 20s with a rare form of cancer, and how his final days are spent. This quote in particular stood out to me:

“I think of it as: Randy [Sloan] got to play himself out.”

This is a favorite phrase of Miller’s. It means that Randy’s ability to be Randy was never unnecessarily constrained. What Sloan chose to do with that freedom at the Guest House was up to him.

Miller was suggesting that I’d misunderstood the mission of Zen Hospice. Yes, it’s about wresting death from the one-size-fits-all approach of hospitals, but it’s also about puncturing a competing impulse, the one I was scuffling with now: our need for death to be a hypertranscendent experience.

“Most people aren’t having these transformative deathbed moments,” Miller said. “And if you hold that out as a goal, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.” The truth was, Zen Hospice had done something almost miraculous: It had allowed Sloan and those who loved him to live a succession of relatively ordinary, relatively satisfying present moments together, until Sloan’s share of present moments ran out.

It's an emotional read, but well worth the time. Check it out:

How To Read A Book

For the last few years, I've made a conscious effort to read more books. Whenever I come across an interesting book that I think I could learn from, I add it to my Amazon wish list and eventually it finds it's way onto my bookshelf. But spending more time reading isn't worth it if you're not ensuring that the lessons are learnt and knowledge is effectively stored. When you comes across a section of a book that really stands out, how do you make sure that you've not forgotten about it by the following week?

The system I use is based on the one used by writer Ryan Holiday which he calls his 'Commonplace Book'. Here's how it works:

Step 1. Mark notable passages as you go.

As you read through a book, when a sentence, idea or paragraph strikes you as important then you need to mark it in some way. Ryan says that he folds down the corner of the page, but I like to use sticky tabs. (See the photo below).

One of my favourite books of 2016. You can tell by the ratio of tabs to pages!

One of my favourite books of 2016. You can tell by the ratio of tabs to pages!

The things you mark could be a great quote, a controversial argument or just something that feels significant to you. There is no right or wrong criteria, and most likely your approach will evolve over time. I have found that just the process of marking the important sections makes me more conscious of what I'm reading and helps me to recall the main arguments later on.

Step 2. Finish the book and leave it alone for a while.

Once you have finished the book, put it back on the shelf for a while and allow yourself time to mull it over.

Over the next week or so, you may find that some sections stood out to you more than others. Or you remember feeling really strongly about a story towards the beginning of the book, but the details haven't stood out. It's not so important that you come up with any particular thoughts about the book, just that you leave it alone for a while so that step three is more useful.

Step 3. Go back through the passages you marked as important on the first read through and decide whether they are still important. If they are, copy them over to your 'commonplace book'.

This is the most important step of the process. What Ryan calls 'Your Commonplace Book' is simply a central place where you can store all of the quotes, comments, phrases, arguments or ideas that you come across.

Ryan copies out each passage by hand on to individual cards and then stores them all in boxes. That seemed like a lot of hard work when I first started this so I use Evernote instead. The process of copying out the important sections allows you to review the key arguments/ideas in the book which makes you more likely to remember them long term.

Using Evernote, I collect all of the marked passages from one into a single note which means that if I ever need to quickly refresh my memory on a topic I can just look through the relevant note. I add tags to that note about what topics are covered, and Evernote's powerful search functionality makes things even easier. Say, for example, I am thinking about how to make an important decision, I can search for 'decision making' in my Evernote Commonplace Book and see all of the notes from any book I've read in the last 4 years which might have something to offer.

Step 4. Keep doing this for a long time.

This is one of those things that I'm really grateful I started several years ago. Since I've read a lot of books over those years, I now have a fantastic record of what all those books were, and what I found more important about each one. It's easy to dedicate more time reading valuable books when you can see that you're building such an incredible resource and you know that the effort won't be wasted by forgetting the whole thing.

Of course your commonplace book is not just for book excerpts. You can include things you hear in conversation, summaries of podcasts that resonated, even pictures or videos if you like. Let your commonplace become your external brain. The more you use it, the more valuable a resource it becomes.