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.

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.