On Procrastination

I generally don’t link to book reviews, but The Thief of Time is outside my price range, and I really enjoyed James Surowiecki’s piece on how procrastination works.

Surowiecki’s piece is a bit long, but by the end of it, you’ll have a better answer to this question: “Why do we procrastinate?”. I highlight notable passages below…

What is procrastination and from where does the term come from?

Procrastination is a basic human impulse, but anxiety about it as a serious problem seems to have emerged in the early modern era. The term itself (derived from a Latin word meaning “to put off for tomorrow”) entered the English language in the sixteenth century, and, by the eighteenth, Samuel Johnson was describing it as “one of the general weaknesses” that “prevail to a greater or less degree in every mind,” and lamenting the tendency in himself: “I could not forbear to reproach myself for having so long neglected what was unavoidably to be done, and of which every moment’s idleness increased the difficulty.” And the problem seems to be getting worse all the time. According to Piers Steel, a business professor at the University of Calgary, the percentage of people who admitted to difficulties with procrastination quadrupled between 1978 and 2002. In that light, it’s possible to see procrastination as the quintessential modern problem.

I like Surowiecki’s humor, who mentions that he procrastinated in writing this article. I procrastinated writing this post, even though I planned to do it more than a month ago:

Academics, who work for long periods in a self-directed fashion, may be especially prone to putting things off: surveys suggest that the vast majority of college students procrastinate, and articles in the literature of procrastination often allude to the author’s own problems with finishing the piece. (This article will be no exception.)
On the essence of procrastination (this may be a surprise to you):
The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing, a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people. This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy.
Surowiecki highlights notable philosophers in his piece, and I liked this passage about the “divided self”:
Viewed this way, procrastination starts to look less like a question of mere ignorance than like a complex mixture of weakness, ambition, and inner conflict. But some of the philosophers in “The Thief of Time” have a more radical explanation for the gap between what we want to do and what we end up doing: the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.” Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control. Ian McEwan evokes this state in his recent novel “Solar”: “At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered as a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others.
I was really pleased that Surowiecki highlighted one of Dan Ariely’s experiments on procrastination (Ariely writes about it in his Predictably Irrational, which I highly recommend reading):
A few years ago, Dan Ariely, a psychologist at M.I.T., did a fascinating experiment examining one of the most basic external tools for dealing with procrastination: deadlines. Students in a class were assigned three papers for the semester, and they were given a choice: they could set separate deadlines for when they had to hand in each of the papers or they could hand them all in together at the end of the semester. There was no benefit to handing the papers in early, since they were all going to be graded at semester’s end, and there was a potential cost to setting the deadlines, since if you missed a deadline your grade would be docked. So the rational thing to do was to hand in all the papers at the end of the semester; that way you’d be free to write the papers sooner but not at risk of a penalty if you didn’t get around to it. Yet most of the students chose to set separate deadlines for each paper, precisely because they knew that they were otherwise unlikely to get around to working on the papers early, which meant they ran the risk of not finishing all three by the end of the semester. This is the essence of the extended will: instead of trusting themselves, the students relied on an outside tool to make themselves do what they actually wanted to do.
Last but not least: this is my favorite video on procrastination. It’s really well done:
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Now that you’ve learned more about procrastination, has your perception of procrastination changed? What are you going to do today that you have been putting off for days, weeks, or months?

Readings: Google in the News

Two interesting stories in the New York Times appeared this weekend, both relating to Google:

1) “Google Grows, and Works to Retain Nimble Minds” [New York Times] – a nice explainer about Google’s unparalleled growth, and a side effect: employees who are leaving the company for smaller companies or for start-ups:

Recent departures include low-level engineers, product managers and prominent managers like Lars Rasmussen, who helped create Google Maps and Wave before he left for Facebook, and Omar Hamoui, the founder of AdMob who was vice president for mobile ads at Google and is now looking for his next project. At least 142 of Facebook’s employees came from Google.

I like this phrase used in the article: “Corporate sclerosis.” In the last five years, Google has grown from 5,000 to 23,000 employees, while its revenue has increased by more than seven-fold, from $3.2B to $23.7B. So what is Google doing to prevent employees from leaving the company?

Google is taking aggressive steps to retain employees, particularly those with start-up ambitions. Google has given several engineers who said they were leaving to start new companies the chance to start them within Google. They work independently and can recruit other engineers and use Google’s resources, like its code base and servers, according to half a dozen employees.

This is a highly innovative move, and rarely seen in other companies (I think). Of course, financial motivation is there too: this month Google gave every employee in the company a 10% raise.

Nevertheless, the biggest takeaway for me was this: if someone has the drive to do something on their own, compensation packages and promises to work on independent projects can only go so far. This was the best line in the story:

Part of Google’s problem is that the best engineers are often the ones with the most entrepreneurial thirst.

Is it that surprising that these engineers are looking for greener (but perhaps riskier) pastures?

2) “A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web” [New York Times] – an amazing and horrifying story of a sunglasses merchant who thrives on negative feedback to boost his Google search rankings (which leads to more people buying fake/poor merchandise from him). Not much is below this merchant: threats, intimidation, non-delivery (or fake delivery) of product.

This story left me fuming (I refuse to provide the name of the merchant). What’s interesting, and other people have pointed this out, is that Google does not appear to perform sentiment analysis; that is, a “negative” link to a website might be as beneficial as a link of praise, and Google’s algorithms (which are, in fact, a secret) don’t distinguish between them. So for instance, we have this from the NYT, where people posted complaints about the company:

Between then and now, hundreds of additional tirades have been tacked to Get Satisfaction, ComplaintsBoard.com, ConsumerAffairs.com and sites like them.

But because those web sites are reputable, if they point to the offending website, it’s essentially more “Google juice” and the merchant described in the article benefits.

One last note: the reporter, David Segal, appears to take a liking to this merchant:

It’s almost painful to say, but Mr. [Redacted] is amusing company. He is sharp and entertaining, although much of the entertainment comes from the way he flouts the conventions of courtesy, which he does with such a perverse flair that it can seem like a kind of performance art.

I thought the sympathy was undeserving, but perhaps this is a psychological phenomenon: if we tend to get close to someone (even if we do so objectively, such as reporting for the New York Times), we tend to begin liking the one we’re with to help us cope and/or help us approach the subject. Familiarity breeds good journalism, it seems.

Update (12/01/10): News of the New York Times article has made the rounds at Google headquarters, and Google has acted swiftly. In a blog post titled “Being Bad To Your Customers Is Bad for Business,” Google explains that they have modified their search rankings, incorporating user reviews in Google’s search algorithm:

Instead, in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result.

Huge props to Google on this quick, worthy update.

Gregory Petsko: On Defense of the Humanities

Gregory Petsko’s open letter to George M. Philip, President of the State University of New York At Albany, is one of the most compelling pieces of writing I’ve read this year. The background: On October 1, George M. Philip, announced that the French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs at SUNY Albany were getting the axe.

Petsko, a professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Brandeis University, decided to respond. In his open letter, he writes with tact and eloquence about the importance of the humanities for any university, and how Philip’s decision was a reprehensible act. Titled “A Faustian Bargain,” Petsko makes references to Machiavelli, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dostoyevesky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and of course, Goethe’s Faust.

First, why do humanities classes have low enrollment? Petsko argues:

You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it’s because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs – something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.

I went to Georgia Tech, where the primary focus is on engineering and sciences. Most of my classes were in engineering, science, and math. But the most stimulating classes I took were in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. It was in an English II course that I read Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Thomas More’s Utopia. One of the best courses I took was in the Public Policy department, PST 3127: “Science, Technology, & Human Values.” This was a required course for all engineering undergraduates, with the professor choosing the theme for the course. I took a course with Hans Klein, whose course was titled “The Contemporary Environment.” It was there that I got a new appreciation for Brave New World (I re-read it), learned about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, learned about media criticism through Noam Chomksy’s Manufacturing Consent, and so much more (PDF of the syllabus for the course). Again, this was a required course, but what I learned from that course is still with me today. The point is this: I enjoyed these mandatory courses so much, that I wanted to take other courses totally unrelated to my major. My senior year at Georgia Tech, I took a couple of courses in the Literature, Communication, and Culture department at Georgia Tech. The course that really stands out is LCC 3518: “Literary and Cultural Postmodernism,” where we read T.S. Eliot’s poetry, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and watched a number of films. In this course we also read the first hypertext story, Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, a story. If I didn’t have exposure to these courses, my education would have been, simply, incomplete.

Moving on…

I love Petsko’s reference to one of the greatest novels ever written, The Brothers Karamazov (it’s one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read). The reference to The Grand Inquisitor is particularly brilliant:

Young people haven’t, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it’s hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.

That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I’m sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it – if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don’t.

You can read The Grand Inquisitor chapter at Project Gutenberg (or download it for free on the iPad/Kindle).

Petsko isn’t shy about calling out George Philip. Holding the meeting at an unconvenient time to announce the budget cuts was sleezy:

And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend. In your defense, you called the timing ‘unfortunate’, but pleaded that there was a ‘limited availability of appropriate large venue options.’ I find that rather surprising. If the President of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don’t have much clout at your university.

The reference to Divine Comedy:

It seems to me that the way you went about it couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.

That refrain: “which now, of course, you don’t” would repeat five times in the letter. I found its usage particularly powerful.

Petsko is spot-on that universities aren’t just about discovering new knowledge:

As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do ‘old-fashioned’ courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment.

This part resonated with me:

Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

While I wouldn’t say that my science courses didn’t taught me how to analyze, I would say that the courses in humanities have made me a better thinker.

Finally, I think this was the most important passage in the entire letter:

Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future.

Bravo.

In the conclusion of the letter, the parable of Faust and the devil comes to light. I hope you find the time to read the entire letter.

A LOST Reflection

May 23, 2010: “The End.”

Six months ago today, the television series LOST came to its final chapter. LOST is (was) favorite show on television—far and above any other I’ve ever seen. I watched every episode religiously, and the only show to which I would tune in live (in general, I watch television shows when they come out on DVD).

I remember six months ago, just as the show ended at 11PM, how I felt. Relieved. But also shaken and deeply saddened. This was The End, and I couldn’t imagine finding another TV show to which I could cling to as strongly (it hasn’t happened yet).

After the final episode aired, I read a number of reviews and sentiments across the web. I was going to do a round-up of the best write-ups, but I never got around to it. So I thought: why not do it six months afterwards? So below I highlight two of my favorite recaps, with a few thoughts of my own. Please note: if you’ve never watched the show or saw the finale, there are SPOILERS ahead!

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Quotable: Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel

I finished reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel earlier this year, but I couldn’t come up with a good way to review the book. Instead, what I did was highlight interesting passages from the book and related them to my own travels. Below, I reproduce a post which appeared on my photoblog, Erudite Expressions, in August of 2010. The Art of Travel resonated with me strongly, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I hope you find these quotes interesting as well.

We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing’.

The above quote appears near the beginning of Alain de Botton’s excellent book, The Art of Travel. I finished reading the book earlier this year, and I’ve been meaning to share some words of wisdom for quite a while here on Erudite Expressions.

After I read that paragraph, I scribbled a note in the margin of the book (I purchase all of my books exactly for this reason: to be able to make notes): is this the thesis of the book? Because this notion is quite compelling, and requires a bit of introspection.

When people ask me to recommend where they should travel, I may be quick to blurt out a response, but the explanatory factor may take a bit more time to ponder. For me, I think walking around with my SLR and photographing the scenes around me is the single most effective method of remembering. I organize my photos by dates in my Lightroom catalog because I remembers dates easily. The photo above I captured on July 15, 2009 in Zürich, Switzerland. The actual date isn’t important; it’s just my method of organizing my travels in my head…

I am posting an image of Zürich for two reasons. First, it is the birthplace of the author Alain de Botton. But it was also my destination and departure point last year: I flew into Zürich from Atlanta, and flew from Zürich to New York City twenty-one days later. What I remember flying into the airport is picking up my luggage, taking an escalator down to the train ticket booth, and redeeming my Eurail pass. The cashier spoke flawless English, but I forgot to ask him which way I should head to catch my train to Vienna, Austria. So I came back around, stood in line the second time, to ask him another question…

I remember taking a short train ride to get to the central train station in Zürich. I actually arrived early and had the chance to catch the earlier train (departing around 11AM) to Vienna. But I had already made plans (not reservations) to catch the 2PM train, so I ended up walking around the train station, buying a super expensive bottle of Coca-Cola (it cost more than $3 after I converted Swiss Francs to dollars), going into a downstairs mall (to purchase a SIM card for my phone, which I couldn’t get to work), and finally finding some alone time on a bench where I paid to get some internet coverage so I could send out an email to friends/relatives that I was safe and sound in Europe.

I mention these seeming trivialities because of this passage in The Art of Travel:

A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journey through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X and after a night in its medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn. But we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon’. We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is grey. We look out the window at a field. We look back inside. A drum of anxieties revolves in our consciousness. We notice a luggage label affixed to a suitcase in a rack above the seats opposite. We tap a finger on the window ledge. A broken nail on an index finger catches a thread. It starts to rain…We wonder where our ticket might be. We look back out at the field. It continues to rain. At last the train starts to move. It passes an iron bridge, after which it inexplicably stops. A fly lands on the window. And still we may have reached the end only of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘He journey through the afternoon’.

Quite lovely, no? I didn’t expect all of that to have happened in one minute, but this was a noteworthy inclusion in the text.

Are you the kind of person that tends to be gloomier or sulkier at home compared to when you’re on vacation? I wonder if this is the universal truth:

We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn (after an argument in a raffia bungalow under an azure sky) that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own either underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery.

If you’ve ever traveled, did you notice how you can (or were) drawn to the mundane, the ordinary? Alain de Botton writes:

If we find poetry in the service station and the motel, if we are drawn to the airport or the train carriage, it is perhaps because, despite their architectural compromises and discomforts, despite their garish colours and harsh lighting, we implicity feel that these isolated places offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world.

I wouldn’t disagree.

If you’ve been following Erudite Expressions, you will know that I love to post detail shots. Perhaps I am walking on a street and a sign catches my fancy. Or I see a peculiar street sign. Or a brick on a cobblestone road which has loosened. While these things may be inconsequential on their own, I believe that collectively they can enamor us. Alain de Botton begins one of my favorite paragraphs in the book:

Why be seduced by something as small as a front door in another country?

It is here that I pause for a moment and mention that I read The Art of Travel in 2010, long after I photographed the Doors of Prague. If you haven’t seen that photo essay, please do so: I think it represents some of my best work.

 

A massive door in Prague. Click on the photo to see my photo essay.

Moving on, de Botton continues:

Why fall in love with a place because it has trams and its people seldom have curtains in their homes? However absurd the intense reactions provoked by such small (and mute) foreign elements may seem, the pattern is at least familiar from our personal lives. There, too, we may find ourselves anchoring emotions of love on the way a person butters his or her bread, or recoiling at his or her taste in shoes. To condemn ourselves for these minute concerns is to ignore how rich in meaning details may be.

Wonderful perspective, with which I agree whole-heartedly.

What do you think? Have you ever thought of why you travel (or why you would recommend a certain place to someone)? How about your attention to the mundane? And the details? All of these things, as I read the book, resonated with me and what I photograph…


On Regrets of the Dying

Bronnie Ware describes herself as having a thirst for experiencing life from the moment she was born. Reading about her life you begin to feel that she’s experienced a lot.

For many years, Bronnie worked in palliative care. Through her work with patients facing their mortality, she has come to greater appreciation of her life and the lives of others. In this moving post, she describes how these dying patients, time and time again, cite similar regrets. These are the regrets of the dying:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence. By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result. We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

Reading the above, did you come away with the impression: “This is me right now”? If so, is there anything that you can or are willing to do about it?

Please go to Bronnie’s blog post and read the other two regrets (on friends and happiness). I can’t conclude it better than Bronnie did: Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.

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(hat tip to @bfeld)

On Careers and Happiness

I’ve been thinking about the subject of careers and happiness recently, and stumbled upon this Q&A session with Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com. From this piece, I learned that Tony Hsieh studied computer science at Harvard and that Tony is really interested in the science of happiness (so am I!).

The entire piece is a great short read, but Tony’s response with how students should approach pursuing a career is what resonated with me the most:

I would say rather than focus on what will make you the most money or be best for your career, figure out what you would be passionate for in 10 years and go pursue that. A lot of people work hard at building a career so that one day down the road they think it will bring them happiness. And most of the time, when they finally accomplish their goal, they realize that it doesn’t really end up bringing happiness or fulfillment for the long term.

I do think Tony’s advice is applicable not just for students in college, but for aspiring entrepreneurs and those that are working in the corporate environment. It seems the advice is recession-proof: so long as you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you can feel proud of your efforts, that what you’ve worked for has not been in vain. My only criticism is this: you never know how your life may unfold and what interests you may discover in living your life. So figuring out what you might be passionate about in ten years might not work for everyone.

I also liked Tony’s response to the question below:

Interviewer: What did Harvard bring out in you that you might not have had when you arrived on day one?

Tony: For me, most of what I got out of Harvard was outside the classroom, including people that I met and running the pizza business. My concentration was in computer science because that’s what I was most passionate about at the time, but I also learned to discover other passions through other classes (for example, linguistics).

What do you think of Tony’s advice on choosing a career? Do you have any advice of your own?

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Note: the best book I’ve read on happiness is Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss. I highly, highly recommend it.