A summary and broad points of agreement and disagreement with Cal Newport's book on high school extracurriculars

by VipulNaik5 min read8th Apr 20146 comments

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Cal Newport (personal website, Wikipedia page) is a moderately well-known author of four books as well as a computer science researcher. I have read two of his four books: How To Become a Straight-A Student The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less and How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out). I'm particularly interested in his book on becoming a high school superstar. My interest arises as part of trying to figure out how people can better use their extracurricular activities to have more fun, learn more, and create more value for the world. As Jonah recently pointed out, choosing high school extracurricular activities could in principle have huge social value in addition to the private benefits. And as far as I know, Cal Newport is the only person who has given systematic advice on high school extracurriculars to a broad audience. He's been referenced many times on Less Wrong.

In this post, I'll briefly discuss his suggestions in the latter book and some of my broad philosophical disagreements. I'm eager to know about the experiences of people who've tried to implement Newport's advice (particularly that pertaining to extracurriculars, but also any of his other advice). First impressions of people who click through the links and read about Newport right now would also be appreciated. I intend to write on some of these issues in more detail in the coming days, though those later posts of mine will not be focused solely on what Newport has to say.

You might also be interested in the comments on this Facebook post of mine discussing Newport's ideas.

A quick summary of Newport's views

Newport's book advises high school students to pick an extracurricular activity and shine at it to the level that it impresses admissions officers (and others). He offers a three-step plan for highschoolers:

  1. The Law of Underscheduling: Pack your schedule with free time. Use this free time to explore: In particular, avoid getting being involved in too many activities, whether academic or extracurricular. Use your free time to read and learn about a wide range of stuff.
  2. The Law of Focus: Master one serious interest. Don't waste time on unrelated activities: Newport cites the superstar effect and the Matthew effect to bolster his case for focusing on one activity after you've explored a reasonable amount.
  3. The Law of Innovation: Pursue accomplishments that are hard to explain, not hard to do: Newport talked of a "failed-simulation effect" where things seem impressive if the people who hear about them can't easily imagine a standard path to them. He then offers some more guidelines both on how to innovate and on how to make one's innovation seem impressive.

Newport is targeting high school students who want to get into their dream college. He's trying to get them to stop doing boring, depressing activities and instead do fun, creative, and useful stuff that both improves their short-run life (by making them more relaxed and less stressed) and impresses admissions officers.

Broad areas of agreement

  1. I think Newport is right to suggest that it doesn't make sense to devote too much energy to boring schoolwork or extracurriculars that one is doing just because one is "supposed" to do them. I think he's right that his approach is both less stressful and less wasteful of human resources and effort. And it is more likely, in expectation, to build human capital and produce direct value for society.
  2. Newport is correct to emphasize the link between free time and being able to explore stuff, and his advice on how to explore can be quite helpful to high school students.
  3. Newport's ideas for how to focus on a particular interest, and how to rack up accomplishments in a particular area, seem broadly sound.
  4. When it comes to figuring out what impresses college admissions officers, Newport seems like he knows what he's talking about, although some of his examples make less sense than he thinks they do.

Broad philosophical differences

Before getting into the nuts and bolts of what I think Newport gets right and wrong, I want to talk of some broad differences between Newport (as he presents himself) and me. A few things I find somewhat jarring in Newport's writing:

  1. Newport seems very concerned with signaling quality to colleges. This is fine: that's what his target audience cares most about, and if getting into a good college is important, then signaling quality to college can be quite important. What I find somewhat offputting is that he often confuses the signaling with the value of the activity itself, or at any rate fails to question whether some of the things he believes to be optimal from the signaling viewpoint could be counterproductive from the perspective of value creation (either personal or social). For instance, consider his observation of the existence of the failed-simulation effect. This points in favor both of picking things that are harder for other people to "see through" (rather than things that are straightforward but hard) and also in favor of making what you did seem more undoable than it actually is. I see these as downsides of the failed-simulation effect, and sources of genuine conflict between choosing what creates the most value (personal or social) and what impresses others. Newport seems to sidestep such dilemmas.
  2. Newport doesn't adequately address the zero-sum context in which he is giving his advice. Top colleges have a limited number of places for students. If everybody successfully implemented Newport's advice, only a small fraction of them would be able to go to a top college. Note that I don't think Newport views his advice as zero-sum, and even if what I wrote above is correct, his advice could still be positive-sum in that it shifts people away from competing on stressful dimensions to doing activities that offer them more fun and learning and create more value. But again, the fact that he doesn't really address this issue head-on is a disappointment.
  3. Newport seems to oversystematize in ways that don't feel right to me. Even though I agree with aspects of the broad direction he is pushing people in, I feel he's seeing too many patterns that may not exist.
  4. In general, I feel that Newport doesn't go far enough. He operates within the standard set of constraints without questioning the logic of the enterprise or giving people a better understanding of the incentives of different actors in the system. He also doesn't provide adequate guidance on the self-calibration problem, and doesn't adequately encourage people to figure out how to calibrate their learning better in the context of the extracurricular activity where they cannot rely on standard measures such as grades to track their progress.

I'm curious to know what readers' main areas of disagreement with Newport are, and/or whether my listed areas of disagreement make sense to readers.

Cross-posted to Quora and the Cognito Mentoring blog.

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Out of curiosity, why are you (and the readers) particularly interested in his books about high school? Do you have relatives in high school, want to reflect on your past experience, or want to succeed in high school presently?

I think I have read Cal Newport for the last 4 or 5 years. I also read How To Become a Straight-A Student.

I see these as downsides of the failed-simulation effect, and sources of genuine conflict between choosing what creates the most value (personal or social) and what impresses others. Newport seems to sidestep such dilemmas.

That's like saying there a dilema between doing work that socially valuable and doing work that pays a salary. If you don't have to earn a salary you can target your efforts better to produce social value. On the other hand, the way the world works you also need money.

Steve with his marketing for a sustainability NGO and lobbying in Johannesburg creates more social value then David with his track team and caligraphy lessons. Could you explain in what way you feel that case study doesn't make sense?

I think innovation is quite important for a productive society. That often means simply doing something with focus and seeing where it leads you.

If everybody successfully implemented Newport's advice, only a small fraction of them would be able to go to a top college.

I don't think Newport follows Kant in that regard. Wanting to increaes the amount of people who are capable of innovation is not the same thing as saying everyone should be innovative.

In general, I feel that Newport doesn't go far enough. He operates within the standard set of constraints without questioning the logic of the enterprise or giving people a better understanding of the incentives of different actors in the system. He also doesn't provide adequate guidance on the self-calibration problem, and doesn't adequately encourage people to figure out how to calibrate their learning better in the context of the extracurricular activity where they cannot rely on standard measures such as grades to track their progress.

That paragraph is really ironic. You start by saying that Cal follows the standard set of constraints and then end by complaining that he doesn't value having something to replace grades.

My own Quantified Self involvement completely meets the standards of Newports impressiveness/innovation category. It's college extracurriculars and not high school but similar concerns apply. My name is in German, French and English mainstream media. I did newspaper interviews, radio interviews and TV interviews. I spoke at the Chaos Computer Congress and I gave three payed speech for a total of 1000€. I lead the Berlin Quantified Self group for a while. I'm a moderator of the Quantified Self forum.

I would have probably got more done if I wouldn't struggle with akrasia, but there wasn't really a time were I lacked something like grades to guide my process.

Total active time investment wasn't that high. Salsa dancing is a hobby with whom I spent more time.

That's like saying there a dilema between doing work that socially valuable and doing work that pays a salary. If you don't have to earn a salary you can target your efforts better to produce social value. On the other hand, the way the world works you also need money.

Yes, this is a good analogy. There are tradeoffs between different goals one is trying to cooptimize for. If the failed simulation effect is true (and I think there's good evidence for it) then it's just a fact of life one has to deal with. My criticism of Newport doesn't stem from his pointing out the failed simulation effect. Rather, my criticism is that he doesn't adequately discuss the tradeoffs involved.

Steve with his marketing for a sustainability NGO and lobbying in Johannesburg creates more social value then David with his track team and caligraphy lessons. Could you explain in what way you feel that case study doesn't make sense?

I wasn't making claims about social value here, but basing the "doesn't make sense" on the fact that a number of people I showed this blog post reached the opposite conclusion (namely, David is more impressive than Steve). See the comments on this Facebook post for instance.

On the question of social value, it's relatively clear that David's work has low social value. Any value that arises is largely through direct consumption and/or building stamina or general character traits that could be useful later, rather than the specific skills obtained. I do agree that Steve's work has higher social value in magnitude in expectation. Whether the social value is actually high in magnitude, and whether it is positive or negative, would depend on much greater knowledge of what exactly the NGO does than is provided in that post.

I think innovation is quite important for a productive society. That often means simply doing something with focus and seeing where it leads you.

My point is that the correlation between what seems impressive and what is actually valuable may not be sufficiently high. And the failed simulation effect is partly to blame.

I do agree that the bulk of high-value activities need some measure of innovation. But the bulk of innovative activities probably don't produce much value, and the bulk of impressive activities probably don't produce much value.

I don't think Newport follows Kant in that regard. Wanting to increaes the amount of people who are capable of innovation is not the same thing as saying everyone should be innovative.

That was poor phrasing on my part. My point stands even if not everybody follows Newport's advice. My point was that, insofar as the advice is a way of doing better on the college admissions process, it is the case that if more people follow the advice, the competitive advantage to the first few people who tried it is reduced. It doesn't have to be everybody (or even close), it just has to be enough people to form a significant chunk of the top applicants to top colleges. [SOME EDITS MADE IN THIS PARA]

That paragraph is really ironic. You start by saying that Cal follows the standard set of constraints and then end by complaining that he doesn't value having something to replace grades.

I'm not interested in replacing grades for the sake of it. I do think that self-calibration is a serious problem for self-learners. In the context of people pursuing mainstream academics, they can be somewhat misguided about how well they understood material, but not too much. But when pursuing something novel, the level of miscalibration can be pretty severe. High school students also often lack the overall knowledge base that older people (generally) have that would serve as reality checks on their thinking. So more conscious effort is needed on their part if they're doing something unusual. This also includes conscious effort into understand the mainstream systems that they are navigating and to some extent bypassing.

My own Quantified Self involvement completely meets the standards of Newports impressiveness/innovation category.

I don't have enough knowledge of the domain to evaluate the impressiveness or innovativeness of your accomplishments in the area. I do expect it to be higher, in expectation, than from salsa dancing.

but basing the "doesn't make sense" on the fact that a number of people I showed this blog post reached the opposite conclusion (namely, David is more impressive than Steve). See the comments on this Facebook post for instance.

It would be interesting to study this in more detail. If you interview college admissions people I think it would be good to ask them with of the two people they would prefer.

But the bulk of innovative activities probably don't produce much value

Most startups fail. That doesn't mean that starting a startup isn't an activity with high social value.

Ancient Greece had their version of the steam engine that was build to impress people. They didn't get economic value out of it, but the desire to build something to impress produced innovative thinking. A lot of innovation comes out of exploring a subject and simply trying to do something impressive.

Seeking to do things that are impressive produces memetic diversity. You want to have a society with people with diverse skill sets.

Having done QS effects the way I think about biological issues. I'm not "better" like your average biology student but there are a lot of average biology students that aren't very distinct in their skill set. The low hanging fruit that you can pick with that particular skill set is picked.

Having an unusual skillset means that there might be things that are low hanging fruit for yourself but not for the average person in a field.

As answer to your recent post about biomedical research, CasioTheSane writes:

I would only recommend getting into the field if you have a strong passion for solving medical problems, and have some clear ideas about how you will attack these problems very differently than others already working on them.

Steve is more likely to tackle problems differently then the people who already work in a field than Dave. To the extend that I want to make strategic choices that encourage innovation, I want more people with the kind of mindset that Steve has.

In the context of people pursuing mainstream academics, they can be somewhat misguided about how well they understood material, but not too much.

That not true. There are studied engineers who sign petitions that there's no way the world trade center collapsed due to planes flying into it because they can't see how the plane flying into the building would make the building collapse. They expect too much that the real world behaves like their textbook problems. The real world is complex and things happen for complicated reasons.

People with strong statistics education often make the mistake of assuming that real life phenomena are normally distributed. I once read that a company engaged in bookmaking bets rather hired physics people than studied statistics folks because the statistics folks too much expect that real world problems are structured like textbook problems.

Instead of teaching to always use functions that are protected against SQL injections like Java's prepared statements one of my tutors in the database lectures told us that sometimes using prepared statements might be more time efficient and sometimes using string concatenations might be more time efficient. He suggest that one is supposed to see which of the two alternatives are more effective for a particular software that you want to write. That's incredibly bad advice from a software engineering standpoint.

If Steve writes applications for internships to a bunch of companies he has feedback in terms of the responses he gets. Most projects have internal feedback. In my own QS involvement there was never really a time of not knowing what to do but there were time where doing something like calling up a place to ask whether they would provide a room for a meetup was very challenging and I therefore procrastinated the task.

Most startups fail. That doesn't mean that starting a startup isn't an activity with high social value.

This depends on the extent to which a startup's success can be predicted in advance. My impression is that startup accelerators and venture capitalists do a reasonable job of predicting the set of startups that are likely to succeed. If a startup is in the threshold where a venture capitalist or accelerator considers them fundable, then yes, I think the activity has high social value in expectation, even if it ends up failing.

Ancient Greece had their version of the steam engine that was build to impress people. They didn't get economic value out of it, but the desire to build something to impress produced innovative thinking. A lot of innovation comes out of exploring a subject and simply trying to do something impressive.

I would be interested in a more detailed analysis of the value produced by innovative thinking in such historical contexts. At the same time, it seems the case to me that if there is a choice between something socially valuable and something that's not, then ceteris paribus, the more socially valuable thing is preferable.

In the context of people pursuing mainstream academics, they can be somewhat misguided about how well they understood material, but not too much.

That['s] not true.

There could certainly be a disconnect between their academic understanding and their ability to deal with real-world phenomena that apply that academic understanding. My comment was more about their level of understanding with the specific academic realm. That said, I do think many people don't learn even the material they are directly learning well enough. I've linked in the past to Eric Mazur's video on physics teaching as am example.

Steve is more likely to tackle problems differently then the people who already work in a field than Dave. To the extend that I want to make strategic choices that encourage innovation, I want more people with the kind of mindset that Steve has.

Do you have the impression that people who design marketing materials for nonprofits are in general more likely to think out of the box than people who can learn a complicated subject such as Japanese calligraphy?

I would be mildly inclined in Steve's favor based on what's known in the post, but I don't think the information as presented is strong enough to make a very strong case for one candidate.

The people I know anecdotally who did more of the Steve sort of stuff in high school don't seem to have accomplished notably more in adult life than the people who did more of the Dave sort of stuff. This could be due to small sample size or selection bias in my sample.

I would be interested in a more detailed analysis of the value produced by innovative thinking in such historical contexts. At the same time, it seems the case to me that if there is a choice between something socially valuable and something that's not, then ceteris paribus, the more socially valuable thing is preferable.

A good general book on the topic would innovation would be Jane Jacobs "The Economy of Cities".

When doing something very innovative it's often very hard to predict social impact. That's partly because it's innovative. You don't know what you are going to get. You don't really know how things are going to be useful.

Two years ago I would have predict that the knowledge gained through QS by this day would be higher. That it's easier to get more people to gather meaningful data. I still learned a bunch of things that I wouldn't have predict I would learn.

Do you have the impression that people who design marketing materials for nonprofits are in general more likely to think out of the box than people who can learn a complicated subject such as Japanese calligraphy?

I don't think calligraphy is complicated. It fairly straightforward. It's hard and you have to practice but I don't see where it's complicated. It's always clear what the next step happens to be to get better at it.

Sending resumees to a bunch of non-profits till one accepts you isn't something that most people do.

He not only created marketing materials but attended various UN summits and interacted face-to-face in that enviroment with a lot of high status politicians.

I think it's teaches a more broad perspetive to discuss political issues if you actually talked with the people who are responsible at high stakes political summits.

There could certainly be a disconnect between their academic understanding and their ability to deal with real-world phenomena that apply that academic understanding. My comment was more about their level of understanding with the specific academic realm.

You don't go to school to be good at school. You go to school to learn skills to do something outside of school. The grades you get at school don't measure your real world skills directly. They are a proxy.

The people I know anecdotally who did more of the Steve sort of stuff in high school don't seem to have accomplished notably more in adult life than the people who did more of the Dave sort of stuff. This could be due to small sample size or selection bias in my sample.

I have to admit that I don't have enough have a sample to make definite conclusions.