Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

by Greg McKeown  |  10:00 AM August 8, 2012

Why don't successful people and organizations automatically become very successful? One important explanation is due to what I call "the clarity paradox," which can be summed up in four predictable phases:
Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.
Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.
Curiously, and overstating the point in order to make it, success is a catalyst for failure.
We can see this in companies that were once darlings of Wall Street, but later collapsed. In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins explored this phenomenon and found that one of the key reasons for these failures was that companies fell into "the undisciplined pursuit of more." It is true for companies and it is true for careers.
Here's a more personal example: For years, Enric Sala was a professor at the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. But he couldn't kick the feeling that the career path he was on was just a close counterfeit for the path he should really be on. So, he left academia and went to work for National Geographic. With that success came new and intriguing opportunities in Washington D.C. that again left him feeling he was close to the right career path, but not quite there yet. His success had distracted him. After a couple of years, he changed gears again in order to be what he really wanted: an explorer-in-residence with National Geographic, spending a significant portion of his time diving in the most remote locations, using his strengths in science and communications to influence policy on a global scale. (Watch Enric Sala speak about his important work at TED). The price of his dream job was saying no to the many good, parallel paths he encountered.

What can we do to avoid the clarity paradox and continue our upward momentum? Here are three suggestions:
First, use more extreme criteria. Think of what happens to our closets when we use the broad criteria: "Is there a chance that I will wear this someday in the future?" The closet becomes cluttered with clothes we rarely wear. If we ask, "Do I absolutely love this?" then we will be able to eliminate the clutter and have space for something better. We can do the same with our career choices.
By applying tougher criteria we can tap into our brain's sophisticated search engine. If we search for "a good opportunity," then we will find scores of pages for us to think about and work through. Instead, we can conduct an advanced search and ask three questions: "What am I deeply passionate about?" and "What taps my talent?" and "What meets a significant need in the world?" Naturally there won't be as many pages to view, but that is the point of the exercise. We aren't looking for a plethora of good things to do. We are looking for our absolute highest point of contribution.


Enric is one of those relatively rare examples of someone who is doing work that he loves, that taps his talent, and that serves an important need in the world. His main objective is to help create the equivalent of National Parks to protect the last pristine places in the ocean — a significant contribution.
Second, ask "What is essential?" and eliminate the rest. Everything changes when we give ourselves permission to eliminate the nonessentials. At once, we have the key to unlock the next level of our lives. Get started by:
  • Conducting a life audit. All human systems tilt towards messiness. In the same way that our desks get cluttered without us ever trying to make them cluttered, so our lives get cluttered as well-intended ideas from the past pile up. Most of these efforts didn't come with an expiration date. Once adopted, they live on in perpetuity. Figure out which ideas from the past are important and pursue those. Throw out the rest.
  • Eliminating an old activity before you add a new one. This simple rule ensures that you don't add an activity that is less valuable than something you are already doing.
Third, beware of the endowment effect. Also known as the divestiture aversion, the endowment effect refers to our tendency to value an item more once we own it. One particularly interesting study was conducted by Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler (published here) where consumption objects (e.g. coffee mugs) were randomly given to half the subjects in an experiment, while the other half were given pens of equal value. According to traditional economic theory (the Coase Theorem), about half of the people with mugs and half of the people with pens will trade. But they found that significantly fewer than this actually traded. The mere fact of ownership made them less willing to part with their own objects. As a simple illustration in your own life, think of how a book on your shelf that you haven't used in years seems to increase in value the moment you think about giving it away.

Tom Stafford describes a cure for this that we can apply to career clarity: Instead of asking, "How much do I value this item?" we should ask "If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?" And the same goes for career opportunities. We shouldn't ask, "How much do I value this opportunity?" but "If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?"

If success is a catalyst for failure because it leads to the "undisciplined pursuit of more," then one simple antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less. Not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials. Not just once a year as part of a planning meeting, but constantly reducing, focusing and simplifying. Not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but being willing to cut out really terrific opportunities as well. Few appear to have the courage to live this principle, which may be why it differentiates successful people and organizations from the very successful ones.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Notes for Graduate Students (From a Chinese PI)

Notes for Graduate Students
(Revised by September 12, 2002)

l  Progress
l  Efficiency
l  Quality
l  Quantity
l  Originality and novelty
l  Independence


l  Coordinate with colleagues for the usage of equipments, space and reagents, etc.
l  Active interactions with advisor and colleagues
l  Presentation in lab meetings: treat your every presentation as a publication
l  Be in lab meetings on time and active involvement in the discussion
l  Response to advice appropriately
l  No one is a monster in this lab.

Working as a professional scientist

l  Do you have your working model?
l  Include appropriate controls in EVERY experiment
l  Independently think and design of experiments
l  Knowledge on your field
l  Read at least two original research papers per week
l  If you disagree with your advisor, speak out!
There is absolutely NO experiment that does not have a conclusion
There is absolutely NO project that does not have a conclusion
A tough project does not mean a gradually disappearing or forgettable project
l  Take care about your plants; take actions before they die or flower in tissue culture media
l  Use equipments and reagents in a professional way


l  Record everything you have done, including negative results; photography is essential
l  Data analysis and conclusions
l  Discussion, comments and plans for future experiments
l  Record your data, even if you do not like them
l  Notes of seminars and paper readings

Working as a dedicated scientist
l  As a scientist, you must dedicate everything to this business
l  Working time: 8-hour is unpractical. There is NO way for a scientist or a Ph.D student to work only 8 hours a day!
l  Go to your mother’s house for afternoon naps and never come back!
l  Vacation: 5 weeks per year (Chinese New Year, the May Day and the National Day breaks are included)
l  Start your morning work not later than 8:30 am and afternoon work no later than 1 pm
l  Surf over the Internet for non-scientific purposes should be less than 30 min a day
l  Reading newspapers should be limited less than 30 min a day
l  Novels or other non-scientific journals/magazines are not permitted in the lab and office
l  If you are absent from the lab more than one hour, get permission first.
l  Everyone has personal business, but the lab business always has priority unless in emergency
l  In this business, an “average” student who works seven days a week is definitely more productive than a “genius” who works five days a week
l  If you are able to make any major progresses by working 8 hours a day and 5 days a week, every fortunate in this world must be on your side!

Your Efforts

l  What is your career plan?
l  How much efforts you have made?
l  It is the shared responsibilities of your advisor and yourself to move a project forward
l  You should have great concentrations on your project
l  There is no easy way to get your Ph.D. degree unless hard working
l  You should know how to use major database (e.g., NCBI and TARI) but rather than an expert on SINA, SOHU or any other non-scientific websites
l  If you cannot pass the English Test, you are partially disqualified as a Ph.D. candidate in this lab.
l  The US definition for graduate students: those who can survive and colonize on the minimal medium with vender machines as the sole carbon source in the absence of dental insurance!
l  You are working neither for your parents, your parents’ neighbors, nor your friends to solely earn a “glorious” name (Ph.D. degree) per se. You are working for your own career!
l  Working-hard before 30-year-old is the best way to prevent suffers after turning 30
l  We are NOT writers or any other non-research professionals
l  A real scientist needs a logic rather than romantic way to think!


Use your brains: think and work smartly

l  A good graduate student is not a robot
l  A good graduate student always knows what he/she is doing and what he/she has done
l  A good graduate student always scientifically goes beyond what he/she has been “advised”
l  A good graduate student must independently think about the project and read the data as well as catch hints derived from the data

l  You should learn and eventually know how to interpret your data
l  You should learn and eventually know how to write a paper or a progress report in a professional and logic way
l  You should be capable of tackling technical troubles by smartly using references and by discussing with coworkers
l  If you use your brain, you should be able to avoid unnecessary, stupid mistakes or to avoid making the same mistakes more than once. Many of such mistakes cannot be rescued by money (e.g., the loss of mutant seeds)
l  Mistakes resulted from brain- or thinking-less actions are not tolerated
l  Making mistakes with similar natures more than once is not tolerated

Your qualifications for a Ph.D. degree will be judged based on these criteria, which are the keys to differentiate you from a technician.

[FYI: The lab's link]