The List #15

Welcome to another edition of The List. The List is a curated list of my favorite things from the past week. Articles, videos, podcasts -- the media always changes but the unifying characteristic is that I loved whatever I end up sharing.

1. Advanced Tricycling by Merlin Mann

I look forward to new Merlin Mann talks like most kids look forward to Christmas morning. I'm an unapologetic fan of what Merlin does and how he thinks about what doing great work looks like. This is his latest talk about what it means to get better at something and how to even know what you're supposed to be getting better at.

2. Looking at Productivity as a State of Mind by Sendhil Mullainanthan (NYT)

Factories imposed discipline. They enforced strict work hours. There were rules for when you could go home and for when you had to show up at the beginning of your shift. If you arrived late you could be locked out for the day. For workers being paid piece rates, this certainly got them up and at work on time. You can even see something similar with the assembly line. Those operations dictate a certain pace of work. Like a running partner, an assembly line enforces a certain speed.

As Professor Clark provocatively puts it: “Workers effectively hired capitalists to make them work harder. They lacked the self-control to achieve higher earnings on their own.”

A provocative and fascinating idea about the Industrial Revolution -- and I think it has merit. There's something to be said for the external pressures that force us to work hard and have discipline. When I talk to independent workers one of the things I hear most commonly is how difficult it is to be productive and do great work when working from home and/or for yourself.

It seems to me that the future of work is a matter of finding the balance between the oppressive yet highly productive paradigm of the Industrial Revolution-era factory and the incredibly autonomous yet completely structure-less la-la land of independent knowledge work. Building external pressure into your work day while also allowing for autonomy is a delicate and important balance.

3. Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away by Clay Shirky (Medium)

If I ever teach in a college setting, I'm going to make this article required reading on day one. It's the best argument I've heard for why laptops should be put away during most college classes. I've always felt that it was important for students to be treated like adults and if we wanted to use our computers in class then we should be able to. However, Shirky makes some points that makes me realize it's more complex than that:

"The fact that hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract was the first thing that made me willing to require rather than merely suggest that students not use devices in class. There are some counter-moves in the industry right now — software that takes over your screen to hide distractions, software that prevents you from logging into certain sites or using the internet at all, phones with Do Not Disturb options — but at the moment these are rear-guard actions. The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose."


"Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK, and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers. In an environment like this, students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that structure is disproportionately provided by the professor, especially during the first weeks of class."

If you're a professor, I'd love to hear what your take is on this article and your own policy for computers in class. If you're a student, this article might make you think about your computer usage in a new light as well.

Photo by Katherine Lim