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Focus has become more valuable than intelligence (2018) (alexand.ro)
571 points by alexandroo on Dec 29, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 213 comments

As someone that is "on the spectrum," I can report that focus can be pretty awesome. I generate vast amounts of code, in relatively short time, and am an insanely obsessive debugger.

However, it don't come for free. If I get "roused" from my "fugue" (what I call "the zone"), I can be cranky. This has not always been helpful in my marriage.

Also, I find that I can be "vocabularily challenged" for a few minutes after I break out, sounding like a complete moron; struggling for the most basic terminology. "Whatchacallit" is one of my most-uttered phrases.

I have been experiencing exactly this in the last 10 years without being aware it was a side effect of high focus.

10 years ago I was really bad at studying, then I had a peak of low self esteem, believing I was not intelligent. Ready to give up uni, my GF suggested I'd give myself only one more opportunity.

So I started studying like it was the very last time I'd do it. Like, in an angry state, like I was demonstrating to myself no matter how hard, it was useless.

This is how I discovered my brain only had a "fast gear", and the "slow gear" that normal people used was basically not working for my brain.

I breezed through all my exams, got a series of cool jobs and promotions, now I own my company and sell my own software to Fortune 50 companies.

The side effect of operating at peak concentration levels is becoming socially impaired, and verbally inept exactly like Chris Marshall above described. This has non trivial social consequences.

The amazing thing here is that I just thought I was getting older and grumpier. But now I understand it's in fact tied to the focus. Thanks Chris, now I know what it is, and maybe I can try to tune it down for a period to see what happens.

Does this resonate with anyone else? Is there any studies on this?

I’ve had a similar experience over the past few years — a ton of work focus (at a FAANGM as an ML scientist/engineer) combined with limited social interaction and I’ve noticed my ability to have normal social interactions has declined greatly (“verbally inept” and “difficulty with empathy” pretty much hit it on the head). There’s potentially confounding factors in my case so I’ve been hesitant to attribute it to overfocusing at work although I’ve considered it may be a cause.

In retrospect I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not really a worthwhile tradeoff and I’ve been pulling back from work a bit. To add to the larger discussion, I thought I was focusing on work for the right reasons (making a difference in the world, gaining skills, self-actualization) but after getting my “dream job” it turned out that it the job wasn’t very fulfilling at all. No technical challenge or abstract impact metrics really did much for my happiness (or money fwiw)... at the end of the day it’s still rewarding social interactions (which don’t necessarily _have_ to be outside of work) that control the needle for me.

It resonates with me from a different direction. Up until I've become a dad I could crank out vast amounts of code and dive very deep into a given topic relatively quickly, producing extensive results when being able to focus, but since then I have a strict schedule, can't easily say "I'm coming home a few hours later today" or things like that to conserve momentum, I feel my output drastically reduced.

I'm currently looking for ways to reorganize my way of working so I get a better output and require less compromises of my family.

I’ve found it extremely useful to keep a detailed log of my thoughts and ideas as I’m working on a problem that requires focus. It’s like a thread dump or memory dump of my thinking. Then, if I get interrupted for whatever reason, I can easily go back to the notes and “restore” from the thread dump.

This is a pretty good blog post I found on the subject: http://faq.sealedabstract.com/uninterruptible_programming_su... .

I’ve found various side benefits in addition to being able to focus in shorter time windows. For example:

- it’s useful for dealing with interruptions that are part of work too - e.g. if you’re helping teammates with different projects, or have to switch contexts for other reasons.

- it can be useful as an artifact of work. For example, you’ve spent a lot of time debugging a weird issue and you’re still not making progress, so you can use a second set of eyes. You can share your work notes with a coworker so they can immediately know what you’ve tried, what worked or didn’t, etc. In that context, I like to think of it as “offline pair programming”.

I feel the same. My attention span is half of what it was before I had a kid and learning new topics at work has significantly become harder. If you ever figure out a solution, I would love to hear it.

It resonates with me. I hit that once, at my 2nd year at university, as I was in a pretty bad emotional state which almost led me to drop off. Something clicked in my brain then, and I rebounded to extreme levels of drive and productivity (and a weird sense of humor). I nailed that year, went straight from "doesn't even attend classes" to the best student on the year. I earned a pretty good reputation with both my fellow students and faculty members alike. Unfortunately, the effect mostly went away the next year; I regressed to the mean, neither at my worst, nor at my best.

I'd really, really like to know how to enter that state again, and sustain it for longer.

Music helps for me. Try to listen music that makes you feel better. I can listen one track in the loop for the whole day and work.

I do that too, and sometimes this gives me bursts of exceptional productivity. But ultimately, it's just a pale shadow of what I had then, a whole year of sustained, exceptional productivity.

Have you changed caffeine consumption? You might be shocked how much of a difference that can make.

Changed in which direction?

I have definitely noticed this in myself and others - after coming out of an intense “in the zone” coding session I’m definitely more cranky and impulsive.

While this is strictly anecdotal, I do believe there is a tight correlation with focus, social and emotional intelligence. In the sense that if I devote all of my “brainpower” to solving a task, I do reduce my ability to understand social queues and other “left brain” stuff.

But as I’ve taken some time to understand my fellow humans better - deliberately putting myself in social situations and reading some great books about it, I’ve noticed the amount of energy required to “process other people” in my brain reducing greatly. This kinda gave me the ability to be pleasant even after doing some coding.

I can think about it like encountering an embedded language inside my templates or something. Like maybe javascript inside html templates.

If I feel comfortable with that language, I don’t even skip a beat, whereas if its something I’m not exactly fluent in, it gets me cranky - who put this in here and ruined its purity kinda feeling.

So it gets better with time, but I had to put deliberate effort into it.

Very much so. As a dev with ADHD, that focus knob is more external than most. But I definitely have noticed the phenomenon where deep focus and verbal/social fluency are rather orthogonal.

I’m interested in how this social breakdown might affect the role of being a scientist. I would think explaining results would be a critical role of your job.

>No technical challenge or abstract impact metrics really did much for my happiness (or money fwiw)

It resonates with me from a different perspective. I can't speak to the technical accomplisments -- I had a mundane tech job -- but I was making nearly 100k in total comp in my mid-20s in a low COL region, and my job was difficult for me. I know this isn't a lot of cash to many here, but it was a lot to me coming from being homeless at 18. However, my life took a bad turn, unfortunately. I had some unbelievable aggressions and weird things happen to me, and I left my job. I remember my history teacher saying of the past "If I was there, I would have done something about it," and yet all everyone told me at this time was something like "You need to stand up for yourself." I think most people today are just like they were back then, even if we are not burning people alive for witch craft, we still sometimes bully people under the name of pretexts and for unacceptable reasons. I then quit, left to try to play one of the most popular online games professionally (I was ranked #40ish at the time). I was really unhappy despite the intense competition and supposed fun and excitement of it. So finally, after that, I started travelling the world. The thing is, I started feeling like I was in heaven. When you travel, it's so easy to make friends and meet so many people in a setting where you are incentivized to share good memories, and not in a rat race or a "keeping up with the Jones's-type" of neighborhood, university or other setting. I mean, maybe it's that I am like a pariah or witch or otherwise bullied person and I dealt with a lot of extreme bullying that destroyed my social life and this contrasted with anything would be good. But I think it's also a lot about what you are saying: it's positive social interactions that really make us happy. I mean, I wouldn't wish my life on anyone, but I somehow found an amazing life out of it this way amidst all of the aggression and chaos.

Thanks for sharing that.

Because of things that don't apply here, I am privileged to constantly be around many folks that have overcome great challenges.

I am at the point in life, where personal happiness is much much more important than money, property or prestige.

I think we agree, but there are disadvantages. One is the power thing. "Your rights are theoretical until you have 100M" and a lot of people treat you differently depending on your wealth and status. That said, we know that's not the world we want to find ourselves in, but sometimes it is unavoidable. I know there is some balance, and that I am at some risk not joining into the rat race.

> This has non trivial social consequences.

I've been learning to apply my ability to focus toward feelings, and the internal states of others. (To the point that I am grumpy to be removed from this flow state also.) This has allowed me to glean insight and deeper meaning into the social lives of my friends, and connect at a slower, deeper level than I could achieve simply with rapid banter. (Which I too am increasingly less capable of as I grow older; now in my mid-30s. I'm slow enough to respond now that people I converse with must think I'm on drugs. I've never done any.)

It is said that few remember exactly what is said in a conversation, but everyone remembers what is felt. If you can use flow to plan and practice the right feelings and feeling-responses, the eloquence of the words you say in the moment does not matter so much.

It is also sometimes stated that "on-the-spectrum"-ness is correlated with heightened sensitivity to emotions. I'm fairly certain that is true for me. If it is for you too, flow is your chance to exploit that trait.

(Probably not applicable to you but maybe applicable to others: I experience ASMR, and use that gift to semi-regularly reset my emotions to a positive state. I utilize that wellspring of good feelings to support my emotional investment in others: it's easier to care about others when you are happy yourself.)

Also, I rarely enter flow for work-work these days. It's rarely needed and sometimes counterproductive for the daily Jira-bug-squashing routine (writing copious notes works better for me), and nearly impossible to maintain in an open office setting. I save it for rare sessions of innovation, and for hobby work.

I have also experienced that. If feels like there direction-less flow of thoughts about a lot of things and nothing to focus on.

I got help from Vivekananda's books. He mentions that the ability to concentrate is the only difference between humans and animals.

And the degree of focus determines success in human life.

But he warns that learning the ability to focus without learning how to completely get out of the mind-thought complex is like going inside a complex maze without the map.

His books are quite small and can be finished in a few hours. Worth reading.

Personally speaking, coming up from deep focus tends to put me in an anxious state and sometimes gives me minor panic attacks.

If anyone reading this is in the same boat, I’d like to pass along some simple advice that a friend gave me: get up and go for a quick vigorous run around the block. I’ve found this to be a very effective way to reset.

I find that about 3 hours of focus followed by an hour of defocus gives closer to optimal results. The defocus time (say, noodling around the net) gives my subconscious time to reconsider the assumptions I was using during the focus time thereby less often going racing down a blind alley.

Are you on the spectrum as well? If so, then I might be too. I have the exact same thing with focus. If you don’t want to reply pubicly, then send me an email.

This makes a lot of sense. I get glimpses of that, particularly when taking stress as seriously as I can. Interacting with others, sharing personal responsibility or unneeded comfort pulls me out of it. Thanks for the anecdote!

> I generate vast amounts of code, in relatively short time

But is it good code?

And I don't mean your code personally, but more in general. I've known people who are able to focus alright but then what they produce -be it code or anything else- is rather mediocre. I knew this person that would get on his workbench, and spend the whole morning in a flash, not noticing anything around him. He has a fairly large collection of rather unimaginative pieces in wood.

Recently, in a new team of programmers a fair number of them seem to be able to focus quite well. And they do produce "vast amounts of code" and it is some of the worst code I've ever seen. In fact, the fact itself that they are vast amounts seems like a detriment. They are proud that the project is some 5-6MLOCs big, but after some months of going through it about 25% of that, should just be trashed.

So yeah, focus is nice, but... being able to produce a lot doesn't necessarily mean you're producing anything particularly interesting, useful or good.

P.S. And, again, I don't mean you personally.

Excellent code.

My screen name here is also my GH handle. See for yourself.

> Also, I find that I can be "vocabularily challenged" for a few minutes after I break out, sounding like a complete moron; struggling for the most basic terminology. "Whatchacallit" is one of my most-uttered phrases.

Yes! Oh I am so glad I'm not the only one.

After spending several hours in the zone programming, I need to sit back and take a recognizance breather before I can speak in effective complete sentences again. It definitely feels like something actively changing in my brain when this happens. Some kind of awareness shift, or orientation shift.

It's like I need to reset from thinking in "parallel" to thinking in "serial" again -- parallel being random-access in a sense, able to go back and update an artifact piecemeal in independent locations, shifting back and forth quickly; while serial being a narrative sense, able to put together a full thought at a time and express it in words.

Re: your last paragraph. It's great to speak in a language that has a ubiquitous "whatchacallit" word. Not only can I use it as a noun, ("pass me the thing"), but even as a verb ("thing me the salt") or both ("thing me the thing")! Or indeed an adjective, adverb, or almost any grammatical function.

what's the language?

It's Portuguese, but many other languages have it. :p The term is "placeholder name". For an extreme example of it, see the Hawaian Creole "da kine".


How long are you cranky after you get broken out of it and how severe is the crankiness?

I've found if I get distracted while in the zone I'm frustrated by being interrupted, and any sort of attempt to converse is challenging because while my focus may have been forcibly shifted, it's like my brain is saying "hold up, I'm still working through these problems" and I'm only half present for people because I'm having parallel trains of thought.

This can last anywhere from minutes if the problem was a small relatively trivial thing to several hours if it's a much harder or larger scale problem.

I've noticed the same things! The same happens when I improvise piano. In addition, I cannot attach emotionally (empathy) to others for close to an hour.

I'm bilingual until I've been drowning in code all day, then I need a half-hour or my fluency is just gone and I struggle to understand my own family.

In my case, I have no problem parsing what my family is saying; it simply goes straight to /dev/null. I just can't engage with it.

> However, it don't come for free. If I get "roused" from my "fugue" (what I call "the zone"), I can be cranky. This has not always been helpful in my marriage.

I recognize this.

I figure we need to practice unfocusing as well as focusing. Being able to look closely at an issue is an important skill, but so is “zooming out” and seeing the bigger picture.

I absolutely get this and not just with code - modeling, deep reading, even some simulator style games.

I find my lingual knots tend to get worked out after a short while, but if I have been exceptionally deep focused I can get almost a focus hangover where the lingual hangups last a very long time.

I know most theories about tasks using only one hemisphere of the brain have been debunked but it does seem like language and some logic tasks can be at odds. I wonder if it extends into other things than language.

I don't think you need to be "on the spectrum" to experience what you described.

I might be spectrum but definitely have ADHD-i my wife has ADHD-h

Difference basically being I can only focus on one thing at a time (and the things connected to that thing), but I jump from 1-1-1-1 in a circular mode.

My wife is now like she's mentally got a rope on everything at once but never finishes any of the things in her focus because there's too many.

I guess in programming terms we both have focus issues but she's asynchronous and I'm only synchronus.

If I get bored or my mind wanders of task I end up on hn, Google, Reddit or doing anything that isn't work. Started taking meds a year ago at 39 and light and day difference when I'm on my Vyvanse.

Sometimes I front load a couple days worth of work (freelance by the hour),; I'll literally be up 48 hours and put in 24+ hours of work, insomnia is a side effect of Vyvanse, so I usually when I'm past me limit I'll go off the next day and catch up on sleep and family time and relax a little then the following day jump back in, though I don't always go full in for two days.

Trying to not kill myself cause I have kids, but I work best when everyone is asleep anyways.

No. It's just common for us. A lot of us are also completely undiagnosed. Programming/engineering is a fairly natural habitat for people like us.

Anyone that can get into "the zone" is probably eligible.

I was a manager for many moons. That's really unusual for folks like me. One of my top engineers was absolutely brilliant. Verbally, he was rather reticent, but he could wax eloquent in emails, and his designs were exquisite. He had a high school diploma. That was all.

I remember him sending a rewrite of an image processing filter back to Japan. The Ph.Ds there, had submitted a Monte Carlo-based filter, and he rewrote it with a modeling calculation that improved the performance 100X.

He also submitted the design as a PDF document.

With live Postcript code, generating the charts, using his simulations.

They were flabbergasted.

Sometimes, it's a good idea to let odd just be odd.

I totally relate to this and have often wondered if I might be on the spectrum slightly. I also identify as a socially anxious person and being in the zone is somehow therapeutic..

Reading this thread, so many things apply to me, too.

When I am deep in the zone, I am thinking in... pictures? not really, more like structures and graphs; they don't have colors, but they are connected. And then at a random moment my manager interrupts me to ask for a short summary of current status of the other project I was working on yesterday. For a few seconds I am like when Windows is swapping, because my mind is full of this nonverbal content that has to be thrown away, which means losing many minutes of work, but unless I do it I am unable to provide a coherent verbal answer. I gradually return to the real world, try to remember what was yesterday, find the right words... meanwhile my manager is getting impatient about why it takes me so long to answer such simple question.

Trying to answer before my brain fully reboots leads to imcomplete responses like "uhm, I was fixing this bug with that thing that went wrong" -- "which bug? which thing? can't you speak normally?" -- "uhm, the... what made the problem on the... front end... when the button... when the guy who wanted the report pressed the button... and it didn't return a correct result because it was asynchronously called, and..." -- "okay, why don't you simply say 'I was fixing the bug with asynchronous report generation'?" -- "uhm, yes, that's exactly what I wanted to say" -- "then speak more clearly". Yeah, like it's so easy. Well, maybe it is for a normie, I don't know.

Working in open space is already full of distractions. Someone is talking, someone has a phone call, someone is walking around... The schedule: there will be a meeting, daily stand-up, regular one-on-one meeting, lunch, some report from higher management, and this lesson on safety or compliance I need to complete before the end of the week, I need to update JIRA and also my daily attendance. The knowledge that "within one hour I will have to abandon my work and do something else" is already distracting long before the moment actually comes. Plus an avalanche of e-mails, most of them unimportant to me, but I have to read them all to find out whether I can just safely delete them. An instant messaging application, which in theory is for urgent work, but in practice people keep posting all kinds of stuff. (Why do you need to post dozen updates about the upcoming Christmas party? Why do I get dozen notification about all the "thanks the party was great" responses?)

Then it's five o'clock, people go home, the large room becomes empty and quiet... well, in the past this would be my peak productivity time, but these days I have kids so I get up and return home, too. (No, I can't simply come later and leave later, because we have the daily standups in the early morning.) So, now that I have kids, my total productivity has dropped visibly.

I try to keep written log of my thoughts while working, and yes it helps a lot. Still not the same as having a day in a silent room without interruptions.

I was never officially diagnosed with anything, because when I was a kid we didn't get tested for these things. People like me were simply "not paying attention" or "not trying hard enough". Which is kinda true; I am quite lazy when unmotivated, and I find it almost impossible to pay attention to boring things. (It's just so easier to get motivated when I am not distracted by endless communication.) Anyway, my kids are diagnosed on the spectrum, so it seems quite likely to me that I would have been too.

This is be except it drove me semi suicidal as in I was depressed and thinking or wishing I was dead but not at attempt level yet.

I just had a kid and had another in the way. I told my wife about it and we agreed I should get some therapy.

My therapist deemed I have ADHD inattentive or what used to be ADD. I talked to my Dr and got on Vyvanse, I also went to gym and lost 50 lbs. I don't do therapy any more. I don't know if talking and thinking about things helped but I somehow learned to cope.

But the meds do help me stay in a more focused and alert frame of mind.

I don't feel broken anymore. I still get off topic and focus on the wrong things sometimes but I can be productive when I really want to be and get a ton more shit done.

I'm also convinced I'm on spectrum but therapist didn't really want to go there or test for it. Not sure if that would have changed anything.

Congratulations on finding a solution that works for you!

> I'm also convinced I'm on spectrum but therapist didn't really want to go there or test for it. Not sure if that would have changed anything.

I really don't like this "you don't need to know what exactly is your problem" attitude, that often comes from psychologists. But that would be a long rant. Here are some hypothetical benefits from knowing that you have a specific diagnosis X, whether autism or anything else:

- maybe you could apply for disability benefits (probably not, but at least you would know what exactly to ask);

- you could find a support group for people with X;

- you could exchange information (in the support group or online) about what helps or what hurts people with the same problem;

- you could read scientific research or popular books, ask an expert by e-mail, etc.;

- you could find out the chance that your kids get X, how to find out whether that is the case, and how to help them.

There's so much middle-class context assumed in this piece I don't know where to begin. What if, for starters, you have a family and the responsibilities that come with it? "I'm only going to focus on my passion from now on" will probably lead to homelessness in pretty quick time unless you have a nest-egg to burn through while you reach profitability.

What if you're in your 50s and stuck in a low paid job with a wife to take care of? What if you have a disability? The point I'm making is that a lot of life's time-sinks/distractions are non-negotiable and one life varies drastically from another in terms of how much freedom one has to pursue one's passion. Those who shout loudest that money doesn't matter are usually the ones who have plenty.

In the author's middle-class world there are always other options to what you're doing at any point in time. Unfortunately this isn't a universal given. A lot of people are stuck with massive amounts of debt just trying to survive and live from one paycheck to the next. In this context pursuing one's passion is sadly not an option if you want to be able to keep up your rent payments.

I think maybe a good way to describe it is a hierarchy of priorities.

The examples you give, taking care of a wife, family responsibilities etc... are in your words "non-negotiable." Which I interpret as required to be maintained as top priority irrespective of all other wants, needs and desires. Each of those examples however, except for having a disability, is truly a choice in terms of priority.

I think most people would argue that it is unconscionable to abandon a family or ailing spouse to "follow their dreams," however it's surprisingly common to see. That's not to defend it, but simply to point out that it is done and with surprising frequency, by people who you probably admire.

Someone quoted Bukowski on here recently, as giving some insight into the mind of someone who is fully invested in something, and I think it's apropos for this discussion:

"If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don't even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench...etc [1]"

It sounds like your suggesting that people are actively making that "all-in investment" in what you describe as non-negotiables.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/13275.Charles_Bukows...

Whatever happened to living a balanced life and the satisfaction of fulfilling a responsibility? It may not be fashionable but some view the follow-your-passion cult as shallow and self-centered.

Maybe I didn't make my point clear. The concept here is that, everyone has something that they prioritize - even if not explicitly.

So writing something like "Whatever happened to living a balanced life and the satisfaction of fulfilling a responsibility?" suggests that the primary priority you think is being under-emphasized is "living a balanced life."

This is very similar to the popular philosophy of "diversity of experience" being the ultimate priority, which is a remixed version of the classical philosophy of hedonism [1] (not to be confused with the modern interpretation which only focuses on sexual pleasure).


Middle class doesn't always mean well off. I'd consider myself middle-class but have zero savings and rent because my income is never certain (freelancer).

I also get bored with client work so when I do get a nest egg or bills together I work on side projects hoping one gets me to ramen profitability (ideally a little more than ramen 2-3k/month mrr would be nice).

I've got a family now (2 kids under 3), been married 14 years just kids weren't easy to get (lots of ivf and shit jobs for the free ivf), I was struggling over summer with no clients, and now my clients are not great pay wise (35/hour vs 60/hr what I'd like to make vs 100/hr what a lot of freelance devs claim they earn), so I've been putting in 60+ hours per week to catch up on bills and had to borrow 8k from family to make monthly bills over the summer.

I live in rural Utah near wife's family and her mom is really sick so moving isn't an option so freelance or remote is my only option.

I'm tempted to try and get a remote job with benefits cause it would be a lot easier just to be on salary again but I hate interviewing.

I feel exhausted by this cycle of ups and downs financially. Thought I'd own a home by now.

I guess things are better than ten years ago though. I weighed 260 lbs more than I do now. I wasn't a developer (seo marketer), I earned under 10/hr. Learned to develop in 2012/2013 started hr Dev work in 2013, changed my life. I'm on the right trajectory just feel lost from time to time with what I should be doing to move up and not down.

It may be better to say the ability to concentrate is of benefit.

If you have a higher level of focus, you'll take a step back when someone says or does something harmful, and be able to communicate effectively in a mature and kind way. This can improve your relationship. The benefits are not just work.

If you have concentration, you can setup a 1 hour block a day first thing in the morning, and work on a goal every day, instead of futzing around. You can go to bed on time easier too, because mental habits are more malleable with focus and awareness.

I can keep going on. The benefits seep into your every day life, regardless if you're on the street or a billionaire.

This is why mindfulness meditation has become so popular, and in late why lsd was so popular, because both increase focus and concentration, as well as increase awareness into what is important so you can better achieve your goals even if it is only working towards it 5 minutes a day. It's no secret you need a minimum amount of focus to succeed in life. Sure, it's only an ingredient, not the whole dish, but it, like oil, is an important base ingredient.

Pursuing one's passion can indeed lead you to ruin, and did so to many people.

But concentrating on something you're good at, and not spreading yourself too thin, is a pretty solid advice, middle class or not. It is by doing 100 things and not becoming good at any of them you end up in poor state without viable options.

> What if you're in your 50s and stuck in a low paid job with a wife to take care of? What if you have a disability?

> Unfortunately this isn't a universal given. A lot of people are stuck with massive amounts of debt just trying to survive and live from one paycheck to the next

Where would one find statistics or some numbers regarding the above?

The Guardian (UK) has produced some pretty impressive research over the years but you'd have to search their archives.

I agree that focus is rare and critical, but I take issue with the closing paragraphs that suggest prioritizing focus over relationships.

What good is it to gain the whole world but have no one to enjoy it with? Of course this is simply another form of focus - choose which relationships to focus on. But putting intellectual pursuits above relationships is a lonely and foolish path, even if you achieve your dreams. If someone close to you suggests spending more time with them, you would be better served to listen to them than to cut them out of your life.

Yeah, suggesting the prioritization of focus over relationships is like suggesting the prioritization of focus over sleep or exercise. Or even of one area of focus (say, math) over another area of focus (say, knowledge of a specific codebase). You can do it, maybe situationally it will be the right thing to do... but any specific "greedy" focus choice is going to have some substantial costs.

If you're going to approach focus like an engineering problem, you probably want a minimax strategy: figure out what keeps you functioning/healthy and devote minimum adequate focus there, figure out the reward space you want to explore and devote near-maximum resources there. And leave a little bit of slack baked in for when attention is overscarce or for when you need perturbing input. Digital distractions can be that slack. Or they can be your dump stat (he says, while posting on HN :/ ... ).

Most people will find that a handful of close relationship plus some web of weak ties fit in both the "keeps you functioning" and "reward space" categories. Which both underscores the importance of relationships, and the challenge: you are probably going to have to balance frequent not-especially-rewarding maintenance work, and regular (but longer period) reward-space exploration, and feeding slack time to it.

You're describing a prioritization problem, not a focus one. Prioritize the items in your life and then put the proper focus on them. Also, and this is a big one now, actually focus on those items. When you're cultivating a relationship with someone else, don't have your focus on your phone or work. This ties into the common phrase about being present.

Also, for me it was more important to understand what NOT to focus on. Figuring out that which truly does not matter and letting it go is one of the most freeing things I have done. It's also a skill/tactic I see at all levels of life. The big picture of your whole life, then there is your work life, then there are work problems, then in jiu jitsu, etc... And the funny part is that people know bike-shedding exists and still do it day after day.

I disagree. Keeping focus is a basic biological function of brain. Healthy boundaries and respect are necessary for that. If your "partner" prevents that, relationship is toxic and will probably get even worse over time.

In other words, it is better to be alone, than with someone who ruins your mind and sleep.

Well don't have any kids then.

So from an evolutionary standpoint, focus might not be that important after all ;).

I have kids. Again it is about setting boundaries and respect.

Most people make mistake they start compromising very early for no reason, and when things get tough, they just get buried.

So how do you set the boundry when your baby starts crying in the middle of the night, or when your kid throws up in the bed? Let the wife handle it?

Both are orthognal. Prentending the contrary is just a way to find pride in deciding to be a geek who has no sex.

It is 2019, you do not need a relationship to have a sex.

Tell me more. How is this achieved? Do you mean sex workers? Or pornography? Or a real doll? Or what?

Because if I've learned one thing in my life it is that there is no sex without a relationship. Everything else is a sliding scale of masturbation.

The desire to pretend otherwise is a cause of significant misery for many people.

The point iz that you dont live to be focused. At best you are supposed to focus sporadically to have better life.

You do if you're under 35, male and ~<70th percentile in attractiveness. Which is a massive proportion of the tech world.

found the incel

But then you are not keeping focus of your relationship. Focus is not relegated to just your day job, you need to work and thus focus on your relationship consistently too

I think you can have both time to focus (work time) and time to interact with others (break time). I think using "focus" as an excuse to not interact with others may not be the most healthy way to live life.

I agree, it's scientifically proven that people who isolate themselves shorten their lifespan.

Also no man is an island. If you want to make that spaceship to Mars, you will not do it yourself. So that advice of cutting off ties in order to improve focus is terrible.

A better wording of that advice would be to re-focus on important and strategic relationships which benefits you and vice versa.

I think it's more nuanced than focus over relationships. After all, in each case, you can decide whether to invest more on this person or not.

It's healthy to know we're only human, and we should strive to build a few quality relationships that don't interfere with our life, and knowing when to say no otherwise!

> we should strive to build a few quality relationships that don't interfere with our life

Our relationships are our life. Our goals are just stories we've made up about ourselves

Are they? People are incredibly important, crucial to the life puzzle, but I'd disagree on it being the ultimate key.

Even though it's good to value friends and family (not arguing against this at all!), me time is needed too. Hobbies and other work you like.

Personally I believe there's a good amount of engaging with your acquaintances, and an excessive amount where you're just shuffling around between them, getting lost in those dynamics. In that case, there's probably a way to keep relationships growing naturally, with almost the same returns and much less time sunk.

That's one point of view. Perhaps the most common one, if literature is to believed. But it's just one; not everyone ticks like that. I don't. And I'm guessing the author of the article and their target audience doesn't either.

Don't remember where I picked that one up but I like the saying: There are very few challenges in life that couldn't be made easier to overcome by knowing the right people.

The problem with this type of advice is that the people who need it most will think: this makes me sad and thus this is exactly why I don't need to listen to other people.

I can only agree on that. For people interested in the topic, I would recommend reading Cal Newport's blog too.

Also, I intend to turn internet mostly off in 2020. By that I mean: - no 'checking' of any websites, no news. I will only use internet to search on specific topics I'm interested in - subscription to paper edition of Economist, to keep myself informed (albeit not in real time - what's the use of that anyway ?) - read interesting sites / blogs I subscribe to, once a week

I've tried this for 2 weeks once, and the effects on my mind were amazing - besides the obvious effects on concentration and work quality, I've also noticed that I actually do have plenty of free time !

I'm interested in this. How are you planning to execute your plan for 2020? Will power? or will you combine that with some kind of service or application to set some guide rails for yourself? Would love to hear the specifics!

No need for technology here. It's an addiction that many of us have. And I feel it got to a point it messes way too much with my brain. So yeah, only 'will power'.

Will power does not have a great track record in the "will power v addiction" war.

Fair point.

But it's an addiction that I think will be rather easy to get rid off (based on my previous experience) so I'm not planning anything very specific (other than the points I've listed).

Not OP, but here’s what I did:

* figured out the most valuable things I was reading: HN in moderation, 4-5 twitter accounts, the top posts on a few subreddits each week * siloed them. There are weekly top posts emails for hn (how I got here), tweetbot with an account following those 4-5, and a weekly email sent to myself with links for the top weekly posts on those subreddits * I check those periodically, usually at meals. I have a time tracker when doing so. * They’re blocked on my phone, with two levels of content blocking. Ios is bad at content blocking, but the two layers make it annoying enough I generally don’t use it. (Layers are: limit adult websites, which lets you block custom urls as well. 1blocker’s url blocking, which blocks in safari, my main browser. If either of those don’t work for you, Lockdown has url filtering at the vpn level)

So I’m not going cold turkey: I’ve gotten immense value from HN over the years. Stuff with no value I can easily go cold turkey on. But these other things, I’m reading in a managed wya, leaving more time for focus.

I had this sort of balance naturally when most of my internet was on a laptop. With the phone, I find the balance went out of wack and countermeasures were necessary. No phone is an option, but introduces a lot of frictions I’d rather not have.

I also put in positive tracking, like things I have to check off if I met certain goals. So replacing empty surfing with positive action, which naturally reduces the desire to surf.

I had this idea before that all feeds / suggestions etc. are evil (time waste) on the Internet. Only active search should be allowed. I hope someone makes a browser extension for that.

“Anathem” by Neal Stephenson describes monastic communities dedicated to studying mathematics.

I sometimes entertain an idea, if a similar monastic community can work in our world - assuming they would be less strict than in the book. Such isolated retreats would be beneficial for rebuilding focus, finding calm and comfort, without noisy distractions, so one could focus most of their time on studying mathematics.

Definitely, nowadays isolated monasteries would not be convenient for doing actual research, as the access to Internet is a must.

I've heard the Recurse Center is like that.

> What we do. The Recurse Center is a self-directed, community-driven educational retreat for programmers in New York City.


Does anyone have any experience with them?

I don’t, but Julia Evans does. She gave it rave reviews and wrote quite a bit about the experience. See the final paragraph here: https://jvns.ca/about/

It seems like a great experience, and if I were at a different stage of life I would likely pursue it.

She's where I heard about them :) Forgot to credit her by name.

I would gladly join something like this. I don't care about money, I just need about $50/day to survive where I live. I have notes on hundreds of inventions that may never see the light of day. I don't even have time to watch Khan Academy videos to refresh me on the college calculus I need to solve some of the equations. Because I've spent every day the last 20 years struggling to make rent and my passion is on life support.

I've honestly given up at this point. Without some kind of alternative to whatever all this is, I consider the startup world to be an evolutionary dead end. I give it a very solid vote of no confidence and consider it so far removed from the world that we could have made that it's now actively suppressing any kind of real innovation.

There is an example of a community like this in Turkey:


We already have such a concept, ever been to a remote research university grad school campus?

Isn't that tied to being a grad student or an academic teacher?

I wish there was something like this for random adults. I hate the structural assumption in our society that only people on the academic track are capable of doing deep intellectual work. Being in academia, or even in orbit of academia, comes with a lot of irrelevant responsibilities and spatial constraints, making it not cost-effective for someone who already ended up in the private sector.

I have not, but it sounds like it can be a good option :)

I have not. Can you name a few?

Oh my, this is literally my retirement plan.

If you find yourself spending too much time on social media-type or even general information consumption applications (like Redfin) on your phone, one simple step is to remove the native application from your phone. The mobile web for most of these are just janky enough to snap you out of your reverie.

Second, you can try changing your phone to grayscale. Lack of color may make use of your phone less appealing. iOS makes it relatively easy.


I tend to be a focused person, and like being focused. A couple of years ago I upgraded to a smart phone, mainly to get the larger screen (easier to read) and the speech-to-text feature (I hate pecking out a reply to a text).

I don't have WiFi enabled on the phone, have Cellular Data disabled, have never signed into my Google account (it's an Android phone), have Bluetooth and Location disabled, and have never downloaded any apps. It's a phone, period. I can't imagine having something in my pocket beeping and dinging at me all day long. It would drive me nuts and I'd never get anything done.

If I'm in the car and lost, I have a $100 Garmin GPS that works fine without having to load a bunch of crapps on my phone. Or someone is in the car with me and is quick to start navigating, which is even better.

Try disabling WiFi and Cell Data for part of the day. You might really like it!

Great suggestion!

I’ve said for years that one of the 20th century’s large problems was humans having to learn to live in a world of unlimited sugar, fat and salt.

One of the 21st century’s large problems is humans having to learn to live in a world of unlimited information.

Both problems involve overcoming our evolutionary programming to scarf up as much of what used be a limited resource as possible.

Solid observations. Do you have any suggestions/resources on how to live well with unlimited information? How do you decide what to absorb and what to ignore?

> A wasted day may lead to a wasted life

This smacks of anxiety and FOMO. Thinking like this would drive me absolutely paranoid. Life is much more stochastic than this.

Yes, it is likely that in retrospect a few select hours of work may have unlocked huge value. You don't know which hours in advance. It is highly unlikely that one missed day will derail your life.

It's highly more likely that a wasted day was necessary to recover from a lingering illness, fatigue, or stress. It's OK to have an impromptu sabbath.

It's not the one wasted day that will derail your life. It's one wasted day after another, after another, after another...

Yes, but it doesn't help to fear that one wasted day will lead to this chain.

For a year or two I had a mantra: "A day is a length of time that no man is rich enough to waste".

It wasn't grammatically/syntactically valid, but it worked well as a token for a concept that helped me immensely those years.

I guess it depends on your personality. Fear-based tactics don't usually work well on me, they just make me anxious about what I am supposedly going to lose. Once I realize that there is in fact nothing to lose, I can relax and handle things effortlessly.

You can be paranoid about it, or you can do something about it. ;)

One tactic I've learned is to set aside time to focus on relaxation. Ambitious people assume intention should be applied towards productivity, but relaxation is required for us to function at high capacity. Do not assume idle or distracted time is rejuvenating. Plan it.

I've found that you can't rush relaxation, but you can enjoy higher quality relaxation. Watching youtube videos, reading reddit, or playing a videogame will relax me in a sort of listless, not-quite-satisfied way. Similar to eating chips as an entire meal leaves you feeling full but not nourished.

Meanwhile, a long walk with the dog and a podcast leaves me eager to jump into the next thing. But it requires focus, thought, and effort to get into - a higher activation potential than scrolling on a phone.

One tactic I've learned is to set aside time to focus on relaxation.

I got the exact opposite advice from "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield:


The entire book is how to overcome what he calls "resistance" which is what prevents you from getting creative work done. He says the belief that you need relaxation is false and just another way your mind keeps you from what you need to get done.

Interesting. I tend to structure my day around goals and work so much that I don't leave enough time for relaxation.

I likely mistakenly assume most HNers are overly ambitious, perfectionist, neurotic types like myself.

I have no trouble getting started, I have trouble stopping.

N=1, but this HNer seems almost opposite from you. My biggest problem is getting started, and maintaining focus for the initial period of 15 minutes to one hour (for some reasons I get really anxious; despite a decade of trying, I still haven't learn how to manage it). But once I get past that hurdle, I can get a lot of high-quality work in short time.

I'd trade my issues for yours in a heartbeat ;).

>I have no trouble getting started, I have trouble stopping.

I can relate. It has its pros and cons. There are definitely days I wish I could turn the ambition off or at least down, but it's stuck on high. The upside is life's never boring. The downside is it's always non-stop.

I looked at that book too, but I've never had his problem of feeling blocked, procrastinating (not about my art anyway!) etc. Evidently a lot of people do, and the book is advice for them. But for me it dealt in detail with problems I've never had, in my many years of musician, composer, artist, programmer, so I didn't bother finishing it. I did however like the same author's Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit: Why That Is and What You Can Do About It

One major problem I did have years ago was a lot of negative self-talk. Being so mean to myself, in ways I never would have come close to treating other people. I dealt with that with a lot of self-help books, working on my issues from childhood, learning to love myself etc.

That presumes are always 100% correct about what work you need to do.

A walk in the park can be worth a hundred hours of work if that walk in the park sparks the realisation that you were about to waste a hundred hours doing something in the wrong way.

This is likely to be true for many. it's a counterintuitive concept but "planned leisure" and "unplanned leisure" often differ in quality a lot.

I employ these techniques with mixed but promising results:

- I block relevant news and social media sites on my phone and laptop (phone rules are more restrictive)

- I force myself to note everything I want to research/read down as a todo. This alone helps me to avoid many irrelevant things I would have otherwise read/researched

- Every month I set priorities, how I want to spend my time. Then every day I go through the list of items I have written down to select and prioritize what I want to do. Then I start working my way from the top item down

This article has helped me shape my thinking: https://medium.com/swlh/theres-no-such-thing-as-motivation-e...

A strategy that kept me pretty productive is to have a "primary task" for the day, scaled appropriately, and a secondary one. Just those two. Say:

Primary task: write outline on all areas of X presentation. Secondary task: replace light bulb of car.

It's just that simple. Two tasks that I'll struggle to finish in a day. From there some properties emerge beautifully.

It naturally forms chunks of focus. The "flow". Yet, it's flexible because the execution details are not agreed beforehand, they're made up as you go.

"2h on the main task at least, now that I've done some stuff and have enough free time for a chunk!"

I can still deal with any blow as it comes. Stuff happens. But at least one can be more mindful about priorities, having the easy to remember two tasks in mind.

loose systems (good ones) often work better and can handle failures without crashing down.

PS for the author: i live & study in Madrid as well! these kind of deliberations are an important part of my self-improvement. I really like trying things out, and bouncing ideas off another person in a good discussion. You can consider this an invitation, open at any time, about things that we both value :)

I deeply resonate with this - there are just too many things to do, and too little time. This is a boon and a curse. One cannot realize all things we can do in our lifetime, but if we can fixate on one particular thing, we can compound our efforts. What a great article! A reminder that stop dicking around on multiple things in the shallow waters, instead take a deep dive into depths that no one in the world has explored. You're at the forefront of combining pieces of past knowledge, adding your own intellect into an amalgamation that is truly unique. Build it with all you've got, take as much oxygen as you can with you and stay calm as you dive deep. There is a new world out there.

I feel like I need to print this article out and stick it across from my desk to be reminded of this every day.

Underlying focus is discipline. People hate discipline because it is hard. Not eating that donut, exercising daily, turning off your phone, and actually working for multiple hours straight has become rare.

Jocko Willink has written multiple books on the topic of discipline and coined the phrase "Discipline Equals Freedom".

Discipline is hard because of two primary things: 1) not enough mindfulness and 2) saying no to things is difficult, but replacing a bad habit with a good habit is easy.

With mindfulness, one is aware before the bad habits starts. The earlier the habit is caught, the easier it is to change. It's the difference between struggling to replace a habit for months vs noticing it once, changing it once, and then reaping the rewards.

The mind when given a situation needs to respond to it. Habits are born and then they stick. Saying no to a habit is almost impossible. Instead an alternative habit needs to be made to replace the old habit. Every time that trigger pops up, the new habit fires instead.

Once those two criteria are met, it becomes easy to self-program.

Great point. What you describe is how I improved my procrastination. Anytime I noticed I was procrastinating I had to immediately do the item I was pushing off.

The awareness you mention in the moment is the key to making changes.

One aspect nobody mentioned so far is, why do I have to focus so much on my dreams and "work on the next rocket to mars"? Why isn't it okay anymore to just do my job, have friends and watch movies? Why does everyone has to be an entrepreneur and do a successful side-project? Why can't I just have a hobby that doesn't pay off at all, like playing an instrument alone in my room, without any pursue to ever play a concert?

Selection bias. Nobody says you have to be like that. Just ignore the article and move on.

For me, it resonates, because the perspective of "doing my job, having friends and watching movies" sounds depressingly empty to me. I want to work on the next rocket to Mars (yes, I really do want to work on space rockets - because I care about space rockets).

I don't buy into the pressure you're seeing either. If your heart doesn't drive you to strive for meaning in your own work, then you won't be happy chasing it because social pressure tells you to. Not everyone ticks this way, and this is fine.

it's not just this article. I feel the pressure in my every day life. I already have a job that fulfills me and where I give 100%, does that mean I will be the next CTO, no probably not, so I can't even claim to push my career that much.

It's just that you read online about all these people that do open-source stuff, create their own website/business, build tools, do research etc. that you feel left out and the big pressure to do something meaningful. In addition nowadays you have to do something meaningful for the world, but it's hard to impress the world or the community, because in your community (like the hacker-news, reddit, indie hacker) there are now thousands or millions of people, you have to do something very substantial to actual get noticed.

>I already have a job that fulfills me and where I give 100%, does that mean I will be the next CTO, no probably not, so I can't even claim to push my career that much.

What more do you want? Think of how many people there are in the world who want that. Who just wish they didn't dread waking up every morning to go to work. I love my job and I'm completely fulfilled with it. It's all how you look at it - we've made it as far as I'm concerned, anything else is icing on the cake.

Really, the question you might want to ask yourself is: do you even want to be a CTO? I don't, it sounds like a set of skills and activities I don't really want to work on. I'd rather be a good engineer who helps other people grow in their career, who also gets to fish and surf in the morning and play video games in the evening.

Whenever I feel the way you're feeling, I think back to this quote by Kurt Vonnegut about Joseph Heller:

True story, Word of Honor:

Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer now dead, and I were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island.

I said, "Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel 'Catch-22' has earned in its entire history?"

And Joe said, "I've got something he can never have."

And I said, "What on earth could that be, Joe?"

And Joe said, "The knowledge that I've got enough."

Not bad! Rest in peace!

The pressure only matters if you feel like you want to "impress the world", whatever that means. The same way that the whole influencer rat race only really matters if you want to be an influencer. And if you do want to do those things, the question is "why?"

People don't write about ordinary lives normally because they don't get clicks and they don't grab attention. But if you're not seeking attention why does it matter?

It's partially why I enjoy the Great British Baking Show; all the bakers are otherwise perfectly ordinary people living ordinary lives, and they just bake as their hobby and the competition is relatively cheerful. Compare that to most American reality shows where all the people do is live and breathe being a master chef literally every second of their lives and everything is extremely stressful.

Think of them like the 1% of the tech community. Yes, it can be done. No it's likely you it will be you. And that's fine. Though it can feel like "how the hell are these insanely productive people able to do all this stuff when I can barely even brush my teeth twice a day?".

Don't sweat it. Just like there are billionaires, there are also these mystical productivity billionaires. It's a cool thing to behold but it's very much not the norm.

>it's not just this article. I feel the pressure in my every day life.

Why? It's your life. You're the only one living it. Live it how you want. It doesn't matter what other people do. If you're happy and fulfilled doing the things you do, that's awesome. Honestly, that's really the best most people can and should strive for in their lives. Some people just aren't contented or fulfilled doing those things, that's fine too.

Everyone lives their own life, it's cool to see what other people do and be inspired by it, but no one's really forcing you if you really don't want to. But if you feel pressure, maybe you're not as fulfilled as you think?

You feel left out because you are rightly left out. You're not interested in what they're doing, and so they're not interested in you. I don't see the problem here. Why are you asking to get noticed?

What are you asking for? Do you want people to appreciate you for coasting?

For me everything changed within 15 minutes of becoming a father. I used to want to change the world. Startups promotions etc. My son showed me a point on the line that was so far out that when I zoomed out, I couldn’t see the career stuff as anything other than a point on the origin. Now the only thing that gives me meaning is my children.

I’m the same way. I used to have grand career ambitions, but now I have a young daughter who has become my sole focus. I have a stable job which pays me enough to comfortably support my family, has a healthy my work/life balance, and gives me interesting projects to work on. That’s all that I need from my career at this point in my life.

For me it didn't. I'm a father of a 6 months old daughter, and so far parenthood didn't manage to take over all my dreams and ambitions entirely.

Likewise. Only made me more driven to make sure that I make enough money to take care of my family if the worst should come to pass.

That's something else still. But yes, I've become more driven and more focused on ensuring financial safety for my family as well, in addition to not losing much of my interests so far.

That could change the coming years. I’m not saying it will. But it could.

I hope it won't.

I mean, this was probably my biggest fear about parenthood. Observing other parents, I've noticed that a lot of them lost everything that made them interesting. The kids are the only things they care about now. I don't see this as a good thing - not for parents, and not for the children. If a parent's entire self gets consumed by child-rearing, what example do they set for their children? That the point of their adult life is to have a (arbitrary, but hopefully well-paying) job in order to support their own children, perpetuating the cycle of doing nothing but breeding and dying? Isn't that meaningless and boring? To me, it is. And I'd hazard a guess that this is where midlife crisis comes from - when one's children are self-sufficient and the role of a parent is over, one realizes they have a 20 years old hole in their life, into which everything they were disappeared.

(This is my perspective as of right now. But the funny thing with perspectives is that they depend on where you stand - so who knows, maybe I'm wrong now and three years from now I'll be arguing the exact opposite? I don't expect to, but I can't rule it out.)

I'm 8 years in and I still have other ambitions. My guess is your hope has a good chance. :)

Thank you for the reassurance!

It (probably) won't. My kids are years older than yours and I have only increased my workload, transitioning from an FTE at a software shop to running a small business (not out of my house).

> (not out of my house)

That's an important point, isn't it?

Home office is a wonderful thing, but now that I'm a dad, I find myself wishing for an actual, external office. Not because I don't like my own home, but because catching even a tiniest fragment of my daughter's cry next door is incredibly, incredibly distracting - even though my wife is taking care of her perfectly, I have to fight myself to not just get out of the study and render assistance.

No question. I have a home office as well but I rarely work out of it unless it's very late or very early.

Thanks, your answer resonates with me. To add to it, a life goal doesn't need to be exorbital (pun intended). Just know what you are working towards, and take pride in the steps towards your end goal.

This used to be me. At some point down the line I discovered I had "progress" wrong all along.

Just make sure to not let your passion drive you too far from loved ones. (:

Could you share the different notions you had of "progress", then and now?

How old are you

Because our society has an unhealthy obsession with wealth and status, and we’ve convinced ourselves that the only way to be happy in life is to amass both.

The irony is that some of the wealthiest people I’ve met seem the least happy and settled. It’s so strange.

The concept of having “enough” is fundamentally incompatible with the hyper-growth startup, social-media driven society that we’re creating. Because having enough means that you’re giving up on the rat race, at least to a degree.

>> Because our society has an unhealthy obsession with wealth and status

This unhealthy obsession was in large part what drove the United States to what it eventually became in 2019 over just a few hundred years. This is probably an unpopular sentiment, but what makes us bad is often what makes us good. It is not like this obsession has no upside.

Yes. This. I mean, I very much hate/love this entrepreneurial cultural dogma. I simultaneously think it might be one of the few ways that an individual can make a significant impact on society (still with a very small probability) and at the same time I feel it's also the root of our big societal problems. Then again, the problems with endless growth that doesn't control for bad side effects might run deeper than entrepreneurial capitalism. Can't make up my mind about this.

It makes society run so much faster. But can't guarantee that it runs in the right direction. And so many signs say it's not.

90% of the things that make America great(heh), have nothing to do with the obsession with wealth and status,this is just a story some sectors (WallStreet, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Washington politicians) like to tell themselves.

thanks, yes, that's kinda how I feel. Your comment somehow made me feel better, at least I know I'm in a rat race and that takes pressure off of me. Even when I'm staying in, it's better to have the view from the outside once in a while to get grounded and make sure one does not go mad

At my age, for me,

>>> giving up on the rat race

means I end up in a tough position. Either I leave the race, knowing that I'll have hard time to finance another race (kids, etc.); either I stay in, but then it means doing things I don't like.

middle class man's dilemma.

I completely agree. Instead of pointing out and criticizing the leaders of our society for their role in widening wealth inequality, we’ve happily created this fiction where we can all hop on the gravy train and become millionaires too.

This is not much of a fiction for a significant percentage of people reading Hacker News.

So what’s your point? That may be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that the median household income in 2018 was 32k.[0]

There’s not a single county in the US where a minimum wage income covers the cost of a two-bedroom apartment.[1]

Economically, we’re entering a new gilded age where legislative decisions increasingly favor the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

0: https://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/netcomp.cgi?year=2018

1: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2019-06-20/...

the median household income in 2018 was 32k.

Individual, not household. And that appears to cover all "wage earners", including cases like college students working part time. Median household income is $63k according to https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/09/us-median-hou...

>> There’s not a single county in the US where a minimum wage income covers the cost of a two-bedroom apartment.[1]

This is only true if you define paying for said apartment using the 30% of your income rule of thumb, which on top of a two bedroom apartment on minimum wage for a single earner is REALLY stretching reality. Federal minimum wage covers it if you increase 30% upwards easily in a lot of counties.

>not a single county...

I'm going to call bullshit on that. Federal minimum wage is over $1000 per month at full time and I've seen 2br in my county for $550+utilities. I don't disagree with your general point but that report did a piss-poor job. I suspect they only looked in urban areas.

The answer of course is that it's fine for you to do that. Just don't expect plaudits for your lifestyle. People are mostly inspired by the great, not the typical. If your lifestyle makes you happy, great, but external validation is one thing it's not likely to earn.

Right. There is nothing wrong with having a simple life that runs counter to all the pressure one feels from the media (disclaimer: I don't feel that pressure at all; I feel the opposite, that we don't have enough driven people in society). But there's no reason there are going to be advertisements and awards handed out to the most balanced life liver somewhere in an affordable city in America.

Just try to better yourself or better humanity. Star Trek taught me that.

It's fine to do that. But notice how all the things you want to do are consumption and not creation. Somebody needs to create those things you want to consume and considering how that is all you really want to do it should be easy to understand why society values those things so highly and pushes people to do them.

You can, and please do—be happy. We need more happy people in the world. I've found that the people who push others or suggest others do what they're doing are insecure about their own pursuits (and I say that as someone who _does_ spend most of their time aggressively pursuing their own ideas).

>I've found that the people who push others or suggest others do what they're doing are insecure about their own pursuits

Alternatively, might they simply value to enter world (through themselves & others)?

I think the point of the article was more that you didn't get to to do what you wanted to do, regardless of what that thing is. If you wanted to watch TV because you enjoy it, fine (the time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time). But if you get caught up in things that you didn't want to do (responding to notifications every n amount of minutes) then you didn't do what you wanted to do and YOUR time was wasted. Unless of course you enjoy responding to those messages, but then you ARE doing what you wanted to do and it negates the whole thing!

You mean you don't work in fast-food service biding your time while secretly doing cancer research, battery research and inventing a new poodle? What do you do, sleep, play sport, and have real relationships? Scandalous!

Personally I think a lot of the overachiever hype/nonsense is designed to just remind people how little they are. Its not to build them up. Its a different but same version of something used to sell products like cosmetics: make people feel insecure then sell them something.

(Now someone will argue I'm somehow against doing your best. Nice try)

Maybe part of the problem is that jobs are not forever anymore. So it is a good idea to hedge one's bets and have side projects.

I see nothing wrong with this. 100% nothing amiss.

For me, I was part of early-career layoffs during a recession. I push myself because I was put in a hard situation, and I want control over my career.

I have that now, and I still push (though not as hard) to maintain it. It keeps my anxiety over providing for my responsibilities in check. I want to be independent.

I hope I don't come off harsh, as that is not my intention.

> Why isn't it okay anymore to just do my job, have friends and watch movies?

The reason you get to "just do your job, have friends, and watch movies," is because of the advances in science/technology/government/economics/art/etc that gave you and your ancestors enough surplus in productivity so you can afford spending some of your time watching movies. Those leaps would not have been possible if the persons working on them shared your attitude.

So much suffering has been avoided by people who sacrificed their comfort discovering vaccines, inventing engines, or rallying people behind a cause. It's more than likely that you and I would not even be alive today without those sacrifices.

I don't know about you, but I feel I owe my life and my privileges to people who didn't "just do their job." And it inspires me to pay it forward.

Now don't get me wrong, maybe it is okay to "just do your job and watch movies." But don't lose sight of why you get to do that.

Agreed. But the way I see it, the reason for all these sacrifices is so that other people can live a better, happier life.

On the one hand, I'm with 'icelancer here - there's not enough driven people in the society (that is, driven to do things, and not driven to gain status by incidentally doing some things). The more they are, the faster things can improve. On the other hand, everything seems to indicate that there will always be something to improve, so if everyone was driven like this, nobody would be left to enjoy the fruits of these sacrifices, making them ultimately pointless.

I don't know what the right balance is. I know I myself am not going to pressure anyone into seeking meaning outside their social circle and entertainment. From what I've observed, there seems to be a default balance - some people are happy with having a decent and a loving circle of friends (like OP), and some are unhappy with it (like myself). I see no good justification for forcing either kind to change, and I don't see either as better or worse than the other.

> everything seems to indicate that there will always be something to improve, so if everyone was driven like this, nobody would be left to enjoy the fruits of these sacrifices, making them ultimately pointless.

I agree. But to me, this is not a dichotomy. As in, you don't have to choose between complete comfort (do your job and watch movies) and total sacrifice (devote all your time to a cause). You can have time for friends and hobbies and still do great good for your community and the larger society.

You totally can. Many people do. The people that do aren't the target audience of these kind of articles. It's simply not relevant to them. And that's OK.

> Why isn't it okay anymore to just do my job, have friends and watch movies?

Partially because you having friends and watching movies doesn't make anyone rich. When people give you advice, it's meant to improve their lives, not yours. A guy who writes books will tell you to read more books, a guy who organizes seminars will tell you to attend more seminars, a venture capitalist will tell you to create a startup. (If you need to be told that watching movies is all right, you have to ask Netflix.)

It’s totally fine to do that. To each their own :)

No it hasn't. Focus isn't more valuable than the ability to improvise or memorize.

People are just realizing what's been true all along: IQ is a bunk measurement that points to nothing of note in the brain.

IQ positively correlates with income, educational attainment, age of death and socioeconomic status, and negatively with criminality, STI infection rates and likelihood of having a child out of wedlock so bunk it is not.

Regarding IQ and the brain there are positive relations between brain volume, white matter volume and IQ and between hippocampal volume and verbal IQ so

I finally pulled myself away from Facebook a while back and could not be happier with the results and perspective I gained. I removed all “friends” and kept about a dozen family members just to keep in touch. I had to keep the account due to my businesses using it for marketing purposes.

The change in quality of life (due to the negativity on FB) and productivity was instantaneous.

I'm surprised meditation hasn't been mentioned yet.

Meditation drastically boosts focus and increases awareness, which then accelerates learning of whatever is being observed / studied.

Because of this, focus is a prerequisite for learning, and learning is a prerequisite for intelligence, so focus is very important and more beneficial than many realize.

Meditation is awesome, though I don't do it enough. It's like push-ups for your brain. You just focus on your breath, and if you can do that, you can focus on anything regardless of how boring it is.

I've had thought about this a lot as well, I'm really unsure I agree. The main problem is figuring out where exactly is the line. Like some of the best gains I've had in life were from things that others considered a distraction.

I think I have a better solution. Watch your level of engagement, if you are hating something, it's a good signal you should do something else.

Like say Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt had a lot of things going on.

I was voted most spaced out in my high school yearbook. My creativity and problem solving skills at one point were pretty much off the charts. Got a computer engineering degree, had a few years working at great companies solving important problems.

I have to be honest though, I no longer believe in the startup world. I'm so disillusioned now that I honestly don't know if I can write code anymore. There are so many bad indicators about where all this is going, how it's causing wealth inequality and the destruction of the natural world, that I just don't know if my heart is in any of this anymore.

I'm mostly coping now and coming to terms with the fact that I may have to choose tech or my life. All I ever wanted to do was invent stuff, but as far as I can tell, the whole system is rigged so that that can never happen.

Without hope, there can't be focus. I don't even know what to call the limbo I'm in. It's not really depression, it's not burnout, it's not even apathy because I care very much. It's more a sense that, the best thing to do rather than invent something is to wait a year for someone else to do it. Or more realistically, for 10 other people to try with 9 of them failing. Soon that will be 100 attempts with 99 failures, going up an order of magnitude with each passing decade.

If a true next-gen solution that comes after the internet arrives soon, then it could replace the soul-sucking work-life imbalance that we've all recreated. It could replace late-stage capitalism. But it's looking like tech's going to keep crushing down harder and harder until there is no profit in anything and we're all just running the rat race until we die.

How did it come to this? Am I alone in feeling this way? Seriously, I don't really even know what to do to make my next $100 to survive tomorrow. I don't know if I can eat the $#!@ sandwich and work for someone again and lose however many more years of my life. Why can't I just go help somewhere and contribute in positive ways and make a modest income? Why is it so cutthroat and all-or-nothing? Blah. Just blah.

I feel you. But I don’t things have to be looked at so narrow. There are hardly any people on this planet that have your opportunity to fix things for the better. There are enough challenges to put your heart into and find fresh energy if you start looking. You just need to fall in love again with something that you really consider worthwhile your time. I am sure there will be something.

Thanks, ya I tend to do a lot of soul searching this time of year. My social media feed is so saturated with bad news that all I really use now is the sad emoji. Right now when I think of tech, I feel emotions like disappointment, loathing, frustration, jealously, resentment, skepticism, etc etc etc. All negative.

You are right about love though, that is very insightful. Even though it seems like tech is this analytical endeavor, I've found that it is really built on passion (love, devotion, etc, the things that got us started making things in the first place). Because when you step back from it, why would someone bang their head against the keyboard day after day in endless frustration, often alone and misunderstood, trying to do even the simplest things but coming up short, unless they saw potential in it. That's the real reason why pretty much every tech job listing is looking for passionate people. It's not about excelling now, it's about survival.

Anyway, after 6 months of writer's block, I have finally started seeing some alternatives. When I think about the opposite of the tech world today, I start feeling good emotions again like inspiration, hope and maybe even some love as you put it. Here is a starting point for anyone curious:



The table at the bottom of the second link lists some of the problems with the startup world today and some ways that we might transition from consumerist phantom tech to real tech. Where phantom tech mainly distracts or lowers some prices or makes some people obscenely rich, with jobs that provide time or money but not both, at great cost to society and nature. But real tech is things like distributed alternative energy, robot labor, universal basic income, etc that provide both time and money passively (without human slavery in the developing world) so that people can get back to living freely like we did as recently as the 80s and 90s.

Some ideas I've collected on making better organizations: https://github.com/pdfernhout/High-Performance-Organizations...

You may also find some jobs posted at Idealist of interest (although many may have their own issues as the non-profit world can have its own dysfunctions): https://www.idealist.org/

You might like some things written by E.F. Schumacher like "Good Work": https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/313764.Good_Work

Or maybe "Honest Business"? https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/582299.Honest_Business

Also, "What Color is Your Parachute" is also great.

Or maybe stories related to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickster

Another tip: the more frugal you are, the more flexible you can be about jobs and living arrangements.

Frankly, I can find problematical things about pretty much any profession in our modern society -- from sanitation worker through school teacher to medical doctor to shoe clerk. So, yes, it can be a challenge to make peace with that when, without a basic income, you need to exchange your labor for ration units to then exchange for food and shelter. Yet, people need, say, shoes -- so you can help a lot of people by making or selling good shoes to people who really need them. But as you point out, a lot of business and related jobs go far beyond the basics (for good or bad).

You can also find lots of post-scarcity thinking on my personal website. Or by many others in many places if you look. So, you are not alone. It seems though that, short of broad social change like, say, Andrew Yang proposes, solutions that work for specific individuals in late-stage capitalism may have to be individually crafted based on on interests, abilities, circumstances, tools, social network, local community, and so on.

Anyway, there are some non-startup jobs here in who's hiring for January 2020 (including at PBS): https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21936440

Focus, and persistence can be a double-edged sword.

I've seen C and D-level developers create working systems-despite the fact that they are using the wrong tools, creating un-maintainable code, etc.

The key is only letting things go sad far before the right people are brought in to "fix" things.

Welcome to how many startups go from 0 -> 1.

Whenever I have been the 1+ person, I always keep in mind that the original code was just trying to get the first dollar in the door. Those dollars eventually led to me to have the luxury to be able to come back and fix things.

If it's stupid and works, it ain't stupid.

That depends on your definition of "works". In a team environment something that is stupid and is barely coughing blood is a tar pit of wasted effort that will ensnare team member after team member, like a repeating land mine. Odd dependencies, bad repeated patterns, and strange process/architectural workarounds will leave a team inefficient, entrenched, and broken.

It's why I'd rather have lazy stupid people than energetic stupid people. Energetic stupid people destroy organizational output. Lazy stupid people just keep a chair warm.

"I distinguish four types. There are clever, hardworking, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and hardworking; their place is the General Staff. The next ones are stupid and lazy; they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the mental clarity and strength of nerve necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is both stupid and hardworking; he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always only cause damage."


Fuck that. I live once. One chance to understand as much as I can about the universe I live in. Fuck chasing human value, that's fleeting, anxiety inducing, and utterly insignificant within probably 20 years of your death.

What does HN think of the pomodoro technique?

It's a good 101 technique and worth trying, but I prefer a 102 alternative.

If have enough mindfulness, you start to notice this tension feeling that happens when learning. (I'm not talking about trying to get a project done, getting stuck with a compiler error, then "learning" how to solve it on Stackoverflow. The tension I'm talking about is usually subtle and happens when there isn't some sort of pressing other end goal, just learning to learn for learning and enjoyment.)

This tension is correlated to how well the unconscious mind is digesting what was learned and converting it into long term memory.

If I learn a lot and it is a difficult subject, I might get very tense within 5 minutes of reading. This means I need to take a break to let the mind digest what I just learned.

In the other direction, I can be reading a book and most of it is review, so I feel bored. My initial instinct was to skim to go over it faster, but that only reduces learning. Instead, I can dive into deeper levels of detail, focusing on how the author sees the world, why s/he is demonstrating their findings that particular way, and so on. Basically, diving in more aids learning.

Anyways, sometimes I can go for 2 hours of study straight and be in a happy middle ground of tension where my mind isn't overworked or underworked. This is the ideal state, sometimes called flow. By being mindful of this, my study sessions dynamically adapt to it, into an optimal state of learning.

Also, if it's too tense, I may not be getting it, because there is too much prerequisite material I don't know well. I might turn to wikipedia or other text books at that point. A detour can be fun, and is far better than not understanding the material. I once had to spend 3 full days learning over 20 new concepts (due to recursive prerequisites) just to read a paragraph in a book.

As a participant on HN, what do you think of the pomodoro technique?

I unknowingly used it many years ago to study for the entrance exams for the University. It was just some cute way to keep track of studying that some high school professor described, I didn't even know it had a name. Just tried it for fun.

Definitely works and can help with focus very much, but don't know if it works equally well to types of personality different than mine.

Works for my kid cleaning his room. I view it and focus like weight lifting, you want to build out longer periods of concentration.

Call it will power or whatever, but it's a mental muscle that must be exercised if it is to be realized.

add resilience to the mix: focus without resilience when things go wrong, can be counterproductive.

"Focus is the new IQ" is the best expression I've seen of this.

I'm lucky to have the gift of focus, and to know other people who also have it.

I know I'm on the right track when I'm asked:

* "You did that yourself?"

* "How did you do that?"

* "How is that possible?"

One person with deep focus can change everything. Nikolai Tesla is the ultimate example of this - he made the modern world.

My secrets? My only social media is HN, and I use a stick phone.

A simple test for people is to get used to working 3 hours straight without any distractions. Give it a try. You can get a whole day's work done this way.


It's what I've been doing in the past few years, nobody noticed that I stay at work a lot less than the others and the quality of my work has improved

This would be nice, if most workplaces valued efficiency. They don't, especially at the low end. Instead, they'd rather have face-time, regardless of how productive that time is. It's literally in the nature of the pay structure.

Depending on the specifics of the work, in our industry, demand for butt-in-seat time + high focus = work done + a lot of time to do your own private stuff. Devil is in the details, but this is implicitly accepted in a lot of places as long as you complete your actual work on time, because part of the reason companies want your butt in your seat for fixed amount of time per day is availability - if something suddenly happens, they want you to be there to take care of it. They do derive value from just having you in the office.

"Do your own stuff when you've finished your assigned tasks" is dicey for a couple of reasons:

1) You could be in a position where the work "never" ends. For sure, there are a reasonable number of tasks expected to be done at the end of the day, working some fraction of the day's butt-in-seat time; and when they're done, the business runs smoothly. However, recognizing this, businesses will add tasks that could be automated or designed away (e.g., answering the same inane help-desk tickets, which pile up constantly), because they "help" to secure an employee's "engagement" when they'd otherwise be free to study, optimize their performance, or simply socialize. If you're seen doing any of these, rather than the assigned tasks, you'll be docked.

2) It's difficult to bounce between tasks, including from your work-work to your personal work and back again. This is a sure-fire recipe for not being able to maintain, or even cultivate, focus. To add insult to injury, workers are often dealing with a scenario where "availability" is required of them to mask inefficiencies in the business' management or administration. This task could be done remotely, that one could be automated, a third could be grouped with a fourth if someone twisted arms to get the necessary data earlier (as has proven possible on days before a holiday). Allocating the 2 or 3 hours of the day not spent directly on work tasks would then be possible, but not when they're spread out over the course of an 8+ hour day in 10 minute chunks, or eaten up by busy work. "Hurry up and wait" is a productivity-killer.

In my experience nobody can tell what you’re doing at your desk (even if they can see the screen over your shoulder). So you can get face-time while learning for your own benefit.

> I use a stick phone.

What is a stick phone? I presume you're not referring to this:


I think they might be referring to what some call the candybar form factor.


Are you able to buy a reasonably modern version of these that comes with GPS?

Literally the only things I use my phone for is calls, SMS, GPS, and eeeeeeevery great once in a while I'll google something at the store.

I'd love something like this, but it would really have to have GPS on it.

No GPS, wifi or usable camera, but older phones have techniques for map location using the cell phone signal.

A candlestick telephone that you can connect with your smartphone:


I'm guessing he's using a feature phone, aka non-smart phone.

Funny thing is that Tesla made a lot of interesting inventions and discoveries, but was barely able to keep the focus to bring them to fruition. He had his lab busy with widely different experiments, oftentimes conflicting, leading to huge setbacks. Tesla is the prime example of a great mind with bad social skills and too many things juggling at the same time.

That's not even wrong.

He got to do exactly what he wanted for most of his career, which was research, live in the Waldorf, and his patents were the foundation of Westinghouse.

Ever look at a power substation and see all those Buck Rogers-looking transformers? Those are his original designs.

Besides AC electricity generation and transmission, he also patented wireless remote control and was one of the earliest pioneers in radio. Niagara Falls hydro generation was his idea, and nobody understood what he was doing until the on switch was thrown.

Had he wanted to be a businessman, he could have done that at any time. I'm glad he chose the inventor path.

> That's not even wrong.

Can you please edit swipey tropes like that out of your posts here? They lead to ill will and poison the well. The rest of your comment is just fine without that first sentence.

This is in the site guidelines: https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

He was a great inventor, yes. But the results of all his efforts, in mathematics and engineering were fruitless for him. He died in debt, a disillusioned man. And why? Perhaps a good biography of the man will enlighten you.


Why specifically Exodus?

Because it describes how to leave slavery. Slavery is the external manifestation of the internal condition of addiction.

In Dutch the words are "slavernij" for slavery, and "verslaving" for addiction.

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