I’ve been a huge fan of Cal’s writing for many years so it was a treat to get to talk to him.
We explore many important issues related to early retirement that aren’t often talked about so if you’re thinking about retiring early (or if you already have and are struggling to build the life that you envisioned before leaving work), today’s episode is a must-listen!
- Why pursuing your passion is overrated
- How to love your job
- What is “Focused FIRE” and why it’s likely the best option
- How to get good at something valuable
- Why you should replace relaxation with difficult, meaningful activity
- The importance (and increasing rarity) of deep work
- Why skillful management of attention is the key to a good life
- How to perform a digital declutter
- The importance of high-quality leisure activities
- Why technology could be ruining your personal life and how to stop it
- Cal Newport
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You
- Deep Work
- Digital Minimalism
- Cal’s TED Talk – Why You Should Quit Social Media
- Mr. Money Mustache
- Leave a review for the Financial Independence Podcast on iTunes!
On today’s show, I’m excited to introduce Cal Newport. I’ve been a big fan of Cal’s for many years now. And he’s written some amazing books that have helped me a lot personally in getting things done that I really want to accomplish. And I think that’s a big challenge for people that do walk away from work early in life because after you leave your job, the external motivation is gone. So then it’s up to you to have the discipline to actually do all the things that you’d hope to do. And it’s harder than it seems.
And Cal’s books have been really helpful to me in that regard. So I was excited to get him on the show because even though he doesn’t write about early retirement specifically, everything that he does write about is applicable to early retirees—and it’s actually even more important for them.
So, without further delay, hey Cal, thanks very much for being here. I really appreciate it.
Cal Newport: Brandon, it’s my pleasure.
Mad Fientist: So, I’ve been a big fan of yours for many years now. So this is a real pleasure to talk to you. And you have a new book out, which I’m always excited when you release something. But also part of me, I think dies a little bit too because, you may not know this, but we both graduated in 2004 from college with—I assume you have a degree in Computer Science from your undergrad, is that right?
Cal Newport: Yeah, that’s right.
Mad Fientist: Okay. So, we both we both graduated in 2004 with a degree in computer science. And yet you’ve gone on to—and this is going to be a long list, so bear with me. But you went to grad school at MIT, got a PhD in electrical engineering, computer science and did the two years post doc at MIT, you’ve written six books, and you became a professor at Georgetown and you just got tenure—big congratulations for that. So yeah, any time you release a book, I’m like, “Wow! How does he do it?”
The good news is you don’t hide your secrets. You share them which is what we’re going to be talking about today—which is really exciting. But yeah, it’s always like a bittersweet moment when it’s like, “Ooh, Cal’s got a new book out,” but then, it’s like, “Wow! I just made hummus today. I was proud of that, and now I’m not anymore.”
Cal Newport: Well, if it makes you feel better, I’m probably a lot more tired than you are. So it all kind of balances out.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, I do. I do get a lot of sleep which is good. But no, no. It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. And we’re going to go back to your previous books as well because I think there’s some really interesting stuff. You don’t write specifically for the FIER crowd, but there’s so much that applies. And I’m really excited to dive into your previous two books, as well as your current book—which has just changed my life since I read it a month ago (which we’ll talk about).
So< to launch into it, I want to talk about passion because that is something that you sort of talk about in So Good They Can’t Ignore You which is two books ago. And you say that pursuing your passion is sort of overrated. So could you just give a little rundown of why you say that?
Cal Newport: Right! So, that book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, that came out in 2012. So if you put that to the timeline of my career, it’s essentially when I was at an important career inflection point.
I was just finishing up grad school plus the post doc years, about to go to the academic job market which, if you do correctly, is going to be your first and last job.
So, I figured if there’s any time, I really should understand the dynamics of how people really end up loving their work. This was a time when I was going to get a lot of leverage out of that knowledge. And so, that’s why I set out to write that book. I really wanted to know.
Using my position as an author and what that gave me access to to try to figure out what is the research and what does original journalism teach us about how people really end up loving what they’re doing.
And right away, it became clear that, at the time (and even until today), the standard answer was we should follow your passion. This was the core career advice that we still give out and certainly back then was the main career advice we gave out—which is career satisfaction is really a matching game.
If you properly match what you do for a living to some sort of intrinsic, pre-existing, pre-inclination, you’ll be happy. And if you don’t get the match right, if you don’t choose the right job, you’re going to end up unhappy. That was the standard wisdom.
But you start looking into this, and it becomes clear really quickly that that’s not really good advice. I mean we don’t really have a lot of evidence that that’s the case.
We get into the weeds of it, but at a high level, there’s two main issues with it. One, we don’t have a lot of evidence that most people have pre-existing passions that they could easily identify and use to select a job. And so, that advice is meaningless for them.
And two, we don’t have a lot of evidence that people’s job satisfaction is strongly determined by the match of that job to a pre-existing interest.
There’s a very rich literature on motivation, satisfaction and meaning in the professional sphere and very little that has to do with matching that job to pre-existing traits.
And so, when you look at the research evidence, it turns out we have no real reason to believe that “follow your passion” is something that’s actually going to lead most people to feeling passion for their work. And yet it’s the main thing that we tell people.
So, I wrote a book saying that’s a bad idea which was a lot of fun. I remember to launch the idea, I got onstage at Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit which has a lot of passion. I stood onstage in this big theater. And I don’t think they knew what I was going to be talking about. And I was like, “Follow your passion, blah-blah-blah, we all hear it… and it’s terrible advice.” You could feel the pin drop or what-have-you—or I guess I should say like the well-formatted moleskin journal drop from people there. It was a lot of fun.
But yeah—yeah, yeah—that’s why I wrote that book. How do we end up getting happy to work? “Follow your passion,” that’s not going to cut it. It’s too simplistic.
Mad Fientist: And instead you found that you actually get that pleasure and happiness from actually getting good at something. So it’s a craftsman mindset versus a passion mindset. So rather than think, “Oh, I need to find this perfect thing, like my soul mate job or whatever,” you instead just start working. And then, as you get better at it, you start to enjoy it more.
And you mentioned three separate things that are like key to having people love their work. And that’s autonomy, competence, and relatedness, being able to do things on your own and get things done, and then being good at what you’re doing, and then all of a sudden working with others and being valued. So, could you maybe talk a little bit about how you stumbled across that and some of the things that went into actually realizing that, actually, not working hard is what’s going to make you the happiest?
Cal Newport: Yeah. Well, the original source of that idea was actually where the title of the book comes from which is this famous Steve Martin quote. He talks about this in Born Standing Up, his memoir. He says, “People always ask me how to get into the entertainment industry—what’s the secret, how do I make the right connections, and what-have-you.” And he says, “The answer that I give them is never the answer they want to hear you. I say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you,’ that if you do that, all other good things will come.” That idea basically turns out to be more or less correct.
The traits that make a good job good are very valuable. People want them. And so the marketplace says, “If you want these, you have to have something rare and valuable to offer in exchange.” That’s almost always some sort of skill that the market values.
So, as you get better at something, something that the market actually values, you get more leverage. You get more leverage about what you work on, when you work on, how you work on it, where you work on it. All these things that help build satisfaction come from having the leverage of being good at something that’s very valuable.
And so, when you did start talking to people, people who love what they do, and you say—not giving your advice. You ask people, “just give me your advice,” they’ll just parrot what they’ve heard. They’ll say, “Yeah, follow your passion.”
Mad Fientist: Exactly!
Cal Newport: Just say, “What’s your story?” Almost always, what you’ll find is that they didn’t have a pre-existing passion. They didn’t know in advance what they’re going to be doing with their life. But what they did do is get really good at something valuable. And that unlocked almost everything else.
And so, that’s where the title came from, why I called the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
Mad Fientist: That’s very good. Yeah, that’s a great title as well.
So, for the whole early retirement movement thing that’s sort of exploding right now, a lot of people are rushing to this finish line because maybe they feel like they don’t have enough autonomy in the job, and they want to just pursue that passion. But the trade-off is they’re giving up what you call career capital. They’re competent at their job, they’re relating to the other colleagues. And they’re giving that up to have autonomy in this potentially brand new space that is their “passion.” And that doesn’t seem like a recipe for happiness. What are your thoughts on that?
Cal Newport: Well, I think it’s a big issue. I mean I’m a long time follower of the FIER community. And I know you’ve talked about this. And I know Pete’s talked about this as well. I think it’s a really important point. What is it that you’re trying to get to? And so, this notion that you have these passions, if you could just get more time to spend on them, you’re going to be very happy really doesn’t match what the research tells us, which is that’s not a major source of satisfaction. It’s just doing something that you have a pre-existing interest for. You need this sense of impact. You need this sense autonomy, this sense of competence.
And so, it’s almost as if the literature would say what of the FIER variations that we should all consider, a lot of which, you get very good at something, and because of that, you gain a lot of autonomy over how you work on it, when you work on it, and when you work on it. And because of your frugality, your savings rate are able to actually fill in the gaps, support these sort of more bespoke/custom fit situations.
But almost always, if you’re doing something at a very high level, you’re very good at it. That’s a huge source of satisfaction.
And so, I don’t know if we need a new term for this. Should we call it the focused FIER or something like that, right? That’s all we need, right, more and more terms? But this notion that…
Mad Fientist: More words…
Cal Newport: Yeah, you’re working on something you’re very good at a high level. And probably I should actually get paid a very good rate at it, but on a schedule that’s entirely your control.
That type of autonomy plus impact and competence is something shows up a lot when I was researching that book, is that a lot of people who are really happy are very good at something. And because of that, they really control what they do.
So, I talk about a database developer, for example, that does the six plus on/six months off type schedule, which I thought was really interesting. She worked six months on an engagement, and then spent six months doing something else. So she learned scuba diving in one of those six months. She got a pilot’s license. She went back to—her family is from Vietnam. So she spent one of those six month periods back in Vietnam.
And those types of model seemed really sustainable and compelling for trying to build something that’s remarkable. And so, I think that is a really big piece of caution for those of you who are in the FIER community that feel like if you just had time to work on your “passion,” you would find all this satisfaction. The reality might be a little bit more complicated.
Mad Fientist: So, you’ve mentioned that getting good at something is going to lead to fulfillment. So that’s actually where your next book Deep Work comes in. And you say Deep Work is the superpower of the 21st century. So can you maybe just give a little rundown on that whole project because that was the first book I actually read from you and I absolutely loved it.
Cal Newport: Yeah. So, in essence, it was a response to reactions to So Good They Can’t Ignore You which is, “Okay, if we buy your premise, how do we become so good at something we can’t be ignored?” And the answer seems to be at least a knowledge pursuit, so cognitive pursuits.
Deep work is very important. “Deep work” is my term for essentially concentrating without distraction.
And so, I made this economic argument in that book that said deep work is becoming increasingly valuable in the dollar sector of the economy. At the same time, due to technological innovations, it’s becoming increasingly rare. People are getting worse at concentrating. People are dedicating less time to concentration.
And so, I said this is a classic supply and demand situation. Something’s becoming more valuable at the same time it’s becoming more rare. If you are one of the few to systematically cultivate your ability to concentrate intently without distraction, you’re going to get a huge competitive advantage.
Mad Fientist: Absolutely! And from that book, I took away many good habits from it. But the best one has been just shutting down my email for the entire day. So, I will get lost in flow which is also something that you talk about in the book. And I will just be like blasting through stuff for hours. The time will slip by. And then, I will check my email after it and forget that it was closed the whole time. And there’ll be maybe 20 emails that would have just completely destroyed that period of work had it been open and pinging and just checking it. So yeah, it’s been hugely beneficial for me.
There’s a great equation in there where you say “high quality work equals time spent times the intensity of focus.” And that seems to be your secret as far as how you can actually—you rarely work after 5 p.m. And you rarely work on weekends. And yet you did all that amazing stuff that I already said at the beginning of the podcast.
So, what does your deep work look like in reality? And is that still true? Are you still not working in the evenings and weekends?
Cal Newport: Yeah, that’s essentially true. I found with the publicity campaign for my most recent book, I’ve had to add an early morning work session because the terrible thing about publicity tours is that there are things that are scheduled sprinkled throughout the day. And so, it eats up the opportunity to do uninterrupted deep work.
But it’s actually kind of useful for me because taking one month or six weeks to do the publicity tour, it gives me a good comparison of just how much more you could produce when you’re able to manipulate your schedule so that you batch the non-concentrated work and you batch the concentrated work. So you could go long periods of time without distraction, and then do the non-deep work. That’s an incredibly effective formula.
A formula that does not work well is when you sprinkle your day with appointments. So you’ll do a coffee, let me jump on a call, then we try to work for 30 minutes, then let me do this meeting, then let me do another couple of minutes. That turns out to be hugely cognitively inefficient.
A big secret cost that people don’t factor is that context switching is very impactful in your ability to concentrate. And so, people think, for example, glancing at an email inbox shouldn’t really hurt that much because you’re not multitasking. You’re mainly working on something hard, but you’re just glancing temporarily at an email inbox, how can two minutes really hurt? But there’s a cost to that context switch. And so, when you come back from that email inbox, it might be 15, 20 or 30 minutes until your mind has cleared out all of the attention residue from seeing those messages. And it does, you’re working at a cognitive deficit.
And so essentially, what I’ve experienced the last six weeks what I think a lot of knowledge workers experience every day is that we’ve structured our work in such a way that we’re essentially having a self-imposed cognitive handicap. It’s like we’re taking a reverse [neurotrophic] that makes us dumber.
And so, when you get away from that—like you’ve talked about what you’re doing—and spend hours and hours without distraction, it feels like a superpower because your brain is actually able to function in the way that it was made to function without all this extra cost.
Mad Fientist: In the book, you also sort of go into—like these are some of the quotes that I had written down years ago when I wrote it, “Relaxation does not result in happiness… people are happier at work… more flow experiences equal more life satisfaction… and flow happens when your mind stretched when you’re trying to accomplish something worthwhile and difficult.”
So, all of that, again, does not bode well for the whole early retirement thing. So maybe can you talk about early retirement in the context of all the stuff that you learned when you were putting Deep Work together?
Cal Newport: Right! So, when I was doing Deep Work, I pulled from some other sources to make this argument that people actually like doing hard, meaningful things. And this notion that we want nothing to do or that we need to just sit down and veg, we need that type of relaxation, is actually something that’s not really that true.
There’s all these famous thinkers and philosophers going back all the way to Aristotle to Arnold Binet more recently who all say we want to be doing important things. In fact, that could be energizing, not draining. We don’t need to put our feet up and drink a beer while watching the TV.
So, when I was working on my new book, one of the ways I explored that topic is I said, “Let me spend some time talking to members of the FIER community because that’s a great case study in how do we most fulfillingly spend our free time.” If you look at people who have who have recently achieved early retirement, you find people that suddenly have lots of free time. And they also seem to be people that are pretty driven and self aware because it takes a lot of drive and self awareness to actually get to financial independence at an early age. And so they’re more likely to aggressively seek out what’s going to make them happiest.
And the observation I made, I talk about Mr. Money Mustache, and I talked to the Thameses, the Frugalwoods, I said, “Look at these examples. What do these people do after they get, at a young age, freedom to do what they want with their time?” they fill it with activity. That was their instinct, right?
I mean Pete does not like television. Pete does not like sitting around and looking at the Internet. The Thameses, Elizabeth’s out there chopping wood, snow blowing. They’re doing all these crazy manual labor, clearing out their pads or this or that. They have complete choice. They’re not forced to do this. They’re not on a colonial homestead. Pete does not have to pour concrete or weld. But they’re the right examples.
Because they have complete autonomy, what do they end up doing? The hard things. The hard, interesting things.
And so, I think the FIER community really underscores this point, that we don’t really need lots of relaxation. What we need is interesting and meaningful and hard activity.
Mad Fientist: Absolutely! And that was such a nice surprise. And Mr. Money Mustache and Mrs. Frugalwoods, and then your book, I was not expecting that. But it like, yeah, these are absolutely perfect examples of how to do leisure right.
What types of quality leisure do you regularly enjoy? Obviously, you’re trying not to work after five. So you’ve got potentially quite a big chunk of time after work.
Cal Newport: Yeah, you would think so except for I have this other activity called three young boys. I actually have, at the moment, very little leisure time. Though what I do get leisure time—one thing is I read a lot.
And this is kind of the reality of being a non-fiction writer, especially in the idea space, is that your main ammunition is things that you’ve read, so you have to read all the time—five or six books at a time, constant reading. So, I read quite a bit.
And also, I’ve gotten back into guitar playing. I don’t know. I used to play guitar since I was eight or nine years old. But it was actually doing the research for the most recent book which was really underscoring that high quality leisure is key for satisfaction that drove me to take those out of the closet because that’s a quintessential example of a high skill leisure activity that requires concentration. It’s not easy to do, but it’s still something you do for no other reason than just the pleasure of doing it—which is a recipe for a lot of satisfaction.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, absolutely. I wonder—I definitely am really excited to talk about digital minimalism because that’s the new book. But there’s one more thing that I had written down for Deep Work. And that was “skillful management of attention is the key to a good life.” So can you maybe talk about that a little bit because I really liked that phrase.
Cal Newport: Well, your world is what you pay attention to. There’s way more stimuli coming in through your senses than you can actually notice in a conscious sense. So what you actually choose to pay attention to define sort of your experience of the world.
And so, one of the reasons why people who do a lot of deep work—and so, that part of the book, I talk about this metal smith, Ric Furrer who’s out I believe in Wisconsin. He’s a specialist in swords. He actually is a specialist in ancient methods. And I talk about watching this documentary of him building a sword using Viking methodology. And he ended up getting in touch with me after the book came out, so it was cool to talk to him.
But he’s somebody who spends most of his days in deep concentration, looking at metal, pounding on metal, looking at the color of the metal, trying to figure out where the impurities are—like this really concentrated physical labor. And he’s someone who seems really happy and fulfilled.
And part of the argument there is because he’s focusing his attention on small number of things that are hardly meaningful to him.
If on the other hand, you say, “Let me take that attention and stretch it out over lots of social media and emails and constantly web surfing,” like expose yourself to lots of things, much of which might be emotional or boring or upsetting or something that triggers some outrage, your world becomes one in which you’re emotionally drained and upset and outraged.
What you pay attention to really affects how you view the world, and therefore, how you feel.
And so, it’s a hidden benefit of deep work. When you spend more time focusing on a small number of important things, your world just seems more meaningful and interesting than if you instead take that same time and scatter it among lots of different things, especially things that are superficial or low quality.
Mad Fientist: Absolutely. And that leads perfectly into digital minimalism. Deep work is more about how to do really good work and not be distracted by things like email and things like that. But obviously, people’s personal lives are so distracted.
Digital minimalism is about your personal life. And as part of the book, you have this thing called a digital detox. And before I tell my personal story about how that has affected me, maybe just tell the audience about what that actually is.
Cal Newport: Right! Well, I mean just briefly, the way the book came about was, in part, Deep Work readers were saying exactly that. They’re saying, “Okay, maybe I buy these claims about technology in our professional life. But what’s going on in our personal life is even more important.” There’s even worse things happening in our personal life.
And some of it was about it’s affecting their work. But a lot of it was about “My life is just worse. Because I’m spending so much time looking at this screen, so much more time than I want to, and because I’m actually more algorithmically manipulated by what I see, I think the quality of my life outside of work is being diminished by these habits.”
And this is a problem. And it got really bad the last couple of years. And we need some sort of solution.
And so, that’s where digital minimalism came from.
Basically, what I said is let’s take this ancient idea, this ancient idea of minimalism—which has been around forever, like back to the ancients through Thoreau into the modern minimalist movement, into the FIER community, which I really see is something that came out of the neo-minimalism movement that started in the first decade of the 2000s online. So it’s an idea that’s been around a long time. Marie Kondo is an application of minimalism with people’s physical clutter.
And basically, minimalism says you’re almost always better off focusing your attention on a small number of things that you know for sure are really valuable. That’s almost always better than trying to scatter that attention about lots of things that are potentially have lower value.
And so, for some people, this is kind of a new idea. I think for people in the FIER community, this is the whole thing. This is the whole game, right? I mean, this minimalism is the whole game. You’re trying to maximize the time you can spend on the things that are the most important. So, this is actually probably pretty straightforward or old news for your listeners. But I was basically saying, “Let’s bring that to your digital life.”
So, instead of just having this clutter of all these different sort of digital, metaphorical possessions that you downloaded or signed up for randomly that are now all pulling at your time, and the clutter of it all is making you feel overwhelmed and unhappy, why don’t you empty out the metaphorical closet and rebuild your digital life from scratch—except, this time, only add back those that give you really big wins. You have a very specific reason to use it.
And so, the digital declutter is my suggestion for how to do that. And at a very high level, it basically says step away from it all. So all the technology in your personal life that’s optional enough that you could step away from without causing major harm, do so for 30 days.
Now, part of that is a detox, right? I mean it will help reduce the compulsive urge to check a screen. The people who have done this—and I’ve run over 1600 people through this experiment so far—they report that there’s about a 7 to 14-day window. After which, you really lose the compulsion to look at your screen. But that’s just the first step to it.
So, the other thing you’re supposed to do during this 30 days is get back in touch with what you’re really about—what you value, what you actually want to spend your time outside of work doing. This is hard self-reflection. This actually gives you the space from all the online chatter to answer these questions.
And then, when the 30 days are over, you don’t just go back to what you did before. You start from scratch and say, “Okay, before one of these tools or any tool makes it way back into my personal digital life, I have to have a really strong story for how this is the best way to use technology to help something I really value. And if they can’t pass that high threshold, I’m okay miss out on it.”
Just like someone in the FIER community, you say like, “Yeah, it might be nice I guess to have the panini press or whatever. But it’s not at the core of what I value, so I’m okay missing out on that small bit of value.
It’s like you do the same thing, except now, instead of a panini press, it might be Instagram or you’re having to check an online news.
Mad Fientist: Right! No, it’s been the most effective thing for me.
Over the years, I’ve pared down because I’m like, “I didn’t work this hard to now just spend all these hours just refreshing the same webpage and stuff like that.” So, over the years, I’ve cut back. I’ve unfollowed people. I’ve hidden things from Facebook, so that it’s just like the core friends that I want to keep in touch with and things like that. But there’s such a big difference just going cold turkey versus, “Oh, well, you know, it’s okay. I don’t do it until after 5 p.m.” And like I said, I have only a minimal people I’m following and things like that. It’s completely different. It changed just how I interact with it completely.
So, I got your book. And it was right before we were going on a ski trip. And I read through the whole book. And I was like, “Alright! Well, this is perfect. We’re going on a ski trip, so I don’t care about technology at all if I’m going to be in the mountains, having fun. So this is my perfect introduction to it.” And it was great because I didn’t miss it. I didn’t have to go through that sort of withdrawal that I’m sure a lot of people would when they do this.
But then, when I came back, it was just much easier not to even touch it. And then, since I have Mad Fientist Twitter and Facebook and stuff like that as far as Mad Scientist is concerned, I was like, “Alright! Well, on Saturdays, I can just check it. Check everything once and see how it is. And then, that’s it.”
And one, the thing that surprised me most is how little I missed even after one week, two weeks, three weeks. I was able to get caught up so quickly, whereas that would have been maybe a couple hours every night maybe just refreshing the same webpage—which is the thing that really got me about it, just the compulsiveness of it. I don’t have an addictive personality at all. But I felt like I wasn’t in control of that refresh. And that really made me sad.
But yeah, that was the biggest thing. It was like, “Whoa, I can still get all the information that I think I’m missing. And yet it takes me 30 minutes. And my brain feels like a normal brain, not some crazy brain.”
Is that something you found from all of these 1600 people that you ran through this experiment?
Cal Newport: Oh, yeah! I mean this is something that the social media companies hate because it really is true that once you start optimizing—
So, that’s a big part of this digital minimalist experiment. When something comes back into your life, it’s not just a binary question of “What do I use?”, you also ask “How and when do I use it?” So you try to optimize. How do I get most of the value? If something’s really important, how do I get that important value while minimizing the cost?
And so, a lot of digital minimalist, they still need to engage in social media for professional reasons. Do something like you’re talking about. It’s not on their phone. They go on like Sunday night or Saturday morning. It takes them 30 minutes. And they get 99% of the value without the 15 minutes a day of constant refreshing.
And this is something to social media companies hate because the way they like to argue this point is basically—and I know this because I famously have never had a social media account. And for years of sort of being in the public eye, writing up ads, going on the radio, doing debates about social media is not as important as we think, the strategy of the opponents always used to be the same. They would say, “Here’s a reason why it’s important. Like, okay, here’s an artist who publicizes his work on social media. Therefore, argument over, stop thinking about it. Put it on your phone and just start using it all the time.” They want these gateways into their ecosystem.
So like, “Oh, you want to see your grandkid?”—a producer for a TV show was telling me this story earlier this week. Her mom got on Facebook in her 70’s to see pictures of her grandkid. And now, she’s on Facebook constantly—hours a day.
That’s the model. Have some gateway utility, and then hope people don’t think about optimization. And then, you went into the ecosystem. And so, that type of optimizations is important.
And I also want to add, you’re picking up the importance of actually just saying “start from scratch.” And I want to emphasize that’s really unusual for me to do that type of writing. I mean I write advice books, but I sort of worked in this smart self-help type market where I don’t normally do things like a 30-day process or 6-step whatever. I don’t usually write like that.
Mad Fientist: Oh, yeah.
Cal Newport: But it was so important. It was so clear to me, researching this topic and working with people, you had to do it. It had to be the 30 days. You had to step away. It just works so much better than try to get at this nibbling around the edges from the top down.
And finally, the analogy that made me understand this is that it’s the same as in health and fitness. Once we got these highly palatable processed foods in the second half of the 20th century, we had a huge rise in obesity. And the forces were so powerful that just good advice, good intentions, small tips didn’t work. You couldn’t just tell someone “eat less” or “eat healthier.” You couldn’t just put up the food pyramid in the school nurse’s office and assume the problem is going to go away. The forces were too strong.
And so, if you think now who are the healthiest people you know, almost certainly they’re someone who has a very strong philosophy that they believe in. They’re vegan or Paleo or they’re a crossfit fanatic. But they have some sort of philosophy that’s based on their values and they believe in it. And it helps them make consistent decisions.
And so, […] technology forces are strong enough that we need something like that as well. You have to have something really strong, a sort of dramatic break with what you’re doing if you’re going to succeed. Just like it’s hard to give up bad eating by just saying, “Well, maybe I should eat less chips or maybe I should try to eat more vegetables,” that’s not enough, it’s the same thing with the tech.
I mean, we’ve all read the same articles about turning off notifications or not having the phone in your room at night. Everyone writes these blog posts of like, “I’ve cracked it! Here’s my new thing. I take a Sabbath once a week where I don’t look at my phone” or whatever, like all these small tips And yet you see them on Twitter. They’re on there 500 times a day or whatever.
And so, it is unusual for me to have something like 30 days and this and that. But it really seems to work.
Just like with physical possessions—you know, Marie Kondo is successful because she says, “You can’t just kind of get rid of some stuff. You have to empty the whole damn closet. The whole thing has to be empty. And then, you rebuild it from scratch. Just bring back in what’s important.”
There’s a reason why she’s doing that with physical possessions, is because you have to have dramatic break.
And so, I think your experience is quite common actually.
Mad Fientist: No, I couldn’t agree more. Yeah, I think that was incredibly important. And yeah, like I said, that’s the only thing that’s really changed things as I’ve tried to cut this thing out of my life. And yeah, it’s made a huge difference.
So, when you were researching this book, you obviously looked into the downsides of social media and the social media addiction and how it’s playing out in college campuses. And I think we can all feel that something’s not quite right, like it’s not a good thing.
But can you maybe talk about some of the things that you learned?
Cal Newport: Well, I think one of the more interesting things is that this model of phone use that we have today, this constant companion model in which you’re constantly looking at your phone throughout the day, we incorrectly think about that as somehow being fundamental to the technology, right? Like, yeah, this is just what you do with a smart phone. That’s what this invention is for.
But if you look closer, you find out that, actually, that behavior is largely contrived. And it was introduced into our culture primarily from the major social media platforms.
And so, what happens as you look into this—Facebook took the lead in this because they were early—they’re getting to a point where their IPO was coming up, and they really had to get their revenue numbers up, or they weren’t going to get the type of valuation that was going to get their early seed investors the 100x returns that they were expecting.
And so, they had this big issue: “How do we get our revenue numbers way up?” They had a pretty good user base, but they weren’t making enough money.
And this is because social media, until this point had actually been a more static experience. You would post things about yourself. People would post things about themselves. You would occasionally go out and check and say, “Hey, does anyone I know, you know, maybe they’ve updated something about themselves—like they’re on vacation, or their relationship status changed?” It didn’t really engender a lot of engagement—at least not on the level that they needed to make a lot of buddy.
And so, they re-engineered the social media experience to not be about posting and reading other people’s post, but to instead be about this constant stream of social approval indicators.
And so, we think about things like the like button as always being there, but that wasn’t there. The original Facebook didn’t have that. Friendster didn’t have that. MySpace didn’t have that at first. That was actually introduced and widely copied because what that created was social approval indicators that you could see about yourself every time you tap the app.
So now, it’s not just “Hey, one of my friends changed their relationship status.” It’s instead, “Did anyone like the thing I just posted?”
I think they spent a lot of money, for example, on auto-tagging photos, right? I mean why would they spend so much money? That’s a really hard problem. Computer scientists could tell you, image recognition problem, it’s very hard. They spent a lot of money so that they could figure out “Okay, the person in this photo that you just posted is Brandon. So, can we send them a note that say you’ve been tagged?” Why do they spend that money? Because it was another social approval indicator. So now, when you tap the app, you might see Cal tagged you in a photo, someone was thinking about you.
So now, you have a constant stream of social approval indicators coming at you throughout the day. it’s things about you, so that’s incredibly irresistible. And it’s intermittent. Sometimes, when you tap the app, you will get some more likes or tags. And sometimes, you won’t.
And in fact, some people like the NYU Professor, Adam Alter, the whistleblower, Tristan Harris claimed that Facebook and Instagram were both artificially batching likes and hearts and favorites to make the stream more intermittent.
Mad Fientist: Wow!
Cal Newport: They don’t want just the constant, steady stream, they want it to be, sometimes, you get a bunch, and sometimes, you don’t. They learned about that from Las Vegas casino gambling where decades earlier, when slot machines were computerized, so they could actually hard code in reinforcement schedules—they did all this research in Las Vegas to figure out what’s the optimal schedule of rewards and how big should those rewards be to keep people pulling the lever way more than they want to.
And so, they learned from those ideas. They basically re-engineered the whole social media experience into essentially a slot machine.
About you, social approval indicators coming at you intermittently in your phone wherever you are, that’s what created this behavior of “I always look at my phone.”
So there’s nothing fundamental about it. I mean there’s nothing fundamental about an iPhone that says, “You have to look at this all the time.” I write about how that was not the original vision at all. You could talk to the original engineering team from the original iPhone to confirm this had nothing to do with that. It was basically the social media companies reprogrammed us to do this thing. And they tried to trick us into thinking, “Well, this is just what it means to live in a high tech culture. What do you want to do? Get rid of your phones? You want to get rid of the Internet?” They always give me these distasteful push backs hoping that we don’t notice that there’s nothing fundamental about smart phones or the internet or the social internet or any of these great innovations that requires us to look at a screen two to three hours a day.
The only person that serves is essentially the stockholders of these companies, a small number of realtors in the Northern California area. That’s basically who’s being helped by that behavior. It’s not at all fundamental.
And so, it’s so fascinating to learn that. This is why people are so upset. It’s not like, yeah, this is what this tech is. It’s not like, okay, cars are really convenient, but a side effect is there’s going to be car crashes that people are going to die. But you know what, what are we going to do because cars are really convenient.
We don’t actually need the constant companion model. There’s really no value that gives us. There’s nothing that we have to do that for in order to get some sort of deep value. It’s just relatively arbitrary.
I think that’s why people are getting fed up because they’re saying, “I’m doing this for no real good reason. I feel manipulated because of it.”
Mad Fientist: And it’s also harming people as well. It’s not even neutral. It’s not even like, “Oh, I’m doing this, but I could be doing something else.”
I think you mentioned college campuses are seeing a high increase in mental health problems. And that’s because our brains aren’t meant to be slot machined like this and having these weird sort of social interactions, but not like really proper ones.
So, can you talk about what they’re finding on college campuses and how it’s affecting students and young people?
Cal Newport: Well, you know, I first heard about this years ago. Three or four years ago, I was doing an event on a college campus. And I was walking across campus with the head of the mental health services. It’s at Walden University. And she was saying, “You know, everything changed recently. We used to get a relatively small number of students committed with mental health issues. And it was a wide variety,” you know, the standard distribution of mental health issues you see in society at large. And she said, “Yeah, a couple years ago, that all changed. Now we have many, many more students coming in than we’ve ever had before. And it’s all anxiety and anxiety-related disorders.” So, what’s causing that? She didn’t even pause. She’s like, “Smart phones.” That’s the difference.
The students who came in who had smart phones as teenagers, they’re here. And three years ago—at this point, three years ago—the smart phone was still new. And most of them hadn’t had it before college. We didn’t have these issues. Then the research caught up on this.
Jean Twenge has this big, new book out called iGen. She’s an expert. Jean Twenge is a professor who’s an expert in essentially measuring attributes that change over generations. So she measures how certain things change from generation to generation. That’s what she does.
The rise in mental health issues—and in particular, anxiety and anxiety-related disorders—were literally off the chart. She had never seen a jump so high from one generation to the next on any attribute that had ever been measured over any generation that they’ve ever studied. And where that split happened was between the millennials and Gen Z.
And the difference between Gen Z and millennials, the Gen Z had widespread smart phone usage starting in their early adolescence. They looked at a lot of different explanations. And all that have basically began to shake out as not being a good alternative.
The only signal that’s remained strong is smart phones, the social media that it delivers. And it’s not just anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. The corresponding hospitalizations for self-harm and suicide attempts went right up—right up with the anxiety and anxiety-related disorders.
And so, I talk about them in the book as being the digital canary in the coal mine because they’re taking this behavior that we’re all doing, but they push it to an extreme. So, Gen Z is a good way to measure what type of effects you have as you spend more and more time looking at a screen as opposed to engaging in the real world.
When you take the generation that’s basically spending all their discretionary time looking at the screen, we see massive, massive issues with mental health.
And so, you and I, we’re a little bit older. We don’t look at our screens that much. But that’s a good experiment. And the message we get out of this experiment is that our brain is certainly not meant for this behavior. And there is consequences.
And so, I think for people who use it a lot, but not as much as Gen Z, what they have is this persistent background hub of anxiety that they’ve just come to accept as just our normal state of affairs. But it’s actually not. It’s your brain crying out for help saying, “I’m not supposed to be doing this type of high octane, low bit rate digital interaction all day.” This isn’t what the brain is supposed to be doing. It’s sort of the cognitive equivalent of having a pain in your knee because you’re carrying too much weight. This is our brains crying out for help. This is not natural. You should spend less time doing this.
Mad Fientist: And like I said, just the change in myself just over the last month has been incredible. So I definitely recommend people check out the book and go through the whole digital declutter and everything.
And especially for the FIER crowd, you don’t want to work this hard to then get all this freedom, and then just spend it clicking refresh on Facebook or…
Cal Newport: Right! I think a serious issue for the FIER crowd to think about is because when I ran this big experiment with all the people who went through this declutter, what was clear is that it’s actually really hard to fill your time when you don’t have this. That’s not trivial. You don’t want to take that lightly.
A lot of people have really used the distraction of the screen as a crutch. It prevents them from having to face the void or face themselves or face our own thoughts or answer the hard question of like, “What do I want to do? What do I find meaning doing?”
And so, a lot of people, especially younger people who did the clutter had a really, really hard time, especially that first day.
Mad Fientist: Yeah…
Cal Newport: Like, “What am I supposed to do when I don’t have this to click and look on?”
I talked a lot in the book about how you develop the importance of developing high quality analog leisure activities, basically getting really serious about “This is what I really want to do with my time. And this is really important” like Mr. Money Mustache. That’s why I had him blurb the book, is because he’s the guy who thinks a lot about “what do I want to do with my time.” And for him, he really needs to use his hand to build things. And that’s very, very important. But he thought a lot about this.
And the Frugalwoods thought a lot about this too. They wanted to be outside. They wanted to be in nature. They wanted to be manipulating nature and the natural world and engaging. And this was very important to them. They got that straight before they added all these free time to their lives.
And so, I definitely learned this working on this book. It’s harder than you think if you haven’t been working on it, to figure out what to do with your life if you don’t have a screen.
And so, you’re absolutely right. If you get financial independence tomorrow, but you haven’t thought about any of this, you are almost certainly going to spend way too much of that time looking at your screen. It’s just going to make you les happy. It’s going to make you anxious. You’re not going to be happy about it.
So, it’s hard work to figure out “what do I want to do instead” But it’s work that’s really worth doing to the point where I even recommend that young people, in particular, do that hard work before you do the digital declutter because it could be that scary. Otherwise, it could be that scary, that first day. You say, “I have a whole evening, and I have no screens to look at.” It could be really, really scary.
And I know it sounds trivial, but it’s really not. I mean these are hard issues.
And so, it’s really important to figure out what you want to do because these screens have been filling in for an answer to that question much more than people realize until they’re forced to confront it.
One of the big advantages of never having a social media account is we have a drive to be social. And so if, like me, you’re not on social media, this means you actually do the work of like, “Okay, I have to go find people. I got to get a family member on the phone. I got to set up events.”
I set up my porch a lot. I have a porch in this small town where I live. We’re sort of in the center of town. And so, maybe a half dozen neighbors will come by at some point. In the evening, if I’m out there, you could just talk to me. Oh, that’s so important.
And one of the big secret cost of social media is that it tricks the frontal cortex—like the very recent part of your brain—into thinking, “Oh, you’re really social. You’ve been talking to people all day, right? I mean you said happy birthday to three people. You’ve been DM’ing people on Twitter. You’re very, very social.”
But a big point I make in the book is that most of the rest of your brain, the part of your brain that has evolved to be this high power social computer over hundreds of thousands of years doesn’t recognize an emoji or a happy birthday in ASCII characters. It doesn’t recognize that as socializing.
And that’s why we get these paradoxical research studies that show that the more people use social media, the more likely they are to be lonely. It’s because it displaces the real world conversation. And it tricks you enough into thinking you’re social that you’re like, “Okay, I guess I’m good.” But the rest of your brain is like, “No, you’re not. That’s not actually socializing.”
And so, I think part of why I was excited to talk to the FIER crowd is that you guys are willing to consider drastic ideas. It doesn’t mean that you’ll do it. But to you, it’s not a big deal the notion of doing something that’s different and drastic.
And so, if you don’t need social media for your professional life, consider quitting. Consider just walking away. It forces you into so many other activities that are beneficial.
You can still blog. I’m a big blogging fan. I love the fact that so much of the FIER community has remained blog-centric as opposed to just migrating into the larger social media platforms sort of conversations. You’re actually still very blog-centric, which I love (which I think is a great medium).
But if you’re interested in that idea, at the very least, I suggest watching this TED talk I did a few years ago called Quit Social Media. I kind of make my whole pitch about why you should consider quitting it all together.
And so, I’m hoping to plant some of these seeds into the minds of your listeners, that taking drastic steps in your technological life can have drastic benefits just like taking drastic steps to your financial life could have these drastic benefits. I mean they’re connected. The more drastic the steps, the more drastic the improvement that you might actually end up with.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, I can’t agree more. And that’s definitely been my experience. So, I highly recommend you check it out. I’ll link to the TEDTalk in the show notes and also all the books that we’ve talked about. It’s been fantastic.
Cal, I can’t thank you enough for coming on the show. This has been a big treat. I don’t want to take up too much of your time. But I want to obviously ask you the question I ask everyone.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to somebody on pursuing financial independence?
And this could definitely obviously not be financial related, and it could be maybe more something to think about if you’re thinking that early retirement is what you’re striving for because, obviously, you’ve done a lot of research into that.
So, what would be your one piece of advice for me?
Cal Newport: I mean, going back to So Good, They Can’t Ignore You, my advice would be that skill is your greatest weapon. So, if you relentlessly hone a skill that is very valuable, that is like your strongest weapon in trying to give yourself financial options. You could generate more money. You could generate much more autonomy and leverage over how you generate that money. You get much more flexibility about when and how you work.
It really is like a magic elixir for career satisfaction—be really, really good at something. Even if that requires a sort of in-the-desert apprenticeship type period where you’re really just in the woodshed doing the practicing. I mean, there’s a reason why in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I spent time with a professional guitar player.
Let me just describe what it’s like watching a professional guitar player practicing. That’s what it should be like when you’re trying to build up a skill in the knowledge world.
But I’m huge booster in skill. I think that sometimes gets lost. I could get lost in the conversations of spreadsheets and savings rate and trying to push things out. The one lever that you also could give you this huge, huge return is the better you are at something that the market values, just the more control you have over almost all those factors.
And so, that’s my one piece of advice, is look at your skill as one of the most important things that you could improve and leverage to gain financial independence.
Mad Fientist: That’s great. And it’ll increase your happiness and your satisfaction with life too which is an excellent added bonus.
Cal Newport: Yeah, you can’t go wrong.
Mad Fientist: Absolutely! So, thanks so much, Cal. This has been great. So obviously, you’re not on social media. So people can find you at CalNewport.com. And then, obviously, I’ll link to the TEDTalk and all the books.
Cal Newport: Yeah, yeah. CalNewport.com. I’ve been blogging there for over a decade. I’ve watched the FIER movement sort of emerge over the last 10 years. I had been a pretty big fan of it. So I appreciate this chance to actually come on your podcast and reach this audience because I think we’re kindred spirits.
I mean, if there’s anyone out there that I think this digital minimalism type ideas might immediately makes sense for, it’s probably the people in this community. So, this was exciting for me. Thanks for having me.
Mad Fientist: Oh no, it was my pleasure. And yeah, you’re absolutely right. I think it’s the exact audience that will soak this stuff up. And so, thank you so much again. And yeah, hopefully, I’ll see you at some point and can buy you a beer to thank you for coming on the show.
Cal Newport: Alright, I look forward to it. I’ll hold you to it.
Mad Fientist: Alright! Thanks. Thanks Cal. Bye!
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