Underemployed Amateurs

Photo by Belle Maluf / Unsplash

#1 "The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.” @MorganHousel

Is it only me or has anyone else also noticed a universally palpable admiration towards being busy? Towards spending X hours in the day working in one of two ways - (1) doing work that can easily be automated and requires no specific previous educational knowledge/ understanding (2) tasks involving the use of previously acquired knowledge and skills or google searches to fill in the gaps. Wherever I go, whichever age group I interact with — with a rare exception of some young kids and some retired adults — the desire to be busy is a predominant theme in the background (and in all honesty, I have also been subconsciously guilty of promoting this thinking pattern in my mind). Anyways, the fact is that this subconscious ideology can be both counterproductive and motivating depending on the situation and person. However, the fact that it underscores the importance of "free productive time" is something to look out for.

Short example for you. After my freshman year of college, I was interning with a private equity firm based out of Singapore. Most of my work involved using excel formulas to work on spreadsheets and financial models. Ignorant of all the advanced excel formulas, I felt I could survive using the basic formulas and just working hard or googling things that  I couldn’t figure out myself. Lucky for me, at the same time, my college was email spamming all of us to fully utilize the free LinkedIn learning account that they had provided to us. Mindlessly following the email chain, I figured out that Linkedin Learning had a really cool 24 hr course on mastering excel. At first, I felt it would be stupid to work less and actually spend time doing this course, however, I finally decided to go ahead with it. Three things happened:

  1. I became far more efficient at doing my work and cut down on so much of the “manual labor” by just learning things I didn’t even know existed.
  2. I actually had fun learning and developed an appreciation for prioritizing learning skills — once you learn something it sticks with you forever.
  3. I was so much better prepared to tackle the 1000+ excel tasks that I stumbled upon during my research, academic education, and other extracurriculars in the future.

NOTE: I feel something like this is the most obvious example that many of you might have also taken a cue from. The same aforementioned situation repeatedly presented itself to me while learning how to work with STATA and R (other software/coding languages while working on research projects).

Free productive time might sound like an oxymoron but has really been vital to my growth personally and work-wise. By free productivity time, I mean time that is not spent working but rather learning about / doing some research on anything we feel is interesting — it may be reading a book on a skill/area you’re trying to learn more about,  learning how to more efficiently use a particular piece of technology, considering doing something artistic and creative, learning a particular soft or hard skill you might be interested in, or learning a new sport. The funny thing is that everyone (including myself) already subconsciously allocates a small amount of time to the free productivity time category in their week — however, I feel that giving it a name can help in the following ways:

  1. It will make you conscious to actually plan it in your schedule on a daily or weekly basis.
  2. Most of us are highly irregular when it comes to prioritizing this category of time — for example, most of my free productivity time is actually spent during the summer holidays and I virtually couldn’t care less about it when I have college or research work going on. Giving this category of time a name makes it more likely for you to realize it’s something you should incorporate in your daily schedule on a regular basis.
  3. Use previous experience to articulate its importance in my head — Makes you more efficient now, makes you more efficient in the future, and is a somewhat fun way of learning something that will stick with you.

My trick to incorporating this time in my schedule:

As a student, I try to take 4 courses if I can take 5. As a professional, I try to do one internship if I can do two. Trying to commit to a little bit less than your max realistic capacity requires you to be completely honest with yourself. It allows you to perform better and absorb more out of what you do. It allows you to only do things you feel are important. It allows you to balance and co-prioritize expanding your knowledge while putting it to use at the same time. It allows you to learn things you enjoy outside college/work — on the internet, by reading books, and absorbing the insane amounts of free information out there. And I feel when it comes to non-structured learning done for yourself, let your instincts guide you.

Note that it is very important not to get confused and think that free productivity time is only to learn hard skills for internships. The idea is much broader than that:

  1. Reading a book on time management to better structure your days - Make time by Jake Knapp or a philosophy book to learn how to work/live/study/enjoy better - The daily Stoic - Ryan Holiday or a what to do with your money (especially for young people) book - The psychology of money - Morgan Housel. You’ll be surprised to know that almost everything in life is a skill that you can read about.
  2. Learning digital art/ drawing/ writing/ effectively communicating/interesting ideas on podcasts (who knows where they might help you out - a website user experience perhaps?)
  3. What about filmmaking, photography, singing, dancing, trekking, sports, or something that’s really niche?

#2 You might learn more from amateurs than professionals @AustinKleon

If any of you have tried to learn how to drive a manual car, I’m sure you’ve struggled with learning how to release the clutch in a proper fashion at least a couple of times. The past week, my dad and I were trying to teach my younger brother how to drive. Funny enough, my dad (a much better driver than I am due to the years of practice) almost always seemed to lose his willpower, giving up trying to articulate the process of starting a car. And I, on the other hand,  was quite successful in communicating the process much better despite having very little experience comparatively. It wasn’t that my communication skills were better or my dad was just flat-out disinterested. The memory of leaving the clutch slowly and pressing the accelerator was freshly present in my conscious mind, whereas, for my dad, it was just a matter of muscle memory. After doing it over the years, he was consciously unaware of what he was doing — it just happened automatically (using System 1 - for those of you that have read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman - google talk by Kahneman). The same is the case for professionals in all industries from NBA Players to musicians to boxing coaches to anyone who’s done something for a very long period of time. Amateurs, on the other hand, are at a point where they are comfortable enough to have successfully dealt with a particular challenge but not seasoned enough to have developed an outstanding muscle-memory pattern — and that’s why they are great teachers.

#3 Global Trends shaping Humanity - Daniel Kahneman and Yuval Noah Harari

If there is any single piece of content I feel you should watch during your cozy time this week, this is it! Talks like these help me evaluate how to spend my time focussing on the skills that will be required to thrive in the near future (adaptability, emotional intelligence, living more noise-free, and getting to know yourself better than the algorithms around you).

Some interesting big ideas talked about in the video:

  • “Accelerating pace of change”, Yuval
  • “Change in the structure of human beings in the near future”, Yuval
  • “Inorganic entities making major decisions in the future and taking over the human race”, Yuval
  • “There is no common we for humanity”, Kahneman and Yuval
  • “Noise in human judgment”, Kahneman
  • “How AI might have its own emotional intelligence?”, Yuval

If you've spent time thinking about anything I write — email me your thoughts at   arykhanna24@gmail.com or ak2253@cornell.edu. If nothing more, I promise you a meaningful conversation!

Aryan Khanna

Aryan Khanna