We would all like to be smarter, to produce better software, better research papers or better art. It is not difficult to see that, by just about any metric, productivity amongst human beings follow a power law. For example, 80% of all research papers are written by 20% of the researchers. (I made this one up, but the actual numbers are similar: see Lotka’s law.)
However, it is a difficult topic to study because the very idea of measuring intellectual productivity is, at best, controversial.
Yet we can’t help but ask: what does determine your intellectual productivity? Here are some tentative answers:
- Luck. A lot of intellectual work is based on trial and error. A couple of early breakthroughs, due to pure chance, can motivate you and inspire you to work for years. Repeated failures can discourage you and push to abandon leading edge work. Luck alone can explain the power law in the distribution of intellectual productivity.
- Persistence. Some people are pig headed. I sure am. They will keep working even when things are not working. This is closely related to the willingness to take chances. Most great intellectuals dive in and take risks.
- People. Some people drain you without helping you produce. Other people energize you and force you to improve your game. Even though I am an introvert and sometimes an insular person, I have not found a better way to boost my productivity than finding exactly the right people at the right time. Sometimes I will have worked for months on a problem just to have several breakthroughs because I started working with someone smart. The quality of my work can also be strongly affected by the people I work with: people with higher standards than mine tend to push me up, people with lower standards tend to make me more lenient. But it is not just a matter of meeting smart people. I do not think I would get a lot out of meetings with Einstein. I am not interested in Physics right now and I doubt Einstein would share my interests. You need to meet people who have truly compatible goals and interests. Some people have an innate ability to connect with others, to find the right collaborators. Others spend a lot of time meeting people and are therefore more likely to find good matches.Though I have been extremely lucky in this respect for the last few years, collaboration is not and will never be my strong point.
- Method. Some people pay attention to what works and to what does not work. They experiment. They read about how great people worked. They learn meta-strategies like divide-and-conquer. They constantly tune their approach to intellectual productivity. Some people figure out that working seriously a few hours every day is better than doing pseudo-work all day. I find that a common source of low productivity is excessive pondering: you cannot be productive if you fail to deliver in time. Other people just stumble on the right approach early on. For example, ever since I was a teenager, I have collected ideas in a notebook. This means that I am never out of crazy (and usually bad) ideas.
- Focus. Intellectual work is boring in a way that manual labor is not. Intellectual work can become frankly alienating. Some people seem to never get bored. They can do narrow mathematics for days and days without ever getting bored. They are satisfied by the work itself. I have weak boredom resilience myself: I constantly question the relevance of my work. While it sounds good, it can actually be quite bad as you can be far more productive if you just keep your head down and push forward. I also see a lot of people who willingly engage in low productivity activities. Then they wonder why they aren’t being productive! A lot of work is actually busy work: you feel as if you were working, but you aren’t producing lasting value.
- Fire. You have to care to have some intellectual productivity. You must feel bad when nothing was achieved. And I mean really bad. Some people are only driven by fear of losing their financial support. Others cannot stand not producing anything intellectually. They do not wait for permission nor do they plan to retire. These people, those who feel an urge to produce, will naturally be much more productive.