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How to be a Highschool Superstar by Cal Newport

Highschool Superstar

RATING: 8/10…READ: March 14, 2011

A fantastic read that goes way beyond high school. Cal Newport dissects “relaxed superstars” as he puts it, who live under scheduled high school lives and get into top tier universities without feeling stressed out. A great look into cultivating “interestingess,” dispelling the passion myth, and leading a life of one focused pursuit in which rewards compound upon each other.

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The three laws of the relaxed superstar:

The law of under scheduling: pack your schedule with free time. Use this time to explore.

The law of focus: Master one serious interest. Don’t waste time on unrelated activities.

The Law of Innovation: Pursue accomplishments that are hard to explain, not hard to do.

Genuinely interesting accomplishments are generated only by living a genuinely interesting life—not by special abilities or careful planning.

Don’t look at the accomplishments, but look at the path.

The interestingness hypothesis

When admissions officers say they’re looking for students who show “passion,” what they really mean is that they’re looking for the type of student who would appeal to an NPR talk show producer. That is, a student who could sit down and chat about a topic for thirty minutes and hold an educated audience’s rapt attention.

Interestingness cannot be forced or planned in advance. It is generated, instead, as a natural by-product of a “deep interest” which is a long-term pursuit that a student returns to voluntarily and eagerly whenever given a chance.

Apply the Saturday morning test to see if an interest is a deep interest…if you have nothing to do on a Saturday, what do you do?

Everyone can develop a deep interest

-Leave plenty of leisure time in your schedule

-Use this time to expose yourself to lots of different things, even if you’re not sure in advance whether they’ll interest you.

-Leave some of this time free to relax and reflect “without something in your ear.”

Follow up on your most interesting experiences (obvious, but severely overlooked)

Develop a relentless habit of contacting people that may lead somewhere interesting

Expose, Follow up, Expose, Follow Up, etc.

“I’ve never met a relaxed superstar who planned the sources of his or her interestingness in advance.”

The Law of under scheduling: Pack your schedule with free time. Use this time to explore.

Set a clear cutoff point for your workday. Use the free time as 100% unstructured and unscheduled.

You’re more likely to focus on your work actually getting stuff done rather than the half working / half distracted state called pseudowork.

Technique of work trumps effort – ex. Swimmers: world record holders display perfect form/technique, its not just who kicks the hardest

-Be organized: have a notebook and separate folders for appropriate work

-Take Notes: organize information into big ideas

Use the QEC (question/evidence/conclusion) approach: reduce the information presented to you into questions paired with conclusions.

Between the two, list the evidence that justifies the connection.

Instead of just listing facts, ask a question: ex. Why was the Mayflower compact signed? – then list the relevant facts below the question and begin forming a conclusion for the evidence…if you can’t come up with a Conclusion in the moment, write CONCLUSION and return to it later.

For Math Problems record sample problems AND explanations, but put them into your own words.

Use flashcards to memorize facts

For diagrams, use a photocopy with the labels covered over and compare

If you don’t understand something in your notes, put a big question mark to clearly label your trouble spot — your goal should be to answer this trouble spot within 48 hours.

—either go back and re-read

—seek advice of others

—Google advice on the question

The fastest way to review your notes is via ACTIVE RECALL —almost like lecturing an imaginary class (no peeking at notes!!!)

If you can give the imaginary lecture without huge blunders, move on. If a certain area is giving you trouble spots…mark the trouble spots and return to it later after the information has left your short-term memory.

For Math: recreate the steps and answers to the sample problems in addition to giving a lecture about it, narrating each step of the way as if you had to deal with bored students.

For straight facts there are no shortcuts, use your flashcards and start early!

Paper writing in 3 days:

Day 1: Research — go back to the book and notes you took to formulate a direction for the paper in a rough outline. After you finish it, go clear head, return to it fresh to revise outline

Day 2: Writing: using the outline from day 1, crank out a rough draft of the paper

Day 3: Editing: recommended two passes – a computer pass looking for obvious mistakes such as transitions and structure and small mistakes. The print out a copy and read it out loud.

Your environment plays a huge role on the quality of work you produce:

Work in isolation

Work for 50 min, then take a 10 min break

Avoid state transition cues: ie. texting, facebook, email, etc.

Keep high energy levels with good snacks (high protein)

No internet

Time Management:

-spread out a large task over several days into smaller chunks

-Get a large visible calendar and record all due dates / event dates / etc.

-Apply two-week method: jump ahead two weeks on your calendar and review upcoming deadlines…construct a plan for how to complete the upcoming work and break it down into chunks —–schedule the chunks to be completed on specific days.

Under scheduling:

Don’t do activities in which the only requirement is showing up OR paying money to get in.

Its ok to take on an activity purely for social reasons.


Develop a reading habit – once a month browse a bookstore, grab the titles that grab your attention off the shelf, settle down with them and skim them to see which keep your interest.

Start a Saturday morning project, (ex. Screenplay, blog, etc.) – do it in the time between waking up and lunch.

Join a community (ex. Volunteering, film club, etc.) and follow through — pay your dues for greater projects.

“When you find a reporter whose work you admire, break his or her code. Examine the story and figure out what the reporter did, where he or she went, how that reporter constructed the story, and why it worked.

-Find examples of people who have succeeded in the field and those who have not

-Locate the differences

-Contact one of those who succeeded for specific advice.

*Use real examples & real people

—for emailing:

explain why you are interested in the person

Be very clear about your expectations. List two or three short questions at the bottom of the email and ask if the person is willing to respond to them.

Make questions specific. Anything general—“How do I succeed?”—will be ignored.

Be succinct. Try not to use more than a line or two before getting to your request. Don’t waste two or three paragraphs explaining who you are and what your situation is—the person will skim this at best, and delete the message at worst.

-If you ask, you’re ahead of 99% of the population

-Regularly attend talks and conferences and come up with one specific question to ask the speaker – within a week or two, follow up with an email.

Part II: Focus

Focus on ONE pursuit – resist the urge to take on numerous activities

Minor differences in talent can generate major differences in rewards.

The extracurricular superstar hypothesis:

You will receive a sizable impressiveness bonus for an extracurricular pursuit if you’re the best at that pursuit out of all the applicants.

It holds regardless of the competiveness of the activity for which you are the best. Therefore, pursuits that do not have lots of competition yield a higher ratio of impressiveness to hours of work required than those that do.

For example: becoming a meteor expert is much easier than becoming one of the nation’s best young violinists.

3. In order to qualify you as “the best” in an extracurricular pursuit, your efforts much demonstrate some marker of exceptional ability. It’s not good enough that the pursuit is unusual; you must also appear to be unusually good.

“The forty-first chair” – the plight of talented individuals, deserving of rewards, who are nevertheless bypassed as these rewards are garnered by a select few. –Arsene Housaye

-If two scientists publish similar results at the same time, the more famous one will get the credit.

-Those who have not received Noble Prizes have generally contributed as much as some of the recipients or more.

-“For unto every one that hath, more shall be given, and he shall have abundance” OR The Rich get richer, as the poor get poorer

-It is a self-reinforcing loop wants you get fame

The Complimentary-Accomplishments Hypothesis: once you’ve accomplished something that is unambiguously impressive, you’ll begin to achieve complementary accomplishments with little effort.

The Laundry List Hypothesis: Adding to your schedule an activity that could be replicated by any student willing to sign up and invest a reasonable amount of time in it can hurt your impressiveness. It follows that creating a laundry list of mediocre activities reduces your chances of the superstar effect.  —think Barry Schwartz’s paradox of choice.

Signaling Theory: a peacock uses its beautiful feathers to attract mates. The more beautiful the feathers, the easier to get a good mate. On the flip side, the more beautiful the feathers, the easier it is for them to become prey. Only the strongest can develop beautiful feathers, while the weakest ones are dull.

-only a student who is truly confident about her skills can afford to avoid showing them off. Those that have to have to generate side channeling. They can’t rely on outside sources (side channeling) to verify their ability.

Choosing a Focus: talent is over rated, people are at where they are at due to skill. Ultimately choosing a focus, as long as it is a deep interest, doesn’t matter – you cannot be wrong.

-Start by whittling down your interests to a small number of focused pursuits; then immerse yourself in their world.

The Goodness Paradox: Most people assume they know how to become good. Yet most are not good at anything.

Assume you know NOTHING about your area of focus

Contact those before you for specific advice and strategies

Do not pay attention to your competition and get sucked in to it

The Immersion Hypothesis: the more you immerse yourself in the world surrounding an activity, the more success with the activity you’ll experience.

-This is a signal of true commitment to yourself to fight off procrastination and keep up motivation

-Using this method you get small bursts of effort that builds great equity over time.

The Leveraged-Ability Hypothesis: Once you pass a certain threshold of skill in a field, you’ll encounter many opportunities for related activities that will improve your perceived ability without requiring an excessive time commitment.

The Productivity Purge:

Label on a sheet of paper with the names of your focused pursuits, one or two is optimal. (Learning to play guitar, etc. can be labeled as “extra”)

Under each label list all of the related projects currently in progress. The word “project,” in this context refers to anything that requires a regular time commitment.

For each list, put a star next to the one or two projects that you think have the greatest chance of retuning rewards. “Rewards” refers to advances in your ability. For the “extra” list, you can star the one or two projects that you enjoy the most.

Consider the non-starred projects. See if you can eliminate them.

Now you should have only a small number of projects for each focused pursuit.

Part III – The Law of Innovation

Pursue accomplishments that are hard to explain, not hard to do

The Failed-Simulation-Effect: if you cannot mentally simulate the steps taken by a student to reach an accomplishment, you will experience a feeling of profound impressiveness.

Ex. Violin player: if a violin player is very good, you can still probably trace the steps to get where they are and it is unimpressive. However, if the Violin player played at Carnegie Hall, the failed-simulation effect returns

-Research shows that you evaluate other people by first comparing them to yourself

-If during this comparison you can’t imagine yourself doing what someone else did, then you’re left to assume that he or she possesses some ability that you lack.

-In American culture, impressiveness is tied more to special abilities than it is to persistence or inventiveness.

3 Rules of Innovation:

Innovators don’t try to think up innovations from scratch —the instinct is to want an innovative activity RIGHT NOW, and the ego inside asks “what if it never comes?”

You shouldn’t care to be involved with any activity that you can easily imagine being involved with.

Innovators join closed communities and pay their dues —open = school government, hidden = LARP communities, Closed = Book Deal —> you must PAY YOUR DUES

Innovators leverage their way up to innovation —“What’s a project that I’m well suited to finish efficiently and competently right now?”


Leverage one project to get to another AKA the long term strategy


“It’s hard as a high school student to just sit around and think up some fascinating thing—like some entirely new organization or magazine. It’s much easier to just find something you’re really interested in and show them that you could be useful.”

Doing a reasonable amount of hard work over a long period of time, trumps doing an insane amount of work over a short period of time.

A trap when looking to innovate is entering a community that already has clear role for volunteers.

Instead identify organizations that don’t have routines in place for dealing with students and find something they are missing, something they need help with that could really benefit them and then offer to supply it.

Once you have your “shadow job,” set aside a fixed number of hours (5-10) where you will show up every time to do the work

Create an innovation map to deconstruct innovators before you:

Precipitating event


Work required

Precipitating event


Work required

If your endeavor can be “sloganable” all the better, ex. Bestselling author, attempting to visit every country, etc.

-Strip the idea to its core: if it can’t be explained in one sentence, you need to simplify it.

-Inflate your ambition: “what if I doubled the ambition of this project?” —ask however that it is still feasible. Often it turns out that getting a project started is harder than growing it once it going.

-Apply the jaded-brother test

Innovation won’t come easily at first as you’re struggling to master all the moves. But once the subsidiary skills click into place, it will be like achieving a balanced stroke.