Path-breaking work has at its core very hard work, often done in the midst of a well-defined schedule and usually done in solitude. Research shows that the greatest minds of the past three hundred years have used a surprisingly similar template to grind their way to success.
“I must have liked the long hours, for in later life, I never took the attitude of “I’ve worked hard all my childhood and youth and now I’m going to take it easy and sleep till noon.” Quite the contrary… I wake up at five in the morning. I get to work as early as I can. I work as long as I can. I do this every day in the week, including holidays. I don’t take vacations voluntarily and I try to do my work even when I’m on vacation.” ― Isaac Asimov quoted in “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey (2013)
Habits drive 40% of our decision making
In a recent note to our clients, we wrote about how “even though habits account for 40 percent of the decisions that we make, the “thinking” part of the brain does NOT control our habits. Understanding the auto-reflex element of habit-driven decision making is central to nailing down why some promoters consistently allocate capital better than others”.
We then explained how many of us get into bad habits such as having the TV switched on in our offices or constantly checking e-mails and social media notifications. Here’s the link for the 26th April piece:
In this piece, we focus on how some of greatest minds of the post-Renaissance world constructed their working day so that their habits – by themselves – would become one of the foundations of their success. At the outset, we have to say that for those looking for short-cuts should not read this piece as V S Pritchett said in 1941, “Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.”
Other than working non-stop, what exactly do the legends do habitually which entrenches their greatness? In 2013, American journalist Mason Currey summarised the working habits of nearly 200 great minds in an interesting and entertaining book called ‘Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration and Get to Work’.
Currey’s book -- which itself draws from over 400 sources -- and our reading of the biographies of other great minds give us a pretty good idea of the life one would has to lead to have a high probability of doing original, path-breaking work:
- Reading: Reading extensively and almost non-stop seems to be a pre-requisite for producing path-breaking work. As renowned investor Charlie Munger says, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people… who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.” In fact, a few painters apart, almost all the great minds seem to spend a large part of the day reading sometimes at the expense of maintaining a normal social life.
- Intense, focussed work in solitude: The vast majority of the legends whose lives are described in Currey’s book spent at least three hours each day -- almost always immediately after breakfast -- focussed on intense, hard work. Most locked the doors of the studies, forbade anybody from disturbing them and sought peace and silence so that they could push themselves to the limit.Needless to say, they did not take phone calls or read e-mails or WhatsApp during these hours of intense, focussed work. For example, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright did all his design work “Between 4 and 7 o’clock in the morning…I go to sleep promptly when I go to bed. Then I wake up around 4 and can’t sleep. But my mind’s clear, so I get up and work for three or four hours.”
In Ernest Hemingway’s words, “When I am working on a book or story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and you always stop when you know what is going to happen next… You write until you come to a place when you still have your juice and you know what will happen next… You have started at six in the morning and you may go on until noon. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time, never empty but filling…”
- Rewarding oneself after working hard: Since one cannot work without a break and even the legends need an incentive to push themselves through 3-4 hours of hard work, many of them take a break at around lunchtime to ensure the break contains something they can look forward to.For example, Gustav Mahler, one of the leading composers of the 20th century, “…worked until midday, then…walked down to the lake for a swim. Once he was in the water, he would whistle for his wife to join him on the beach. Mahler liked to lie in the sun until he was dry, then jump into the water again, often repeating this four or five times, which left him feeling invigorated and ready for lunch at home. The meal was, to Mahler’s preference light, simple, thoroughly cooked and minimally seasoned.”
- Seeking high quality input and criticism: For many great minds, getting regular feedback from high quality critics, who were often friends or relatives, is often a part of the daily routine. This feedback improves the quality of their work, sharpens their focus and their thinking.For example, Jane Austen would read out her work-in-progress on a daily basis to her mother and sister.Gustave Flaubert would begin the day with a long, intimate chat with his mother. French author Simone de Beauvoir’s daily routine hinged around her 50-year intellectual partnership with the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. Each would spend the morning working alone. They would then meet for lunch and work together in the afternoon. Then, over dinner, they would critique each other’s work.
- A well-defined daily routine: “Routine, in an intelligent man, is the sign of ambition,” wrote the English poet, W H Auden, in 1958. The vast majority of great minds have a clearly laid-out routine which they followed day-after-day for the majority of their creative lives. Even artists such as Francis Bacon, who one would imagine led bohemian, unstructured lives, were creatures of habit and routine.The Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, for instance “…wakes at 4 am and works for five to six hours straight. In the afternoon, he runs or swims or does both, runs errands, reads and listens to music; bedtime is 9. “I keep to this routine every day without variation,” he told the Paris Review in 2004. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerise myself to reach a deeper state of mind.””
Essentially, what the legends are doing is by forcing the majority of the quotidian decisions taken in a typical day -- when to rise, when to eat, what to eat and the like -- into a rigid template. They are freeing up mental processing power for higher value tasks.
Redesigning the way we work
Realising that the way most open plan offices are organised is not conducive to high quality work, at Marcellus we have sought – within the constraints of our modest budget – to organise ourselves in a better manner. We have effectively segmented our team into three:
- Our operations and trading team sits in an open plan office, which is a beehive of activity and noise, thanks to clients’ phone calls, our traders’ chats with our brokers, our Operations team’s chats with our custodians and fund accountants and the like.
- Our investment management staff sit in a smaller room, which is very quiet (phones are on silent, noise cancelling headphones are used by some) unless a debate is taking place about the merits of a specific investment.
- Our salespeople are, as you would expect, never in office unless they are pulled away from their client meetings for a weekly internal team meeting.
Even though we are less than a year old, we are trying to ensure our staff don’t burn their brains and bodies out in the typical start-up rush to grow big, fast. It is all very well to move fast and break things in Silicon Valley, but when you have to undergo long commutes to and from work through Mumbai’s pulverised roads, we have seen that people physically and mentally break down if you push them hard week after week.
As we grow, we are seeking to understand how to create a better working environment for our colleagues. If you have ideas, suggestions or if you have found interesting reading material on this subject, we would be grateful if you could share it with us.(Saurabh Mukherjea is the author of ‘The Unusual Billionaires’ and ‘Coffee Can Investing: the Low Risk Route to Stupendous Wealth’. He’s the Founder of Marcellus Investment Managers, a SEBI-regulated provider of Portfolio Management Services)