This anecdote about a reclusive Nobel laureate is scarcely practical advice, but an excellent reminder of the importance of eliminating internal and external distractions.
Peter Higgs is not a fan of modern technology. The British theoretical physicist, 84, is so consumed with work that he has never sent an email, looked at the internet, or used a cellphone. He’s so cut off from modes of modern communication that he didn’t know he’d won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics—for his 1964 paper predicting the Higgs boson, which imbues other particles with mass—until a neighbor congratulated him on the street. “I resent being disturbed in this way,” says Higgs. “Why should people be able to interrupt me like that?” Because they want to keep in touch? “But I don’t want to be in touch,” he laughs. “It’s an intrusion into my way of life, and certainly on principle I don’t feel obliged to accept it.” He doesn’t own a TV, but not because he lacks interest in the outside world. “I don’t regard television as the outside world,” he offers dryly. “I regard it as an artifact.”
And, the Guardian notes that Higgs isn’t interested in being accessible:
Higgs struck upon his [Higgs boson] theory while walking in the Cairngorms one weekend in 1964. An unworldly and donnish academic, he was so immersed in particle physics research that when his first son was born he was miles away in a university library, and so remote from contemporary reality that to this day he owns neither a TV nor mobile phone, and only acquired his first computer on his 80th birthday.
Make Conditions as Favorable as Possible
Good jobs are overwhelming, and accomplishing important things is really, really hard. As the following anecdotes will illuminate, many of the greatest achievements in life are often accomplished by people who (1) have a particular desire that becomes the foundational building block for everything they do, (2) focus on what they want to achieve, and (3) divest themselves of internal and external distractions.
- The physicist and 1965 Nobel laureate Richard Feynman famously invented the falsehood that he’s irresponsible so that he could avoid mundane tasks. He wrote, “I tell everybody. “I don’t do anything.” If anybody asks me to be on a committee to take care of admissions … “No! I’m irresponsible. … I don’t give a damn about the students!” Of course I give a damn about the students, but I know that somebody else’ll do it! … because I like to do physics, and I want to see if I can still do it. I am selfish, okay? I want to do my physics.”
- The American crime writer James Ellroy said, “I’m interested in doing very few things. I don’t have a cell phone. Don’t have a computer. Don’t have a TV set. Don’t go to movies. Don’t read. I ignore the world so I might live obsessively.”
- Asked about his vacations, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog once revealed that he has never taken vacation, “I work steadily and methodically, with great focus. There is never anything frantic about how I do my job; I’m no workaholic. A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me, everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation.”
Idea for Impact: Find the Focus That’ll Take to Do Your Best
Success is a product of unremitting attention to purpose. Avoid, disconnect, eliminate, automate, delegate, reduce, or minimize mundane concerns and routine affairs that could dissuade you from focusing on what you want to achieve.