Marcellus: The Working Habits of Great Minds

Published on:17 May, 2019

Pathbreaking 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)

[Marcellus is hiring Quant Data Analysts on an internship-basis. See http://marcellus.in/jobs/]

Habits drive 40% of our decision making
A month ago on we wrote about how “Even though habits account for 40% 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 emails and social media notifications. Click here for our 26th April piece: http://marcellus.in/blogs/marcellus-our-habits-as-much-as-our-brains-drive-investment-decisions/

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 cut should not read this piece because as VS 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.”

So 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 habits of nearly 200 great minds in an interesting an 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:

  1. 1.Reading: Reading extensively and almost non-stop seems to be a prerequisite for producing pathbreaking work. As 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.

  2. 2.Intense, focused 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) focused 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 emails or Whataspp during these hours of intense, focused 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…”

  1. 3.Rewarding oneself after working hard: Since one cannot work without a break and since even the legends need an incentive to push themselves through 3-4 hours of hard work, many of them not only take a break at around lunchtime, the ensure that that break contains something that they can look forward to. For example, Gustav Mahler, one of the leading music composers of the twentieth 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.”

  1. 4.Seeking high quality input & criticism: For many great minds, getting regular feedback from high quality critics, who were often friends or relatives, in often a part of the daily routine. This feedback improves the quality of their work, sharpened their focus and their thinking. For example, Jane Austen would read out her work-in-progress on a daily basis to her mother and her sister. The influential French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, would begin the day with a long, intimate chat with his mother. French author & philosopher, 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.

  1. 5.A well-defined daily routine: “Routine, in an intelligent man, is the sign of ambition,” wrote the English poet, WH 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 & routine. The Japanese author, Haruki Murakami for instance “…wakes at 4AM 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 9:00. “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 mesmerize 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, etc) 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 constrains of our modest budget – to organise ourselves in a better manner. We have effectively segmented our team into three:

  • Our Operations & Trading team sits in an open plan office which is a beehive of activity & noise thanks to clients’ phone calls, our traders’ chats with our brokers, our Operations team’s chats with our custodians and fund accountants, etc.

  • 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 the 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 that our staff don’t burn their brains & 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 & from work through Mumbai’s pulverised roads, we have seen that people physically and mentally breakdown 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.

To read our other published material, please visit http://marcellus.in/resources/

Saurabh Mukherjea is the author of “The Unusual Billionaires” and “Coffee Can Investing: the Low Risk Route to Stupendous Wealth”.      

Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor investment advice. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services and as an Investment Advisor.

Copyright © 2019 Marcellus Investment Managers Pvt Ltd, All rights reserved.

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Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services and as an Investment Advisor.

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