My Talk at the Cambridge Union


Hey friends,

This was an exciting week – on Tuesday I gave a talk at the Cambridge Union.

I was a Union member back in my Cambridge days, and remember queuing around the block for hours to see Robert Downey Jr., Stephen Fry, and some other ridiculously famous people talking at the Union.

So being invited to talk there myself was kind of surreal.

I was a bit worried no one would turn up, but actually about 100 people came. The ‘talk’ was more of a cosy on-stage interview, which is lucky because I didn’t have anything prepared. 😅 And there was an open Q&A afterwards. Here are some of the best questions, as I remember them:

Q: Hey Ali, I’m writing a blog but university work keeps slowing me down. And after a few weeks I lose interest in my original blog post ideas. Any advice?

Me: I had a similar situation when I was a junior doctor and writing YouTube scripts in my spare time. I think the secret is to be OK with having several projects bubbling away, and just give them a bit of love during the week. At the hospital I’d often have 10 minutes of downtime between patients. So I’d use that 10 minutes to add a paragraph or two to one of my 20+ active script (mostly using my iPad Pro).

To be honest, if I didn’t feel enthusiastic about an idea 2 weeks later, I’d cut my losses and archive the unfinished script. That said, don’t set the bar too high for your writing – try to get blog posts half-decent, then get them out there. Nobody cares when you’re just starting out anyway, and it’ll probably help you build some momentum.

Q: You’re an expert in productivity, and you’ve built this team of 20+ people… how do you make your team more productive?

Me: Tricky question. So over the last few years of growing the team we’ve tried loads of different techiques: OKRs (objectives and key results), goal-setting, and all that jazz.

And this is going to sound really basic, like all business advice does in abstract. But the only thing that’s actually worked is this: figuring out what our real goals are and focusing on them, instead of setting a load of ‘fake goals’ along the way.

So for example we hired four writers with the real goal of getting decent blog posts and video scripts (if a writer produces 1-2 decent scripts per month their salary is basically covered). So instead of measuring productivity (eg words produced each day, or pages per week, which are fake goals) we just say “hey, we’d like you to write about 6 decent scripts per month.” And it works smoothly.

So essentially my answer is:

  1. Set a clear direction (tied to real goals, not fake ones)
  2. Hire the right person for the job
  3. Get out of that person’s way – if they’re the right person and you give them a clear direction, you shouldn’t need to make them “more productive”.

Q: What’s your most contrarian view?

Me: Probably that I don’t believe in having BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals). We do set stretch goals in the business, eg “ideally we’d like to hit 10M subscribers in the next 5 years”. But in my personal life I stick to smaller or more vague goals like “make this Ethereum video really good”, or “finish this book chapter by Friday”.

Conventional wisdom says that you push yourself harder when you have a big goal, and that BHAGs are a key ingredient to success. But I think if you enjoy the journey, are a bit strategic with your time, and know very generally what you want, then success comes sooner or later. My biggest goals in life right now are probably “write a book I’m proud of” and “get married and have kids”.

Have a great week!

Ali xx

PS: Thanks to everyone who sent me Istanbul recommendations last week. 🙏 Had a great time and lots of döner kebab: here’s my Insta photodump if you’re interested.

🦾 Sidekick

Very exciting times: we’re doing a swap with Sidekick, by Morning Brew. Sidekick’s a x3 weekly newsletter about the latest lifehacks and career advice, and looks at ways to live a smarter and more efficient life. They have a 225,000-strong mailing list, and it’s free to sign up. Here’s a link.

You can also check out their newsletter archive here.

♥️ My Favourite Things

📚 Shortform Summary – Deep Work by Cal Newport. I’ve read (and skimmed) Deep Work several times now – it’s a bit of a Bible for productivity nerds. As I’m writing my book it’s been insanely useful to read Shortform summaries of books like this, just to get a quick 5-minute recap of main ideas.

📝 Article – How to figure out what to do with your life, by Julian Shapiro. This is a great framework for deciding what you value most in your life. For example, Julian reckons most of us value money way too much: “In observing friends who’ve sold startups and made millions: After one year, they’re back to toying with their old side projects. They used their money to buy a nice home and eat well. That’s it. They’re otherwise back to who they were.” I actually had a great Zoom call with Julian this week, and got some candid feedback on my book.

🪑Ergonomic Chair – Herman Miller Cosm. Herman Miller kindly sent four of these fancy ergonomic chairs to my studio in London. They also sent a standing desk with VESA monitor mounts, and some moveable tables (to make it easier to clear the room for filming). Check out my new daily vlog to see how the studio’s shaping up.

💌 Blog Posts – I’ve been rereading a bunch of mini blog posts by my friend Neel Nanda. Neel’s amazing at thinking about life in a very systematic and intentional way, and his posts always leave me inspired to do the same. Here’s a good place to start.

✍️ Quote of the Week

I think it’s far more important to write well than most people realise. Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.

From Writing, Briefly by Paul Graham. Resurfaced using Readwise.

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