Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a Computer Science professor and productivity writer. You may have seen his recent piece in the New York Times about social media. While his intended audience has shifted toward professionals, specifically "knowledge workers," earlier in his career he wrote a lot about and for students. 

Two of Newport's earlier books are especially good for ambitious high school students.

How to Be a High School Superstar. (2010) In this book, Newport provides a path to your reach schools while also giving yourself more free time and less stress. I know this sounds too good to be true, but it really is a viable plan. The book is divided into three sections. The Law of Underscheduling advises to "Pack your schedule with free time. Use this time to explore." The next section, The Law of Focus, says to "Master one serious interest. Don't waste time on unrelated activities." The Law of Innovation reads "Pursue accomplishments that are hard to explain, not hard to do." Following these three "laws" and most of the advice and tips within them can make for a really great high school experience that leads to a really great college experience. What the plan requires from you is some basic self-knowledge and self-discipline, a willingness to practice at focus, and a clarity about taking risks (I was about to write a willingness to take risks, but we take those risks even if we're not feeling willing).

How to Become a Straight A Student. (2007) This how-to is written for college students and assumes a flexible and self-directed schedule, which most high schools do not assume. However, there are plenty of reasons to go ahead and read it sooner. For one, the main sections--study basics, test & quizzes, and essays & papers--apply to high school as much as college. But more important, there's no good reason to wait until you're actually in college to begin figuring out how to master it. 

I have given away 25 or so Newport books to students over the past few years, mostly How to Be a High School Superstar. What do I like about his advice?

It's backed up with actual research and understanding. Like I said, Newport is a Computer Scientist who studied at M.I.T. He understands and values data and rigorous study. His books, while they may look like a lot of other self-help books or productivity guides with their Laws and anecdotal examples, have a lot more researched knowledge and less made-up "common sense."

Newport wants you to live a happy life. I wouldn't recommend a writer who will add to your anxiety or wants you to give up your own happiness and health for unrealistic ideas about achievement (rule of thumb: avoid books and web sites with "Ivy" in their title). While he gives thoughtful advice about how to more efficiently and effectively use your time and talents, the advice is based on the premise that better time management will give you more time to enjoy yourself and be a reflective, well-rested human.

Newport breaks down the Gunner-Slacker binary. There are not two types of people in the world, and there are not two types of high school students. Newport understands that in any given day we are all over-achievers, under-achievers, superstars, slackers, motivated, and lazy. He's not trying to convince you to become a single type of person, he's instead trying to help you be successful within your complexity.

Newport is in touch with contemporary technology and where our society is going. Even though he graduated college over a decade ago, Newport never sounds like an older person talking about "when we were in college." He is a trusted voice on the present, and that makes him more useful to you as a high school student than a lot of adults out there.

Have any other writers you recommend for high school students trying to use their time and energy in better ways? Let me know in the comments, or send me an email at