Erik Torenberg: A Grand Project

By Erik Torenberg, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published September 21, 2011

If I could turn the clock back to my freshman year, one thing I’d make sure to do is thoroughly read Cal Newport’s blog, Study Hacks. His blog has changed how I view success and how I aim to achieve it during and after college. Here are a few things I’ve learned from Newport’s blog: Master a rare and valuable skill; don’t spread yourself too thin. Send your e-mails in large batches; don’t whimsically check your inbox throughout the entire day. Focus on working right; don't brood over finding the “right work.”

But perhaps my favorite idea of Newport’s is one — if I had implemented earlier — I believe would have significantly improved my student experience: Have a Grand Project.

Throughout college, I majored in economics and became involved in a couple extracurricular organizations. Problem sets and meetings took up a large chunk of my schedule, leaving me little time to pursue my own projects. I once told myself I would start an organization dedicated to restructuring education paradigms, but I never got around to it. I once told myself that I would write a screenplay about my first years of college, but I never got around to that either.

It’s unfortunate because these projects were the experiences that would have enriched my life personally, socially and professionally. Amid many of my academic requirements that failed to elicit my complete engagement, these were the opportunities to actualize what I truly wanted and believed in. Of course, it's never too late, but it’s better to start early.

And it’s not like such ambitious, exciting projects are simply unrealistic. My friend Alex O’Dell, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy Senior, filmed a documentary a couple summers ago in India, and then presented it on campus this past weekend. My friend Allen Kim, College of Engineering senior, started his own business last year, Bebarang, and this year he is working on it full time. Alumni AJ Holmes, Ali Gordon and Carlos Valdes (who I would like to have as friends), wrote an entire musical in one summer and then gave a captivating performance at TEDxUofM last year.

These projects were not completed through any formal programs. These students pursued their passions on their own terms.

What they did was perform Grand Projects.

If while reading this, you’ve been thinking, "Well, I’ve always wanted to do 'X,'" or if looking back at your years at the University, you’d be incredibly proud of yourself if you accomplished a certain “X,” then I implore you to make that your Grand Project — to at least try “X.”

A Grand Project is an opportunity for you to pursue your passions or merely explore your interests. It’s also an opportunity for you to combine your class work, extracurricular activities and free time into a personalized project, customized to your beliefs, talents and idiosyncrasies. A Grand Project may even help you, as it did Allen Kim, discover what you would like to do after college.

A Grand Project will leave you bustling down the hallways, induce exciting ideas when you least expect them and infuse your daily life with a sense of purpose and significance.

But what if you don’t have an idea for a Grand Project? If your “X” is, like mine was, “something impactful” and “you’ll just know it when you see it,” then pursue an interest on the side, and see where it takes you. Or perhaps you already have a full schedule with classes and extracurricular activities. That’s fine, as long as they satisfy the “X” condition mentioned above. If they don’t, find a way to tailor your current activities into a Grand Project, and if that’s not possible, it may be helpful to re-evaluate.

After you decide what you’d like to accomplish, where do you begin? Newport provides some recommendations: First, talk to people who’ve done something similar in the past. Learn where they succeeded, and learn where they failed. Second, set clear expectations and goals for yourself and your Grand Project. Third, ensure that you receive feedback consistently. Applying to a competition, publicizing your work or sharing it with close friends will confirm that you are either on your way to achieving your goal or that you are behind and need to catch up.

As a matter of fact, a great opportunity exists on campus to receive feedback for your Grand Project: 1000 Pitches. Hosted by MPowered, 1000 Pitches is an entrepreneurial competition that collects ideas for businesses, social ventures and improvements to the University. Submitting a pitch will allow you to outline your Grand Project, and other incentives will help to hold you accountable.

If you would like further encouragement and feedback on your idea, send it to, and MPowered will evaluate how it can help you. Who knows? Perhaps in the future, with enough interest and participation, some organization may hold a 1000 Grand Projects competition.

Erik Torenberg can be reached at