In the first chapter of Deep Work, I argue that the ability to concentrate is important in part because it’s necessary to learn hard things quickly, and in our economy, if you can pick up new skills or ideas fast, you have a massive competitive advantage.
Some readers subsequently asked me how to best deploy their concentration to achieve these feats of accelerated autodidacticism. My answer has been to direct people toward my longtime friend, and occasional collaborator, Scott Young, who has spent years mastering the art of mastering things (c.f., his MIT challenge.)
In this book, Scott walks through his step-by-step process of breaking down a major learning project and pushing it through to completion much faster than you might have imagined possible. It’s important to emphasize that he provides no short cuts. If anything, he highlights the surprising hardness — in terms of concentration and drive — required to succeed with these endeavors; a point I’ve been underscoring since my early books on study habits.
But if you’re willing to invest the energy, and are looking for the right techniques to make sure this energy is not wasted to the friction of ineffective activity, this is the book for you.
On an unrelated note, my most recent New Yorker article was published earlier this week. It takes a look at the history of email and applies ideas from my academic field, the theory of distributed systems, to help explain what went wrong with this innovation. If you like this blog, you’ll like this article…
It’s hard to believe that it has already been six months since Digital Minimalism was released. (If you’re interested in browsing some of the interviews and press about the book, I’ve been doing my best to update my media page with some highlights.)
One of the nice things about having had some time pass since publication is that I’m starting to receive case studies from readers who have been experimenting with ideas from the book long enough to report results. I thought it might be useful to occasionally share some of these stories, especially for those who are still deciding whether or not to take the plunge with this philosophy.
I’ll start today with the saga of a reader I’ll call Jane…
The Dynamite Circle has been on the periphery of my radar since my early days as a blogger. It’s a small, subscription-based social network operated by the Tropical MBA web site, which caters to entrepreneurs running small businesses from exotic locations (I’ve been a guest on their podcast a coupletimes).
This network, abbreviated simply as DC, has around 1200 enthusiastic members. In theory, these individuals could have found each other and organized on existing major social media platforms, using custom hash tags and Facebook Groups, or perhaps gathering on a sub-reddit, or subscribing to each others’ Instagram feeds.
All of this would be free and supported by slick apps with polished interfaces.
Instead, DC members pay around $500 a year to access a custom set of private forums: there are no sophisticated image recognition algorithms auto-tagging photos, or machine learning models carefully selecting posts to maximize engagement. And no one seems to care.
To help understand what’s going on here, I asked co-founder Dan Andrews if he’d allow me to lurk around the DC network for an afternoon. He graciously agreed. What I discovered gets to the core of the long form social media phenomenon I’ve been writing about recently (c.f., 1, 2).
I’m cautiously optimistic about this model as I think niche networks can better deliver on the promise of the social internet while avoiding pitfalls like engineered addiction and emotional manipulation. (These smaller alternatives also tend to be better on the legal-techno geek issues like data privacy and effective contention moderation.)
In response to my recent post on this topic, a reader pointed me toward a fascinating long tail social media case study that I wanted to briefly share, as I think it helps underscore the potential of this movement.
Last month, Jordan Peterson announced he was launching his own social media platform called Thinkspot. Details of the planned service are still sketchy, but it seems like it will include some novel features, such as subscription fees that support the content creators, and a commenting system meant to encourage deeper discussion.
Much of the early press coverage of Thinkspot has focused on the controversies surrounding Peterson and the tumultuous circumstances that led to the service’s creation.
To me, however, there’s a more interesting story lurking. What matters is not why Thinkspot exists, or even whether it will succeed, but instead the larger trend it represents.
“Social media only works as a business model if it consumes users’ time and attention day after day after day. It needs to replace the various activities we did perfectly well without social media, for the entire known history of the human race with itself. It needs to replace those activities with time spent on social media. So that addiction is actually the point.”
“This is what some of our brightest minds have been doing with their time for years now. Designing these platforms, designing apps that integrate with them. I mean, what else might they have been doing?”
I was pleased to hear Senator Hawley emphasize these issues of addictiveness and value because they echo the concerns I heard from the vast majority of people I met during the book tour for Digital Minimalism.
It’s important to hear public figures cite these problems, because as I’ve written before, much of the media coverage on the big tech backlash focuses on what I call legal-techno geek issues, such as privacy, data portability, and content moderation.
These are important topics, and if you’re a journalist, or a social media personality, or an academic, or a political think tank type, they can be quite exciting to debate and nuance. They also have the advantage of being addressable by big swing legislative fixes, which are satisfying to imagine. (Indeed, in the recent New Yorker review of Digital Minimalism, the reviewer’s main criticism was that I avoided suggesting such systemic fixes.)
But for the average person — who doesn’t host a YouTube interview show, or cover politics, or publish research papers on network privacy — the legal-techno geek issues are not why they’re uneasy about their devices.
The mathematical details of this paper are dense, but on Rogan’s show, Ravikant summarizes its core idea: firms hire more people instead of contracting out the needed work when the transaction costs associated with setting up external relationships are high, making it easier and cheaper to do the work internally.
As Ravikant notes, the internet is driving down these transaction costs as it reduces the friction required for an entrepreneur to find and hire the right contractor for a specific task. Coase’s theory predicts therefore that businesses will become smaller and more people will migrate from stable positions to a freelance lifestyle.
I was intrigued by this discussion because it overlaps with some concepts that I’ve been developing as I work on a new book about email and the future of work.
He revealed that he started a daily poetry reading habit to “sharpen the faculties that stare at the world,” with the aim to “bulwark my attention against the assault waged by my phone.”
He soon rediscovered the work of Mary Oliver, who died earlier this year. In reading her final poetry collection, Upstream, Foer was surprised to discover that Oliver helped him confront the very forces that had driven him to his bulwark-building poetry habit in the first place.
“The costs of allowing our attention to be commandeered remain drastically understated,” Foer writes, and though this might not have been her specific intention, Oliver’s “poetry captures its spiritual costs.”
I'm a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of technology and society. I’m particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work and lead satisfying lives. If you’re new to my writing, a good place to start is the about page. You can access over a decade's worth of posts in the blog archive.
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