June 21st, 2014 · 19 comments
Deep Work as Soulcraft
I recently reread Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft. Though Crawford’s primary goal is to make a philosophical case for the skilled trades (think: Mike Rowe with footnotes), a lot of what he writes resonates with my thinking about deep work.
Consider the following quote, which caught my attention:
“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world.” (page 15 of hardcover edition)
Cannot the same thing be said about any deep effort that results in the production of something too good to be ignored?
The reason, I think, that deep effort holds an appeal is that so much in modern knowledge work reduces to Crawford’s chattering interpretations — responding quickly to e-mail threads, bullet point self-promotion in PowerPoint slides, relentless online branding and ceaseless networking.
At some point, we tire of the shallow – necessary as it might be – and foster a desire to retreat into depth, create the best possible thing we’re capable of creating, then step back, point, and remark simply: “I did that.”
June 16th, 2014 · 64 comments
As a self-observant theoretician, I’ve learned that my research success depends on two intertwined factors: (1) my ability to digest and understand diverse results in my field; and (2) my ability to persistently attack good problems once identified.
Through practice over the past few years, I’ve become adept at the second factor. My deep work hours per week are quite high and have recently led to a correspondingly high rate of producing publishable results.
A nagging concern of mine, however, is that I’m not as good with the first factor. Indeed, I’m often frustrated with how long it takes me to digest interesting new results (and how often I end up aborting the process).
This concerns me because in my field voracious reading is required to keep the pipeline of good problems full.
What’s going wrong?
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June 5th, 2014 · 33 comments
The War on Attention
My friend Dale (whose Ancient Wisdom Project blog you really should read) recently pointed me toward an interesting David Brooks column. In it, Brooks addresses the difficulty of maintaining focus in a distracted age:
And, like everyone else, I’ve nodded along with the prohibition sermons imploring me to limit my information diet. Stop multitasking! Turn off the devices at least once a week! And, like everyone else, these sermons have had no effect.
What’s interesting about this column is Brooks’ solution, which articulates a point that I firmly believe:
The lesson…then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.
This rings true with my research on deep work. Those who are best at this skill are without exception obsessed with something that demands sustained attention, be it chess playing, writing, or theoretical physics. These deep workers rarely seem worried about distraction because it’s simply not an issue for them.
A New Focus on Focus
Distraction, from this perspective, is not the cause of problems in your work life, it’s a side effect. The real issue comes down to a question more important than whether or not you use Facebook too much: Are you striving to do something useful and do it so well that you cannot be ignored?
David Brooks would wager (and I would tend to agree) that once you can get to a positive answer to this question, you’ll find your worries about distraction rendered irrelevant.
I took the picture above in the woods near Georgetown where I like to go to churn on particularly knotty problems. As an interesting case study in the patience required for deep thinking, I originally posted the image back in January, where I talked about starting to work through an interesting but hard problem. Five months of persistent thought later, I finally finished the result. The deep life, it seems, is not a good fit for those who like immediate gratification!