Study Hacks Blog

The Deep Reset

May 14th, 2020 · 31 comments

After ten years of waging war against the Trojans, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, set out on the wine-dark sea to begin his journey home. Storms thwarted an easy return voyage, and Odysseus found himself facing many additional years of tragedy and adventure, reaching a mythical nadir when he’s forced to descend into the underworld itself.

Broken down and exposed, Odysseus resists collapse. He instead pulls himself out of Hades, and persevering through additional trials, finally makes it home to his island kingdom, only to find both his family and throne threatened by a conniving horde of suiters. He fights them off.

But he’s not done. Following a prophecy delivered to him by the ghost of Theban Teiresias in the underworld (depicted above), Odysseus makes a humbling journey inland. He carries an oar — a symbol of the maritime world where he reined — farther and farther from the sea, until he arrives at a place where it’s mistaken for a farming implement by locals who have “never heard of crimson-painted ships, or the well-shaped oars that serve as wings.”

It is here, stripped of any of the recognitions on which he’d built his previous life, that he plants the oar in the ground and performs sacrifices to Poseidon, before returning home to live out his life in peace.

“The story of Odysseus is a classic transrational myth,” writes Richard Rohr in his underground classic, Falling Upward, “one that many would say sets the bar and direction for all later Western storytelling.” And for good reason. It’s one of the earliest extant works to describe a pattern absolutely fundamental to the human condition: hardship unlocking a deeper, more authentic, more satisfying life.

As Roher elaborates, Odysseus’s journey is a metaphor for the proper human response to unexpected difficulty. His first response, after arriving broken in the underworld, is survival and progress. He makes his way out of Hades, perseveres  through the trials that follow, and then once home, performs the work needed to get his life back in order.

But then — and this is the key to the entire myth — he humbles himself on an inland journey, where he ritually moves beyond the easy comforts of his old life, laying the foundation on which to build something more meaningful.

Once it’s brought to our attention, this pattern becomes visible everywhere. We see it in the travails of Dante, and Augustine, and even Luke Skywalker. Carl Jung argued that this storyline is an archetype, engraved in the collective human unconscious, as unavoidably fundamental as our intuitive repulsion to snakes or attraction to courage. Whether its origin is divine or evolutionary, it represents revelation all the same.

Which brings us to our current moment.

To varying degrees of severity, we’re all suffering through some version of Odysseus’s tragic journey. Many — too many — are struggling with devastating consequences to their health or livelihoods. Like Odysseus surviving the storm that destroyed his fleet, for them, all energy is dedicated to perseverance in the moment.

But for many others, including a large part of my audience here, the moment has brought severe dislocation to much of what we’ve come to trust and expect, but falls short of immediate peril. The question then is what those who find themselves in this situation — marooned on a Netflix-themed island of the lotus eaters — should do about it.

We can shake our fists at the Gods, as some are now acting out through increasingly furious and tragically futile battles fought on social media.

We can cower, marinating in dread, as some are now doing as they glue themselves to catastrophic news coverage, giving in to genuflections of despair.

Or, like Odysseus, we can allow the disruption — painful as it is — spark the resolve needed to find our way out of the underworld, fight to get our affairs back in order, and then, when the time comes, with a mix of humility and purpose: transform our lives into something deeper.

Essentially all of philosophy, theology, literature and history implies that the Odysseus approach is the one for which we as humans are wired. The best response to deep disruption, in other words, is often a deep reset.

This idea, that we should allow our current dislocation to instigate a move toward the deep life, is one that I’ve been implicitly exploring in recent posts (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). I thought it was useful, however, to give this impulse a name and some historical context because I intend to keep returning to it — among other topics —  in the weeks ahead. I want to better understand how one acts on the impulse for the deep reset, while also acknowledging, with an eye toward Homer, that I’m hardly the first to ponder this ancient instinct.

31 thoughts on “The Deep Reset

  1. Viktor M. says:

    This piece could have not come at a better time. I am struggling between a life of deep focus and priorities, rather than submitting myself to the likes of social media and the news. I am finding the daily exposure to the news and mediums like Instagram to have taken a mental toll on me, but it is so hard to escape, in particular social media, when they become ingrained into my daily identity. I value your posts Dr Newport. Everyday is a struggle to rid myself of these technological woes, and this is coming from a computer science student, but your articles help me reinforce my desire to purge these distractions from my life. I will win the battle!

  2. June says:

    It was during this Covid-19 that I quit social media altogether because of its deleterious effect on my mental health. It was also at this time that I was able to listen Dr. Newport’s your books “Deep Work” and “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” They were the main reasons why I was convinced to quit the social media. Currently, I am listening on Digital Minimalism at Audible.

  3. Carl says:

    I Love this post Cal thanks! It reminds to focus on the bigger picture, because the current conditions are just a blip in our overall evolution. These conditions are also a reminder to embrace a greater and greater involvement in life, not the opposite. Or as Winston Churchill put it.”If your are going through hell, keep going.”

  4. JR says:

    I find it remarkable that a deep philosophical look at modern life comes from a computer science professor. However, I have always been a fan of military science as providing guidance in life for dealing with the uncertainty and fragility of life. Unfortunately, I lacked a father figure to provide fatherly advice or guidance due to substance abuse problems and sought solace in non-fiction books on military history. The insight I have gained from military traditions is that we have to do everything we can to minimize the risks, train and prepared thoroughly, and then courageously venture forth to complete the mission knowing that we did our duty or even our job despite the costs since it is the collective, i.e. squad, family, team, etc. that we are concerned with and see something of the world beyond our own self interest. Who knew going to the grocery store would become a life or death heroic quest.

  5. Naveen says:

    Very nice very cool

  6. MW says:

    Absolutely phenomenal post! The classics, and particularly The Odyssey, are a treasure trove of wisdom. Keep up the great work Cal!

  7. Thank you so much Cal!
    This is the missing myth I’m currently living.

    For sure I lost some friends on social corona battles as well.
    So due to the toxic emotional residue I deactivated and re-activated Facebook many times as my job depended on it.
    I bought me a design dump phone from Punkt and I’m trying to use this most of the time. Put my iPhone on black and white via shortcut and using screen time to block apps. I also use Freedom’s social blocking service on all devices when I not forget. I further deleted all social apps where most of all Instagram was draining time and energy as I’m an artist – spiking a lot of competition-related stress and despair.

    During the freed time during corona brought my apartment in order reading the Marie Kondo Method. Also bringing taxes of the last years in order (my inner dragon for years).

    But most interesting of all I find myself facing a legal dispute about my invention http://www.focuscap.net (a cap for temporary deep focus) with two different „business partners“ who didn’t understand the product but wanted the quick money without doing the work. Hence I even personally rejected my own project as I gave up all control and had no business order in place.
    I simply denied and hid behind the idea to be an artist and not a business man. Denying my own responsibility.

    Uplifted by this myth I continue to put things into order – project-wise and in my private life and focus on the work that truly resembles myself which I feel is my art.

    Yesterday my boss told me a simple devastating quote, when he was listening me on the phone talking about my legal battles (as we sell slow but very expensive contemporary art rugs).
    He said: „Hannes, remember this: Go easy, go lucky.“

    Which reinforced the foundation of a simple life in order that has meaning. Free from all social noise, any fear of missing out and the quick rich schemes on social media that neglect doing the foundational work and the learning you have to put in place first.

    Meanwhile the luxury rug business runs slow and stable even in time of crisis.

    1. Peter K says:

      Thanks for sharing Hannes. I’m (as well as many others I’m sure) doing similar things to cut down on social media, particularly the negative and toxic aspects (I cut out all politics/news, including COVID news as it’s devolved into partisan battles), and taking time to increase deep work as well as organizing my physical space and possessions.

      I like how you called this a myth to frame current endeavors against.

      Personally I am experimenting with a type of real life gamification that is more like “make belief” than how people create to-do lists and give themselves points for completing items. This “make belief” is more like an RPG where I create a storyline that corresponds to my current goals. I like the word myth in describing this type of self-narrative framing.

      Sorry to hear about your focuscap idea/business. It is a good idea. Previously I made a ghetto version of this concept by painting the sides of a plastic google black while working in an open-office environment.

      1. Dear Peter,

        I take a similar concept into action with my projects. I got familiar with a certain German NLP model clustering people into 3 types: action type, emotional/relationship type and cognition/knowledge type.
        So these types start with this condition in that area almost as a child when your emotional brain is developed (around 5-8).
        Then kids develop into the next area and almost believe they are this next type.
        Thus action type starts to work on emotions, emotional type on self-knowledge by reading a lot of books and knowledge type uses his knowledge to get into action (build a blog, write books, build a business around it).
        As a third step of this evolution there is the target area which is the missing third type.
        Whereas their initial condition from childhood actually infuses all their doing. It’s their superpower.
        On their journey they even build a lot of unrecognized positive „waste products“. The action type builds a lot of stuff, most things have a lot of failures, he fails forward and takes the results only as feedback as he doesn’t feel so much about it as he is not so much emotionally evolved, the emotional type makes a lot of connections, which he doesn’t recognize as a valuable thing and knowledge type accumulates a lot of articles, science, patents or code.

        So in my case as an emotional type I thought I was the knowledge type as this was my area of development (Stage II) which I absolutely identified, totally neglecting and underestimating my starting condition (emotional type) which is everyone’s super power like making connections etc.
        And as my target/finish zone is action and taking responsibility for my projects I truly had a hard time with this.
        So delegating also my business interests with my Focuscap (which I didn’t even had) to someone else who was in this case only about making the quick money.

        As I slowly evolved in this last 3rd area I’ve found a strategy that kind of starts to work for me despite my tendency of giving up control and responsibility. Which might be a good thing.

        It’s the following: viewing the next project steps only as little experiments and withdraw from trying to control the outcome. Like Alexander Fleming coming back to his petri dishes after his vacation and finding his Penicillin.

        So in my design projects (but you can do this with every daily step) I would set up a little „experiment“ and let work over night. Or sit in my experiment set up and work a little on a landing page and such, get to sleep, let the zeigarnik effect work at its best and with fresh eyes look at the outcome (which is actually never in our control) tomorrow morning. This also dissects me from all kind of negative upfront emotions that would normally discourage me deplete all motivation.
        So you just get to experience the insights and knowledge of the result the next morning and this feedback is no longer negatively connected to my experience of self-worth and such. Just as a feedback – as the action types would experience.
        What a relief!

        Another Strategy is to embrace your nature and I did it several times in the past to use your emotional super powers to find the right people to delegate certain steps and pay them.

        Watched a studio documentation on famous sculptor Toby Cragg and he also admitted he is working on 45 sculptures atm which some of these wait for 3 years for the next step.

        Concerning the Focuscap, on my website there is a study stating a bigger front opaque screen panel attached behind your monitor reduces your error rate by up to 600% even you wouldn’t notice. This study only taking slow frontal vision into account.

        But the Focuscap further shuts down the superfast peripheral vision.
        So the peripheral vision is which triggers the flight or fight within milliseconds and suppresses all subjective priorities like reading a text etc.
        It’s the PV that causes you being distracted.
        Esp we folks labeled adhd or add we are easy to distract but actually we are able to refocus very quickly, which was a good thing back in the wild days of hunt.

        This became our Achilles heel in these times where sitting still and knowledge work is being rewarded exponentially.

        All the good things!

        Hannes

  8. Mike says:

    This post came at the perfect time. I’ve been attempting a ‘deep reset’ during the lockdown. It’s been an advantage to have lots of obligations suddenly cancelled; I’ve been able to focus more deeply on a core set of important responsibilities and professional goals. Having spent some time ruminating on these goals this morning, I have to say that this post has inspired me. It’s one I’ll be returning to.

  9. Ana says:

    Wonderful post. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this approach (which I love) with a suddenly crammed household, including two little boys – toddler and preschool age, my philosopher husband and myself (a lawyer). My husband is coming up for tenure in the fall, and I am in a busy time at work. Our daycare and preschool are shut, and will not reopen this summer. The adults in this family need deep work…but it’s awfully hard. We have a babysitter starting three days a week soon, but we can’t go to our normal offices, which are shut. The only solution we’ve found is working out of the car, but that’s not ideal for many reasons.

  10. I know you try to stay away from religion due to not wanting to offend your secular fans, however I must say that the ancient story of Job is much better.

    1. James says:

      I disagree. (To be clear, I’m not a Christian; I was, however, raised as one, went to a Roman Catholic school, and know my catechism.)

      Job is about enduring and continuing to have faith despite bad things happening. The Odyssey, in contrast, is about overcoming challenges–even those placed there by the gods. Job refused to renounce his God despite torment, but otherwise doesn’t really take an active role; Odysseys seems to have gone out of his way to annoy Poseidon, a god he firmly believed in. (And yes, I’m VASTLY over-simplifying both stories.)

      Put another way: Job is about a choice. The Odyssey is about actions.

      If you want a Christian example, two that spring to mind are St. Moses the Black and St. Peter. Moses overcame both external challenges (slavery) and internal ones (complete loss of morality) to become a saint. Peter actually denounced Christ three times, and still overcame his internal struggles and came to terms with the death of his God (the Resurrection helped). In both cases the saint overcame hardship, rather than meekly accepting it. And in both cases the hardship was internal and external, something common in Christian literature but not so much in older polytheistic literature.

      I do not mean to offend by saying “his God” here; I used the terminology because I’m discussing two very different theologies, held by people who sincerely believed their respective theology. It gets a bit confusing comparing polytheistic and monotheistic teachings, and we don’t have a good way to handle it.

      1. Grantham says:

        Actually neither of you said why one story is better, or not, than the other.

        Corey shared an opinion and James gave a Wikipedia summary.

        1. James says:

          I never intended to say which story is better. I intended to say which story fits the point of this post better. Job, being about bearing disaster without complaining, simply doesn’t fit the theme of the blog post and therefore cannot be a substitute for the Odyssey.

  11. Caitlin says:

    The deep reset sounds a lot like “post-traumatic growth,” where people deeply improve themselves after a trauma.

    I’m looking forward to hearing you expound upon this idea further–hopefully with some suggestions for what it might look like! I’d love to think this pandemic would ultimately leave us with a better world.

  12. Xavier says:

    This post reminds me of Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning (both the book and lectures), which I really recommend to anyone interested in the “hero’s journey” concept. Those are some really helpful thoughts to have in mind in times like this.

  13. Scott Love says:

    Hi,

    I appreciate the perspective and the references in this piece, The Deep Reset. Very thoughtful and well-written. Cal, do you have a favorite translation or version of Homer’s Odyssey that you particularly enjoy?

    I try not to put software engineering or computer science in a box. One of my early software heroes was Alan Kay but not so much because he was one of the pioneers of object-oriented design but that he was so well-read in everything; from the humanities to the sciences. In this early writings about the history of Smalltalk, his references to psychology, philosophy and natural sciences were inspiring. And, he was the one who said POV was worth 80 IQ points. Much wisdom and a lot of creativity in his thought process.

    Thank you for sharing your time and your writing.

    All the best,

    Scott Love
    Palo Alto, CA

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I keep the Robert Fagles translation in my library. A masterpiece.

  14. Andres says:

    This post is really awesome. It’s also very nice that you quoted Mr. Rohr. I’m grateful for you both.

  15. I recently heard that libraries are reporting an uptick in check-outs of the classics — and I think this is a reason why. People are craving meaning and purpose in all this, and our time-honored tales speak to many innately human tendencies. (As a writer and English teacher, I, of course, love this.)

    I’ve very much experienced all this as well, being privileged enough to work from home this whole time. Even though it’s been hard at times, the inner life for my entire family, as well as with each other, has deepened enormously. It’s been needed and welcomed.

  16. Mike Williams says:

    My observation is that after being in the workforce for 20/30 years or so, and working out what your parameters are for a more authentic, satisfying work environment are, that you are suddenly dealing with much younger career-driven people who think you’re copping out, that you’re foolish for sticking around in any job for more than three years. Those people are often recruiters or HR people, and they really don’t have a very long term perspective on anything.

  17. I just finished a conversation with a friend who is an artist. We meet every 2-4 weeks virtually to discuss how we are doing during the pandemic. As a writer I get inspired both in uplifting and very serious ways. We both commented that as people with open hearts and minds we feel there is some good that will come out of this for us. A better understanding, a kind of awakening, clearer view of ourselves, our lives, creativity, relationships and even reality. Then I received this and “deep reset” proved itself to be the perfect description. We both get down and a kind of malaise feeling to do good work or work for good is thwarted by all the work for “bad” out there right now. Staying away from social media helps prevent drowning in a sea of garbage. We are doing our best not to lose heart. Thanks as always, Cal.

  18. Drew says:

    Hi Cal,

    Long time fan, first time poster. Cliched, but true.

    Have you seen PagerDuty’s “The uninterrupted truth: Discover the human cost of unplanned work” ? Link at bottom of post. Granted, it’s obviously a lead generation white paper for their marketing team, but the research seems reputable.

    It’s an interview with 500 executives about the negative impacts of interruption on work. A few teasers from the data:

    64% of tech employees will lose 100 hours or more of productivity due to unplanned work
    86% state unplanned work results in less innovation
    33% have considered leaving their job due to unplanned work

    I saw the report and said to myself, “I bet Dr. Newport would be interested in this.” Hope you are well.

    https://www.pagerduty.com/resources/reports/unplanned-work/?utm_medium=display&utm_source=techcrunch&utm_campaign=Global-Rpt-UnplannedWork-DispAd-TechCrunch&utm_term=none&utm_content=none

  19. John C Davidson says:

    For “hardship unlocking a deeper, more authentic, more satisfying life”, I would have chosen when Odysseus leaves Calypso. She promises to make him her immortal husband and warns him of the troubles ahead if she leaves him, but Odysseus says “bring it on.”

    Nevertheless I long —I pine, all my days —
    to travel home and see the dawn of my return.
    And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea,
    I can bear that too, with a spirit tempered to endure.
    Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now
    in the waves and wars. Add this to the total —
    bring the trial on!”

  20. Josh says:

    The current circumstances are giving everyone an *opportunity*.

    As you suggest, this could, and perhaps should be a reset for many people. Being stuck mostly inside gives everyone a chance to reflect, prioritize, select, and execute.

    Unfortunately, I suspect that many people are not doing that right now. Many people are filling their lives with Netflix and box wine.

    It’s unfortunate … there’s never been a better time for deep work!

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