June 22nd, 2021 · 10 comments
In an article about remote work that I wrote for the New Yorker last year, I pointed to an underground classic research paper titled “The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox.” It was written by a Stanford economist named Paul David, and published in the American Economic Review in 1989.
In the article, David performs a close study of the adoption of electric dynamos in factories at the turn of the twentieth century. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious that the right way to leverage electric power in factories is to put a small individual motor on each piece of equipment. As David points out, however, it took decades after the introduction of practical electrical generation before this obvious shift finally occurred.
As I summarized:
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June 16th, 2021 · 16 comments
I recently returned to Haruki Murakami’s 2007 pseudo-memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I first encountered this book back in 2009. It inspired me at the time to write an essay titled “On the Value of Hard Focus,” which laid the foundation on which I went on to build my theory of deep work. Which is all to say, Murakami’s short meditation on running and art holds a special place in my personal literary canon.
On my re-read, my attention was snagged by the following passage:
“Gradually, though, I found myself wanting to write a more substantial kind of novel. With the first two, Hear the Wind and Pinball, 1973, I basically enjoyed the process of writing, but there were parts I wasn’t too pleased with. With these first two novels I was only able to write in spurts, snatching bits of time here and there — a half hour here, an hour there — and because I was always tired and felt like I was competing against the clocks as I wrote, I was never able to concentrate. With this scattered approach I was able to write some interesting, fresh things, but the result was far from a complex or profound novel.”
Murakami wrote his first two novels late at night after closing down the bar he owned and ran near the Tokyo city center. These works were well-received: his first won a prize for new writers from a literary magazine, and his second also attracted positive reviews. But the effort both exhausted and frustrated him.
Murakami realized he was coasting on bursts of latent talent. He had caught the attention of the literary establishment because of inventive stretches in his prose, but he worried that if he kept producing these “instinctual novels,” he’d reach a dead end.
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June 4th, 2021 · 6 comments
In 1991, Sebastian Junger suddenly found himself with time to think. He had wounded himself with a chainsaw at his day job as a climber for a tree pruning company in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and was laid up recovering.
Morbidly inspired by the experience, Junger became interested in the idea of writing a book about dangerous jobs. In a tragic sense, his timing was good. That same year, a commercial fishing boat out of Gloucester named the Andrea Gail sunk off the coast of Nova Scotia in a historic storm. All six of her crew were lost.
Junger wrote a sample chapter about the Andrea Gail to include in a proposal for his dangerous jobs idea. It soon became clear, however, that the story of the lost fishing boat was rich enough to support an entire book on its own. The result was The Perfect Storm, which became an international bestseller after its release in 1997, and was subsequently adapted into a blockbuster movie staring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. Junger was credited with reviving the adventure non-fiction genre. Some even called him a new Hemingway.
The twist of this story that perhaps interests me most, however, is what Junger did next: he bought a dilapidated house in the woods. To be more specific, in 2000, Junger purchased a rundown residence, built in the early 1800s, and hidden at the end of a winding, unpaved lane in Truro, a small town in upper Cape Cod known as a refuge for writers and artists.
As Junger explains in a 2019 interview with CapeCod.com, he spends as much time there throughout the year as possible: “It’s a very good place to to work. It’s old and removed from humanity.”
As he elaborates:
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May 24th, 2021 · 20 comments
Peter Benchley wrote Jaws in the backroom of the Pennington Furnace Supply, a short walk from his home in Pennington, New Jersey. Though he lived in a bucolic converted carriage house situated on nearly an acre of land, he preferred writing amidst the clamor of this industrial hideaway .
He’s not alone among authors in this retreat to an eccentric workspace near his home: Maya Angelou wrote in hotel rooms with all pictures removed from the walls; David McCullough toiled in a garden shed; John Steinbeck would bring a notebook and portable desk out on his fishing boat.
As I argue in my most recent essay for the New Yorker, published last week, these case studies are important to our current moment because, in some sense, writers are the original work-from-home knowledge workers. The fact, therefore, that they often go through so much trouble to avoid working in their actual homes might teach us something important about how to succeed with our post-pandemic shift toward permanently increased telecommuting. (Hint: perhaps subsidized work from near home needs to become a thing.)
I encourage you to read the full article to find out more about the lessons learned from these case studies (or, at the very least, to enjoy some gratuitous stories of the aspirational lives of famous authors).
May 17th, 2021 · 11 comments
I recently returned to a book I first discovered earlier in the pandemic: The Power of Myth. It consists almost entirely of edited interview transcripts from a now classic, wide-ranging filmed conversation between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, which originally spanned over twenty hours of footage, but was later narrowed down to a handful of 60-minute episodes that aired on PBS in 1988.
You’ve probably heard of this interview as it went on to become one of the most watched series in public television history. Though it covers a dizzyingly diverse set of topics — from dragons, to Gaia, to religious fundamentalism — it attracted attention at the time in large part because George Lucas had previously admitted to referencing Campbell’s 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, to help write the script for Star Wars.
Accordingly, the bulk of the interview is conducted at Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, and Moyers and Campbell eventually come around to obligingly unpacking the role of the Hero’s Journey monomyth in explaining the resonance of Lucas’s 1977 blockbuster.
What caught my attention, however, was a brief aside about Star Wars that I don’t remember from the original PBS special. Near the end of interview, Moyers recalls:
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May 13th, 2021 · 24 comments
Early in the pandemic, I wrote a big piece for the New Yorker about the potential implications of our sudden shift to remote work. One of my predictions was that the shortcomings of the largely improvisational and informal methods by which we currently organize knowledge work — what I call “the hyperactive hive mind” — would be exaggerated by this shift, leading to even more overload:
“In such a chaotic work environment, there are profound advantages to gathering people together in one place. In person, for instance, the social cost of asking someone to take on a task is amplified; this friction gives colleagues reason to be thoughtful about the number of tasks they pass off to others…In other ways, meanwhile, offices can be helpfully frictionless. Drawn-out e-mail conversations can be cut short with just a few minutes of spontaneous hallway conversation. When we work remotely, this kind of ad-hoc coördination becomes harder to organize, and decisions start to drag.”
New research supports this prediction. A working paper recently published by a group of respected economists from the University of Chicago carefully studies a group of over 10,000 IT professionals to assess the impact of pandemic-induced remote work.
Here’s the key finding:
“Total hours worked increased by roughly 30%, including a rise of 18% in working after normal business hours. Average output did not significantly change. Therefore, productivity fell by about 20%.”
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May 6th, 2021 · 17 comments
In a paper published last month in the journal Nature (summary), a group of scientists from the University of Virginia reported on a series of experiments designed to assess how we solve problems. When presented with a challenging scenario, humans cannot evaluate every possible solution, so we instead deploy heuristics to prune this search space down to a much smaller number of promising candidates. As this paper demonstrates, when engaged in this pruning, we’re biased toward solutions that add components instead of those that subtract them.
This quirk in our mental processing matters. Potentially a lot. As the authors of the paper conjecture:
“Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape, and damaging effects on the planet.”
As I read about this finding, I couldn’t help but also think about the epidemic of chronic overload that currently afflicts so many knowledge workers. The volume of obligations on our proverbial plates — vague projects, off-hand promises, quick calls and small tasks — continues to increase at an alarming rate. There was a time, not that long ago, when the standard response to the query, “How are you?”, was an innocuous “fine”; today, it’s rare to encounter someone who doesn’t instead respond with a weary “busy.”
Does the wiring of our brains play a role in this reality?
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April 30th, 2021 · 31 comments
In a sermon delivered at the height of World War Two, a period awash in distraction and despair, C.S. Lewis delivered a powerful claim about the cultivation of a deep life:
“We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”
This quote reminds me of one my favorite Teddy Roosevelt stories, first recounted in his 1888 memoir, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. The tale begins in the spring, as the ice began to thaw on the Little Missouri River that passed through Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. Under the cover of night, a band of infamous local horse thieves steal a boat from the Elkhorn.
Though the swollen river was treacherous, and the thieves dangerous, there was no doubt that Roosevelt had to pursue them. “In any wild country where the power of law is little felt or heeded, and where every one has to rely upon himself for protection,” he writes, “men soon get to feel that it is in the highest degree unwise to submit to any wrong.” With the help of his ranch hands, Bill Seward and Wilmot Dow, Roosevelt builds a new flat-bottomed scow, which the trio then pushes out into the ice-choked river to initiate a three-day journey to hunt down the fugitives.
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