March 25th, 2020 · 9 comments
In 1973, the BBC aired a 13-part documentary television series called The Ascent of Man. It was written and hosted by the polymath intellectual Jacob Bronowski, and following the lead of the BBC’s 1968 hit series, Civilization, it featured poetic commentary set against dramatic visuals.
Which is all to say, I was excited to recently come across a copy of the series’s companion book: a handsome large-format hardcover that largely replicates the commentary from the television show and is thick with full-color photos. (I’ve always loved sweeping science histories. I’m concurrently reading, off and on, a vintage copy of Richard Leakey’s 1978 book, People of the Lake, and Niall Ferguson’s latest, The Square and the Tower.)
I wanted to briefly share an interesting nugget I came across early in Bronowski’s book about the consequences of our ancestors’ shift toward an omnivorous diet:
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March 23rd, 2020 · 7 comments
In 1666, Cambridge University closed its doors to help stop the spread of the black plague. This sent a precocious 23 year-old student named Isaac Newton back to Woolshtrope Manor, a family estate located 60 miles northwest of the school. Newton’s main diversion: a thick, largely empty, 1000-page commonplace notebook that he’d inherited from his stepfather.
Newton decided to fill in its pages with his answers to an increasingly difficult series of mathematical questions he devised for himself. In doing so, he invented calculus.
Not bad for a school break.
If you’re interested in learning more about Newton’s miraculous year:
March 22nd, 2020 · 9 comments
- Check out this history, published recently by Jonathan Kujawa on 3 Quarks Daily (if you don’t know this website, ask any science geek you know to explain it to you). This was the article that inspired this post.
- You can browse Newton’s notebook online via Cambridge’s digital library.
- You can find nice images of Woolsthorpe Manor and its grounds here, and watch a short video about Newton’s work at Woolsthorpe here.
I open Deep Work with the story of a stone tower that Carl Jung built on the shores of the upper lake of Zurich, near the small town of Bollingen. Jung would retreat to an inner sanctum inside the tower, modeled after meditation rooms he had seen on a tour of British controlled India, to think deeply about his breakthrough work on psychiatry and the collective unconscious.
It always struck me that Jung’s Bollingen Tower, as he called it, seemed almost purposefully fantastical, as if Jung was using its form to induce states of deeper creativity. The other day, while reading Anthony Steven’s insightful guide, Jung: A Very Short Introduction, I learned my instinct was right. As Stevens explains:
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March 22nd, 2020 · 20 comments
A reader recently asked me the following question:
“You talk about developing rare and valuable skills specially those which the market values, but at what point do find yourself doing something meaningful? Yes, society would value you and compensate you, but at what costs. I know many people that are highly skilled, but hate their job/life. Is there an equilibrium in which you can develop rare and value skills while still being happy/proud about what you do?”
This question is important. In fact, it’s so important that I dedicated the fourth and final rule of my book So Good They Can’t Ignore You to this topic. Since it’s been nearly eight years since that book came out, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief summary of the answer I provided back then.
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March 20th, 2020 · 3 comments
I recently stumbled across a 1993 John Seabrook profile of Bill Gates from The New Yorker. It initially caught my attention because of its opening, which provides a nice snapshot of the early days of email. On a whim, Seabrook, who has never met Gates, sends him an email (from a CompuServe account). Eighteen minutes later, Gates replies.
But I ended up more struck by a passage found deeper in the piece. “Microsoft’s ambition is to supply the standard operating-system software for the information-highway machine,” Seabrook notes. Because this was before broadband consumer internet was even on the radar, Microsoft assumed this machine would depend on the existing cable TV infrastructure, and therefore be sold as box that plugged in like a VCR.
Seabrook traveled to Redmond to see prototype devices demonstrating this vision, and reported the following:
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March 19th, 2020 · 8 comments
In Deep Work, I tell the story of Ric Furrer, a general blacksmith who runs a forge in Door County, Wisconsin: a rural idyll near Lake Michigan’s Sturgeon Bay. He works in a converted barn whose doors he often keeps open to the surrounding farm fields to vent the heat, his hammer blows echoing for miles. He makes a living with architectural metal work, but he’s known for his rare mastery of ancient weapon forging techniques. I came across him in a 2012 Nova episode in which he recreates a viking sword using crucible steel (see above).
In Deep Work, I write the following:
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March 18th, 2020 · 7 comments
As someone who studies technology and culture, I’ve noticed that we’re perpetually caught off guard when an unusually useful new innovation spreads rapidly. We tend to quickly claim that this latest fast adoption is unprecedented.
Historically speaking, however, these quick expansions might be more common than you realize. I was recently re-reading one of my favorite history of technology titles, Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet. In it, Standage summarizes the astonishing rapidity with which the American telegraph network grew.
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March 17th, 2020 · 32 comments
Over the past fifteen years, I’ve covered many different topics in my writing that all seem to roughly orbit ideas around productivity, technology, and meaning. Some of my readers have taken to unifying this prescriptive worldview with a simple description: the deep life. Giving its foundational role in what we do here, I thought it might be useful to summarize how I think about this philosophy at the moment.
To me, the deep life is about focusing with energetic intention on things that really matter — in work, at home, and in your soul — and not wasting too much attention on things that don’t.
Those who embrace the deep life often push some of these efforts to a place that seems radical to outsiders, but it’s exactly in this extremeness that they find the deep satisfaction. A life focused intensely on the things that really matter — even if it’s riddled with ups and downs — trumps a comfortable life that unfolds with haphazard numbness or excessive narcissism.
The tricky part in cultivating a deep life, of course, is figuring out what things matter. This will differ between different people. I strive to divide my focused attention among four categories:
- community (family, friends, etc.),
- craft (work and quality leisure),
- constitution (health), and
- contemplation (matters of the soul).
In each of these areas I keep striving to identify the big swings — the actions or commitments that will make the most difference — while clearing out the detritus that gets in the way (this latter goal giving rise to my obsession with productivity). They all interact: constitution enables better craft, while contemplation, as it so often does, provides a template for basically everything that’s important. Sometimes I’m more successful in these efforts than others. I’m better at it now than when I was at 25, and think I’ll be even better when I’m 45.
So there it is: a short summary of the underlying philosophy that gives rise to so much that I end up writing about, from the zen valedictorian, to career capital, to deep work, to the importance of digital minimalism. You’re only granted so much energy to expend in a lifetime. You’re almost certainly best off focusing it as intensely as you can on the targets that seem to really move the needle.