I’ve long been a reader of Cal Newport‘s blog, Study Hacks. Cal has been writing and blogging as he’s moved from college to graduate school to academic faculty, as he puts it, “decoding patterns of success.” His first books were not of great interest to me, focusing as they did on school, studying and early career, but I’ve read a few and recommended them over the years.
Now Cal is trying to figure out how to succeed as junior faculty in the Georgetown University Computer Science Department. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is the first book length expression of what he’s learned.
Deep Work is a very academic view of the world – it focuses on gaining world class levels of technical expertise. Cal has to admit that some shallow workers are successful, but he makes the point well that, in general, success in our economy is based on technical expertise. Let’s say this book is aimed at that slice of the new cognitive elite, who read, study and write, not those who work primarily in a world of human relationships as opposed to knowledge. I’ll include myself in this group as an MD, PhD Neurologist who now makes his living providing guidance to companies and teams developing novel therapies in pain, neurological disease and psychiatry. It’s now purely my deep and wide knowledge across medicine, neurobiology and regulations that makes me valuable.
I could have used this book along the way, although most successful professionals figure it out on their own. Time have changed and doing the work is more and more of a challenge in our world of digital distraction. Cal spends about half the book explaining what deep work is and then spends the second half providing some rules of engagement with nice examples drawn from publically available stories and interviews he’s conducted. While useful, it’s important to remember that this is a small slice of the world and Cal is an academic in a certain discipline. But I recall how I too over identified highly successful individuals over the years and worked to reverse-engineer their methods of success.
In essence, the process of deep work is planning the time for uninterrupted periods of deep concentration at hard taks. I enjoy this kind of work and have tried to find jobs where I not only have an opportunity to do it but it’s also a major value driver to my employer.
But out in the world of work, the culture of responsiveness cruelly pulls one away, particularly if one’s surrounded by coworkers who don’t appreciate the value of deep work. They’re scheduling meetings and trying to look busy while you try to analyze data. It’s easier to spend all day farming the inbox and having meetings than to research an unfamilar technical area and synthesize a new business case. But in some companies, answering emails or sitting in meetings to coordinate and manage is the job, or at least most of it. Newport correctly identifies the problem in these coporate cultures, that when being busy is the measure of success then there must be no real work to do anyway. Can such a culture be successful for long?
My own call to “doing the work” is a simpler plea to focus on production. Learning is not productive in itself, real artists ship. Academics are actually scored based on number of publications and the impact ratings of the journals in which the papers appear. My H Score on Google scholar is 21. Not bad for 20 years out of academia. They’ve tried to make keeping score easy. But that’s not been the focus of my career, I’ve been on the business side where being uniquely qualified to help on a project is the goal.