Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep WorkDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport. New York:  Grand Central (Hachette), 2016.  296 p.  ISBN 978-1-4555-8669-1 $28.00 list

Cal Newport became a guru of study hacks after publishing Study Hacks, two other books, a dissertation, and six articles.  Clearly “do as I say and as I do,” he knows his subject.  Deep Work extends his thinking to sharper critique of the glut of social information that distracts many people.

Newport is especially sharply critical of Facebook (including the new Facebook headquarters building), Twitter, and the well-recognized Fear of Missing Out (FOMA) that can drive compulsive distraction and seriously erode the quality and quantity of work.  His critique is well-sustained, but its claims to be counter-cultural or disruptive are overblown: numerous other writers have critiqued the culture of distraction, including Neil Postman, Nicholas Carr, and Sherry Turkle.

Newport’s positive formulation of deep work betrays a certain ambivalence at the heart of the book.  Deep work is “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.  These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”(p. 3)  By contrast shallow work is “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”)(p. 6) His hypothesis: "the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare . . . [and] valuable . . . . The few who cultivate this skill with thrive."(p. 14)  His goal: to help you be one who can work deeply, a noble aim.   His examples are not always convincing, however.

His leading example (which opens the book), Carl Jung’s creation of Bollingen Tower as a retreat for his writing, is more multi-faceted than Newport suggests.  Jung retreated to his tower to write without distraction, but based in large part on his interaction with patients in Zurich.  Later Newport identifies Jung’s “bimodal” pattern, contrasting the Tower with Zurich, a “busy clinical practice,” “gave and attended many lectures,” “active participant in the Zurich coffeehouse culture,” all suggesting to Newport the hyper-connected, digital-age knowledge worker: “replace ‘Zurich’ with ‘San Francisco’ and ‘letter’ with ‘tweet’ and we could be discussing some hotshot tech CEO.” (p. 107)

I think this is a serious, ideologically-driven misunderstanding of Jung’s life in Zurich, and life's work.  Jung’s own writings are filled with episodes, instances, and cases from his practice in Zurich.  To suggest that Jung’s work in Zurich was “shallow work” devalues his clinical practice and Jung’s whole motivation for developing depth psychology and disputes with Sigmund Freud.  The ideas and art work Jung picked up in his Zurich life provided some of the critical raw material from which he fashioned his singular and valuable insights in the Tower.  Suggesting that Jung’s beautifully written letters are the work equivalent of contemporary tweets is simply preposterous and and fundamentally misconstrues Jung’s life’s work.  Valuable as Jung's deep concentration in the Tower was, it never would have amounted to much without his corresponding life in the city.

Newport's other examples (Adam Grant, Jack Dorsey for example) probably work better, but tend towards the two-dimensional.  This valuable book has to be read with caution.

Cal-newport-media-kit-smallIn the end, I am left with the uneasy sense that Newport’s beloved “deep work” is really what computer scientists do.  (He is an associate professor at Georgetown.) His concept of deep work is less applicable to those whose work is primarily leading people and organizations.  I know in my own work as a library director that sometimes I have to work on a project uninterrupted.  Some interruptions are shallow, but some definitely deep: the work I do listening to coworkers, helping them develop their ideas, skill and insights, indeed pushes my cognitive and emotional capabilities, improves my abilities, is hard to replicate mechanically, and (I hope) creates value.  Every encounter with a colleague is not deep work, but I always have to be alert to the moment when it turns deep, sometimes on a dime.

I completely accept Newport’s critique of the numerous, superficial distractions of social media, e-mail, and news, and the confusion of busyness with productivity.  But his concept of deep work needs broadening and humanizing. This seems to be the work of a very confident and highly creative young professor appropriately characterized as brilliant, creative, and important, but whose very brilliance and confidence may have drawn him towards an unnecessarily narrow conception of generosity, significance, and depth of insight.  I wonder how his ideas will change over time, work, and experience.  I would really like to find out, because it will be important.

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