In his foreword to Human Action, Ludwig von Mises wrote:
“From the fall of 1934 until the summer of 1940 I had the privilege of occupying the chair of International Economic Relations at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. In the serene atmosphere of this seat of learning… I set about executing an old plan of mine, to write a comprehensive treatise on economics.”
This treatise would evolve to become Human Action itself, Mises’s greatest masterpiece. The serenity that this position afforded Mises provided him ample opportunity to dive into “deep work,” which Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, defines as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
However, you don’t need a plum academic gig to create for yourself the serenity you need for deep work. Newport wrote of another famous thinker who also transmuted Swiss serenity into great work:
In the Swiss canton of St. Gallen, near the northern banks of Lake Zurich, is a village named Bollingen. In 1922, the psychiatrist Carl Jung chose this spot to begin building a retreat. He began with a basic two-story stone house he called the Tower. After returning from a trip to India, where he observed the practice of adding meditation rooms to homes, he expanded the complex to include a private office. “In my retiring room I am by myself,” Jung said of the space. “I keep the key with me all the time; no one else is allowed in there except with my permission.” In his book Daily Rituals, journalist Mason Currey sorted through various sources on Jung to re-create the psychiatrist’s work habits at the Tower. Jung would rise at seven a.m., Currey reports, and after a big breakfast he would spend two hours of undistracted writing time in his private office. His afternoons would often consist of meditation or long walks in the surrounding countryside. There was no electricity at the Tower, so as day gave way to night, light came from oil lamps and heat from the fireplace. Jung would retire to bed by ten p.m. “The feeling of repose and renewal that I had in this tower was intense from the start,” he said.
From this lakeside retreat, Jung wrote “a stream of smart articles and books further supporting and establishing analytical psychology, the eventual name for his new school of thought.”
Neither do you need your own personal tower to do deep work. Newport notes that for Mark Twain, a humble shed sufficed:
“Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer. Twain’s study was so isolated from the main house that his family took to blowing a horn to attract his attention for meals.”
Jazz musicians use “woodshed” as a verb for deep practice, referring to the practice of retreating to a woodshed to find the solitude necessary to master their instrument. Many jazz musicians began their careers in poverty unlike what hardly any American knows today. If they were able to carve out serenity in their lives, surely we can.
Your deep work sanctuary could be a home office, a bedroom, even a closet. If you’re able to tune out your surroundings a Starbucks might even suffice. I’m currently writing this from a tiny room in my organization’s headquarters (which has an open layout) reserved for quiet, solitary, concentrated work (or private phone calls). The most important thing is to find a place where you won’t be interrupted or distracted. That also means setting your devices to “Do Not Disturb” and avoiding distracting yourself with social media or the internet in general.
Even Superman needed his Fortress of Solitude. To do super work, find (or build) yours.