Excerpted from DEEP WORK by Cal Newport
The relationship between deep work and collaboration is tricky. It’s worth taking the time to untangle, however, because properly leveraging collaboration can increase the quality of deep work in your professional life.
It’s helpful to start our discussion of this topic by taking a step back to consider what at first seems to be an unresolvable conflict. In Part 1 of this book I criticized Facebook for the design of its new headquarters. In particular, I noted that the company’s goal to create the world’s largest open office space — a giant room that will reportedly hold twenty-eight hundred workers — represents an absurd attack on concentration. Both intuition and a growing body of research underscore the reality that sharing a workspace with a large number of coworkers is incredibly distracting — creating an environment that thwarts attempts to think seriously. In a 2013 article summarizing recent research on this topic, Bloomberg Businessweek went so far as to call for an end to the “tyranny of the open-plan office.”
And yet, these open office designs are not embraced haphazardly. As Maria Konnikova reports in The New Yorker, when this concept first emerged, its goal was to “facilitate communication and idea flow.” This claim resonated with American businesses looking to embrace an aura of start‑up unconventionality. Josh Tyrangiel, the editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, for example, explained the lack of offices in Bloomberg’s headquarters as follows:
“Open plan is pretty spectacular; it ensures that everyone is attuned to the broad mission, and . . . it encourages curiosity between people who work in different disciplines.” Jack Dorsey justified the open layout of the Square headquarters by explaining: “We encourage people to stay out in the open because we believe in serendipity — and people walking by each other teaching new things.”
For the sake of discussion, let’s call this principle — that when you allow people to bump into each other smart collaborations and new ideas emerge — the theory of serendipitous creativity. When Mark Zuckerberg decided to build the world’s largest office, we can reasonably conjecture, this theory helped drive his decision, just as it has driven many of the moves toward open workspaces elsewhere in Silicon Valley and beyond. (Other less-exalted factors, like saving money and increasing supervision, also play a role, but they’re not as sexy and are therefore less emphasized.)
This decision between promoting concentration and promoting serendipity seems to indicate that deep work (an individual endeavor) is incompatible with generating creative insights (a collaborative endeavor). This conclusion, however, is flawed. It’s based, I argue, on an incomplete understanding of the theory of serendipitous creativity. To support this claim, let’s consider the origins of this particular understanding of what spurs breakthroughs.
The theory in question has many sources, but I happen to have a personal connection to one of the more well-known. During my seven years at MIT, I worked on the site of the institute’s famed Building 20. This structure, located at the intersection of Main and Vassar Streets in East Cambridge, and eventually demolished in 1998, was thrown together as a temporary shelter during World War II, meant to house the overflow from the school’s bustling Radiation Laboratory. As noted by a 2012 New Yorker article, the building was initially seen as a failure: “Ventilation was poor and hallways were dim. The walls were thin, the roof leaked, and the building was broiling in the summer and freezing in the winter.”
When the war ended, however, the influx of scientists to Cambridge continued. MIT needed space, so instead of immediately demolishing Building 20 as they had promised local officials (in exchange for lax permitting), they continued using it as overflow space. The result was that a mismatch of different departments — from nuclear science to linguistics to electronics — shared the low-slung building alongside more esoteric tenants such as a machine shop and a piano repair facility. Because the building was cheaply constructed, these groups felt free to rearrange space as needed. Walls and floors could be shifted and equipment bolted to the beams. In recounting the story of Jerrold Zacharias’s work on the first atomic clock, the abovementioned New Yorker article points to the importance of his ability to remove two floors from his Building 20 lab so he could install the three-story cylinder needed for his experimental apparatus.
In MIT lore, it’s generally believed that this haphazard combination of different disciplines, thrown together in a large reconfigurable building, led to chance encounters and a spirit of inventiveness that generated breakthroughs at a fast pace, innovating topics as diverse as Chomsky grammars, Loran navigational radars, and video games, all within the same productive postwar decades. When the building was finally demolished to make way for the $300 million Frank Gehry–designed Stata Center (where I spent my time), its loss was mourned. In tribute to the “plywood palace” it replaced, the interior design of the Stata Center includes boards of unfinished plywood and exposed concrete with construction markings left intact.
Around the same time that Building 20 was hastily constructed, a more systematic pursuit of serendipitous creativity was under way two hundred miles to the southwest in Murray Hill, New Jersey. It was here that Bell Labs director Mervin Kelly guided the construction of a new home for the lab that would purposefully encourage interaction between its diverse mix of scientists and engineers. Kelly dismissed the standard university-style approach of housing different departments in different buildings, and instead connected the spaces into one contiguous structure joined by long hallways — some so long that when you stood at one end it would appear to converge to a vanishing point. As Bell Labs chronicler Jon Gertner notes about this design: “Traveling the hall’s length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions and ideas was almost impossible. A physicist on his way to lunch in the cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.”
This strategy, mixed with Kelly’s aggressive recruitment of some of the world’s best minds, yielded some of the most concentrated innovation in the history of modern civilization. In the decades following the Second World War, the lab produced, among other achievements: the first solar cell, laser, communication satellite, cellular communication system, and fiber optic networking. At the same time, their theorists formulated both information theory and coding theory, their astronomers won the Nobel Prize for empirically validating the Big Bang Theory, and perhaps most important of all, their physicists invented the transistor.
The theory of serendipitous creativity, in other words, seems well justified by the historical record. The transistor, we can argue with some confidence, probably required Bell Labs and its ability to put solid-state physicists, quantum theorists, and world-class experimentalists in one building where they could serendipitously encounter one another and learn from their varied expertise. This was an invention unlikely to come from a lone scientist thinking deeply in the academic equivalent of Carl Jung’s stone tower.
But it’s here that we must embrace more nuance in understanding what really generated innovation in sites such as Building 20 and Bell Labs. To do so, let’s return once again to my own experience at MIT. When I arrived as a new PhD student in the fall of 2004, I was a member of the first incoming class to be housed in the new Stata Center, which, as mentioned, replaced Building 20. Because the center was new, incoming students were given tours that touted its features. Frank Gehry, we learned, arranged the offices around common spaces and introduced open stairwells between adjacent floors, all in an effort to support the type of serendipitous encounters that had defined its predecessor. But what struck me at the time was a feature that hadn’t occurred to Gehry but had been recently added at the faculty’s insistence: special gaskets installed into the office doorjambs to improve soundproofing. The professors at MIT — some of the most innovative technologists in the world — wanted nothing to do with an open-office-style workspace. They instead demanded the ability to close themselves off.
This combination of soundproofed offices connected to large common areas yields a hub-and-spoke architecture of innovation in which both serendipitous encounter and isolated deep thinking are supported. It’s a setup that straddles a spectrum where on one extreme we find the solo thinker, isolated from inspiration but free from distraction, and on the other extreme, we find the fully collaborative thinker in an open office, flush with inspiration but struggling to support the deep thinking needed to build on it.*
If we turn our attention back to Building 20 and Bell Labs, we see that this is the architecture they deployed as well. Neither building offered anything resembling a modern open office plan. They were instead constructed using the standard layout of private offices connected to shared hallways. Their creative mojo had more to do with the fact that these offices shared a small number of long connecting spaces — forcing researchers to interact whenever they needed to travel from one location to another. These mega-hallways, in other words, provided highly effective hubs.
We can, therefore, still dismiss the depth-destroying open office concept without dismissing the innovation-producing theory of serendipitous creativity. The key is to maintain both in a hub-and-spoke-style arrangement:
Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spoke in which to work deeply on what you encounter.
This division of efforts, however, is not the full story, as even when one returns to a spoke, solo work is still not necessarily the best strategy. Consider, for example, the previously mentioned invention of the (point-contact) transistor at Bell Labs. This breakthrough was supported by a large group of researchers, all with separate specialties, who came together to form the solid-state physics research group — a team dedicated to inventing a smaller and more reliable alternative to the vacuum tube. This group’s collaborative conversations were necessary preconditions to the transistor: a clear example of the usefulness of hub behavior.
Once the research group laid the intellectual groundwork for the component, the innovation process shifted to a spoke. What makes this particular innovation process an interesting case, however, is that even when it shifted to a spoke it remained collaborative. It was two researchers in particular — the experimentalist Walter Brattain and the quantum theorist John Bardeen — who over a period of one month in 1947 made the series of breakthroughs that led to the first working solid-state transistor.
Brattain and Bardeen worked together during this period in a small lab, often side by side, pushing each other toward better and more effective designs. These efforts consisted primarily of deep work — but a type of deep work we haven’t yet encountered. Brattain would concentrate intensely to engineer an experimental design that could exploit Bardeen’s latest theoretical insight; then Bardeen would concentrate intensely to make sense of what Brattain’s latest experiments revealed, trying to expand his theoretical framework to match the observations. This back-and-forth represents a collaborative form of deep work (common in academic circles) that leverages what I call the whiteboard effect.
For some types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone. The presence of the other party waiting for your next insight — be it someone physically in the same room or collaborating with you virtually — can short-circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth.
We can now step back and draw some practical conclusions about the role of collaboration in deep work. The success of Building 20 and Bell Labs indicates that isolation is not required for productive deep work. Indeed, their example indicates that for many types of work — especially when pursuing innovation — collaborative deep work can yield better results. This strategy, therefore, asks that you consider this option in contemplating how best to integrate depth into your professional life. In doing so, however, keep the following two guidelines in mind.
First, distraction remains a destroyer of depth. Therefore, the hub-and-spoke model provides a crucial template. Separate your pursuit of serendipitous encounters from your efforts to think deeply and build on these inspirations. You should try to optimize each effort separately, as opposed to mixing them together into a sludge that impedes both goals.
Second, even when you retreat to a spoke to think deeply, when it’s reasonable to leverage the whiteboard effect, do so. By working side by side with someone on a problem, you can push each other toward deeper levels of depth, and therefore toward the generation of more and more valuable output as compared to working alone.
When it comes to deep work, in other words, consider the use of collaboration when appropriate, as it can push your results to a new level. At the same time, don’t lionize this quest for interaction and positive randomness to the point where it crowds out the unbroken concentration ultimately required to wring something useful out of the swirl of ideas all around us.
*Supporters of open office plans might claim that they’re approximating this mix of depth and interaction by making available conference rooms that people can use as needed to dive deeper into an idea. This conceit, however, trivializes the role of deep work in innovation. These efforts are not an occasional accompaniment to inspirational chance encounters; they instead represent the bulk of the effort involved in most real breakthroughs.