Day 4: Deep Work

Rethinking the Peter principle

“Mathematical Proof of the Beer Pong Skill Curve” from Wikimedia

My last post discussed my 31-day writing challenge. I said there were two recent developments that gave me some level of confidence that I’ll stick to my commitment this time. I discussed the first, developing a habit of walking at least 10,000 steps per day, without skipping a day for at least a year.

The other development was triggered in reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work. The book is a challenge to push past the trivial and mundane and create value through intense focus. It’s well written and well thought-out, and it resonated with me on a profound level. I loved it so much I immediately bought his previous book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (which sounds a little cheesy, but it’s also a great read).

Shallow work is a pervasive problem in modern life. Many have written about our distraction-addicted culture and the technologies that make such diversions ever more prevalent. Newport doesn’t spend much time diagnosing an obvious problem, though he does a skillful job of examining why non-optimal behaviors take hold and proliferate. Most of the book is dedicated to examining the benefits, skills and habits of shallow work’s antithesis: deep work.

Newport struck a nerve because I have been struggling with the effects of shallow work for some time. One of the things that you don’t read about in organizational leadership and management literature is how leading an organization can leave leaders feeling scattered, thin and shallow — a mile wide and an inch deep.

Even when you know you’re doing valuable work, the constant juggling can leave you feeling a little empty, if not incompetent. If you’re any good, you’re hiring people who are better at you at the skills their roles require. Pretty soon, you realize you’re not the best at anything you can easily pinpoint, and you can start to wonder what exactly you are good at. You wonder, “Have I become like the bosses I used to mock, those living embodiments of the Peter principle?”

Occasionally, you’ll hear about imposter syndrome, which I think is widespread among people near the top of their fields. What you don’t read about is how the work itself — managerial work, team work, work that requires a public face (i.e., shallow marketing tasks) — can undermine not only self-confidence but the skills themselves.

I’m fortunate to be in a quasi-academic position that affords me some time to learn and develop new knowledge and skills. But I feel like I can’t focus long-enough to master anything. (It’s the “quasi” that’s the problem, but I’m not sure I want to be a pure academic.)

Newport seemed to offer a way out.

In particular, two small passages from his books lodged themselves in my consciousness. They provided examples of deep work in action that helped me visualize, in a very concrete way, what this could look like in my life.

Newport looked to the example set by renowned physicist Richard Feynman in advancing his academic career. As Feynman had done in his career, Newport — a computer scientist — decided to focus his attention on “a bottom-up understanding of [his] field’s most difficult results.” He took a well-cited but obtuse paper that focused on a single algorithm and decided to master it from the bottom up.

Newport employed a number of approaches. Although he met immense internal resistance at this difficult work, he set aside time blocks (some as short as an hour) where he would focus intently on only this problem. He built a proof map to capture key dependencies to different pieces and gave himself quizzes to force him to memorize key definitions. Then he moved on to what he called the big guns: proof summaries. He filled in missing steps and wrote detailed summaries of each lemma.

He spent two weeks on understanding this one paper, and it had immediate benefits. The paper’s authors had a near monopoly on solving that type of problem, and now he could join them. He better understood related work and soon published a new (related) proof.

More importantly, this set the stage for new habits and mindsets. He began to see mental strain as good, like the muscle burn after a workout. He developed a “research bible” where he would summarize one paper relevant to his research per week. He began to keep a tally of hours spent in deep work. And he formalized how he would record his own thinking on new theories and results.

This example hit home, in part because of my experience in my aborted Ph.D. program in mathematics. I’ve read my share of dense proofs and known what it’s like to only understand them on a surface level. It had never occurred to me to put this kind of intense mental work into dissecting them — or into understanding anything.

If I’d started down that path on my own, I think I would have just thought of myself as dense and hopelessly lacking in ability. For all of my agreement with the incremental (or growth) theory of learning and the self over the entity (or fixed) theory, belief in the latter is ingrained and hard to shake.

Reading Newport’s example, I had to admit that I’ve viewed learning through a consumption mindset. It’s been all about exposing myself to concepts. Once exposed, they became mine. Sure, sometimes special memorization efforts were required, simple practice exercises could help them stick, and writing papers could help integrate that knowledge. Ultimately, although I would have denied it, I had a rather passive, fill-me-up approach. I thought I was being active by seeking out information to ingest, but really I had a consumption-focused, fill-me-up mindset. I was just looking to books and tools beyond lectures to do the filling.

To be honest, “fill me up” suffices in many fields. In those fields, there is interesting new work being done, and that work requires much knowledge and creative thinking. However, understanding that work is merely a matter of exposure. It’s not particularly dense, and doesn’t require the kind of intense and active efforts Newport describes.

At any rate, this story of Newport’s fixed in my mind a concrete image of active, deep work that challenged and inspired me. It doesn’t matter whether I viewed myself more as an academic or administrator or practitioner (my current position involved all three). Here was a level of, and approach to, mastery that appealed to me.

The other example was of a Ph.D student who was completing his dissertation while working a full-time job (most of Newport’s examples are non-academic — these two just happen to stick out to me). After a year of slow progress, he decided to write from 5:30 until 7:30 each morning and then, pleased with his progress, moved the start time back to 4:45. This way, his dissertation obligations were out of the way before his work day began.

With that, something seem to click into place. On Memorial Day of this year, I woke up at 5 a.m. to start writing a book. I’ve gotten up between 5 and 5:30 almost every weekday after that. I didn’t miss a day until July 1st, when I had to wake up at 2:30 a.m. to get ready to drive the family to visit my grandmother in Indianapolis. (We drove insanely early so that my then two-year-old would sleep longer in the car.) Outside of that vacation, I’ve only missed two weekdays and that was for a business trip.

I hasten to add that none of this is meant as a brag, humble or otherwise. This change was inspired by two examples significantly more impressive. And I have friends whose marathon-running, writing productivity, academic rigor or personal demands (hello, single moms) put me to shame.

But, a year ago, I would not have thought myself capable of these changes. I’m not exactly a morning person (babies and toddlers help, though), and my past is littered with abandoned attempts at various changes.

Now, I’m a little more component at expanding my boundaries. The next few weeks will reveal whether I will keep this particular commitment of daily blogging, but I feel good.

(OK, this song is not exactly the message I want to send out to the world, but it’s apropos of deep work. Plus, Little Village is perhaps the most obscure “supergroup” to have ever put out an album. The band comprises Nick Lowe, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner.)

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