Deep Work

Ne travaillez jamais!

There are better things to talk about than jobs, and usually we try. But then, that old sad fact: on any given day, where most of us are is mostly at work. Not everyone has been quiet about this. In fact one of of our culture’s greatest ventures into thinking about social relations has probably been business books. This huge tradition, stretching from Dale Carnegie up through Getting Things Done, stands as both a sociology and a self-help — in other words, and like we often hear, a vision of the spirit.

I am as looking for God-bits as anyone, and I also work. So I went ahead: I bought a business book and I read it. It was called Deep Work by Cal Newport and it’s about doing hard things, becoming valuable, productive, and fulfilled, and not using Twitter.

The book itself is probably unremarkable. Newport’s thesis — that we should spend more time focusing on single tasks — won’t strike many readers as novel, and its development, involving references to ‘flow psychology’ and anecdotes about young Googlers, is easy to predict. There are, sure, some fun bits: a strategy for memorizing a whole deck of cards, a nice analysis of endemic “cultures of busyness”, and even a story about Carl Jung, who built his own castle. But it was mostly boring, and I never quite reached the end.

Still, it worked. There’s no way to open Deep Work without admitting some version of the premise that, 1., your job is shitty, and 2., you could do things to make it better. The book wedges in this degree of reflective distance, and it was for me — awkwardly — a kind of revelation. I caught a glimpse of how I felt about work.

What I saw was, more or less, pure ressentiment. When you are working a job that is bad — or even one that is pretty OK — to imagine yourself trying to make it better feels like giving in, weak and embarrassing and immoral. You should be disgruntled. You have every right. Your job is bullshit!

There is direction in even the vaguest discontent. If you lose that, what’ve you got? Just yourself and a lukewarm cup of bad coffee, cooking under the fluorescent lights, three more hours of spreadsheet to fill and you’re not even sure if it’s OK to wear headphones.

Not to mention that you have it fucking good. Paid vacation, healthcare, lunch breaks, free coffee, a boss who’s not too bad of a guy… Just walking to the Two Bros for a dollar slice takes you past three homeless seniors, and you have to buy the slice from someone who works 60 hours a week for $5 an hour. There’s no reason! Everything could just be better.

Your not-sadness, that is — or your shot at it — would imply consent. And not just consent to the accidents of Nature — that might be fine enough — but consent to the bad ideas and poor organization and general meanness of People.

Deep Work is not worried about this sort of worry. It opposes to the standard left-Judeo-Christian guilt an ethic that might semi-ingenuously be called Spinozist or Nietzschean, one of mastery and self-fulfillment. How does one become what one is? If one is a web developer, it actually isn’t too hard: you put on your noise-cancelling headphones, turn off your email, suck down a Startup Tea, and fucking zone for four hours every day, which is about the limit on creative cognitive output for humans we’re told. The book’s hero is the Craftsman, capable of this kind of extended, focused, meaning-granting work. The Craftsman is unacquainted with guilt: he is too busy expanding, smashing through obstacles he has set for himself on the way to further accomplishment and greater production.

This point is well-taken. Eventually, for better or worse, you are at work; you might as well not be wretched. Right? Newport’s algorithm really doesn’t seem that hard to follow: pick a valuable skill, achieve competence, spend the rest of your days happily stoned on meaning and engagement.

And when what you are working on is the Manhattan Project, or an algorithm to flip bespoke tranche opportunities, or just to generate more ad revenue for BuzzFeed? Well, it isn’t. And if it really sort of is, at one or two or seven removes? Then get a new job! One where your thriving is the world’s thriving — a job that seeks to understand or support the worse-offs you’re so concerned about, maybe. There are plenty of nice non-profits. You could go to grad school.

But then, the same logic. This new Meaning would be just as contingent on the people down-ladder, just as extractive of them — if not moreso — as whatever you’re doing now; you’d just have gotten sneakier about it, your basic leech-ness. There, then, is the feeling it’s hard not to arrive at: that getting ‘fulfilled’ is being an asshole. That the most correct or fair decision, for a young (and white and male) and educated striver, might be to just feel as bad as possible — that this is the realest kind of empathy, and maybe of action, on offer.

And what good does it do anyone else for you to be miserable? Well, maybe that’s what’s politically effective. Maybe your droopiness writ large is the precondition for, er, real change; maybe your minimal gestures toward withholding consent, your disgruntlements and general malaise, your mounting whining, will eventually constitute the motion that might one day start to reshape the twisted relations in which you’re stuck.

Wah wah wah! Despair is a kind of privilege too, and a boring one. But I’m not making an argument, just saying what happened. At some point, plans and intentions aside, some of us just are sitting in an office, staring at those endless glowing rows and columns. Deep Work says, maybe there is some choice in how to feel. It’s hard to know how to feel about that choice.