This is my review of Cal Newport’s new book Deep Work, in which he makes the case that cultivating a capacity for intense concentration is the key competitive skill in the new knowledge economy.
First, this is a well-written, thoughtful book with relevant stories and practical how-to’s for cultivating focus. I’m a fan of Cal Newport’s blog Study Hacks, and was happy to see him expand on some of the ideas mentioned there. I’m also a big proponent of deep work generally.
But the overall concept of ruthlessly cutting out anything that is not “deep” is ultimately overly simplistic for most people. I think Newport senses this as he writes, and makes numerous half-hearted exceptions and other attempts to defuse the objection. It may work for a small group of writers, artists, and academics whose work is clearly defined, self-contained, and structured linearly, but that group is smaller than he suggests.
Here’s a few points as counter-arguments to the most problematic idea: that social media and other network tools are nothing but distractions:
1. The power of weak ties: the book describes social media as “light-touch relationships,” but extensive research has shown that weak ties are actually more important than strong ties in opening up new opportunities and connections. I use Facebook mostly for exchanging ideas with and getting feedback from a select group of professional peers — these “light” relationships with people I have barely met led directly to an offer of a writing residency for an influential blog in my field, a great opportunity to reach a larger audience.
2. Importance of online marketing: the ability to sell something online (whether a product, idea, theory, argument, etc.) is quickly becoming a generalist skill that everyone needs to know. At the same time it is actually surprisingly deep, requiring knowledge of psychographics, A/B testing, unit economics, funnel conversion, and many other areas. There is simply no way to get and stay good at it without some degree of constant exposure to the stream of new tools and platforms. You can ignore this stuff when you’re famous, but in the beginning it is one of the few sources of leverage open to anyone with time.
3. New NEW media: Newport lumps in as many social media and communication platforms together as he can think of, but doesn’t seem to realize that these are not just different flavors. Many represent completely new types of media, with new ways of thinking, creating, sharing, and advocating. You need to use them to understand their potential. I recently contributed to a major project with a Fortune 100 company in which the central element was GIFs! We used them as light-weight instructional guides, and the client found them stunningly innovative.
4. The Art of Asking: as Amanda Palmer beautifully illustrated in her book of this name, asking for help is underrated. Many of us have had the experience of asking for something online, and receiving a response from the least likely person, whether it was moving help or the answer to a tricky question. I recently posted a testimonial of a debt management service on my Facebook feed, and a few weeks later a distant acquaintance messaged me to tell me it had changed his life (and that he never would have called without my testimonial).
5. Inter-disciplinary connections: advancing in any field depends more than ever on bringing in ideas from other fields. But you can’t “go deep” on every single potentially insightful topic. Instead it requires staying sensitized to distant fields, remaining just barely dimly aware of what’s going on there so that, if something connected to your field pops up, it will prick your ears. Maintaining this sort of tangential sensitivity is what the Internet is best at. It is a stream of streams that you can fine tune with extreme precision. My work is in productivity but I very purposefully avoid reading the “standards” of the genre, because they trick me with their authority and influence into thinking there are pat answers (which tends to happen with long-term academics, by the way).
I could go on, and the point is not that everything on the Internet is perfect. Far from it. But the strategy of near-total abstinence from the networked world is ultimately avoiding the real question of our time: how to integrate these tools into a fruitful and satisfying life — intelligently, mindfully, avoiding both extremes. This requires teasing apart the pros and cons of each with a little more care than is done here.
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