Angela's Reviews > Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep Work by Cal Newport
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Say you were shoring up an ideology of service. Where besides abstract idealism would you draw from? Well, America's "me first" set has some very practical things figured out. Habits of mind that help them get "ahead" in the workplace.

This book is a great example of the kinds of literature they produce - it contains important information and some actually good critiques/ techniques for sharpening attention and the effectiveness of one's work. Newport is a very clear writer with a vast view of the literature. He’s fun and easy to read. He is good at digesting big ideas.

Some of the most important ideas/literatures covered here:

- Getting COMFORTABLE with sustained depth of focus on a task, and how to wean yourself off dependence on distraction.

- Sustained discussion of what happens to those who are somehow uncomfortable or even afraid of going deep into non-distracted focus on their work

- Attention fatigue and the value of systematic idleness

- Attention residue - especially the work of Sophie Leroy. This is BIG! CHECK IT OUT.

- Deliberate practice. Also a big and important literature, wonderfully summarized here.

- A specific explanation for why internet is addictive, why it is pathetically easy to build an audience there, how it keeps you from having a full life, and how it exploits you.

- A fun-to-read, logical and convincing critique of social media use that everyone in the healing professions would do well to consider.

As part of this last item, Newport gives the best, most clear analysis I’ve seen of what happens when the energy flows around social media go awry. It’s cool that he can go back stage and see the social media industry for what it is. And it's ironic he doesn't have the same ability to see through the achieverist culture this book seeks to fuel. His central thesis is that because deep work is both increasingly rare and increasingly useful in the workplace, the few who learn and practice it will be poised to get the top jobs in their respective professions. The unnecessary driving force of the narrative, then, is all about scrambling your individual ass to the top of your particular heap.

You don't have to share a person's ideology to learn from them... so much the better if you take this books tricks for selfish gain and subvert them to an ideology of love and service. Because the book is so straightforward, it's easy to reverse-exploit it in this way.

So I suggest activists and those in the healing profession get on this and other stuff like it. You can scan it quickly - it's written simply enough that ironically you don't need to go as deep as I did to get the gist of Deep Work! It’s an easy a way to absorb the recent literatures on attention. It’s well written and quick and the author has covered the field.

The thing is, we in the healing professions and activism work with ATTENTION. Fundamentally. We know all about attention from the great books and from our personal practices, but also, the scientistic culture has actually discovered new things about attention in the last ten years. Patanjali and the Buddha aren’t everything specifically because they didn’t understand the challenges we face in the present day. It's worth knowing what the psychologists are saying about the effects of workplace design and the internet on fragmentation of attention. Their findings are kind of gross.

The background assumptions of this book, if seen clearly, offer a unique opportunity to see how the corporate-industrial achieverist mindset operates. For example, Newport likes to make fun of women for doing their jobs - see the comments on Jennifer Winer, on the Yahoo CEO, on the NYT journalist he assumes to be a twitter user not because she wants to be but because some boss told her to do it. That’s not actually Cal talking, it’s the background hum of the boys' club. Of course he has a hard time taking women in leadership quite seriously. On the masculine side, he expresses a slavish commitment to being at some sort of “top” of his field, to meeting the benchmarks, to being one of the top performers - this must be a very heavy load of anxiety and self-discipline for most in the boys club to bear. Newport has made a career of teaching people how to carry it, writing ultra-high-end self-help books for the status-anxious.

So he ends up extolling crazy selfish stuff like free-riding on all the committee work that goes with being an academic. Fully 50% of a pre-tenure professor’s work is contributing to a collective and educating young ones. Archetypically feminine work. But Newport finds himself worshipping the likes of diva Richard Feynman. Every department has divas like this, of course. They are old, white dinosaurs who still believe their “contributions to the field” and “making of their name” is more important than showing up like everyone else to help their institutions run smoothly. This is not an ideology of success, it’s just the purest expression of free-riderism that kept the last generation of divas at the top. The best organizations of the future, though, don’t want divas. They want team players. Deep working divas are well known, and they are stuck where they are, without close colleagues, without the other deep thing the rest of us enjoy in our professional lives: deep relationships.

Towards the end of the book, Newport coins the most neoliberal term I have ever encountered - “productive meditation.” The interiorization of spiritual capitalism par excellence! This is one of the techniques in Deep Work that I won't be carrying forward.

In summary, this book inspired me and verified suspicions I've had for a while about the nature of attention in the current economy. It is a perfect expression if its time. And it gives insight on the collective attentional neuroses we are currently generating.

We in the healing professions can very easily look askance at achieverists who haven’t figured out how to do truly meaningful work (i.e. service) that goes beyond the atomized self-promoting professional. But insofar as we uncritically fall prey to the zeitgeist produced by neoliberal culture, and insofar as we let ourselves become tools of the tools - instagram, Facebook, whathaveyou - then we’re actually in the most ironic position of all.

The meaning in our work involves the transmission of a grounded, peaceful awareness, and of an ethos of expanding and clarifying consciousness. And this doesn’t work if we are not smart about how and with what tools we work. We're not all that useful to others if we succumb to the vata-deranged distraction that surrounds us and that everyone we meet wants to escape, if only for a 90 minute session. We have to be stronger than the collective drive toward fragmenting attention. This book provides some good defensive armor against the unconsciousness and the selfishness that we all aim to transcend.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 9, 2016 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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Kony Exactly. You pierced to the core of what this book is about - not just the substance, but the anti-service-oriented subtext - and how/why we should distill useful information form it anyway. Thanks for this wise and constructive critique.

Angela So glad it was useful...

Alison Yes! I also had problems with the free-riderism and the boys club elements (though more of how I guess wives are supposed to do all the emotional (also very encompassing and distracting) work of keeping a household with kids and family obligations running smoothly).

And the productive meditation was also cringe worthy for me, but I didn’t connect the dots as well as you did. Thanks for formulating this so well.

message 4: by Angela (last edited Jul 05, 2018 11:42AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Angela Yeah, I can't imagine working for or living with this guy. The ideology is so exploitative of everyone even remotely connected to him. And he is thoughtful and rational and methodical, so he's probably not receptive to new ideas that don't confirm the ideology. But still, the thinking here is smart and curious. Maybe after he gets everything he wants professionally his mind will turn, and then maybe he will write about the learning process. Seems likely. That would inspire a lot of free-riding "winners" out there and be a far greater service than one could be just by hacking his insights here to serve a purpose greater than careerism. You on it, Cal?

Susan I also agree with this review--and I liked the book, overall. Good stuff.

Angela Follow up comment on Cal's worship of Feynman. Feynman wrote a book bragging about his own misogynist exploits, something that was published before Cal did the research for this book.

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