The deep thoughts of Cal Newport
That feeling when you practice what you preach
A couple years ago, I started hearing more and more about Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown who wrote a book called “Deep Work”. In the book, he says that we need to disconnect from technology in order to do any kind of meaningful work, and talks about how and why we need to do that. Among the key tenets are:
Completely blocking social media (Newport says he does not have Facebook or Twitter)
Taking a walk or exercising as a way to generate ideas
Limiting the amount of time you spend on any given task so you don’t get burned out
And noticing your “shallow” work so you can spend less time doing that and more time Winning.
This all sounds very reasonable, and, dare I say it, extremely Normcore-y.
After reading the book, I was interested, but obviously not impressed, since I wrote this three-star review on Goodreads:
I'm conflicted about this book. On the one hand, it has a very powerful message: We are too distracted, and need to turn off our distractions in order to do meaningful work.
On the other, the author comes across as someone who is very enamored with uber-productivity (mentioning how many academic articles people put out, as if that's the be-all end all) and social climbing and Ivy League degrees - he cites Adam Grant, who is now writing books with Sheryl Sandberg and in the New York times and probably not doing much research anymore. And, he knows a LOT about what's going on online for someone who's supposedly disconnected (i.e. the Lifehacker Seinfeld article, who Peter Shankman is, reading people's tweets, etc. )
Additionally, he’s enamored with understanding how tech works despite not having worked in it. [He] glorifies the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, even though the company is not doing well, and he assumes that a high valuation means the company is valuable inherently.
Uneven writing verging into business book "you can do it, too!" salesmanship takes away from what is a very good and thoughtful concept. He also rehashes Kahneman and Tversky, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who hasn't at this point, honestly?)
Finally, out of all his subjects and case studies, he only comes up with one woman: JK Rowling, to discuss, and never once mentions how child care is handled to accommodate for this state of deep work. Tradeoffs.
I came away with a lot more questions than answers.
If I sound salty, it’s because I’m salty.
After Deep Work, I was left with a vague feeling of unease, but couldn’t figure out why. This guy had a decent book and ideas that I fundamentally agree with - why did I dislike it so much?
As Newport faded from my line of sight culturally for the past couple years, I let the question go. But this year, he came out with a new book, Digital Minimalism, and my interest in him flared up again. I haven’t read it (yet), but it seems like an extension of his first hypothesis:
Digital minimalists are all around us. They’re the calm, happy people who can hold long conversations without furtive glances at their phones. They can get lost in a good book, a woodworking project, or a leisurely morning run. They can have fun with friends and family without the obsessive urge to document the experience. They stay informed about the news of the day, but don’t feel overwhelmed by it. They don’t experience “fear of missing out” because they already know which activities provide them with meaning and satisfaction. Now, Newport gives us a name for this quiet movement, and makes a persuasive case for its urgency in our tech-saturated world.
As he came into my line of vision again, I decided to investigate both him and Matthew Walker, who recently wrote a book about why we need to sleep:
In “Why We Sleep”, the runaway best hit of the year, by the director of Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, the author writes that we absolutely need to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, and what happens if we don’t sleep.
(Arianna Huffington, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos offer similarly helpful advice - just get some sleep.)
Walker does nothing to address how to actually get that sleep, and gives passing mention to the fact that new parents might miss out on this fact. Well, of course they do. What’s the solution, then? The obvious answer here would be extended maternity and paternity leave. How to get that? Work for a company that offers it - an elite tech company - or be plain out of luck trying to find six weeks to spend time with a baby.
What about school children, whose schedules are so out of sync with their Circadian rhythms? Yes, they should get sleep, but who will advocate for them when their needs are misaligned with corporations and school boards?
Below people like Matthew Walker, Jack Dorsey, Cal Newport, Hillary Clinton, Ben Smith, DHH, and Jeff Bezos, and others who can actually afford to unplug, to talk to real humans, to sleep, to quit Facebook, are the rest of us in the social hierarchy.
Not long after I wrote this post, I got an amazing message on Twitter:
I have been thinking about these tweets for a long time.
The man who says that digital minimalism is important, who claims to have no social media profiles, and who is making money off of telling people they need to log off, is using his wife’s social media profile so that he can claim not to have a social media profile.
As I noted in my initial review of Deep Work, and subsequently, Why We Sleep, neither of these successful men mention who they’re passing off their emotional labor onto so they can have the room for intellectual work. It becomes clear in reading between the lines that it’s their partners.
It’s similar to a recent profile I read on Yuval Noah Harari, who wrote the blockbuster “Sapiens.” As the author of the profile writes,
And Mr. Hastings wrote: “Yuval’s the anti-Silicon Valley persona — he doesn’t carry a phone and he spends a lot of time contemplating while off the grid. We see in him who we wish we were.”
And yet, his husband is the one who keeps the machine running,
Mr. Yahav became Mr. Harari’s manager. During the period when English-language publishers were cool on the commercial viability of “Sapiens” — thinking it too serious for the average reader and not serious enough for the scholars — Mr. Yahav persisted, eventually landing the Jerusalem-based agent Deborah Harris. One day when Mr. Harari was away meditating, Mr. Yahav and Ms. Harris finally sold it at auction to Random House in London.
Mr. Yahav used to meditate, but has recently stopped. “It was too hectic,” he said while folding laundry. “I couldn’t get this kind of huge success and a regular practice.” Mr. Harari remains dedicated.
Which is fine - all marriages and partnerships have trade-offs. But to not talk about it at all does the work a deep disservice and makes it look like anyone can achieve being without a phone, without social media, unplugged, and eight hours of sleep.
The insivible load is glossed over. But to me, the idea that you need to be on social media, for the sake of your business and personal profile, even as you’re working on a book about how terrible social media is much more interesting than a book of platitudes about digital Sabbaths and FOMO, than a book about eight hours of sleep, than proclaiming to be phone-less.
A book about passing on the burdens of the modern connected life to others - THAT’s a book I’d read.
Art: Thinking about Death, Frida Kahlo, 1943
What I’m reading lately:
I just finished Dark Matter and it was SOOOOOO GOOOD. I don’t even like thrillers and I finished this book in two days. Read the first couple of pages on Amazon preview and decide for yourself.
Love to have to scan my Airbnb network for cameras
Improved beach accessibility in Israel (side note: Frishman is the best beach in Tel Aviv and I won’t take other opinions)
Great post on code complexity:
Pardis on data science:
About the Author
I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. Most of my free time is spent kid-wrangling, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter. This newsletter, including warm takes about data, tech, and everything around those two. It goes out twice-ish a week. Paid subscribers get more warm takes and the warm feeling of supporting an author they *LOVE* (right?, right?).
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Thanks for another thoughtful article; glad I'm a subscriber.
Like many, I suppose, I struggle with all the digital cruft and crap in our lives and resent its encroaching intrusion into everything from parking to conversation.
So I welcome things like Newport's work, because they seem tied to Serenity and Productivity.
I almost signed up for one of his courses. When it got to the part of having to use Facebook (which I've never touched and never will) the beacon of hypocrisy flickered like a dysphoric bat sign on a moonlit cloudand I never looked back.
Most disappointing: the lack of imagination. Here's a young energetic guy who wants to eschew social media --and he's a computer science Wizard! -- and his course machinery centralizes on .... Facebook?
Stick a fork in it.