Deep work, derp work and the diversity of inputs

Venkatesh Rao has sensed the danger. In a recent Breaking Smart newsletter, he used the phrase, “deep work as derp work”. Rao’s point, if I’m not mistaken, is that the strategies that Cal Newport et al. propose for doing deep work are also strategies that increase the risk of your work becoming culturally irrelevant. By cutting yourself off from the bazaar of the social media marketplace and limiting your exposure to information and interaction, you’re in danger of becoming out of touch with the temperament and flow of current culture. 

Venkatesh has approached this from a few different angles, and while his viewpoint certainly has merit, I’ve always had reservations about it. For example, in Where the Wild Thoughts Are, he says:

“Except for a basic spam filter, I am not going to gate-keep access to my attention using any mechanism other than my own head. Whether you are a weak link, stranger or childhood friend, if you can hijack my attention, you can have it. No Google Priority Inbox, no whitelist, no a priori comment moderation. As a far more interesting man than I will ever be liked to say, my brain is open. For a blogger whose raison d’etre is unusual perspectives, automated attention allocation is far too dangerous. I cannot outsource my core competency.”

In another example, Venkatesh pushes back against and proposes an alternative to the idea of surrounding yourself with smart people:

“My alternative to the heuristic, which many of you have heard in off-blog conversations, is that I am only interested in people as long as they are unpredictable to me. If I can predict what you’ll do or say, I’ll lose interest in you rapidly. If you can keep regularly surprising me in some way, forcing me to actually think in unscripted ways in order to respond, I’ll stay interested. It’s reciprocal. I suspect the people with whom I develop long-term relationships are the ones I surprise regularly. The ones who find me predictable don’t stick around. We’re not talking any old kind of surprise, but non sequiturs. Surprises that you can’t really relate to anything else, and don’t know what to do with. Mind-expanding surprises rather than gap-closing surprises.”

These seem like valid ideas. Yet still, I was wary. But my reservations—which were based on my experience that exposure to noise inhibits my ability to think and create—evaporated yesterday as I reviewed Certain to Win. It’s a book by Chet Richards, who was a colleague of John Boyd, creator of the OODA loop. It focuses on applying the ideas of manoeuvre warfare to business, team building and life. Here’s the passage that vaporised my implicit opposition to Rao’s points.

“ “Orient” is the key to the process. Conditioned by one’s genetic heritage, surrounding culture, and previous learning, the mind combines fragments of ideas, informations, conjectures, impressions, etc., to form the “many-sided, implicit cross-references”, which becomes a new orientation.
How well your orientation matches the real world is largely a function of how well you observe, since in Boyd’s conception, “observe” is the only input from the outside. Like the canopy on the Korean-era MiGs, anything that restricts the inflow of information or ideas can lead to mismatches (disorientations) between what you think is happening and what actually is and may also delay you from spotting (and so acting upon) these mismatches.”

After reading that I realised what Venkatesh was getting at. While the quality of your inputs does matter, it’s their diversity that matters more. High quality inputs which are all of the same type do not lead to high quality thinking. Quite the opposite. They result in a strangled, singular perspective. 

To think better and with more clarity, we need many models, multiple perspectives and an unrestricted stream of incoming ideas and information. It is this uncensored, unfiltered flow which allows us to trace interesting patterns, generate valuable insights and see things that everyone else has missed. 

This approach is the complete opposite to what I’ve been attempting over the last few years. I’ve been assigning value to inputs and sources before I’ve allowed them in, thinking that I can predict where the real value will come from. But I can’t. No one can. And that’s what makes living in the networked world of the twenty-first century so interesting. It’s impossible to know where the interesting insights and ideas will originate. And if you don’t know where what you’re looking for is going to come from, then every filter and censor you apply to the world around you, whilst providing some protection to attention and time, chokes the chances of serendipitous discovery and innovation.