Inbreeding, deep work and interestingness

Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail was an article that became a book. But it shouldn’t have. “The long tail” was a concept that was extended to book length to capitalise on the interest provoked by the original article, not because the idea itself actually needed an entire book to do it justice.

This criticism of Anderson’s book came to mind recently as I was reading a Cal Newport newsletter. Newport is the author of a book called Deep Work, and he defines “deep work” as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” In his newsletter, Newport made a comment about the possibility of a book on “the deep life”. I thought to myself, “Please, no.”

Deep Work is a good book, and it contains good ideas. I enjoyed it and have profited from its content. But “deep work” is a methodology, not a philosophy. It is a way of working, not a way of living. For example, one of the key tenets of the Deep Work approach is minimising distraction and ruthlessly culling inputs. That means limiting email, eliminating social media interaction, strictly allocated consumption of verified sources of information, all that. It’s a sound strategy, but only when you’re actually doing work. It’s not such a good idea for the rest of your life. Why though?

I wrote in “Deep work, derp work and the diversity of inputs” that such tyrannical control of the stimuli you’re exposed to results in “a strangled, singular perspective.” That’s because limiting and pre-qualifying the ideas you come across makes it harder to have interesting thoughts. It’s kind of like inbreeding. Offspring derived from two genetically similar parents results in abnormalities and deformities. So too with ideas. 

This is how my understanding of Deep Work and the importance of varied inputs has evolved. Mostly due to my reading of Venkatesh Rao et al., I’ve come to think of Deep Work as incompatible with the welcoming of diversity and the encouragement of serendipity. The former argues for strictly-controlled inputs and management of information streams in order to enhance output. The latter argues for a minimum of information-control mechanisms in order to let the unexpectedly valuable and interesting reveal itself. “The two cannot co-exist” was my conclusion.

Except, they can. See, to do “deep work” you need long, uninterrupted periods–maker’s blocks—of four to six hours of length. That can be accomplished in the morning by going into monk mode, by cutting yourself off and doing the work. Then, the rest of the day can be spent fooling around on social media, talking to people, baiting trolls, getting caught out by clickbait, diving down rabbit holes and consuming a wild array of articles, books, videos and the like. 

What looks like incompatibility isn’t really. If you have two friends who really, really dislike each other, you don’t have to choose one or the other. You just have to make sure that they don’t come into contact. So too with “Deep Work” and a life orientated towards interestingness. By thinking of them as distinct modes of operation, as opposed to all-encompassing philosophies, you can get the best of both worlds without any of the accompanying downside.