The First Value of Deep Work

The First Value of Deep Work

“Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century Philosophers,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “It’s instead a skill that has great value today.”

 

A tension that I think a lot of us face (I know its true for me) is that we are pulled in two different directions when it comes to media and information. The news cycle moves so fast today that it feels hard to keep on top of whats happening in the world. We all want to feel connected and feel like we are in the know, and we like being the person at the water-cooler who has the latest information about some nationwide or global event. We have a drive to constantly stay on top of what is happening right now.

 

Pulling against this urge is the desire to know interesting things and to consume media that is thoughtful, thorough, and interesting. It is one thing to know what is happening in the world right now, but it is an entirely different thing to truly understand the context and antecedents that gave rise to the current news cycle.

 

The first desire we have is to know new things about the world, the second desire is to truly understand the world. One desire encourages shallow quick headlines, while the other desire encourages deep thoughtful engagement. It is very challenging to do both.

 

Cal Newport’s suggestion is to shoot for the latter. Learning and engaging with complex topics requires real focus and deep work. The value from the second will far outlast the first. The first value of deep work that Newport shares in his book reads, “We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. … To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.”

 

Staying on top of the news simply requires that we flutter around on Twitter, absentmindedly distracting ourselves and taking in a few headlines and quotes without thinking critically about how it all links together and exactly why people are reaching the conclusions they reach. This is does not develop the skills that are necessary for quick learning, even thought it is a quick way to sort through information.

 

Learning complex things quickly requires that we be able to engage in deep work and focus on the most important items. Failing to build these skills and abilities means that you won’t be able to truly master changing technologies and markets. You will be left behind reading headlines about changes, without actually understanding changes and adapting to them. Deep work is valuable because learning and critical thinking are both becoming more valuable, and both require deep work in order to be done well and timely. The answer then to how we should handle the tension I mentioned above is to more or less abandon the headlines and give up on staying on top of the news. We might look a little uninformed to others about current world events, but we will have a better background and understanding of what is shaping the world today than the others around us, and we will be able to learn the important lessons faster.

Making Global Local

The first time I heard about globalism was in an English class as a freshman in college. Since that time, globalization has gotten a lot more attention and has come to represent people’s fears about automation and job loss, but also people’s ambitions as new markets across the world become more accessible to trade and innovation. Whether we like globalization or not, we must acknowledge the way that markets and societies are changing so that in our own minds globalization doesn’t remain the mysterious boogeyman that it so often is today.

 

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss globalization and how our cities and metropolitan regions, as opposed to our states or federal institutions, are the most well poised to adapt to an increasingly globalized market and supply chain. The also ask what it means for civil institutions to adapt and change to globalization writing, “The connection between globalization and localism as an arena of enhanced civic action has not been as well explored as the general theme of global economic change and populism.”

 

Since 2016, we have been asking ourselves why a global wave of populism seems to have overtaken normal political processes in the US and UK. Why authoritarian leaders have seemingly become so well entrenched in Turkey and Russia, and why so many people across the globe are willing to protest traditional and seemingly rational governments. What we have not looked at as closely, is how local level leaders can make a huge difference on a global scale and how cities and metropolitan areas can shape policy that influences people’s lives at a greater scale than what we see with movements by populists and authoritarians.

 

Individual states in the US are reversing marijuana policy against the will of the Federal Government. Individual cities are designing their own immigration policy contrary to the demands of the Federal Government. And industries clustered in metropolitan areas are not waiting for new laws and regulations to make decisions that will impact people living within the US and across the globe. The scale of action is local, and that means that cities are the ones who set the agenda for globalization, rather than the larger state governments or federal institutions. How this will ultimately change those larger civil institutions is still a mystery, but in my opinion, local action can dismantle the energy and grievances of populists and authoritarians. Local action can drive economic performance and growth, pacifying the unrest we see at national levels. Globalization might be a phenomenon that connects networks and places all over the Earth, but its effects are felt locally, and good local management and innovation can help make globalization a positive and constructive force.

Competing in a Global Economy

“While competing in this global economy requires new thinking, many cities continue to pursue zero-sum economic development strategies that subsidize stadia and steal businesses rather than incent innovation,” write Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in The New Localism. Our world’s globalized economy scares a lot of people. Add to globalization new technological innovations and the automation of a lot of jobs, and we find threatened people, threatened cities, and threatened industries. The proper response to such threats is adaptation and change, but a more common human reaction is fearful recalcitrance. Rather than go through reinvention, rather than develope new skills, and rather than embrace new changes, cities, states, countries, and the people within them double down on the familiar and the known, using policy to entrench themselves in the familiar jobs of yesterday.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “These strategies are rarely aligned with smart education and workforce strategies that give workers the technical skills they need to succeed in growing occupations. And reinvestment in neighborhoods, downtowns, and water-fronts still has a long way to go to make up for decades of disinvestment, depopulation, and decentralization.” 

 

Stealing jobs, offering tax incentives to get companies/sports teams to move, and passing policy which prevents companies from automating away common jobs is not a strategy built for success in a globalized world of changing technology. To be competitive in a world where companies can move easily, where ideas can take root anyplace, and where jobs and technology are changing the way we work, cities and governments need to find new ways to build human capital and new ways to get innovative ideas into the economy quickly. Approaching the world and the economy as a zero-sum competition prevents innovation and encourages the short term thinking that leads to the poor strategies mentioned above.

 

The only way to truly adapt to the changing globalized world is to innovate. Protectionism leads to eventual disruption and greater anger on the part of the people whose industry and jobs are being disrupted. Those who lose out to automation without any training or skill development to help them adapt are understandably frustrated, but the proper response is not to dig our heels into the dirt to pull back on innovation and change. The proper response is to embrace change and help people innovate and learn alongside new technology, new jobs/industries, and new institutions.

Policy Innovation and Diffusion at the City Level

During my Masters in Public Administration, I had a seminar class about theories of the policy process. One of the theories that I enjoyed was policy innovation and diffusion theory in which a policy introduced in one jurisdiction gained traction and was subsequently introduced and adopted within another jurisdiction. Networks, physical proximity, and other characteristics of jurisdictions influence whether or not a policy is likely to diffuse to a new jurisdiction. Policy can diffuse vertically, moving up from counties to states to the national government (or backward) and can diffuse horizontally across cities in a state or sates in a nation or across nations on Earth.

 

In the book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss diffusion at the city level. They argue that, “New Localism reflects a new horizontal rather than vertical mechanism for societies to solve hard problems.” Most innovation and diffusion research that I studied in the United States was related to states. The question is usually, if a state adopts a new law to address an issue, what factors make it likely that other states will or will not adopt a similar law? And how many states need to adopt a regulation before the federal government institutes the regulation nationwide? States have historically been the main laboratories of democracy, but Katz and Nowak suggest that in the future they will not be. Rather than having a state adopt policy and filter that policy down to the counties, cities, and local governments for implementation, it is cities that are now the ones experimenting with new policy.

 

“Cities are constantly crafting new ways to address challenges that are urgent, immediate, and often highly visible. Solutions that are concrete imaginative, and tested on the ground do not stay local for long. Instead, they are adapted to other cities’ situations, tailored to the different economic and social starting points and the fiscal conditions of different cities.” 

 

A big piece of new localism is its non-partisan nature. Flood drainage, snow removal, and local zoning ordinances are not Republican or Democrat issues, they are local issues directly relating to the lives of citizens. This allows people who might otherwise disagree with each other to come together and cooperate to find solutions to the immediate problems of a locality. Focusing on local strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) allows local stakeholders to develop long-term plans and to find innovations to novel problems. Once these solutions have been identified and implemented, city leaders, especially people in the business community, can share their insights and solutions with groups from other cities. These policy innovations diffuse horizontally from city or metropolitan region to other cities and metros. State governments are not the ones innovating. Cities are developing the new networks and innovations that diffuse across state lines, across the country, and even across national boarders. Each solution is adjusted and tailored where appropriate for local contexts and in line with local SWOT analysis. This local problem solving and horizontal city level diffusion is the best current answer to global challenges and problems and to improve the lives of people through new innovations.

Ready to Grow

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, “The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.” Booker used this quote to start the second chapter in his book, and to begin discussing the important moments of change that we experience.

 

This quote to me refers back to the reality that our lives are often best described by the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We may constantly evolve and change throughout our lives, but often times we are pretty stable and follow predictable routines and patterns until at some point we go through large changes. For many people there are predictable points of change such as graduation and retirement, but often times the changes can be less predictable such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or on a more positive note an unexpected promotion within a job or a chance meeting that leads to a new opportunity. The quote from Du Bois is about living in such a way as to be ready to adapt during these moments of change. We can be successful in our routines, but we should also be ready to embrace change when it occurs.

 

The quote also reminds me of a conversation I had last weekend with my wife and a very close friend of her’s from college. We were discussing plans and trying to predict what she should do as my wife’s friend tries to find the right path in life. I shared ideas of being prepared and engaged in the world for unpredictable changes and ended up searching Google for a quote about planning from Dwight D. Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The quote from Du Bois aligns with the quote from Eisenhower by connecting with the reality that our plans for the future will never play out in our complex and connected world, but it is important to be planning our growth and thinking about how we can take advantage of future opportunities. When we have a plan we have something to work toward, but we must be ready to give up that plan and take advantage of the opportunities that actually arise in our lives and allow us to become something we could not have predicted. We must give up who we are to take advantage of the chance to pursue who we might become.

Perfection

When we think about what we want, the solution to a problem, how the world should be organized, or what we expect for many other things, we often think in the world of perfection. I don’t really know whether striving for absolute perfection is a net positive or not, but there are definitely some negatives that we should consider about striving for perfection.  Author Ryan Holiday explores this idea in his book, The Obstacle is The Way. Specifically, Holiday looks at the path our lives take and asks whether we should be expect a perfect path to our version of success, or whether we should be happy with a path that turns and changes as we get from point A to point B. In regards to pragmatism and realism, Holiday writes, “you’re never going to find that kind of perfection. Instead, do the best with what you’ve got.”

 

Holiday’s quote reminds us that we must not always compare our lives to the imaginary perfect version of our lives that we see reflected in tv shows or other people’s Facebook feeds. We won’t always have all the answers, and we can never predict how our life will turn out, so rather than hold ourselves to some sort of ideal perfection, we should do our best to move forward, aware of the world around us and the opportunities we have to improve not just ourselves, but everyone. The key to accepting the reality of our lives and our journey is flexibility. Being able to adjust to changes and accept that some goals are going to be more realistic than others, or at least to accept that some pathways will be more realistic than others, will help us find more content and be more engaged on our journey.

 

I spend a lot of time thinking about politics, I have returned to school for a masters in public policy, and I think this idea is one that we need to put toward our politics. We all envision a world were politics are simple and the country works in a smooth and straight forward manner. The perfect idealism in our head however, is not exactly possible. In the United States we have 330+ million people, and assuming that our narrow and limited political idealism is going to fit for all 330 million is a naive mistake. I recently read John Rauch’s book, Political Realism, and he discusses the ways in which our perfect ideology stunts the action of the government, because it puts our elected officials in a place where they cannot act to compromise, because perfection is the only approved outcome in politics. Beginning to see that perfection is unrealistic, and that striving for it can be cataclysmic, will help us begin to advance and make changes in our politics, and in our lives.

We Create Our Obstacles

Ryan Holiday in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, writes about the power of our perceptions in addressing our challenges, creating change, and becoming successful in our efforts to reach our goals. He explains the ways in which we can change the way we think in order to change our behavior and help us find better approaches to scary situations. In regards to our challenges, he believes everything is a matter of perception and mental framing, “In other words, through our perception of events, we are complicit in the creation — as well as the destruction — of every one of our obstacles.” In this short section what Holiday is explaining is that we have the power to change how we think about and approach our challenges. By mentally determining that our obstacles are not obstacles, we can find ways around, over, and through our barriers.

 

Holiday’s focus on perception is a common theme throughout his book. Borrowed from stoicism, the idea that our mentality and perceptions shape our thoughts help us find philosophical grounds to approach the world in a more constructive manner. He continues in his book to write, “There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception.  There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.” We are not just living in a world where things happen and we have predictable and dependable reactions.
The world of human choice and thought very well may be completely determined by physics, considering that our brains are simply matter like the world around us, and our thoughts are the chemical reactions taking place between the matter, but the way that our complex consciousness exists is so multivariate that it is our perception that ultimately shapes how decisions are made. When we change how we think about a situation, we can literally change the situation. Deciding that something is neither good nor bad, and choosing the reaction that we want to have, the reaction which will serve us and those around us the best, is how we can maximize our time on Earth.  Allowing situations to push us around and determine how we will act is a choice that we can make.

 

We can look at any situation and decide that we have been defeated and that the challenge is too great for us, or we can shift our focus and find new ways to approach our position.  We can decide to make changes, we can find ways to embrace our challenge, or we can alter the way we think and react to our challenges.  All of these options create new avenues for us and provide us with a new story to tell ourselves about our lives. We can overcome our obstacles through patience and thoughtful action, and through the process of overcoming our obstacles new opportunities will emerge.

Seeing Opportunity

In The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday explains the ways in which we can take our thoughts and ideas and build new paths from the challenges we face. By using the obstacles we face to grow and learn we build our own paths to become the best people we can be.  Holiday uses Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor in the second century, as an example of growing and becoming a more well rounded individual by facing the obstacles in our lives. Speaking of Aurelius he discussed the many challenges he faced as emperor from a major plague, betrayal from his allies, and working alongside his step-brother-co-emperor who was greedy and incompetent. Amidst all these challenges Aurelius sought reason, clarity, and self-improvement, and Holiday writes, “From what we know, he truly saw each and every one of these obstacles as an opportunity to practice some virtue: patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason, justice, and creativity.”

 

Faced with challenges Aurelius did not blame others or complain about his luck. He never wondered why he faced such obstacles when others did not, and through self-reflection and practices of awareness, he was able to see the commonality of struggle in the lives of all people.

 

Aurelius was an ardent stoic, believing that he held the ultimate power over the faculties of his mind, allowing his thoughts to be strong, his intentions to be unwavering, and his reason to be sound in all situations.  The recognition that no one controls our thoughts, and that we can control our opinions and reactions to the world gives us the strength that we need to face our challenges. When we lament over the difficulties we face and decide that the obstacles are too great, we limit our future and prevent ourselves from growing. Looking at that which blocks our path and learning to shoulder our burdens opens new possibilities for us. Facing our challenges and learning to adapt to them makes us more capable of succeeding in the world.

Impossible Questions

A few short pages into his book Considerations, author Colin Wright explains the book with the following, “This is not a how-to instructive tome, and you won’t find solutions to all of life’s problems in its pages, but you may find some tools worth using, which you can apply to your own life, your own questions, your own problems, your own perspectives.”  As soon as I read this quote I knew that I had picked up the right book.  Recently I have been working hard to understand other people, their ideas, beliefs, and views of the world, and what I have found is that adopting any single belief about the world and sticking to it is dangerous. Whether that belief is political, ethical, behavioral, or something else, it is dangerous to think that you are correct and that others are wrong, especially if you try to press that idea on to others.

 

What I have also begun to see is that there are many more gray areas in life than we want to live with.  In certain areas we want the explanations and truths to be simple, but in a world of multiple perspectives, backgrounds, and social choices it is difficult to pinpoint the best answer to anything.  What Wright explains in his quote above is that he does not have answers for us, but that he can help us reach better places of understanding. By considering new ideas and being open to change, we can better behave and grow in a way that answers the biggest questions we have.  When I read the quote above I left myself a note, “don’t search for answers, but search for important tools.”  Wright’s idea made me think of the value in living a full life and pursuing a full life through growth.  By looking to expand my toolbox for understanding life, I will reach a more satisfying place.  By looking for answers and truth, I will only feel more discouraged by the vast gray area and the lack of concrete solutions.

Allowing Mistakes

In James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Harmon shares a letter written by Arthur Nersesian in which Nersesian writes, “Advice is important, but no amount of it will keep you from occasionally making a bad move.”  He explains that what will happen as we grow is that we will have good and bad luck, and that our ability to deal with and adapt to our good or bad luck is what will matter the most.  Relying on other’s advice won’t always help you because the advice that others have to offer comes from the luck they have experienced, and how they handled it.  Nersesian continues, “…recover after making a bad move.  Forgive yourself quickly, learn something from it, and move on. “  His two quotes combine to show that it is ok if you make a mistake, as long as you can approach your mistake in the right way.

 

We have all heard about the importance of learning from our mistakes, but what I like about Nersesian’s quotes is that he does not approach the world from a perfect point of view.  He accepts that there will be mistakes, and encourages us not to constantly worry about making mistakes.  For him, avoiding mistakes is not the important part of life, which is an idea that I resonate with.  From my own experience I know that if I strive to do great things I will reach a point where I am in new situations, and I may not always handle things the best way. There may be points where I do not know what I need to do or what is expected of me, and I may stumble from a lack of preparation.  If I adopt Nersesian’s point of view, I can be more relaxed heading into these situations, because when I make a mistake I will have a chance to understand why, and move on from it with new advice to offer others.  If I dwell on my mistake and beat myself up for not being perfect, then I will be stuck in the past, and I will be more hesitant in the future when new opportunities arise.