Book Review: Deep Work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m not a fickle man by nature, so I was surprised to look up the other Studyhacks plug vehicle I read and discover I’d given it five stars. That’s a four-star differential! If he had it, how did he lose it? How could he fall so far?

The problem with Deep Work is it featured more of the author as an individual, and less of his research. This was manifested by his constant, breathlessly verbose academic masturbation. Yeah, I think he’s a self-aggrandizing, circumlocutionary wad. Me. The guy who just used half a thesaurus to call him long-winded. I think that.

The author, as an individual, is unlikeable. Even putting aside his relentless boasting, his sloppy dual-hand shaft-massage of “innovative” CEOs and middle managers is equal parts embarrassing and grotesque.

Deep Work is a clunky propagandist how-to that attempts to convince you there is no life beyond your work, then gives helpful hints on how to drain all the vibrancy, adventure, and joy from your life in pursuit of more work, more promotions, more money so you finally make enough to consider yourself successful.

The motivational stories are harrowing. A dude who was working data-entry, getting like $60k a year, decides that he’s had it with that life and strikes out in pursuit of something more. He drops out of everything and obsessively teaches himself to code, working eight hours in his garage with fifteen different programming manuals over the course of a few months. When he wraps up this self-imposed asceticism, he enrolls in a master’s level accelerated course that “several doctorate students failed out of” and of course is the top of his class.

Ready for the payoff?

He gets certified and hired as a top-tier code monkey, making $100k a year, almost double. Newport states that he has, unequivocally, succeeded. He continues to work twelve-hour days, which begin at 5 AM, because he wants to focus his concentration and get his “deep work” in those essential four hours before everyone else arrives to disrupt his concentration.

Imagine that life. That successful life.

The book is replete with examples of these ubermensch “knowledge workers” (his term, and I cringed every time) reinventing paradigms by putting a lot of people in the same room at work, or isolating them in little cells, or whatever else. His description of the Facebook office is nothing short of sycophantic.

The book is filthy with business jargon and academic self-importance, and also business self-importance and academic jargon. It’s the worst of all conceivable worlds. I’ll give in an example, but I’ll summarize and paraphrase the lead-in; Lord knows somebody has to.

He talks about trying to classify daily work tasks into either deep or shallow work. Deep work requires sustained periods of deep concentration, pushing you to the limit of your abilities, often conjuring the flow state. Shallow work is answering e-mails and having meetings. Some things fall in between, and he attempts to establish a metric of “How long would it take a smart, recent university graduate to learn how to do this?”

Here comes the verbatim:
In the example editing a draft of an academic article that you will soon submit to a journal: Properly editing an academic paper requires that you understand the nuances of the work (so you can make sure it’s being described precisely) and the nuances of the broader literature (So you can make sure it’s being cited properly). These requirements require

— is that what those requirements do —

cutting-edge knowledge of an academic field – a task that in the age of specialization takes years of diligent study at the graduate level and beyond. When it comes to this example, the answer to our question would therefore be quite large, perhaps on the scale of fifty to seventy-five months.

Seventy-five months to be worthy of proofreading your academic paper? Are you high?

As you can see from that logorrhea, he’s absolutely unreadable.

It wasn’t a total wash, or I wouldn’t have finished reading it, though my iron resolve just kept on flagging. He name-drops Neal Stephenson several times, since he only had maybe ten examples of successful deep workers throughout the book (and one was Mark Twain, so maybe not firsthand report). Here’s what Neal had to say.

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time… there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.

Well, that’s certainly true. But if the best line of your book is someone else’s, it might benefit you to gather up a “work block” for some self-reflection.

Another Geneva Convention-caliber violation is the concept of “productive meditation”. I’m a shrink by trade, so allow me to be your matador and draw your attention to the biggest, reddest flag: meditation is already productive. That’s why you do meditation. It defrags your brain and strengthens the orbitoprefontal cortex, improves your capacity for stress management, lowers your blood pressure, deepens sleep, enhances creativity, the whole nine yards. It makes you a better human being across every domain.

So the initial suggestion that Newport has discovered another, more productive means of meditation that has eluded the bodhisattvas for the past two millennia is opaque megalomania. He goes on to suggest that whenever you have “extra time”, such as when you’re walking somewhere, or showering, or eating, you should decide and hyperfocus on a specific “professional problem”, and think about nothing else for the duration of your activity.

Let’s see his own words again:
Fortunately, finding time for this strategy is easy, as it takes advantage of periods that would otherwise be wasted (such as walking the dog or commuting to work), and if done right, can actually increase your professional productivity instead of taking time away from your work.

Walking the dog isn’t a waste of your time, you fucking automaton. It’s a daily opportunity to connect with an animal that considers you its entire world.

It’s hard to slog through 300 pages of this and not interpret it as an attack on the human spirit. Your performance algorithm doesn’t allow for freedom, Cal. You’re running yourself into the ground and clocking 2 hours a night with your family because you’ve sold your soul to an outmoded notion of success, and these papers, these books that you turn out so assiduously are private little shrines and idols, designed not only to convert those who haven’t yet seen the light, but to prove to the skeptics, and to yourself, that it was worth it.

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Newport: Dystopia Beach

May 26, 2019. Newport, Rhode Island.

When you hear the words “cliff walk”, what comes into your head? I pictured a hiking trail in Sedona, Arizona, with crag outcroppings protruding from mesa spires, of the sort an intrepid travel bastard could shimmy along, maybe hurdling a shoddy wooden gate, to gaze down a few hundred feet into an abyss of orange stone and bleached animal bones.

So imagine my surprise when the Girl and I sat on the bridge in fifteen minutes of deadlocked traffic only to discover that Newport, RI was, in fact, a crappy tourist trap beach town.

I could feel my blood pressure escalating as we drove past parking lot after parking lot, all full, all $20 minimums.

“This is the cliff walk?” I asked.

“That’s what it says,” the Girl said, corroborating on her own phone.

“Where are the cliffs?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are they underwater cliffs?” I asked, studying the sweaty, teeming mass of humanity that thronged the beach like a People of Wal-Mart field trip, slathering themselves in however many lotions it took to achieve that greased-pig sheen. “That’s a cliff swim.”

“I don’t know!”

“This looks… just terrible,” I said. “I don’t want to wade through this. Let’s go dig up Lovecraft.”

“I’ll pay for the parking,” the Girl said.

“It’s not about the parking,” I said. It was exactly 50% lie. “Although, $20 is more than I would ever, ever pay for a beach, even if I’d wanted to go to a beach, which, in case you missed that, I don’t.”

“I did pick that up, yeah.”

“Aren’t we going to a beach like next week with the Crew?”

The Crew is the appellative used to refer to the Girl’s coworker group chat, so named to differentiate them from The Lads, which is my shitposting group chat. We’re each in both chats, and use “lads” as a gender neutral referential, so these delineations are largely useless.

“Yeah,” she said, “but we just drove like forty minutes. We can’t just turn around now.”

“I’ll bet we can.”

“This was the north trailhead,” she said. “Maybe the south trailhead has less people? Let’s at least try it. We came all this way.”

I grumbled noncommittal swear words until we found the south trailhead. We snuck into a metered space and bought three hours for three dollars, which was only upsetting on principle.

There was a serpentine line of slippery, coconut-reeking beachfolk, and with horror I realized it led to the restrooms. We waited there for a good twenty minutes. I’ll level with you, under ordinary circumstances that would’ve been the final nail in the coffin.

Fortunately, these were not ordinary circumstances. The girl behind us had a one-year-old black lab named named Coda. I didn’t ask which Coda she meant. It could either be Spanish for “wedge”, Italian for “tail”, or Japanese for “finale”. She jumped into the air repeatedly to slam her snout directly into my eyeball. Coda is a beautiful, stupid miracle and I miss her every day.

Coda helped to ground me. I, too, am a big dumb hyperactive animal, easily distracted by loud noises and food smells. We formed a kinship, and she and I would both scan our gross surroundings, then she would wobble up to me, tail pulling 3000 RPM, and ram her giant, stupid skull into my kneecap, just to check in, before returning to sentry duty. We weathered the bathroom line together, just Coda and me, and our respective handlers.

The most difficult part for Coda was some teenage girl who looked as though she owned a lot of Nightmare Before Christmas clothing who kept walking up and saying “OOOOH HELLO CODA!” in a very high, loud voice. Coda knew a response was expected of her, but didn’t know what it was. The familiarity was obviously making her owner uncomfortable, which in turn made Coda shy away from the interloper. That didn’t seem to discourage this girl, and she returned to the bathroom line again and again, not to wait, but to shriek.

When it was finally my turn, I said, “Let me show you how it’s done” and hit the timer on my watch. I was back out in a tight 45 seconds, hands washed and everything. I announced my time to everyone behind me in line. They were all nonplussed, except for Coda, who was ecstatic.

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Catch me if you can #Newport #cliffwalk

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I understood where the little stick figure guy was coming from as soon as I started the cliff walk. It was dense with human flotsam, and none of them seemed able or willing to move faster than “amble”. On our left, the sea stretched to the horizon, hurling waves against the patches of gravel that, perhaps, were the eponymous cliffs, reeking of dead fish. On our right were mansions.

That’s not wholly true. On our right were ugly mesh fences with derogatory little placards threatening to call the cops of trespassers and closing with the words “BAD DOG!” I don’t know if they meant actual dogs. Beyond these were a few acres of painstakingly manicured lawn, then the mansions.

“Why are they taking pictures of the mansions?” I asked.

The Girl didn’t understand what I meant. I wasn’t being cute; I didn’t get that some people regard modern and near-modern mansions with the same reverence as baroque churches, or something comparably significant.

“It’s all architecture,” she said. “Some people are really into it.”

I wrinkled my nose at a family of four clustered up against the fence like the bars of a jail cell, stretching their arms through the slats to photograph these actual, occupied residences. The American dream is alive and well in Newport.

A selfie stick might have come in handy. That would be the first practical application of a selfie stick, though no less sad.

We tried to circumnavigate the plodding hordes and set a hikeable pace for the cliff walk. There were no cliffs. There was barely a walk. It was an aesthetically pleasant cattle chute, and it was making my teeth itch.

We abouted-face and clambered back over the pile of rocks toward the grim slaughterhouse path full of waddling tourists and Amish women enjoying a truly dazzling rumspringa. The rocks would have been the high point of the trip, as I do love a good clamber, if I were able to set my own pace.

I realized some time ago that all of the problems in my life stem from people being in my way. I mean this literally and metaphorically; in addition to the constant flow of dumbasses clotting up the sidewalks and roads, preventing me from walking, biking, or driving at a reasonable pace, I could have shaved a year off each of my degrees if it weren’t for all the useless bureaucrats who seem to exist specifically to obstruct.

I know what I have to do, and how I’m going to do it, and all that I want from these human obstacles is for them to vacate my fucking path.

But they won’t. They love it. It’s simply not meant to be. So I stood on the rocks, waiting for the people in front of me to weigh the apparent hundreds of pros and cons for each step they took. Behind me, a mother decided that the rocks were too good a disciplinary opportunity to pass up, and proceeded to screech commands at her toddler with mounting gravitas from roughly six feet behind me the entire time.

I shuffled another step forward, and then full stopped, balanced on a rock, drinking in the soothing sounds of the sea and NO, AIDEN! GET BACK HERE! DON’T RUN! AIDEN! WAIT! I WILL COUNT TO THREE! YOU HAVE TO WAIT FOR THE PERSON IN FRONT OF YOU! AIDEN!

We went back up the narrow walkway and passed the bathroom line, which had somehow become longer. I nearly jogged to the car.

Purgatory is real, beautiful reader. It’s real, and it’s loud, and it smells like cocoa butter and butt sweat. Stay out of Newport.


The Bastard