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

In college, a guy who lived on my floor and spent seemingly all day every day on his computer, doing not much of anything, always with a browser window open and perpetually scrolling, searching, watching, surfing, or reading—for what I don’t know. I don’t think he knew. There seemed to be no purpose in his activities. I’d ask him sometimes what he was doing, and he never had a real good answer. I don’t remember his name.

deep_workThe difference between that guy then is that he was seen as an isolated weirdo loser (I think, anyway). Now, the way he lives has become for many of us the way we all live. For that reason Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is, properly read, an indictment of me and probably of you. Because it’s an indictment it can be hard to read because it wounds through its accurate dissection of the way many of us live—or rather, don’t live. Newport writes:

Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities. Deep work, in other words, was exactly the type of effort needed to stand out in a cognitively demanding field. . . .

Deep work isn’t only about your “current intellectual capacity”—it’s about improving and developing that intellectual capacity. Your current intellectual capacity probably isn’t and shouldn’t be your final intellectual capacity. Yet:

The ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contract to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers—a group that’s rapidly forgetting the value of going deep.

The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. This is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit

Sound familiar? Maybe too familiar? It does to me. I’ve gone through periods of very intense deep work and periods of very little deep work. I know what the habits of both look like and I also know the temptations of the shallows. Many of you probably do too, but the reinforcement Newport offers is useful, like a reminder that sugar is terrible. We know. But we need to move from knowing to implementing change. Deep Work covers both.

Newport is not arguing for an all-work-all-the-time approach, and he knows that doing the max necessitates some downtime. I also think there is some important balance necessary between radical “openness” (random browsing, searching, connecting, that sort of thing) and radical “closedness” (shutting the door, solitude, going deep within the self to create). The radically open never get anything important done, like major software, books, articles, essays, or projects. The radically closed probably need an influx of new ideas, influences, concepts, and techniques. Too much of either is a detriment, but I myself am probably now too “open” in this sense.

In almost any finite system, one question should be, “What is the scarce resource here?” For most of us, it’s probably not excessive closedness.

To be sure, I learn much from the Internet, Hacker News, blogs, and so forth, but it is often too tempting to do shallow to medium-depth reading at the expense of more substantive projects. It’s too rare for me to do really deep reading—or writing. I know the problems: “Among other insights, [Clifford] Nass’s research revealed that constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain” and I know the solutions. But the implementation can be hard.

Smartphones can’t be helping this, either, anymore than they can be helping the quality of relationships. Doesn’t stop us from using them, though.

Students report shocking (to me) levels of interest in and keeping up with Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and others. I don’t want this to turn into a “kids these days” essay, in which I wave my cane and tell everyone to get off my damn lawn, but it does seem like it’d be hard to accomplish much with the endless background noise forever buzzing. Then again, I see my friends engage the same behaviors, so maybe age is less a factor than I might think at first. We have all the world’s information in our hands, but what do we do with it? That’s a key question underlying Newport’s book—and all of our lives.

Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency — James Andrew Miller

There is a really excellent book lurking inside Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency, but it is condemned to be of niche interest because it’s told as an “oral history,” which means interviews with the various participants are stitched together, often banally. One hopes for something like The Making of the Atomic Bomb or The Power Broker and instead gets interviews mostly devoid of context and insights. The strengths and weaknesses of the format shine through, but one mostly sees weaknesses: there isn’t enough context for many of the decisions; the narrative continuity authors impose is lose; the damn thing is just too long; too many people don’t say the right thing, exactly, so what they say must be used anyway.

powerhouseSo why write about it at all? The book is going to be of great interest to anyone involved in startups, law firms, consulting practices, or changing industries. CAA rode a number of waves and mastered a number of key and unusual businesses practices, and it perceived how to adapt to a changing media and business landscape in a way that most of its competitors did not. In another world this could be a Harvard Business Review case study.

The movie business continually changes, and CAA is founded and then evolves based on those changes. For example, the book’s hero is probably Michael Ovitz, or the pairing between Ovitz and fellow agent Ron Meyer. Ovitz says, “The thesis for CAA that we developed was to be able to play roulette with a chip on every number, odd and even, red and black.” That worked. CAA emerged from the William Morris agency, which “was an incredibly rigid, compartmentalized business. Pay scales were incredibly unfair. There was little entrepreneurialism.”

At CAA, the opposite occurred: Agents were incentivized to cooperate; clients were (relatively) shared; initiative was rewarded. When the first five agents left William Morris, Ovitz says this about their departure:

Sam Weisbord loved Judy and he loved me, but he looked at me and said, ‘You’ve really screwed yourself this time.’ That’s what he said to me. I learned an amazing lesson from that moment. If he’d started that meeting differently, attempted to check his ego at the door, told me he didn’t want to lose me, and then offered me an insane amount of money, there was at least one chance in a thousand I would have stayed. Instead, he did me a favor, because instead of being compassionate or even making me feel guilty, he pissed me off. He attacked me and tried to belittle me. There was no way I was going to stay.

Oops.

CAA remained cooperative within the organization and competitive outside it—a difficult balancing act, because wildly competitive people often want to compete everywhere, all the time, even in ways that are inefficient.

CAA comes up with clever branding strategies. For example, when the agency started most scripts were sent from studios to agencies, and agencies then further distributed the scripts. CAA stripped the existing covers and replaced those covers with their own. So every script started to look like it came from CAA, rather than the studio. A small point but a clever one, and one that is a synecdoche for the agency as a whole.

They also do one simple thing right: pay:

We always made it a point to take really good care of the agents who worked for us. They were all overpaid. We wanted to reward them and also make sure no one else in town could afford them. We would literally ask each other, ‘How much could this person get somewhere else?’ and we’d give them 30 percent more. There were a good chunk of our agent making over a million dollars in the late ’80s.

We’ve seen the same problem among nonprofit and public agencies: They frequently underpay grant writers, and that’s part of the reason Seliger + Associates exists. You’ve also probably seen the articles going around about how manufacturers can’t find the skilled workers they need (here and here are examples from one second of search).

So the strong material is present in Powerhouse, but there is too much Hollywood gossip and status raising (or, less commonly, lowering). Too many passages like Ridley Scott saying, “Goldie Hawn brought me breakfast, and she was hysterically funny. She made it clear how much she wanted the part.” And, on the same page, “Geena Davis had gotten ahold of the script and I met her for tea at the Four Seasons where she made her case” (shouldn’t there also be a comma?). Passages like these help explain why a book that does a little too little to explain the movies and shows themselves can still be 700 pages. 700 fluffy pages, but in the long middle it’s hard to get excited about long-dead deals that don’t delve deeply into something important beyond the deal itself. There is good detail and excess and too often we get excess.

EDIT: Here is a longer treatment, in the London Review of Books.

Briefly noted: Swimming Across — Andy Grove

Swimming Across will probably be of niche interest to most, with those most interested likely to be the World War II crowd and the high tech crowd. I don’t know how much they intersect, but Grove survived the war to become a titan of the tech industry. Most who know of him don’t know that he and his family barely survived the Holocaust; Hungary, where Grove was born, allied with the Nazis, then got rolled over by Soviets. Grove eventually got out, and we are all the beneficiaries of his departure:

Stalin died in March 1953, and a gradual relaxation of totalitarian controls took place. Over the next few years, this process accelerated until it culminated in a rebellion against the Communist government—the Hungarian revolution of October 1956.

The revolt lasted for thirteen days and was then put down by Soviet armed forces. Many young people were killed; countless others were interned. Some two hundred thousand Hungarians escaped to the West.

I was one of them.

Oddly, despite Hungary’s long experience with totalitarianism, it has now elected, more or less fairly, a would-be dictator and strongman named Viktor Orban. One can imagine Grove’s reaction to Orban and the historical amnesia that allowed him to come to power, but after Grove got out he never went back. He says he isn’t entirely sure why. I would guess that someone forced to flee by the roof is unlikely to willingly return by the front door.

Swimming Across an oddly moving book, though the story is simply told. I wonder if Grove will be mostly forgotten over time, as most of us are, despite his contributions. Still, Swimming Across is of humane and technological interest; so far most of the books about the rise of the tech industry have not been of literary interest. A book like The Intel Trinity is intelligently reported but is no Making of the Atomic Bomb. Too bad. It’s still good. But not quite there, and not quite enough to go beyond a technical history. Swimming Across is closer to there—the “there” that is hard to define but easy to know once it’s seen.

Swimming Across may also be a good book for Americans to read right now, in the midst of declinist political narratives. When Grove arrives he writes:

The skyscrapers looked just like pictures of America. All of a sudden, I was gripped by the stunning realization that I truly was in America. Nothing had symbolized America more to me than skyscrapers; now I was standing on a street, craning my neck to look up at them.

He goes far; the U.S. is the fundamental platform on which he builds.

Since Grove’s death there have been many tributes to him; this is one of my favorite.

Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” is distinctly contemporary

A reader suggested that in light of Date-onomics I get a copy of the original Sex and the City book. I see why. Though published in 1996, it feels shockingly contemporary, like something you’d read in New York Magazine, or Slutever, or 1,001 other places. If Sex and the City were a little more explicit (Bushnell prefers “unmentionable” to “penis” or “cock,” for example) and added in references to smartphones, Instagram, texting etiquette, and online dating, it would still have the basic set of issues and problems and challenges and behaviors of 2016. The tone of the stories feels bloggy and podcast-y (which is a descriptive observation, not a slur).

sex_and_the_cityOn the Internet you really can say whatever the fuck you want, including “fuck,” and becoming accustomed to that makes Sex and the City feel a little linguistically reticent. To be sure, it goes a lot of places in terms of description but it doesn’t get to all the explicit places the online-only writers do; Sex and the City generally stops at the bedroom door and resumes at the restaurant recap the next day.

Being originally part of a newspaper also means that the lows aren’t quite as low as the online writers, many of whom don’t have anyone to edit their material or tell them that piece x is filler and ought to be cut. But they also don’t have editors to tell them that piece x is in “bad taste,” which means that bad taste as a concept barely exists (here I am tempted to list some examples, but if you keep your eye around the Internet you’ll find some on your own). I hate the word “heteronormative,” but Sex and the City is more heteronormative than online writers are.

What else? Some modern books about love, sex, and dating often have a harder data edge: that’s the point of Dataclysm and Date-onomics. The big way our knowledge has collectively grown in the last twenty years in this domain comes from the revealed preferences of online dating. That lets us know things less through gossip and more through how people behave, at least in online interactions.

It is common to read claims about how the Internet has changed everything, and while data tells us a lot, the basic challenges that emerge in Sex and the City remain. Still, I prefer a Straussian reading of Sex and the City in which guys read the books in order to discover how they should present themselves, market themselves, and be.

Perhaps the book’s most important theme is the need for novelty and stimulation, maybe because novelty-seekers are drawn to New York, despite the city’s costs and many inconveniences. Boredom is a great sin: “You get tired of being around anyone after a while” (63). Or: “Miranda checked the labels: Savile Row—boring” (90). Or: “While many women would have killed to have a date with Scotty, the TV producer, Camilla told me she had been bored” (105). Or: “I already have too many Chanel bags. They bore me” (109; what do you do for the person who has everything, which is a larger number of people than is commonly assumed?). Or: “Where’s the new place to go? I want to make sure my ward here has a good time this evening. I think she’s bored” (141). Or: “The truth is, he bored me” (198).

Boredom is part of a simple paradox at the heart of many of the stories—a paradox prevents some of the characters from getting off the party carousel: “this was the kind of life she’d grown up believing she could have, simply because she wanted it. But the men you wanted didn’t want it, or you; and the men who did want it were too boring” (85). And there is no way in Bushnell’s world to avoid that paradox. Men might want to think about it too, and how it affects their own choices. The characters in Sex and the City are experiencing the problems and fruits of freedom: “[Edith] Wharton thought no one could have freedom, but [Henry] James knew no one wanted it,” and “Freedom’s unpalatable qualities are hard to accept.” So too is accepting the choices one makes. In first three quarters of the book, Samantha Jones makes occasional appearances to disparage her dates and men in general. By page 181, “Lately, Sam had been complaining about not having a boyfriend.” Er. She spends most of book engaging in boyfriend-incompatible thoughts and behaviors.

The women in Sex and the City are chronically outraged by male behavior while chronically and simultaneously rewarding it with sex. The phrase “revealed preferences” is relevant.

Snobbery is ever-present (“She’s like an auto mechanic from nowhere’sville”), almost a sport, in a way that would be hard to take, at least for me, in real life. The brand-name snobbery is much more irksome than much of the bedroom material.

Used copies on Amazon are cheap and plentiful, for good reason. It’s a fun, historically interesting read, but once is enough. Re-selling it is too time consuming for me, but I’m donating it to a thrift shop which will probably recycle it back onto Amazon.

Briefly noted: The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind of the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia — Michael Booth

The Almost Nearly Perfect People is fun and not too doctrinaire, which is part of what makes it fun; I also have a weakness for cross-cultural books in which person from country A shows up in country B and talks about whatever.

almost_nearly_perfectBooth tells us that at one point at least Scandinavia was not the land of almost nearly perfect people, because “At one point in the 1860s, a tenth of all immigrants arriving in the United States were from Scandinavia.” It is hard to say what that says about this point, however. I would’ve liked more discussions about immigration and emigration, because revealed preferences are more interesting than what people say (and it turns out that the same Scandinavians who vote for high taxes will evade them when possible).

Unusual facts abound in the book, although I haven’t checked the truthfulness of those facts, like “More than 754,000 Danes aged between fifteen and sixty-four—over 20 percent of the working population—do not work whatsoever and are supported by generous unemployment or disability benefits.” From this, we can maybe conclude that perhaps one good reason to try to concentrate disability and related benefits at the state level in the U.S. is to let people vote with their feet (and their votes) more easily than they might elsewhere.

Still, despite paragraphs like the above, we also find that

there is little doubt, Denmark is becoming a two-tier country. More and more Danes who can afford it are turning to private health care—850,000 at the latest count—and poll after poll shows that, though they have the largest per capita public sector in the world, the Danes’ satisfaction levels with their welfare state are in rapid decline.

There appear to be few ways of correcting problems with public-sector satisfaction. Still, Booth says few Danes complain about taxes. We also find sections about “elves” in Iceland, drinking throughout the countries, a passion for historical re-enactment,

In some ways Scandinavian countries are more like the U.S. than is commonly portrayed. For example, Norway has its own, equally intellectually incoherent Donald Trump-like party:

[The Progress Party] started out in the early seventies as an anti-tax movement. Today, it is run on a hybrid right-win/welfare-state platform of a type which can seem quite odd from a UK or US perspective, blending as it does calls for increased public spending, with emphasis on care for the elderly, together with more conventionally right-wing fear-mongering about non-Western immigrants.

Old people vote, want to take working people’s money, and fear change (immigrants are one manifestation of change). Parties that want to stay in power must appeal to the elderly, and the average age of the population is creeping upwards in virtually every developed country. We’ll see more Progress Parties and Trumps. In Norway, the Progress Party is particularly vituperative about Muslims; in the U.S., Trump is particularly vituperative about Hispanics. Presumably hysterical fear mongering works best when the Other is close enough to get riled up about. Yet, as Booth points out, Muslims identify as perhaps three percent of the Norwegian population.

There is probably too much generalization from stories, sensational, or the mundane in The Almost Nearly Perfect People, but that can be forgiven.

It’s not a book I can imagine wanting to re-read.

Here is a review about “The Nordic Theory of Everything” by Anu Partanen, and I suspect the review is better than the book. Here is my essay “People vote with their feet, and also the U.S. is not Sweden.” Here is “Denmark’s Nice, Yes, But Danes Live Better in U.S.,” which hits related ideas.

Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst — Adam Philips

Becoming Freud could be called “Reading Freud” or “Defending Freud,” because it has little to do with how Freud became Freud—there are decent, let alone good, answers to this question—and much to do with other matters, worthy in their own regard. The story—it is only tenuously a biography—is consistently elegant, though not in a flashy way; Philips reminds me of Louis Menand and the better New Yorker writers in general in this regard. Consider this: “Freud developed psychoanalysis, in his later years, by describing how it didn’t work; clinically, his failures were often more revealing to him than his successes.” Twelve words before the semicolon are balanced by eleven after, and the paradox of failure being more “revealing” than success is unexpected and yet feels right. As the same passage shows, Becoming Freud is also pleasantly undogmatic, unlike many modern-day Freudians, or people who claim Freud’s mantle or cite his work. I ran into some of those people in academia, and the experience was rarely positive on an intellectual level. Some were lovely people, though.

becoming_FreudIt is hard to get around how much Freud was wrong about, yet Philips manages this deftly by interpreting him interpreting others, rather than on his conceivably disprovable claims. Freud in this reading is literary. In Becoming Freud we get sentences like:

Freud’s work shows us not merely that nothing in our lives is self-evident, that not even the facts of our lives speak for themselves; but that facts themselves look different from a psychoanalytic point of view.

But this sounds like a description of language or of literary interpretation, rather than the final statement on the relation of facts to the mind.Plus, I’m not sure facts are all that different—but I sense that Philips would argue that’s because of Freud’s influence. Philips further tells us that “We spend our lives, Freud will tell us in his always lucid prose, not facing the facts, the facts of our history, in all their complication; above all the facts of our childhood.”

In short, Becoming Freud is closer to literary interpretation than to biography, much as Freud was closer to a literary critic than a psychologist. I’m not the first to notice that he writes of patients more like characters than like people. Philips reminds us that Freud’s “writing is studded with references to great men—Plato, Moses, Hannibal, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Shakespeare, among others—most of them artists; and all of them, in Freud’s account, men who defined their moment, not men struggling to assimilate to their societies. . .” These passages also, I think, show the book’s interpretative strengths and its sometimes exhausting qualities.

There is no real summing of Freud’s influence, when remains even when few will take his supposed science seriously. Yet despite the unseriousness of the science, talking therapy is still with us. The word “despite” seems appropriate in discussions of Freud: Despite the dubious effectiveness of talking therapy it remains in widespread use because we don’t have good alternatives. Many of us are socially isolated and lack friends; Bowling Alonew is prescient and TV and Facebook are not good substitutes for coffee or 3 a.m. phone calls. For centuries the West has valorized individual freedom and attempted to vaporize community bonds. We may be victims of our own success in this respect, and we’re now tasked with building communities based primarily on common interests. In therapeutic terms, we use the tools we have not because they are good but because they are better than nothing. Freud is in contemporary respects not good but he did articulate some of the ideas that would define the 20th Century. Getting a couple of major peaks is often more important than consistently being minorly right. I may be more inclined temperamentally towards the latter.

Sentences like this abound: “In this period of Freud’s life—as in any period in anyone’s life—the discrepancy between the documented and the undocumented life is striking, and can only be imagined.” Yet such issues sort of defeat the purpose of biography, no? It may also be why novelists like writing the lives of famous people: one gets to imagine their inner and outer selves without the pesky need for proof.

Philips’s Freud is an idealized person and for that reason I like this Freud better than most writers’s Freud. As Philips points out repeatedly the book is inadequate as a biography; he says all biographies are, which may be true to some extent, but the fewer the facts the less adequate the interpretations that might be drawn from them. Becoming Freud is similar to Alain de Botton’s Kiss & Tell, though Botton’s book is a novel. Here is The New Yorker’s take. There is a novel in there somewhere. We don’t know and likely can never know Freud. Few modern writers have such privilege, unless maybe they delete their entire email histories before they die.

There is not enough known about Freud to even make his biography feel novelistic. Whether this is good or bad depends on the reader.

Briefly noted: Mozart in the Jungle — Blair Tindall

Mozart in the Jungle is surprisingly good and an ode to all the sex musicians have, the drugs musicians do (“I watched Janet bent over the desk to snort cocaine through a straw” occurs on page 2), and most notably a cautionary tale about the economics that underlie their industry. In Mozart in the Jungle Tindall succeeds as few do yet still barely succeeds enough to feed herself. The later sections, as she contemplates her own approaching infertility, she turns melancholy, because she knows that while others in her age group have families she has an oboe. Many adventures at age 22 are slogs at 40, and this is something many 22-year-olds know in passing but don’t feel till they’re much older.

Mozart_in_the_jungleTindall’s relative success still feels like failure to her, financially and, often, artistically. Megan McArdle’s recent post on journalism strikes many notes similar to Tindall’s; the two are both writing about glamour industries battered by changing economics and excess supply (facilitated by digital transmission) relative to demand. In Tindall’s case, the number of financially secure oboe players is probably in the single and low double digits. She makes that threshold, but only in an artistically tedious way. For her, the smart thing to do is get out. When she makes decisions as a 20-year-old, she fails to realize that as a 35- or 40-year-old she will want and feel different things.

In school she finds that “my classmates toiled harder over their textbooks than I did over my oboe, yet they didn’t receive the same special attention.” Attention, though, is a dangerous stimulant, and so too are other stimulants, here recalled and made comic by an older mind reviewing a younger event:

Jose took off the same black turtleneck and dashiki he wore every day, the odor of his unwashed body mixing with cheap musk. We kissed, embracing as the climate of Brahams’s G-minor quintet washed over us. Jose peeled away my top gently, caressing my shoulders, nuzzling my neck and pulling back the covers. I could see another woman’s menstrual blood smeared on the bottom sheet, but I let him push me back on the bedding.

It goes… okay. The gap between fantasy and reality recurs through the memoir, to the very end:

A young person who dreamily “wants to go to Juilliard” or “be a concert pianist” should research the reality of those statements. [. . .] I’m one of those part-time musicians now. When I do play music, it is a joy. The reality of performing full-time wasn’t the fantasy I’d imagined as a little girl. What offers me a meaningful life today are the infinite possibilities in our modern world, of which music is only one. Thousands of people have been influenced by the Sierra magazine articles I’ve written about environmental conservation.

Incidentally, that quote also sums my feeling about grad school in the humanities.

Tindall also wistfully sees her Upper West Side neighbors go from libidinously ravenous, providing her a voyeuristic thrill as they have continual passionate sex, to parents, while Tindall plays the oboe and can’t or won’t maintain long-term relationships as her child-bearing years slip away like leaves off a tree in Boston in autumn. The memoir also came out before Tindall stalked her ex-boyfriend, Bill Nye, so there may be more to her story and character than Mozart in the Jungle.

%d bloggers like this: