Review: Deep Work

Deep work is becoming “increasingly valuable in our economy.” Knowledge workers have to set themselves apart from each other in order to succeed, and the myriad electronic temptations out there, social media foremost among them, are frittering away our best work time.

This is a helpful (if occasionally tired) point, and Cal Newport’s personal example of dedication to productivity is inspiring. He offers practical advice for taming the intrusion of electronics and aiming one’s time toward goals of true value. I like the “bi-modal” and “rhythmic” approaches to deep work, because few people can keep up intense concentration for long periods. And I liked the idea that scheduling deep work and not-so-deep-work periods in advance would help others know what to expect about my availability and would help me not to have to go through the sometimes draining task of deciding whether to engage in deep or “shallow” work.

But.

Though I don’t exactly blame an (apparent?) non-theist for having secular goals, Newport is going to get a Christian worldview analysis—because he’s smarter than your average self-help book writer (he has a PhD in Computer Science and teaches at Georgetown), and he made an explicit “Philosophical Argument for Depth” (pp. 86ff.), an argument which I found very interesting but ultimately unpersuasive, even if I agree with his conclusion (who’s going to disagree about the value of “depth”?). He also leans heavily on some of our culture’s most accredited truth-tellers, a set of philosophy professors from Berkeley and Harvard.

I listened carefully for the incentives Newport offered or assumed throughout the book, the things you would get if you engage in “deep work”—and, not surprisingly, his most basic promise is financial reward. This utilitarian viewpoint leaves me cold, not because more cash would be wholly undesirable, but because [a little book told me] that money likes to take wings and fly away. It’s fleeting. It isn’t an ultimate thing. I’m also wary of bald appeals to financial gain because of the critique levied by my favorite Harvard economist, Michael Sandel, on the “moral limits of markets”—the way money tends to corrupt the very goods whose exchange it facilitates (he points, for example, to the selling of kidneys: it is good to give up one’s kidney to save the life of another, but money introduces unhealthy power dynamics—no wealthy American businessmen are likely to give theirs to Pakistani tribesmen anytime soon). Strike one against the value of Deep Work.

So I was pleasantly surprised when Newport cited the work of Matthew Crawford in the excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Newport tied one of Crawford’s most profound points—that knowledge workers are often frustrated by their inability to point to tangible accomplishments—to a further observation of his own, namely that such knowledge workers are likely to let hyper-connectedness make them appear busy to themselves as much as to their managers. I truly don’t judge (very many of the) people who are on Twitter all the time, but I’m with Newport: I’ve just never been able to see how Twitter is anything but distraction crack for someone with a job like mine. Newport says, and he must be right, that there are some highly relational jobs (salesperson, and I’d add, college president) in which personal connections are the value one provides to his or her employer. But that’s not most of us. I loved Newport’s example of the New York Times reporter who seems to tweet “desultorily” and as little as possible. I’ll give half a strike back to Newport, then.

At this point in the book Newport had already evinced more interest in metaphysics than three passels of self-help books typically do (in my experience these books are almost entirely utilitarian). And I was genuinely surprised to see him press the point even deeper in his “Philosophical Argument for Depth.” It is here that he relies on philosophers Dreyfus (Berkeley) and Kelly (Harvard). He actually uses the word “metaphysical”—positively—and even the word “sacredness.” I began to get a little excited when I saw this:

As Dreyfus and Kelly emphasize, for all its good in the political arena, in the domain of the the metaphysical [Cartesian, Enlightenment] thinking stripped the world of the order and sacredness essential to creating meaning. In a post-Enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves with to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism. (87)

This is good; we’re on a track I can follow.

Newport then, following Dreyfus and Kelly, appeals basically to natural law and the pleasure craftsmen find in discovering the natural order of things. A nineteenth century wheelwright, for example, found joy in discovering the truth of what’s in his wood and aligning himself with that portion of the cosmos. (I took this down from audio; punctuation may be off.)

The craftsman has stumbled onto something crucial in a post-Enlightenment world: a source of meaning sited outside the individual. The wheelwright doesn’t decide arbitrarily which virtues of the wood he works are valuable and which are not. This value is inherent in the wood and the task it’s meant to perform. As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftsmanship. “The task of a craftsman,” they conclude, “is not to generate meaning but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there. This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning.” (88)

This is all great, and I can follow this far. But this is where he stops. What follows is some hand-waving about how all workers, even knowledge workers, can find joy and meaning in honing their craft, in discovering what’s true about that work independent of themselves. And I’m ultimately left as cold as I was by the utilitarian (“pragmatic,” Newport himself calls them) sections from earlier in the book. So the natural world is the final order of meaning? It’s the bedrock below which I cannot dig?

I don’t see sacredness there; nor do I see meaning. I see nihilism again—both because this cosmos will, the scientists all tell us, itself one day reduce to nothing (or at least no one) and because I’m part of this cosmos; what confidence can I have that I stand above it rather than fully in it? A naturalistic framework like the one Newport assumes cannot accept any metaphysics or sacredness or meaning, only their evolutionary adapted simulacra. We are Homo sapiens Deepensis, he says: we’ve evolved, he says, to thrive on deep work.

But Newport is not a philosopher. He’s not a Matthew Crawford. His citations of Crawford and of Dreyfus and Kelly have the same breezy feel as his citations of scientific or sociological studies. One senses in Shop Class as Soulcraft that Matthew Crawford has worked hard over the course of a lifetime to fit his view of natural law into an overall worldview. The brief attention which Cal Newport gives to the matter suggests that he has managed to find a utilitarian approach to employing the insights of non-utilitarian philosophies.

In reading Newport I finally what bothers me most about books in the self-help vein: the epistemology. How do we know that deep work (or sticky ideas or getting things done) is good? Scattered, brief citations of scientific papers most readers probably couldn’t really evaluate even if we read them in their entirety are trotted out in between cheery anecdotes related with a spirit of you-can-succeed-like-me-if-you-have-the-Horatio-Alger-like-gumption. The Western tradition of philosophy only appears when a veneer of philosophical depth is needed, and the theological claims of Christianity (or any other religion) to define the good life are, of course, left out entirely. The good life is assumed to be one in which you make more money and enjoy your work—not bad things, those, but not ultimate things. Books like these cultivate a studied avoidance of ultimate things. In the end, nothing that avoids the ultimate can go very deep.

Review: Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family

Andy Crouch is among the first parents to have nurtured children from clearly-too-young-to-have-a-smartphone to now-old-enough, during a time in which smartphones were in fact available for that whole period. It’s only been ten years since the iPhone’s debut. And in that time Crouch’s eldest child went from eight (too young) to eighteen (old enough). So Crouch is able to speak from a place of not just wisdom but also experience. In fact, his “Crouch Family Reality Checks” at the end of most chapters, little sections that revealed how well his family lived up to his stated ideals, give the book a weight I haven’t felt in other writings on this topic. Even when he had to admit his failures to be fully wise in the formation of his family (and of his own soul), Crouch still had wisdom to offer me.

Keeping it simple in this review, I’ll just list off his family’s ten commitments:

Ten Tech-Wise Commitments

  1. We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
  2. We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
  3. We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.
  4. We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
  5. We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home.
  6. We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
  7. Car time is conversation time.
  8. Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
  9. We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
  10. We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.

Readers of Crouch’s other excellent works, particularly Culture Making, will hear Crouchian emphases, especially perhaps in point 2. That’s gold. Crouch manages to be perceptive in an arena full of platitudes, and I think he can do this because he’s a gifted and dedicated popularizer. His major books have all been teaching and applying the work of scholars to the needs of the church. This book is no exception. Highly recommended.

Review: 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You

12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best way to summarize this book is probably to let the author do it.

In the last twelve chapters, I have warned against twelve corresponding ways in which smartphones are changing us and undermining our spiritual health:

– Our phones amplify our addiction to distractions (chapter 1), and thereby splinter our perception of our place in time (12).
– Our phones push us to evade the limits of embodiment (2) and thereby cause us to treat one another harshly (11).
– Our phones feed our craving for immediate approval (3) and promise to hedge against our fears of missing out (10).
– Our phones undermine key literary skills (4) and, because of our lack of discipline, make it increasingly difficult for us to identify ultimate meaning (9).
– Our phones offer us a buffet of produced media (5) and tempt us to indulge in visual vices (8).
– Our phones overtake and distort our identity (6) and tempt us toward unhealthy isolation and loneliness (7).

Sounds pretty dire. But Reinke is, at heart, a technophile, not a technophobe; and he doesn’t conclude from these dangers that every Christian needs to smash his smartphone. He offers positive practices in place of the negative.

Along the way, I have also attempted to commend twelve life disciplines we need to preserve our spiritual health in this smartphone age:
– We minimize unnecessary distractions in life to hear form God (chapter 1) and to find our place in God’s unfolding history (12).
– We embrace our flesh-and-blood embodiment (2) and handle one another with grace and gentleness (11).
– We aim at God’s ultimate approval (3) and find that, in Christ, we have no ultimate regrets to fear (10).
– We treasure the gift of literacy (4) and prioritize God’s Word (9).
– We listen to God’s voice in creation (5) and find a fountain of delight in the unseen Christ (8).
– We treasure Christ to be molded into his image (6) and seek to serve the legitimate needs of our neighbors (7).

A few more thoughts:

One question that really stuck out to me, toward the end of the book: do I deserve to spend time on social media trivialities right now? Sobering.

Another question Reinke pressed on me helpfully is one I have to ask all the time, especially in my line of work as a professional blogger: do I have an unhealthy interest in validation-through-social-shares? That one’s tough when your job description involves increasing social shares.

Chapter 11 was really excellent, about slander and “outrage porn.”

In an age when anyone with a smart phone can publish dirt on anyone else, we must know that spreading antagonistic messages online with the intent of provoking hostility without any desire for resolution is what the world calls “trolling,” and the New Testament calls “slander.”

I sometimes wonder how much of our society’s public worry (and public kvetching) over the dangers of technology will seem quaint to our great grandchildren—like those who worried around the turn of the 20th century that people wouldn’t be able to breathe if cars exceeded 10 miles per hour, because the air would be rushing by too fast. But we’re not our grandkids. We’re us. I can’t shake the feeling that the world really has changed, that the Internet has amplified our fallenness more than it has increased our virtue. The overall tone of Reinke’s book is one of gentle warning and instruction, and I think that’s perfectly appropriate.

This is definitely my new go-to book for wisdom on the use of consumer technology. (Dyer’s From the Garden to the City is a good complement to it.)

The reader in the Christian Audio production was smooth and serviceable, though (to be a little too frank?) a little too much like a male version of Siri for my tastes. This book called for reading with a little more feeling, a little more homiletical intensity. But I was able to go triple speed (is that ironic?) and understand perfectly.

I got this book for free for review purposes from Christian Audio, but they attached no strings to my opinions.

Fantastic Deal on My Favorite Theology Books

John Frame is retiring, and now you can have all six of his best and most important books for $120. Hardbacks. This is killer. I paid much more.

Do not miss this deal: $20 a book for some of the best theology books you will ever buy.

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, in particular, has been epochal for me. It shapes me in ways I see just about every day. The Doctrine of the Christian Life was also extremely helpful. When I’ve dipped into Frame’s Systematic Theology, I have also found what he always delivers: carefully biblical, straightforward, clear, even simple explanations of complex topics.