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.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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