Is deep work the most underappreciated skill for career success? An interview with Cal Newport.

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Deep-WorkIn the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king – or so the saying goes. In his new book, Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that when it comes to deep concentration, we have become the land of the blind.

He believes that the ability to do focused work is essential for career success, but becoming increasingly rare. And the fewer people are capable of deep work, the more of an edge you should be able to get by being the exception.

We think Cal is one of the most interesting thinkers working on the issue of career strategy, so recommend you check it out. We interviewed Cal to learn more.

Quick summary of the book

Cal defines “deep work” as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”.

In his previous book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal argues it’s better to focus on gaining career capital rather than “following your passion” (we agree). Part one of Deep Work takes off where his previous book ends – he argues that deep work is essential to gaining valuable career capital. In short:

  • Deep work is increasingly valuable in the modern economy because it’s what allows you to master new intellectual skills and produce creative breakthroughs. People able to do both of these can take work that’s unlikely to be automated and reach the top of their fields, which is becoming increasingly important as top performers are becoming more dominant of their fields.
  • At the same time, deep work is becoming increasingly scarce due to the rise of constant communication.
  • Both factors mean that the more deep work you can do, the more valuable career capital you’ll gain, and the more successful you’ll be in the long-term.

He also argues that deep work is fulfilling, because you gain a sense of achievement, deep engagement and make valuable contributions. (This lines up with our research on job satisfaction.)

In the second part, he provides advice on how to do more deep work, much of which the 80,000 Hours team has adopted, including:

  • Tracking the percentage of deep work hours you do each day and trying to raise the percentage over time.
  • Scheduling whole days for focused work, and batching “light work” such as emails and meetings into specific slots.
  • Scheduling a retreat each year for focused work.
  • Having a strong routine for becoming focused, taking breaks and ending your working day.

See a more in-depth summary.

The interview

Ben: I’m curious about how widely your arguments apply. How does the importance of deep work vary by field?

In almost any knowledge work field the ability to focus without distraction for long periods will create better outcomes in less time.

There are some exceptions. High-level executives, for example, sometimes best serve their organizations by making rapid but consistent decisions on issues that are raised throughout the day. Similarly, people in sales or lobbying might generate more reward from networking and communication than in creating new things with their mind.

Ben: So to compare the importance of deep work by field, maybe assess them based on: (1) how much knowledge work required (2) the importance of rapid communication with your team (3) the importance of relationships (4) the importance of learning new skills and coming up with novel ideas compared to executing on an existing plan.

Ben: How does the idea of deep work relate to the existing psychology research on performance? Ericsson has argued that “deliberate practice” is essential to the development of expert-level skills (for a great popular summary of his work, see Peak). What’s the difference between deep work and deliberate practice?

Deep work is the broader concept (within the domain of knowledge work). That is, deliberate practice is a type of deep work. But other activities are also deep work. What unifies depth is the application of unbroken concentration over a long period of time.

Ben: So, to what extent does criticism of the importance of deliberate practice also apply to deep work? For instance, a 2014 meta-analysis by Macnamara found that deliberate practice only correlates very weakly with performance in education and professional fields, precisely the “knowledge work” fields you’re focused on.

Ericsson, the key innovator of the concept, has been especially critical of these recent meta-analyses and their methodology. Few doubt the main finding of his research: if you want to get good at something hard, you have to practice deliberately.

Ben: My impression is that most agree a large amount of deliberate practice is necessary for top performance, but there’s disagreement about how important it is once you’re already performing at a high level, and how its importance varies by domain.

My view is that deep work is one of several important factors in success. This means that by doing deep work, it’s possible to significantly improve in almost any field, but you should also look for an area where you seem to have innate talent and that you’re in a good position to pursue. What’s your response to that? How would you advise someone to work out what they’re good at?

Look externally, not internally. That is, study people whose careers you admire and attempt to figure out what they do well that enabled their current standing. This is what you should improve. Don’t spend too much time navel gazing and trying to figure out what you’re good at or what you’re meant to do. You’re not likely to find a clear answer and if you do it might not be a productive answer.

Ben: Let’s explore what your arguments imply about career strategy for our readers.
What do you think are the most interesting implications?

What does the importance of deep work imply about picking a field to work in? E.g. does it mean that you have a much wider range of options than usually thought, because you can improve with practice?

Yes. As you master skills that are rare and valuable, new options unfold. This process can be hard to predict in advance.

Ben: What does it imply about how to plan your career over time? E.g. should you plan to spend the first 10-20 years of your career building skills?

You should plan to make deliberate skill improvement a consistent behavior throughout your working life. There’s not a sharp demarcation between a practice and application phase.

Learn more about Deep Work.