November 6th, 2020

3 Thoughts from Deep Work by Cal Newport

This is my third reading of Deep Work by Cal Newport. During my first reading of Deep Work I remember being excited because someone was finally saying all the things I'd been thinking and circling around in my productivity life for a few years. While I don't get that same feeling when I read it today, I do still find useful bits that connect with other bits I've covered in the intervening years.

Today I'll cover some parts of the book that stood out to me on this reading, so it's not a summary. You can see a deeper review with my first reading of Deep Work

Radical Individualism Changed Where We Find Meaning

Newport says that Descartes brought us radical individualism1. While this freed many people from oppression and broke down our reliance on metaphysical thinking, it also remove our reliance on the church for a source of meaning. While Newport posits that craftsmen then found their meaning in their craft, building things of excellence with their hands, that mode of work is largely gone now.

This leaves a gap in finding meaning in something external to ourselves2. When we try to fill it by following the route prescribed by society, namely education, many people run the race only to find that others moved the finish line because they could run further3. This leaves many people searching for any source of meaning.

Here is where I think back to incel groups and the current swell in white supremest groups. As these men have grappled with equality, which they view as a loss of power, they are divorced from previous norms of meaning. Maybe they don't thrive in school, or don't have the money to race far enough. They can never get to their first mountain of financial success and security4, or if they do the external thing they start living for is trying to rebuild the misogynistic and racist source of power they feel they have lost.

I have Radicalized by Cory Doctrow sitting beside me to read further down this idea in the future.

Incel groups have also been fooled by the moral ecology of manhood as expressed as they grew up. In Boys & Sex, we learned that much of male talk revolves around having sex and their prowess at the act of sex. Incel groups, by definition, are involuntary celibate. They are not able to achieve the goal that much of manhood incorrectly tells them is the ultimate achievement of being a man, having sex.

I don't condone any behaviour of these groups, I do see pathways to get there though from the ways society is currently operating. Some of these pathways are on society in general, but many of them are pointed directly at white men and their horrible ideas of superiority because they are white men that deserve so much benefit previous white men have received.

As I see it there needs to be a wholesale change in how men interact with each other to change these long term outcomes we're dealing with now.

The value of knowledge work is hard to measure

On a totally different note, Newport argues that the value of knowledge work is hard to measure5. This makes it easy to destroy focus for momentary benefits in getting some response from someone. Managers play task hot potato, getting some task out of their inbox as fast as possible, at the expense of having workers change focus all the time and never do the work that is most valuable for long enough to make forward progress. Newport says this productivity falls into the metric black hole that exists in knowledge work.

I see this difficulty in measuring the value of knowledge work as a reason many knowledge workers, myself included, find it easy to listen to the cacophony of voices that tell us shallow work is important work6. In the author world, this goes to most author courses that talk about how important social media marketing is. They in fact spend more time on this than the craft of writing is telling.

Most of them make most of their income from telling aspiring authors these lies, and yet have not written much of note. Sure they have stuff on Amazon best seller lists, but they have nothing notable in a field outside of their marketing book that tells you the basics of their method then sells you on their paid consulting. They're marketers masking themselves as authors.

We fall for these because they're selling a dream, being an author, and we've fallen for the coup of social media7, that we will miss important things if we don't participate regularly in their platforms. I quit Facebook years ago, and Instagram recently and have never felt I'm missing anything. For some reason I have a weakness when it comes to Twitter though and have had a hard time quitting it.

What is Your h-index?

One final big idea that stuck out to me was the h-index8 used in academic circles to gauge how influential you are. Your h-index is a numerical summary of how influential you are based on your papers, citations, important prizes won, and other things.

If you're going to try to abandon the social media coup, then you're going to need a metric to override this idea. Unfortunately most fields don't have a number like an h-index to gauge your impact off of. Social media shares are a terrible one to use, so what is your h-index?

I think that if you can figure out what the h-index should be for you, it is then easier to narrow in on the vital few activities that will affect this number and forgo other activities. The problem is that in knowledge work there is no h-index so we look busy to show how valuable we are and many people produce nothing of value.

Should You Read Deep Work by Cal Newport

I think this answer is obvious, yes you should read it. I've read it three times now, and may even read it a fourth time at some point in the future. While I didn't highlight these things here, if you've been struggling with focus Deep Work will give you excellent reasons to sit down and focus on the tasks that are going to move your life forward.

Purchase Deep Work: Independent Bookstore | Amazon


  1. Page 88 

  2. To use the term from Man's Search for Meaning 

  3. see The Case Against Education 

  4. See also The War on Normal People for arguments on why income changes can radicalize groups 

  5. Page 55 

  6. Page 75 

  7. Page 206 

  8. Page 67