Cal Newport on deep work, deliberate practice, and skill building


 

Rohan: I began following Cal’s blog a couple of years back and sought out his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” The book blew me away. It was a collection of many insights that were coming together in my head – except just beautifully structured and synthesized in a great thesis on approaching careers.

As much as I enjoyed the interview and Cal’s many insights, I have a different story to share here. The following is an excerpt from my blog post.

I was having a “bad hair” day with respect to my internet the day the morning I interviewed Cal. The first 30 minutes were a disaster – I was having internet connection trouble on my side and Skype didn’t cooperate. We switched to Google Hangouts and, in an attempt to stop the echo, I put on headphones to get the interview started. 7 minutes into the interview, I realized this wouldn’t work as the recorder wouldn’t be able to hear the audio. Cue feelings of embarrassment, disappointment, and annoyance all at once.

Luckily, we persisted. The next 30 minutes were much better. We did complete the interview. Cal was full of insightful ideas about work, excellence, and building careers. I expected to walk out of the interview with these ideas.

However, I walked away with something different. I walked away remembering the guy who was empathetic, understanding, and patient through technology troubles and my screw ups. Nice guy first.

Thanks Cal!

About Cal Newport

Cal Newport is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. He previously earned his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT in 2009, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 2004.

Newport is the author of three books of unconventional advice for students, which have sold a combined total of more than 100,000 copies: How to Be a High School Superstar (Random House, 2010), How to Become a Straight-A Student (Random House, 2006), and How to Win at College (Random House, 2005). His fourth book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Grand Central, 2012), is a contrarian look at career advice.

In his role as an author, Newport has appeared on ABC, NBC, and CBS and on over 50 radio networks. His writing and ideas have been featured in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and FastCompany.com. His Study Hacks blog, which chronicles his attempts to decode “patterns of success,” attracts over 100,000 unique visitors a month.


Interview transcript

(00.19)

Rohan: I want to start with a personal favorite question – why do you do what you do and how did you get there?  The story of where you grew up and how it all connects…

Cal: We should start with the endpoint.  Today, I’m a professor of computer science and, as a writer, I’ve written four books.  If you want to understand how I’ve ended up doing both those things, I think you have to go back to my high school years.  This was in the late 1990′s living in New Jersey and it was the first dot-com boom.  It was one of the first times in history where teenagers, for example, were suddenly holding sway in the market and were becoming multi-millionaires.

I started a company back in that first dot-com boom and that exposed me to the world of entrepreneurship and a wealth of knowledge in the form of books. When I arrived at college, I started studying computer science on my track to eventually become a professor. I went looking for books for my student life that were similar to the types of books that I had read while being an entrepreneur. However, I couldn’t find them.  You couldn’t find those types of books on the bookshelf back then.  That gave me the idea to write my own and that’s what got me started on the writing side of my career.  I began writing the books that I wanted to read on my own path to becoming an academic. That’s what gave me the parallel life as a writer and an academic at the same time.

 

(01.35)

Rohan: So what was the inspiration or influence at this point to write those books?  Maybe it’s my Indian background, but I’m not used to university students writing a bunch of books. You’d written probably three by the time you graduated and then started a company.

Cal: Let me give you a more precise timeline.  I started college in the fall of the year 2000.  I started my first company probably in 1998.  When I went to college I wound it down so I could focus on my college experience. I had wound it down by that first winter, in 2001.  That also happened to be the time of first dot-com crash.  I was at Dartmouth College, studying computer science and writing by the side.  I wanted to know what to do after I had finished my business and I started writing for various publications.

It was in my junior year of college that I began working on a project that became my first book – “How to Win at College.” The inspiration for that comes down to being surrounded by entrepreneurs.  It was a time when people in their teenage years were emboldened and felt empowered to actually take on things; things that just five years earlier would be unimaginable for anyone of our age. An entrepreneur friend, Josh Newman heard my idea for a book over drinks at the Russian Samovar in Manhattan and said “Well, just go write it.  Stop talking about it.” 

That’s how we spoke back then.  I felt that anything was possible and I said “Okay, I will.”. I signed with my agent that June and wrote my book the following fall – the fall of my senior year.  My first book was submitted about halfway through my senior year of college, and then I wrote two more books while in graduate school. My fourth book happened while being a post-doctoral associate after graduate school.  So that’s how it all happened.

 

(03.37)

Rohan: The next question is on “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”  I love the book so much, and as I’ve told you, I’ve gifted it to ten people.  It’s a book I recommend to anybody out there who’s looking for career advice.

I find it fascinating that you wrote the book because you’re still 31, and that’s pretty young.  How did you develop this thesis on careers, way of life, and excellence?  Could you talk me through your journey on that one?

Cal: For most of my books, the pattern has been this – I write the book that I need at that point in time.  I write the book I want to read, so they are rarely the books where I say “Let me share my years of experience.”  I usually stick to a story type of structure.  I’m at a point of my life where I need this advice, so I set out there systematically to research it and I present what I find.

“So Good They Can’t Ignore You” was no different.  I was at this sort of big career transition.  I was about to enter the academic job market and I wanted to understand how people end up loving what they do.  I thought that this was a time in my life when I needed an answer to that question.  So I set out on this year long journey to go out and meet people who love what they do, to read the research literature surrounding workplace satisfaction, and answer that question.

I found two surprising things. One was that – “follow your passion”, the most common piece of career advice our generation has received, is actually bad advice. If your goal is to end up being passionate about what you do, for most people, it will actively hold you back from ending up being passionate about what you do.  And the reason is that most people don’t have ingrained passions that they can identify and follow.  Becoming passionate about your work is way more complicated than simply matching it to a pre-existing interest.

The second thing I found is that skills are everything.  People who love what they do didn’t know that this was their one true calling early on. What they did do consistently was build up rare and valuable skills; this was the leverage they needed to craft the type of remarkable career that can gave them real passion for their livelihood.

 

(05.50)

Rohan: One of the topics you have written about from time to time is this concept called deep work.  And related is the concept of bursts.  I’d love your view on both of these.

Cal: Deep work on a high level is the ability to focus persistently on something that is cognitively demanding even when it’s straining and even when it’s past the point of flow or being enjoyable.  It’s basically the core work of stretching your ability, the core work of ringing as much value as possible out of your current cognitive abilities.  It’s what mathematicians do, for example, when they are trying to solve a proof.

I think deep work is more important now than it has ever been, because we’re entering this world of knowledge work, big data, and complex analysis, where the ability to concentrate with great focus on cognitively demanding tasks is incredibly valuable.  And this change in the economy is happening at the exact same time that our technology is distracting us more and more.  So we are losing at an incredibly rapid rate, our ability to do cognitively demanding tasks.

If we go back 300 years, you read the biographies of the founding fathers; you read Lincoln’s biography.  This notion that you would sit down and read a book in Latin that was hard for four hours was just what you did if you were a student.  Today, a student has a hard time going more than fifteen minutes on a basic assignment without looking for a distraction.  Deep work, I think, is a skill that is endangered at exactly the time in which it is most valuable. The small number of people who recognize this and train their ability to do so can become leaders of the current economy. Focus is the new IQ.

 

(07.37)

Rohan: Related to this is the idea of bursts.  I think you’ve been talking about the impact of bursts versus busy-ness.  Could you share your view on that? I was just wondering if it’s more relevant to academia versus the outside world.

Cal: Deep work fascinates me. I think it’s an art form and I’ve been talking to and trying to study people who are good at it in different fields.  That way I am trying to understand its rhythms and its patterns.  One of the patterns I’ve found is that deep work often happens in bursts.  I wrote about this recently.

I talked to a hotshot professor who I think was the youngest ever person to get tenure at his institution in that department.  I asked him how he was so productive and how he wrote 6-7 top papers a year.  He said he works in bursts.  If he’s going to write a draft of a paper, he takes three days and does nothing else but writes the draft of the paper, and then steps away from it for a week.  He works in intense bursts and in between bursts, he’s doing email or whatever else he needs to do.  Something else I’ve noticed is that if you need to work in bursts, you need to have a schedule with the possibility of taking huge amounts of time and dedicating it to those bursts. This means you can’t be overwhelmed with urgent, small, non-deep work tasks – tons of projects, irons in the fire, email, and all the social networking.  If you have all this stuff filling your day, you don’t have the ability to just drop everything and spend three days doing bursts.

Something I’ve noticed with people who are very successful at doing deep work is that they often have downtime in their schedule. They have to constrain the administrative and logistical details in their schedule so they have room for deep work when it’s time to do deep work. The time when they’re not deep working, simply becomes open time.  So, if you actually study people who do remarkable things, you see this rhythm of them having down time, intensity, down time, and again intensity. This is much different from the busy world – with lots of fun and accomplishable tasks but not too much of value-production.

 

(09.53)

Rohan: That aligns with a couple of thoughts.  One is a famous story of Warren Buffett’s diary being completely empty, which I think probably aligns very well with what you’re saying.  I think the question that came to mind is often, especially as businesses, you often have to look at a lot of things as “drip” i.e.  something you do consistently such as a notification to a customer or an update.  I look at a lot of tasks as something that you do pretty much every day, almost as a cycle of habit.  How do bursts tie into this concept of drip?  Marketing is best done in drip, right? It’s not done in bursts. So do you get all of your ideas in bursts and then make sure it gets dripped out?

Cal: I think that’s a good point.  I think that drip activities are necessary, but they’re also not going to produce the remarkable products.  That’s my way of thinking.  Most things that are produced that are remarkable usually come out of remarkable applications of effort. It’s a marketplace of ideas, products, and thoughts, and it takes everything you have to break out of there.

Drip activities are important, but especially for people in my position, I see them as almost adversarial.  It’s something to be systematized, it’s something to be batched, and Tim Ferris-ised.   It’s good to have this type of interaction with your client.  How can you automate that?  How can you minimize the time it takes you?  How can you make sure that these don’t take up all your time in the day and prevent you from mastering the new system? You need to think about mastering the new cutting edge day-to-day development platform that’s going to allow you to bring the product to a new level.  That will let you see and have the idea of what can be the future of your company.  So we have drips but we shouldn’t let our life be one dominated by drips.

 

(11.54)

Rohan: Here’s another question.  The nice thing about your case is that you are a professor of computer science, so it’s fairly clear as to where your deep work lies.  For somebody like me, whose three years into his career, I’m not sure what the rest of the plot will be like. 

Is the focus to be so good at whatever you do now, and then hope opportunities will open up?  Or is it much more of a step back, where you think about what you want to be good at ten years from now? How does this process work?  Is it top heavy where you do all the thinking up front, or is it something that you just figure out as you go forward?

Cal: This is the big question.  I think the lynch pin of this sort of deep work, deliberately building your skill approach, is figuring out where to put your effort. I’m in the bad situation because academia is one of the rare industries where the goal is very clear; it’s very clear what’s valuable. Where is your paper being published? Is it being cited? And because of that, it’s very, very difficult to stand out because everyone knows the rules.  This is like trying to become a good golfer.  People know how to practice for golf, and really, there’s no shortcut.

I think there is a huge untapped possibility in other types of work, other types of knowledge work, where it’s not so clear as to what is valuable and what you should build up.  If you can figure out that hidden pattern of what is valuable at your company, in your field, in your industry, and figure out what the key skills to grow are, then I think you can get results much faster. If you’re a basketball player and say “Oh, I need my jump shot to be better.”  Of course. everyone knows that and everyone’s practicing that.  But, if you’re a consultant, most people are just trying to show up, work hard, and impress their boss.

Huge parts of your efforts might be sort of scattershot and wasted.  But if you’re able to say, “Hey, this particular skill will be very hard to master, but if I master this over the next six months, that would give me a huge boost in value.” If you’re thinking that way, you could really shoot ahead of the pack.

Of course, how you do that is the big question.  It’s something I’m working on now.  I’m actually about to launch a pilot program with my friend Scott Young where we’re systematically exploring this with a group of a hundred different people in a hundred different fields.  We’re trying to figure out how you can simulate in your own working life, a coach; someone who knows your field and can tell you what you need to master.

We’re trying to understand the practices for breaking down and researching your own field – simulating a coach.  In essence, we are figuring out what is important for what you are trying to do – here’s the projects I need to run; here’s how I tell if they’re successful and here’s where my deep work should go.  That is the whole ball game in applying this to knowledge work and it’s at the center of my attention right now as a writer and thinker.

 

(15.09)

Rohan: After we read through So Good They Can’t Ignore You, my friends discussed it’s implications for our lives.  One of the insights that came out of discussing how can we apply deliberate practice was that the key is the coach. If you look at the four elements of deliberate practice – it is specifically designed by a coach, it is repeatable, it’s painful, and gives you instant feedback.  Now, you can get repeatable, painful, and instant feedback by just hitting golf balls.  It doesn’t mean you’re getting any better. 

The next question   -  let’s think about a lot of people who are going through their career right now without a coach/guide. They’re asking themselves questions like “Am I going to be, say, an advertising guy all through my life?  Or am I looking to change?”  Where do you get this perspective?  It seems like you get this perspective by interviewing a lot of people, or at least speaking to a lot of people.  Is that where you get your perspective, or is it from reading?  What do you typically recommend to your students when they come to you trying to figure out if they want to be a computer scientist, or go work at Google?

Cal: Let me answer two questions here.  The first thing I would say is, it’s important to try to leave this mindset that the specific job you have is somehow what’s really important; that your satisfaction or career, is going to come from the particular jobs.  That is a dangerous mindset. The question “Is this the job that is going to make me happy, or will another job make me happy?” is dangerous.

Jobs don’t make people happy by themselves. What makes people really enjoy their careers, once they’ve built up rare and valuable skills, is how they use it as leverage. They take control of their working life and they gain the type of traits in their working life that matter.  So a job in some sense is someone paying you to develop rare and valuable skills that you’ll use as your leverage.  You should never be worried about whether you are in THE job. You should be worried about the rare and valuable skills you are building.  How rare and valuable are they now?  How are you going to make them more rare and valuable?  And then, how are you going to use them as leverage?

The particular office you’re in, the particular job you’re in, in some sense is not that important.  What matters is whether you have this leverage in your career.  Now how do you figure out which skills to develop?  How do you figure out where to put your attention? Again, I think this is the big question and I’m sort of working on more detailed answers to this.  But I think at a high level, an easy way to do this or at least to get started is to find people in your field whose career path resonates with you by trying to figure out what they’re doing that other people aren’t.  Do a little differential analysis here.  What is it that’s making them have this arc that resonates with you while there are so many other people who have been in the business just as long who don’t?

And once you’ve identified those key things, you have your targets. Say you’re a computer programmer and the person who resonates with you is this hotshot programmer who sort of bounces in and out of places like Google and otherwise works remotely from a cabin on Lake Tahoe, and you like that autonomy..  You would say, well what does he do that other programmers don’t?  Why can he live that lifestyle?  And you probably find that he is just fantastic at C Sharp, is a guru at it, and has this instinct for it.  Well now you have an objective target; ah, if I can build up the black belt, the systematic way, and do it the way that no one else is doing.  Everyone else is just taking their assignments and just sort of doing them.  How can I systematically spend two hours a day every other day?  What can I do deliberately to build up that skill?  Now you’re off to the races.

 

(18.47)

Rohan: I have seen many students think about incentives like money, travel, and the like as criteria for a good start to their careers.  I am almost of the view that these things interfere with excellence.  I think if anything, money and travel are byproducts of a good product rather than anything else.  Has your experience been similar, or has your experience been that these are indications that you’re doing well et cetera?  I find often that it interferes with goal of just getting incredibly good.

Cal: Yeah, I think you’re right in a sense that if you consistently want good bells and whistles, there’s a problem. However, they are also valuable and rare.  Most people don’t have those.  So if you want great bells and whistles, then you need something rare and valuable to offer in return.  That’s supply and demand.  A college degree is not rare and valuable by itself. So don’t come of school saying you want a job that is going to give you everything you want, right away.  You should instead say “Ah, I want to get these rare and valuable traits, these bells and whistles.”  Great, where is your rare and valuable skill to offer in return?  Well, if you don’t have it, you have start building it.

You have to see your career in this sort of economic sense.  The traits that are going to make you love your career, be it something intangible like autonomy or sense of respect, or be it something more bells and whistle-y like you travel business class, you get to go to conferences, and talk with big minds.  Whatever it is that resonates with you, it’s probably rare and valuable and if you want it, just like if you want a rare and valuable car or a house on the beach in California, you have to have something to offer in return.  It’s supply and demand.  And that’s going to be your skill in our economy and that’s going to have to be built up systematically and deliberately.  So I agree. Especially early in your career, don’t get caught up in what this job might offer you.  You should always be asking what you are offering the world. And if it’s not much yet, how do you increase it as fast as possible?

 

(20.53)

Rohan: That resonates 100%.  Now here’s a question somebody who read the book asked me.  You talk about autonomy being a goal worth aspiring for.  Does that mean you’re telling people to not go down the corporate career path?  i.e. as soon as you figure out what your rare and valuable skills are, get out and do something small on your own?  What is the thesis on autonomy?

Cal: Autonomy was one of several traits I found that were common in people who love what they do for a living.  So it doesn’t mean that everyone who loves what they do for a living has a lot of autonomy, but it was something that came up often when you studied people who love what they do.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in a non-corporate world, but it could mean that you’re such a star in your corporate world that you really have a say in what projects you work on. You have a say in when you work on them, and in whom you work on them with.  You don’t have much oversight.  So it doesn’t necessarily mean that you drop everything and go start a business, though you could do that.

The bigger observation here is having a say over what you do, when you do it, and how you do it. That is an incredible source of passion.  It’s one of the many complex traits that leads someone to love what they do.  An idea I come back to again and again – loving what you do does not just come from a simple match of your job to some sort of pre-existing, innate hard-wired inclination.  That’s the smallest piece of ending up loving what you do. There are so many other things that go into this mix of loving your work – autonomy is often one piece of that mix.  You have to gain control over your working life.  That doesn’t mean you have to lead the company, but it means you have to have a lot of leverage, and leverage requires rare and valuable skills.

 

(22.27)

Rohan: How do you apply all of these in your life?  And I think the concurrent question with that is what are little hacks or productivity boosts that you use in your schedule to keep yourself productive?

Cal: At the highest level, my whole working life is built around these notions of deliberate practice – clearly identifying what the key metrics for my work are and what type of projects would get me there. Then comes the thought of how I am doing on these projects.  My schedule is built around bursts of deep work.  I try to work on important projects.  I try to work deeply. A lot of hacks on the productivity side help make that possible.  For example, I spend an hour every morning very efficiently processing my lists and sort of handling small tasks.  That clears up a lot of my days.

I teach twice a week.  I’ve systematized my classes to the point that I can take the two days I teach and say these are teaching days, and everything relevant to my courses gets done in those two days.  So it leaves three other days open for the possibility of large deep work.

I try to eliminate regular meetings, for example.  I don’t find it that useful to have weekly meetings when you’re working on a project.  I think having clear goals and meeting once you’ve met these goals, makes a lot more sense.  It sort of matches the burst structure.  I use David Allen’s full capture to keep track of my tasks.  I’m hard to get in touch with.  I’ve never had a Facebook account.  I’ve never had a twitter account.  Doing this interview is the first time I’ve been on a Google Plus thing.  I’m trying not to be distracted and to keep my ability to focus.

So, I have sort of a ton of little hacks that are always evolving and revolving through my life, but they all aim at the same thing – to keep my schedule as unencumbered as possible so that I have the possibility to work deeply, often.  Not all the time, but I have the possibility to work deep when I need to work deep and build up and accrue a lot of these deep work hours because ultimately I see it as the only thing that matters.  I know I have other logistical tasks I have to do and I get them done, but I don’t see them the same way I see the ability to work deeply on hard problems and the things that really produce value.

 

(24.38)

Rohan: Fantastic, and my final question.  What is an idea that inspires you that you would like to share?

Cal: An idea that inspires me that I’d like to share? That’s an interesting question, a good question.

Well, I think there’s a couple of ideas that have played an inspiring role in my life.  I think one thing that’s been very inspiring to me is this notion that ultimately, it’s your actions that matter.  You have good times, you have bad times, you have things that go well, and you have things that sometimes don’t go well. Sometimes you’re sick and sometimes you’re not.  All this stuff comes and goes but ultimately the point is those don’t really matter.  That’s just part of your life experience.  What you control is your actions.  This notion that you define yourself and your impact on the world through your actions is what I find inspiring.  I think that gives you a sense of real resilience.  You stop worrying and looking over your shoulder so much about “what if this bad thing happens or that bad thing happens?”  People I admire seem to embody that and I’m trying my best to get better at that type of mindset – to living a good, meaningful life.


Thank you Cal, for such an insight packed interview. We did bold things that grabbed more attention than the rest, but to be honest – every single word in this transcript must be read and thought about.

Real Leaders Team