On Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”
This book feels out of touch with reality. Many of my criticisms boil down to the manichaeist distintion between deep versus shallow. At some point, deep work is compared to a pursue of the sacred or, in an equally bold claim, pursue of meaning. It uses “sacred” in a narrow, academic-sense of the world, but still carries the nobility of the depth, specially when compared to the sad word “shallow”.
It does acknowledge that some jobs require different levels of availability. Still, instead of discussing how this great intellectual goal could possibly be reached in different ways, it just assumes that some people’s jobs are inherently incompatible with the “deep work” concept. It frequently uses the term “knowledge work” and constantly references the academic lifestyle as one adequate place for the flourishing of “deep work”.
It does not, however, note that even academics may struggle with finding a place and/or time to perform whichever modality of “deep work” the author suggests. The underlying assumption here is, therefore, that for academic and other knowledge-based environments, a focused work is strictly a matter of choice.
How hurtful is this line of thinking for people that cannot focus in a single thing? Take, for instance, the examples where the “deep-worker” cited would spend days out of reach. For these (mainly white and male) examples, there would be a woman to perform the house chores, or a secretary that would respond the mails. If we focus on these new, hidden characters, it is safe to assume that they cannot possibly have the same opportunity of deep work. Considering the juxtaposition of deep-versus-shallow, these people are doomed to accomplish less valuable work. Even worse, to be deprived from the noble search for meaning.
There is also a confusion around the idea of grand-gesture: I am sure the author just meant “grand spending of money”, althought there is no sign of this realization from his part. It is a symptom of a general issue detectable in his thesis as a whole; mostly carried out based on personal anedoctes and examples from his friends and celebrities rather than actual research with a considerable data sample. Contrast, for instance, with the similar, but research-driven “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.
The tone-deafness of the whole concept made the experience of reading this book simply unnerving. I understand that not every piece of written work should cover social aspects all the time, but when you are so confident that you have found an idea that is general enough to be shared to the world in a book intended to a broad audience, it should be a rule of thumb to evaluate whether the narrative only makes sense to a selected fraction of the population - one that mirrors oneself.
This goes beyond my own opinions. We may merge the above points with actual data on the gender, class, and race imbalance in certain types of work and the amount of time spent in housework for each of these segments. The conclusion is univoque: satisfying and world-changing work possibilities is reserved for the deep…ly privileged.