There are no telephones ringing and you don’t have to go to committee meetings and you don’t have to meet classes […]
Most people depend on being interrupted in order to live, but work is so hard and failure is, of course, I guess, an inevitable condition of success. So we’re used to having to attend to other people’s business.
When they get here, there’s nothing of that and they can’t run away. It’s to help men who are creative and deep and active and struggling scholars and scientists, to get the job done that it is their destiny to do.
That’s J. Robert Oppenheimer describing the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, where he was the director from 1947 to 1966, during which time he recruited such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Freeman Dyson, Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann.
I happen upon the clip as I’m reading MIT professor Cal Newport’s Deep Work : Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
The book is a medley of references to cognitive research interleaved with anecdotes from the lives of famously productive Deep Workers; from CG Jung to Teddy Roosevelt and Donald Knuth. The message Newport is pushing: you can be this productive too, provided that you don’t allow yourself to be distracted.
The idea is kind of flattering of course.
Also sort of reassuring. A ready excuse for all the good work we have in ourselves but never get around to actually doing: it clearly must be because our messy lives simply don’t allow for deep work.
Only I’m not sure I buy the narrative.
I don’t buy it because many of the stories meant to exemplify deep work in Newport’s book, really just seem to be stories of men offloading the trivia of everyday life onto their wives.
Like: sure Carl Gustav Jung managed to be super disciplined as he locked himself away in his custom built writer’s hut (which even lacked electricity, all in order to minimise distractions), but I imagine it could only happen thanks to Emma Jung taking care of their five children.
Same goes for Oppenheimer, Einstein and the other geniuses whiling away in their splendid isolation at the Princeton Institute. There was a price to be paid by others, for that very seclusion.
But apart from the ‘fairness’ perspective, I also harbour an intuition that ‘deep work’ isn’t always the supreme mode for getting things done.
I have this notion confirmed as I’m reading Richard Hamming’s book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering.
Hamming worked under J. Robert Oppenheimer during the Manhattan project.
After the war he went on to play a key role in Bell Labs (and then to be the third recipient of the Turing Prize in 1968).
Hamming saw many of his brightest peers being recruited by his former boss into the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, so the following quote is a first-hand observation of what happened to them:
In my opinion the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton has ruined more great scientists than any other place has created—considering what they did before and what they did after going there. A few, like von Neumann, escaped the closed atmosphere of the place, with all its physical comforts and prestige, and continued to contribute to the advancement of science, but most remained there and continued to work on the same problems which got them there but which were generally no longer of great importance to society.The Art of Doing Science and Engineering | Richard Hamming, 1994
Thus what you concider to be good working conditions may not be good for you! There are many illustrations of this point. For example, working with one’s door closed lets you get more work done per year than if you had an open door, but I have observed repeatedly that later those with the closed doors, while working just as hard as others, seem to work on slightly the wrong problems, while those who have let their door stay open gets less work done but tend to work on the right problem! I cannot prove the cause-and-effect relationship; I can only observe the correlation. I suspect the open mind leads to the open door, and the open door tends to lead to the open mind; they reinforce each other.
Then I stumble across the brilliant physicist and nobel laureate Richard Feynman, who has this to say about the prestigious Institute:
When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they’re not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come. Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! | Richard Feynman, 1985
It seems we need some measure of deep work, only just not too much of it.
But if real productivity hinges on swinging in and out of the mode Newport calls deep work, then how can we think of what’s on the other end of the spectrum?
Chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin—whom I’ve written about before—refers to this as “the soft zone” in his book The Art of Learning. (Coincidentally, the subtitle of Hamming’s book is Learning How To Learn).
Maybe just maybe, that open floating state is just as important to nurture, as the hardcore focus of deep work.
If both states are needed, then that might provide a clue as to why companies are so often founded by pairs of entrepreneurs with complementary personalities.
The young Bill Gates could famously work on a problem until he fell asleep over his keyboard, only to wake up and pick it up again. He could apparently go for days like that, and clearly there would have been no Microsoft without this capacity for prolonged intense focus. But then there probably also would have been no Microsoft if it wasn’t for his more human-oriented co-founder Paul Allen.
Same thing with the two Steves of Apple. Wozniak was an absolute genius tinkerer. He single-handedly built their first machine. On paper, it looked like Jobs didn’t contribute much. The rest, of course, is history.
Unless we find ourselves being one half of a dynamic duo like that, I guess we just have to try our best to incorporate both modes in our way of operating in the world.