If I were to ask what it takes to become a great architect, programmer or scientist, most people would agree: study a lot, prototype, stay updated with new discoveries, and constantly deploy your growing skills and knowledge in experimenting with opportunities, techniques, and ideas that interest you. Eventually, you may become a master in your profession or make new breakthroughs in your field.
In other words, it takes a lot of what Cal Newport, author and professor at Georgetown University, defines as “deep work”: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Knowing what deep work looks like is important because, as Cal says, “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
Deep work has become increasingly rare because most people can’t concentrate anymore. We now have shorter attention spans than a goldfish. We live distracted due to the expansion of cheap technology and connectivity. Smart phones, social networks, blogs and funny websites… They all play a part in stopping us from working deeply.
And deep work has become increasingly valuable because any professional that wants to thrive in a hyper-connected market needs to 1) create outstanding value to beat the competition, and 2) learn new and hard things quickly. Both goals require a concentrated effort.
While difficult, the deep work “formula for success” is clear for architects, programmers and scientists… But what does deep work look like if you work with people?
What does concentration look like when you’re trying to understand humans and society? What does a “distraction-free” environment look like if your subject of work is a person, which is harder to control than a line of code or a set of chemicals? What is the networked age “formula for success” for the social butterfly, the connector, the teacher, the salesman, the social worker, the manager, the psychologist, the HR employee?
Side note: While deliberate practice is essential to master many crafts, Anders Ericsson explains that its principles are mainly applicable only to highly developed and studied fields like sports or music, but don’t work as well for professions like teachers, consultants, or business managers.
These questions matter to me for two reasons. First, because I’m a communicator. From selling, to teaching, to writing, all work I do revolves around making observations, understanding people, and bridging perspectives. If I want to thrive, I need to understand the deep work requirements for my profession.
Second, because to properly understand the present and imagine the future of employment and entrepreneurship, we must tackle people-centered skills and problems with the same level of focus and tinkering that we deploy in fields such as art, sports, science and technology.
Where technology fails
The main thesis behind my Sunday articles is that knowing with whom and how to collaborate, where to find them, and what to say to them, is the essence of a thriving career or business in a networked age. However, the wide availability of information and connectivity has actually made collaboration harder in unexpected ways because distractions, information “noise” and competition for our attention are at an all-time high.
To understand the intricacies of the problems and needs of the people we must collaborate with, now demands an unprecedented level of deep work. Like any previous revolutionary technology, the internet changed society and human behavior for good, but the difference is that it also accelerates the adoption of all subsequent technologies, triggering an exponential pace of behavioral changes for us to catch up.
This, I believe, is what scares and frustrates many inventors, entrepreneurs and technologists; they know that they don’t understand people, and that without people there are no users. They prefer the predictability of the laboratory or garage, where they can avoid the chaos and mystery of people’s emotions, habits and preferences. The amount of things they build that no one really wants is staggering, and it stems from ignoring the complexities of consumers’ behavior.
I’m glad those fears exist, because they remind us that people are still more important than technology, not just because they are the consumers, but also because they are the only ones that can do the deep work of empathizing with a market. The challenge is not to understand people in a philosophical or biological vacuum (anyone can do that by reading philosophy, psychology or biology), but rather understanding people’s changes in an evolving technological context. The former can be done in isolation, while the latter requires immersion and experimentation.
As Jaron Lanier, the popular pioneer of virtual reality and advocate against the utopian promises of artificial intelligence, wrote in You’re Not a Gadget: “the most important thing about technology is how it changes people.” He then pondered:
“‘What is a person?'” If I knew the answer to that, I might be able to program an artificial person in a computer. But I can’t. Being a person is a not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith.”
I see countless opportunities to thrive for those that take that leap.