Curiosity & Deep Work

“A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun.” excerpt from Deep Work by Cal Newport.

In 2007, I was working as a copywriter at iStockphoto in Calgary. A  group of us were out for Vietnamese food, our Razr phones (remember those?) placed in the middle of the table. The VP was exuberantly chatting about the announcement of Apple’s latest and greatest invention, something called the iPhone. At the time, I failed to see the charm. My phone was just fine for calling, checking email, and texting. Why would I need a camera on my phone when I had a SLR? He muttered something about applications and I had no idea what he meant.

Around the same time, a dear friend of mine took me out for my birthday. Throughout the meal, I was getting text messages from a Flickr buddy in New York. Dutifully obeying the vibration, I would pull it out and answer it. I’ll never forget the way she glared at me with her fierce green eyes. “Put that damned thing away,” she said. Of course I did.

It’s boggling to think of how etiquette and attention have been so easily sacrificed to our shiny gadgets. It’s only taken ten years for my behaviour to change radically. For rudeness to become banal and acceptable. I’ve done it and I regret it. Checking my phone when I could have been listening, updating Instagram when I could have been chatting with the person next to me on the bus, or scanning email instead of facing the challenging craft of writing.

It’s never felt right in my bones to be so flip and distracted and the desire to shift away from these scattered habits has grown exponentially since I moved to Vancouver 5 years ago. This intention was refreshed in earnest with my decision to take a break from the news in March (still doing that, and reading hard copies of the New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar and Brick magazine). When important news happens, I hear about it. That one action has created hours of time in my workweek to focus on writing, listening, connecting.  So it’s a relief reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

It reads as a playbook for anyone keen to differentiate themselves in an attention starved landscape. The first paradox isn’t even that surprising. By simply giving attention to cultivating deep skills instead of screaming for affirmation online, real learning — and by extension — real value happens organically. It also builds self worth and confidence so those shiny hearts and comments don’t become an all consuming quest.

As I build my writing business, I’m finding much of my time is spent in relationship with others. Going to networking breakfasts, meeting for coffee, checking out what my people are up to on Instagram. It’s immensely satisfying to see so many people doing good work and creating right livelihood for themselves. Inspiration abounds.

But all this means time has become even more precious. I was happily surprised to learn via Newport’s lucid writing that focused attention is much more valuable in the long run than scattered 140-character chirping and chronic Facebook status updates.  I don’t use either of those “services” any more and I’m grateful. From time to time, someone will tell me I need Facebook and I’ll feel my stomach churn at the idea. For one thing, it’s rented land and from what I’ve heard small businesses took a beating with the latest algorithm adjustments. But even more importantly, it’s yet another shiny distraction that I don’t want to risk.

Newport also references the work of Winifred Gallagher from her book Rapt. Dealing with a cancer diagnosis forced her to let go of everything superfluous. It enriched her life and put her on the road to recovery.

I love this excerpt:

“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love-is the sum of what you focus on.”

I don’t know about you, but I would rather be a person of generosity and creativity. It’s hard to cultivate that in spaces where competition is prized above all else. I can choose not to give attention and time to those spaces and situations. That feels liberating even as I tap it on my keyboard.

Lastly, curiosity. Over coffee on the weekend, I made an offhand comment about an acquaintance to my partner. He seemed surprised and said he didn’t get that impression at all. It opened my eyes to something significant. Social media has been dulling my curiosity. When all I see of someone is their branding and good times on the beach photos, I assume all is well in their world. I conclude they are tumbling around in money and good vibes. If I simply ask people how things are going, I often get a surprising answer. So I’m going to practice the Buddhist principle of beginner’s mind more consistently. Curiosity always. Assumptions, not so much. Or at the very least question the living daylights out of them.

Thanks for giving this your precious attention. I have more reading to do now.

 

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