As an artist, I always have a pit in my stomach when I work in traditional mediums. Every detail is painstakingly applied, with a watchful eye and sweaty palms. Moments like these take me back to printmaking where any mistake, no matter how small, could ruin your final product. I left every single one of those classes exhausted and sore. My fingers were cramped from carving into wooden planks and my shirt looked like it had been used to mop up a molten rainbow. Some studio nights would last until four in the morning, yielding nothing but failure – and yet, there was something about that class that I loved, especially when I got it right.
“Living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time…rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grow there.”
– Winifred Gallagher
Arguing for Depth
Upon reading the third chapter of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, I was absolutely delighted to discover author Cal Newport touches upon this draining emotional rollercoaster. He tells the story of Ric Furrer, a master blacksmith who spends hours and hours creating when – at any moment – the blade could break. Driven by this challenge, Furrer spends his working hours in the same state of depth that I would be in during printmaking class; intense, slightly nervous focus – hoping my masterpiece would make it out of the crafting process in one piece. Newport explains that this feeling of satisfaction after daunting tasks is more common among the craftsmen guilds than in knowledge work fields because craft work is easy to define but hard to do. If you ask what a blacksmith like Furrer makes, anyone could tell you swords, weapons, horseshoes, wrought iron goods, etc. If you ask what a benefits specialist does, this answer might not be as clear to the general public. Knowledge workers also wallow in shallow work that does not allow them to reach appropriate levels of satisfaction. If anything, when completing an inbox clean-out a knowledge worker is more likely to feel stressed than accomplished. To support his argument that deep work provides satisfaction and meaning to work, Newport provides three arguments for depth:
- Neurological Argument for Depth: This argument uses the work of Winifred Gallagher, specifically her book Rapt, as a source. In her book, Gallagher talks about her cancer diagnosis and how she was able to still enjoy herself while going through treatment by living a focused life. She explains that our brains construct our worldview on what we pay attention to; therefore, if we pay attention to the positives, our lives will follow suit. To generate positivity after negative events, try using leverage points to reframe the experience. The more time you spend in this positive, focused state, the richer your world will be in meaning and importance.
- Psychological Argument for Depth: This argument references the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. Flow is described as when a person’s body and/or mind is stretched to the limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult. Csikszentmihalyi’s studies showed that subjects who were able to have more flow experiences in one week were happier and more satisfied with their work. While deep work is not necessarily needed in order to reach the flow state, Newport states that combining the two is proven to lead you to satisfaction.
- Philosophical Argument for Depth: This argument follows the idea of “sacredness” created by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly in their book All Things Shining. Craftsmanship involves a deep understanding of the materials you are working with, and that bond, in a sense, is sacred. Craftsmen are able to discern meaning and potential that is already there and perform their task to bring that to light for others. Any pursuit that supports high levels of skill can generate sacredness according to Newport, and this can be elevated through practicing deep work. By rarefying the way knowledge workers approach their jobs like the craftsmen do, they will be able to extract more meaning from their profession.
Homo Sapiens Deepensis
Newport ends this chapter, “Deep Work is Meaningful” by introducing his idea of homo sapiens deepensis. This idea speculates that the human mind has evolved to renounce shallow work and flourish in situations where depth is present. After doing research on this subject and drawing from my own personal experiences, I would have to agree. There is nothing quite like those dark, quiet studio nights when all you want to do is create the perfect print. Your entire physical and mental being is straining, but although the process is intense, a feeling of completeness and serenity flows over you. By becoming focused, one is able to leverage their profession to forge a mindset that is more positive and smith their own satisfaction.