What I learned talking to Cal Newport

I like to think I know a thing or two about deep work, the creative process of things like writing, software coding or financial modelling.

But then you speak to someone who is best in class and you realise how much more they know than you!

On Monday I interviewed Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, A World Without Email and So Good They Can’t Ignore You (among other books).

Cal Newport is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Georgetown as well as a best-selling author. He writes computer algorithms of a complexity that I can only guess at.

Talking to Cal helped me understand better why burnout is such an issue for knowledge workers.

Deep Work requires concentration and focus. The best work is best done in a zen-like flow state, free of distractions.

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

Yet knowledge work has become dominated by what Cal Newport calls the hyperactive hive mind. This is the constant back and forth of email, slack, texts, whatsapp messages etc.

Cal Newport makes the distinction between workflow execution (doing the work) and workflow communication (talking about the work). The problem with the hyperactive hive mind is that talking about the work takes up time that would otherwise be spent on actually doing the work.

Not only do we all have limited time but we have limited attention capital (or what I call headspace). Cal Newport suggests that businesses should explicitly recognise this. Before the problem can be fixed it must first be identified.

Many office workers check email every few minutes. A constant bombardment with email / instant messages breaks concentration and jolts you out of flow. Switching costs are high every time we change task. A flow state is quick to disrupt and slow to re-establish. This is a huge source of inefficiency and reduced productivity.

There is so much email traffic that time for real work has been squeezed out. So increasingly work gets done outside office hours. In my old job, office hours were for putting out fires and keeping up with the flow of meeting, calls and emails. The early mornings and evenings were where I actually did some work.

It’s easy to misread other people’s intentions / mood over email etc. Our tribal brain gets stressed by any hint that we’re ignoring or in conflict with other members of the tribe. This would have been a threat to survival in our ancestral environment.

Over time this stress contributes to the burnout of knowledge workers. This is why you have to give other people the benefit of the doubt. It’s important for the sake of your own sanity (as well as theirs).

I thought I knew a lot about knowledge work and burnout. And compared to most people I do. But there are always outliers such as Cal Newport who know not just 10% or 20% more than the rest…they know 10x or 20x more. In the field of deep work, I am an amateur and he is a professional, among the best in the world.

This got me thinking more generally about the difference between smart amateurs and true subject matter experts with best in class knowledge.

For example, a lot of people in the world of financial independence are smart amateurs. But very few have spent decades working as a professional in finance at a high level.

Here are some thoughts on the differences between amateurs and professionals from Alexander Cortes whose (free) email newsletter is a treasure trove of information and real world experience on fitness, nutrition and mindset:

In any domain, the majority of participants are beginners and amateurs.

Consider right now how many subjects you are a subject matter expert in with a high level of skill.

– Your native language is one

– Your profession is perhaps another

– You may be very skilled in an instrument

– You might have a hobbyist/passion craft or subject that you’ve made yourself an expert in

Added up, we each might have 2-5 areas that we are highly skilled and highly knowledgeable in. Or at least more skilled than the majority of people.

Almost any field can be defined by a Pareto Distribution. 80% are amateurs 20% are professionals, world class, masterful. Of that 20%, maybe 10% are truly “elite” and separate themselves from the rest.

The majority of knowledge that exists for any field is written for beginners, not professionals. People make fortunes off of entry level knowledge creation:

– How to [insert subject]

– Subject matter 101

– The Basics of…

The top 5-10 things to know about…

As you ascend in level, the knowledge gets denser, more complex, and more contextual.

The “high end” or advanced market for any field is very different from the beginners market. You learn by vetting through your presumed information network and sources you are familiar with. You are willing to pay more, often times A LOT more, for higher resolution information.

The majority of “bad” ideas are found in the beginners market, i.e. among The Masses. I am strong proponent of being inherently skeptical, not to be contrarian for the sake thereof, but because bad thinking proliferates among people with no to little experience and no foundational knowledge.

This is the easiest group of people to lie to. Amateurs reinforce each others bullshit and every field has its profiteers who make money on selling people overly simplified and low effect information.

The best thing you can do for yourself as a beginner is actively avoid people on your own level. Put yourself into the highest level environment possible, and do all that you can to obtain the most experienced teachers. You will progress much faster this way, and avoid the pitfalls of bad practices and bad ideas of amateur peers and the people who cater to entertaining them.

For those who are professionals and expert though, its a different situation.The best thing you can for yourself as a professional is avoid becoming entrenched within your expert class. Dogmas, orthodoxy, and staleness of thinking and practice can begin to dictate and stall your progression. Paradoxically, being around beginners can refresh your ideas and perceptions, and keep you self aware of your processes far more than you’d normally be otherwise.

Alexander Cortes

This makes a huge amount of sense to me. In finance, domain knowledge follows power laws. It’s not like say height that follows a normal (bell curve) distribution and where pretty much everyone is between 5 and 7 feet tall. If you’ve read The Black Swan you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The final thing that talking to Cal brought home for me was the importance of synchronous (real time) communication.

Reading email or text messages or forums or blog comments can never replicate real time conversations. We don’t get the full context. Only with real time verbal communication do you get access to the full depth of visual cues, body language, vocal tonality, emphasis, facial expression etc and the better understanding that goes with that.

It turns out I was right about one thing… it’s good to talk.

The Escape Manual is explained * here *


  1. Tim Jefferis · · Reply

    Love reading your stuff. This is great, thanks.

  2. Thanks! Getting his books

  3. I am planning to write a blog post on Burnout but the focus will be on how the phenomena is being exported from the UK, US and Europe. What is also helping spread Burnout is the glorification of over work and getting ahead. Additionally, you also have to learn so much new skills while trying to produce.

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